Redwoods vs. Red WIne

There’s quite a bit happening on the conservation front, in the Pacific Northwest these days. Between the Red Flat Nickel Mine proposal near Pistol River Oregon, the Gene Banks being created in Washington state and recent research done on the impact to a steelhead’s head when caught, there’s a lot of new ground to cover. I’d like to start with something closer to home though, near the small, but infamous Gualala River, in Northern California.

Chainsaw Wines!  That's pretty funny.  How about Bulldozer Merlot?

Chainsaw Wine! That’s pretty funny. How about Bulldozer Merlot?

The wine industry has been slowly expanding from the Napa & Sonoma epicenters for many years.  The reason is because of necessity and taste.  As the temperatures in the valley region rises slowly year after year and the taste of wine drinkers shifts toward cooler climate grapes, such as Pinot Noir, winemakers have been setting their sights on the coastal region of Northern California.  This same cooler, damper climate is the same one that sustains the last of our beloved redwood trees and the small creeks which are the spawning grounds of salmon and steelhead.

WIne makers are slowly creeping toward the coast in Sonoma County.

WIne makers are slowly creeping toward the coast in Sonoma County.

In 2012, Artesa Vineyards filed for a permit to clear cut 154 acres of redwoods and douglas fir to plant grapes.  California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire for short, approved the plan.   It is important to note that these are not old growth redwoods.  This land was once a commercial timber property and was previously clear cut fifty years ago. Today, the thousands of redwoods slated to be cut down are less than 100 feet tall.  They do, however, provide substantial wildlife habitat and stabilize the soil which would otherwise be washed away during heavy winter storms.

The stabilization of soil is of huge importance to the health of streams and creeks in the area.  Without the necessary stabilization and shade provided by the trees, the average temperature of the water in the streams would rise significantly and the streambed choked with silt.  This siltation suffocates the fertilized eggs laid by salmon and steelhead in the spawning beds.  Artesa is planning on keeping a 30 to 100 foot buffer along the banks of its’ property creeks.  This is a minimum in bank stabilization and still subjects the small creeks to immense siltation, as the hillsides adjacent have nothing to stabilize the soil from erosion.

The results are unavoidable; salmon and steelhead spawning grounds are laid to waste.  We’ve seen it too many times to deny it.  You only need to look at the well documented devastation bestowed upon Pass Creek, a tributary of the North Umpqua or the results of logging along Redwood Creek or the much larger Eel River system to realize that these actions have severe and lasting consequences.

Does this look habitable to you?

Does this look habitable to you?

Artesa’s intent to clear cut the land, minus the two remaining old growth redwoods left on the property, was halted by a joint injunction set in motion by three conservation organizations.  The Friends of the Gualala River, the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity immediately filed suit in June 2012, stopping the clear cutting.

Dennis Hall, an official with CalFire, maintains that the Artesa proposal was approved, only after a lengthy review process.  “We did an [environmental impact report] for the project,” Hall says. “It was an extreme and exhaustive analysis of potential impacts to the environment.” The report deemed most of these potential impacts to be “less-than-significant.”  If you look at Artesa’s website,, they outline several important points in the proposal.  These points look vaguely acceptable on paper, but probably don’t translate well to the real world.  Chris Poehlmann, president of the Friends of the Gualala River, states that, “They [CalFire] are acting as if they are actually the department of deforestation.”

The Friends of the Gualala River and the Sierra Club have gone to court several times in the past decade to successfully stop timberland conversion projects proposed by winery groups, already approved by the state. Among these fights was the battle to save Preservation Ranch, a 19,000-acre parcel that developers planned to partially deforest and plant with grapes.

Fog, Gualala River (2003), by Jack Stuppin

Fog, Gualala River (2003), by Jack Stuppin

Sara Cummings a spokesperson for Sonoma Vintners, a wine industry trade group, says new vineyards are usually planted on land that is already designated by county planners as agricultural.  Between 1979 and 2006 however, twenty-five redwood to agricultural conversions have occurred at a rate of 21 acres per year. Additional acreage has been clear cut without permits, including a parcel by high profile winemaker Paul Hobbs.  The Artesa proposal will set a very large precedent in the fight to preserve what few redwoods we have left and keep deforestation at bay.

As with every conservation issue facing us today, it isn’t just a clear answer of right and wrong.  With only 4% of the old growth redwoods remaining on the planet, these aren’t matters to be taken lightly.  It isn’t just the future of trees, wild salmon, steelhead and other wildlife at stake, either.  The wine industry is of vital importance to Northern California.  Wine is the most valuable finished agricultural product produced in California and the wine industry contributes over 45 billion dollars to California’s economy.  That is a lot of jobs, for a lot of people.

