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We are Fixing Trout Streams All Wrong, With Chris Jordan

Description: My guest this week is Chris Jordan [41:13], a scientist with NOAA who specializes in habitat restoration. His view is that, in our arrogance, we've gotten habitat restoration projects all wrong most of the time. We think we can engineer river systems to conform with what we think they should be, but rivers are dynamic and mostly unpredictable and that, whenever possible, we need to look at watershed solutions—helping rivers do the job with a lighter hand but a larger scope. Follow this link to learn more:
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Hi, welcome to the "Orvis Fly Fishing" podcast. This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer. And my guest this week is Chris Jordan. Chris is a scientist with NOAA. And Chris' specialty is freshwater, freshwater ecosystems, basically rivers and creeks. And what we can do to improve these habitats, particularly for salmonids. Chris is of the opinion that a lot of the things we do to "improve" trout streams are misguided, and that we are really arrogant when we try to engineer a solution to a habitat problem. And that in most cases it's best to let nature take its course, give nature a little bit of a leg up, and get things started. But then let the river heal itself.
And the other point is that rivers are dynamic, and they're always going to change. And a lot of times when we work with habitat improvements, we get the idea that this thing should last forever for 20 years or 30 years. And that's probably not the right thing to do because rivers are dynamic, and they're going to move stuff around. So I think you'll find Chris' take on what we should be doing and what we shouldn't be doing in improving our rivers a big eyeopener. I know I did.
And before we do the Fly Box, couple announcements. One is that, I love interacting with people on the podcast. It's really fun to read your questions, and try to answer them, and have a dialog with you. But it's a lot more interesting when I meet you in person and I am going to be doing some things in the near future and beyond where we can actually get together and talk face to face. The first thing is I'm going to be in Orvis, New York on November 9th from about 4 to 6 p.m., I'm going to be doing a presentation on taking your trout fishing to the next level. And then the following weekend, November 11th and 12th, I'm going to be at the International Fly Tying Symposium in Somerset in New Jersey.
Now, I have some classes there. They are paid classes. I have some private classes, fly tying classes where I'm going to be tying some of my favorite flies, the flies that I always have in my fly box. And so if you want to join one of those classes, I believe there are still some openings, but I wouldn't wait too long.
And then finally, on November 15th, I'm going to be with the Western Rivers Conservancy in San Francisco, talking to their outgoing executive, Sue Doroff. And we're going to be talking about what American Rivers does, how they do it, some of the projects they've done recently, and the real difference they've made in preserving ecosystems, freshwater ecosystems. We're going to be there live at the Presidium in San Francisco. But you can also watch this discussion online. The best thing to do is go to Western Rivers Conservancy's website where you can sign up for that live event.
And finally, you want to bonefishing with me. I love bonefishing. It's one of my very favorite saltwater fish, if not my ultimate favorite saltwater fish. And my favorite place to go for bonefish is the Bahamas. I love the Bahamas. I love the guides, love the people, love the ecosystem. And it's a place where you can catch bonefish of almost any size. And there's also always some permit around, maybe some tarpon, some barracuda, some snappers, and sharks. So all kinds of things when you're in saltwater. But I'm going to be hosting a trip on Swain's Cay May 11th through 17th. And I think there's a couple of spaces still open there.
It's a beautiful lodge. It's small and intimate, and it's just a fishing resort. It's not a dive resort or anything else. So you're in a place where you're going to feel right at home. Food's great, the lodging is wonderful, and it's in a beautiful location on Middle Bight, on Andros. So anyway, if you're interested, contact Orvis Travel, Orvis Adventures for that trip. All right. What you've all been waiting for, the Fly Box, which is where you ask me questions or you make a comment, and I try to answer. You can send me your question at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Just a simple email with your question typed in it. Or you can attach a voice file if you want, maybe I'll read it on the air.
And so without further ado, the first question is from Ron, and it's an email. "I, like so many others, appreciate and enjoy your podcast and the information you share. You make an otherwise dreary commute tolerable. After years of considering carp on the fly, I decided to give it a try this year, and I have found some limited success. I fish a large reservoir with ample flats. In the spring, the water is a bit off color as silty runoff impacts the visibility. As the season progresses through the summer, visibility increases, increasing the opportunity for site fishing, and we typically get many opportunities even if successful hook ups are rare. I made another attempt recently and upon arrival found gin clear water, no wind, with good lighting. My anticipation was high for some site fishing."
"However, upon venturing out onto the flats at once held plentiful fish, I found very few, and only had one real shot for the day. The water temperature is now 59 degrees, and the air temperature was hovering in the 30s. Do carps stop feeding on the flats when the water cools? Should I be trying different locations, or should I focus on other species until the water warms in the spring? Thanks in advance for any advice you might give." Well, Ron, you've certainly hit the nail on the head for carp fishing. It's always a crapshoot. And to get a couple of shots and hook one fish is often a good day in carp fishing. And I found the same thing.