What we need more of, is an increase in sustainable growing practices in agriculture.  Only 25% of the state’s wine acreage falls within the boundaries laid out by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.  This alliance helps focus winemakers into a sustainable wine growing practice, alleviating as much of the impact felt by water consumption, deforestation and the introduction of herbicides and pesticides into the environment.

As always, we have to decide what our natural world is worth to us.  Is it worth protecting?  Is it worth saving?  I believe the answer is yes and it begins with each of us taking small steps toward the contribution.  Much more about that soon…

To learn more about the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing visit,

Posted in Conservation, North Coast Rivers, Salmon, Steelhead | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River is Coming Down!

The San Clemente Dam...before.  After photo soon to follow.

The San Clemente Dam, before…  After photo, soon to follow.


The San Clemente dam, which controls the Carmel River watershed, is coming down!  The 90 year-old, 106 foot dam was deemed, “seismically unsafe”, in 1995.  California American Water, who owns and operates the dam, is ready to resolve the safety issue and reinforce and upgrade the aging structure.

Natural resource agencies have stepped in, and along with Cal-Am, have devised a plan to remove the dam, instead of retrofitting it.  The cost…  A staggering $83 million dollars, compared to the $49 million it would take to retrofit the dam.  Of course, much of the cost will shake down to the businesses, homes and families who purchase water from Cal-Am;  $50 million of that cost, to be exact.  This is part, of what makes dam removal so controversial.

To some, dam removal is an ecological responsibilty, to others a threat to agricultural security.  Still, others consider dam removal to be nothing more than a grand experiment.  What will the final cost be?  Will agricultural business suffer even more?    Will it be the catalyst for an explosion in water prices?  Is the Carmel River really where we need to spend precious dollars, or are our efforts better spent protecting the Smith, the Chetco and other free flowing, intact river systems?  No matter how you feel about it, we are at important turning point in history.  What is the reel value of these watersheds.  Are they worth saving?  Personally, I believe they are of great value, but we have to choose our battles carefully.

Preliminary work on the dam removal will begin this summer.  It will take three years to complete the deconstruction.  When it is over, 928 acres of land will become public and rededicated to park land.

To read more about the project, go to

Posted in Central Coast California, Conservation, Dam Removal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Battle Over Searsville Dam Goes Federal

It’s official.  The Ecological Rights Foundation and Our Children’s Earth Foundation have filed suit against Stanford University for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act.  Stanford University, which acquired Searsville Dam in 1919, has operated the dam and has been drawing water from the reservoir.

That dam dam, everyone keeps fighting about.

That dam dam, everyone keeps fighting about.

The suit claims that the dam and Stanford University are responsible for reduced flows, increased siltation and degraded habitat in San Francisquito Creek.  These conditions reduce the native steelhead’s ability to reproduce and are in direct violation of the Endangered Species Act, which Steelhead have been listed as, since 1997.

Stanford, allegedly draws twenty percent of the University’s golf course, landscaping and athletic field irrigation from the reservoir.  This reduction in the amount of water flowing into the creek below, reduces the amount of aquatic vegetation, which lowers the oxygen levels.  The creek is subject to warmer temperatures, due to it’s decreased depth and solar radiation.  In addition, the artificially created reservoir hosts populations of predatory fish which migrate from the reservoir to the creek and feed on steelhead fry.  All of these factors are detrimental to steelhead at any point in their life cycle.

Siltation is a typical result of damned watersheds.  Silt is collected behind the dam and released into the creek or river below, when flows increase. During heavy rains and snowmelt scenarios that normally occur in the Pacific Northwest, large flows usually flush silt out of a free flowing river.  In damed watersheds, like San Francisquito Creek, these heavy flows are controlled and depleted because of the dam and irrigation.  The silt collects in the streambed below, reducing the amount of gravel and steelhead habitat, which is vital to reproduction.

Hopefully the rain we've gotten in the last 24 hours will push this fish to the sea.

Thin water.

The environmental groups state that Stanford can not legally operate Searsville Dam without an Endangered Species Act permit.  This permit can only be granted by the National Marine Fisheries Service and would impose important requirements on the University to protect the steelhead and the other endangered animals of San Francisquito Creek.

Posted in Spey Fishing | 1 Comment

Winter Is Here

The Autumn months have always been my favorite season.  Chasing summer and late-summer run steelhead in the Trinity & Klamath River systems has been the pinnacle of fly fishing for me.  But, in the past couple of years, all of that has changed.

I’m drawn more and more to winter steelheading every season.  Swinging flies for hot, chrome fish in the rugged, emerald green waters of the North Coast and southern Oregon, is becoming more and more my focus.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the first week of 2013 on the North Coast, chasing winter steelhead with friends.  Here, hook-ups are rare, and landing a fish is even more rare.  When I told a friend of mine, who guides these coastal rivers, our plans for the week, he simply said, “you won’t land anything.”  He wasn’t being rude, he was simply stating something that very closely resembles a fact.

Winter fish don’t move far to a swung fly in many cases.  Figure that in, combined with the depths that they’re typically holding at, the speed of the current and the multitude of boats fishing bait, jigs and plugs, and the numbers are greatly stacked against you.

But, swinging flies for winter steelhead isn’t really fishing, it’s hunting.  You can’t go to the coast expecting anything, except to fish good holding and resting water to the best of your ability.  Having confidence in your fly pattern and knowing that your presentation is at the depth where a steelhead will commit, is the key.  You cast to that far seam that you know holds fish, throw a big mend in and let that T-14 tip and weighted fly sink, sink, and sink some more.  When the tip, Skagit head and running line all straighten out and the fly begins to swim through that lie, you know it’s time for winter steelhead.

It’s all about time spent on the water.  The more you commit, the more they will too.

Posted in Fly Fishing, General, North Coast Rivers, Spey Fishing, Steelhead, Steelhead Fishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oncorhynchus Mykiss And The Magnetite Within

I remember reading an article by Matt Supinski, many years ago, in which scientists theorized that the tissue in a steelhead’s nose cone, their olfactory tissue, contained the material which guides them home to their natal watersheds, to spawn.

There’s a built in GPS in that fish!

Scientists have recently expounded on this theory, with proof that the mineral Magnetite is present in very small amounts in the tissue belonging to many migratory animals, including steelhead and salmon.  Magnetite is the most magnetic of all minerals.  Scientists are now able to separate the cells containing Magnetite, by suspending clusters of olfactory tissue, taken from steelhead, under a microscope and exposing them to different strength magnets.  The cells containing Magnetite, which may be as few as one in ten-thousand, rotated with the magnet’s movement, while the cells which did not contain Magnetite, remained still.

Magnetite Structure

Scientists discovered several pieces of important information by doing this.  The cells containing Magnetite, are located nearest the steelhead’s olfactory membrane wall.  More importantly, these cells are tens of thousands of times stronger than ever anticipated.

This information has lead scientists to theorize that steelhead and many other migratory animals can, not only differentiate direction, but also minute amounts of magnetic field strength, giving them the ability to acquire their bearings longitudinally and latitudinally, anywhere on the globe.  This helps to explain how it is, that steelhead are able to return to their natal river, and even the the section of the stream where they were born, after traveling hundreds of miles throughout the Pacific.

“This result is really a step beyond anything we’ve done before,” says ecologist Michael Walker of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who led many of the initial experiments that honed in on  the tissue containing Magnetite particles.

Posted in Salmon, Steelhead | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

It’s official. The GRAB has a new unofficial beer!

Yes, it’s true, we’ve officially adopted a new beer for this Fall steelhead season.  And the chosen brew is… Russian River Brewing Company’s, Pliny The Elder!

A pint of the elusive double IPA, and a selection of favorite fall steelhead flies.


After discovering that New Belgium Brewery was not going to rerelease last season’s fall favorite, the golden Hoptober,  we were lost and discouraged to say the least.  Hoptober, was our chosen beer for chasing chrome, last fall, and I was looking forward to its’ arrival on the grocery store shelves.  Alas, it was not meant to be.  But, as in life, change usually brings with it, amazing things.

Pliny The Elder, has been voted the best beer in the world many times by periodicals, blogs and websites, year, after year, after year.  For those of you who don’t like IPAs, Pliny is a double IPA, like nothing you’ve ever had before.  Only one word can describe it- smooth.  Unbelievably smooth.

But there’s a downside that comes along with this level of greatness.  Pliny The Elder is elusive, very elusive.  Much in the same way, a wild steelhead is.  Days of searching Whole Foods, trendy Valley wine shops and Bevmos galore, can leave you blanked, discouraged, doubting that they even exist.

But, then it all comes together.  You step into a certain store, on a certain day, at a certain time and ask the same question, for the thousandth time, “do you have any bottles of Russian River’s, Pliny The Elder?”  And, lighting strikes!  Eight bottles of Russian River’s most famous brew are lined up, each one of them as precious as the other.  Each bottle as special as a wild steelhead, to a swung fly.  You realize, for the umpteenth time, the more time you put in, the more grabs you get.

As with swinging flies for wild steelhead, Pliny The Elder is where you find him.  Let the hunt continue.

Posted in Spey Fishing | Leave a comment

The Beast In The Wilderness

He may not be a house hold name in the steelhead fishing world yet, but that’s all about to change.

Joining the crew of The GRAB, on our next trip into the wilderness, is infamous cinematographer Phil Eastvold; aka Phil BEASTVOLD, aka Four-Pin-Phil, aka The Cake Slayer.

Some would say, his reputation in the movie business is legendary, most would say notorious.  Highly respected, but even more widely feared, when he walks on set, or steps into a pair of waders, tensions rise.

Known for being quick with a knife, and even quicker with a forty-cal.  His eye, for achieving fantastic imagery, is as sharp as his penchant for flying planes within an inch of their breaking point and bombing powder chutes, previously thought unridable.  Phil Eastvold.  The man… the myth… the legend.

If you see him in the wild, don’t even think about making eye contact.

Posted in Crew, Fly Fishing, General, Photography, Spey Fishing, Steelhead, Steelhead Fishing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Making History In The Olympic Peninsula

Less than five months after the removal of the Elwha Dam, adult Chinook salmon were observed in Olympic National Park.  These are the first observed Elwha River salmon, to naturally migrate into the park, since the dam was constructed in 1913.  When the Elwha Dam became operational, twenty-five years before the establishment of the park, over 70 miles of habitat were blocked to spawning fish.

The Elwha River in The Olympic National Park.

The Fisheries Crew has been conducting weekly surveys along the river since the beginning of August, in search of Chinook salmon within the park boundaries.  The Chinook were observed approximately two miles upstream from the boundary of the park, by Phil Kennedy, Lead Fisheries Technician for the park.  “We knew this was going to happen and as I saw the fish roll, my heart jumped!”

The return of the salmon marks an important milestone in the restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and a historic moment for the park.  This milestone will be one of the many achievements shared, during the Elwha River Science Symposium this week, when scientists will come together to discuss what has been learned during the first year of the Elwha River Restoration project.

The beautiful Elwha. Photo by Scott Church

“Observation of these Chinook in Olympic National Park is a wonderful addition to the naturally returning steelhead recently observed by NOAA Fisheries and Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe downstream of the park boundary,” said Olympic National Park Fisheries Biologist, Sam Brenkman.  “We can now say that restoration of anadromous salmon in Olympic National Park is underway.”

Then… And gone!

Another, “hell yeah!”

Posted in Conservation, Dam Removal, Elwha River, Salmon | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Carmel River – Restoring a Central Coast Gem

I don’t know how I missed this news, but earlier this summer, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted 4 to 1, in favor of removing the antiquated San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River.  The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), identified the Carmel River as the most critical watershed on the Central Coast of California, for restoring the numbers of South-Central Coast Steelhead.

I’m not sure I’d have much confidence in conditions like these. Photo courtesy of Carmel River Watershed Conservancy.

The San Clemente dam, which was built in 1921 and is 18 miles up river from the Pacific, is ninety percent silted in and provides no water supply function whatsoever.  Before the dam was built, an average of 20,000 steelhead were able to navigate the entire 36 miles of the Carmel River.  Today the average number of steelhead is 338.  The dam isn’t completely to blame of course, but it has cut off the most important spawning habitat in the watershed.  In 1992, state officials determined that the dam is also in danger of collapsing in the event of an earthquake, which could result in the flooding of lower valley, making the decision that much more important.

The San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River after a heavy rainfall. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

In addition to opening up and improving some 25 miles of high quality spawning habitat for the Carmel River steelhead, removal of the San Clemente Dam will also be an historic precedent, as it will be the largest dam ever taken down in California so far.

California American Water Company (Cal-Am) , which operates the dam, conducted extensive studies to address the issues and determined if removal of the dam was the best option.  The result would cost more than $80 million, nearly twice the expense of other feasible, but less desirable options.  NMFS and the California Coastal Conservancy began negotiating with Cal-Am in support of dam removal.  They reached out to other stakeholders for support, and a remarkable coalition evolved.  Conservation groups like Trout Unlimited, government agencies, and local businesses all committed to taking out San Clemente Dam.

“This project is a laudatory example of innovative thinking, as it provides a creative solution to a host of problems,” says PUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval. “It is a historic opportunity to protect people from potential flood damage, meet earthquake safety guidelines, protect endangered species, and provide significant environmental benefits to the public and wildlife.”

The San Clemente Dam removal will be launched in September, 2012, and will take three years to complete.


Posted in Central Coast California, Conservation, Dam Removal, Fly Fishing, Salmon, Steelhead, Steelhead Fishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Save Bristol Bay Alaska!

It takes less than a minute, to go to the link below and let Barack and Congress know that saving Bristol Bay, Alaska and wild Salmon populations, is of the utmost importance!

A wild Sockeye Salmon in Alaska.

Posted in Bristol Bay Alaska, Conservation | Tagged , , | Leave a comment