They say the carp do feed at cooler water temperatures. We tend to think of them as a fish that likes really warm water. But I think that they do feed all season long. But I think that they probably stay in deeper water and don't come out in the flats, particularly if the air temperature is so cold, they're going to be able to find warmer water deeper in the lake. And there probably isn't as much food when that water cools down in the fall. So I expect that they're going to be deep and tough to target on a fly. And you're probably better off fishing for something else until you start seeing them on the flats again. I mean, I'd keep looking. You never know. On a warm day the fish might come up on the flats, but it's probably going to be next spring before you see those fish in any quantities up on the flats.
Here's an email from Mac. "I live and fish in Southwest Michigan, specifically tributaries of the Kalamazoo River, which is a warm water stream. I see the occasional brown trout caught in the fall and spring in the Kalamazoo River, which makes me wonder where they come from. Do they drop down out of the colder tributaries into the main stem when the water is cooler in the shoulder seasons? Or do they come up out of Lake Michigan with the salmon and steelhead? I've heard the latter explanation many times, but I've often wondered just how that works. Do they school with them, and just go where the school goes? How do biologists know this type of thing? Also, would it be worth my while to fish a warm water stream for trout around the inlets of the colder tribs when the water temperature is conducive to it? Thanks for the great show. I listen every week. I love how there are no ads."
Well, Mac, there's a few ads, but they're always Orvis ads. So, yeah, it's really difficult to tell. Without DNA analysis, you can't really tell about those big brown trout from looking at them. They could have dropped down from tributaries. What often happens, and I see this in some streams in Vermont, is that the brown trout go into the colder tributaries when the water warms up in the summertime, but then they drop back into the bigger rivers. And these rivers, even though they're warm water rivers, will be cold enough during the spring, fall, and winter.
And there's a lot more food in the bigger rivers. So brown trout go where there's lots of food, particularly crayfish and bait fish and mice and things like that. So they probably move in and out. But they could also be coming out of Lake Michigan if there's no dam between where you're fishing in Lake Michigan. And they will come up out of Lake Michigan for a couple of reasons. In the spring, in the summer, they might be following salmon and steelhead to eat their eggs, because they know that these spawning fish are going to be dropping eggs, and they'll chase them up there. And also brown trout spawn in the fall. So they may be on their own spawning run as well. So you don't really know.
But your second question, it's absolutely worth fishing for trout around the inlets of colder tribs when water temperature is conducive to it. Those fish will often hang around in the mouths of the cooler tribs. They can get really large. These are going to be big cannibal brown trout. And they're in the bigger river because there's lots of food there. But they're at the mouth of the tributary because it keeps the water cool enough for them. So, yes, it's absolutely worth it, particularly at night, or early in the morning, or just before dark. So, yeah, I would definitely try that.
Scott: Hey, Tom, this is Scott Taravan [SP] from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And I'm a mooch. I wanted your advice. My buddy Eric ties me flies all the time. He can't help himself. He's kind and generous. And I'll say things like, "I'm running out of false worms." And next thing I know, he's tying six of them, and his flies catch fish. I myself am not a fly tyer, I'm a fly user. So I wanted advice on what I can get him to say thank you. Should I buy him some materials? Should I... I don't know what should I buy. Or should I buy feathers [SP]? Is there something I could surprise him? I don't want to give him the stuff to replace what he uses. I'd rather give him something neat that he might not buy for himself as a fyle tyre, just to say thank you. So I appreciate your advice and I love the podcast. Keep up the good work.
Tom: Well, Scott, that's very generous of you. That's a really thoughtful thing. And of course, there' tires always need something. There's always something new. But if you want to be pragmatic about it, buy him some hooks. Hooks are expensive. And find out what hooks he's been using for the flies he ties for you, and buy him a bunch of hooks. You always run out of hooks. You never have enough hooks because you're going to go through them. Something that might be a little more exciting, and a little more of a special gift would be a really, really nice dry fly cape, like a Whiting or a Keogh cape, something that's been bred for fly tying. They're quite expensive, but someone will always appreciate a good quality cape.
And then if he doesn't have a really nice vise, how about a new Renzetti vise? That's going to be even more expensive than the cape, but sounds like he's worth it. And a new fly tying vise, if he doesn't have a good one already, would be a great thing. So I think almost anything you buy him is going to be worthwhile. But those would be things that I'd like to get as a gift when I give someone some flies.
Here's an email from Steve. "I love your books and videos, but I'm confused on a point. I understand that trout feed in water 2 to 4 feet deep. But the two biggest trout I have hooked on Montana's Beaver Head and Idaho's Blackfoot Rivers have been in pools that are 10 to 15 feet deep." Well, Steve, that's the thing about fishing, and fly fishing, and trout fishing in particular, is that whatever you read or whatever you hear, the fish could make a fool out of the person who said that the very next day. There are no absolute certainly. And when I give someone advice on where to look for trout, that's a general idea. And the fish don't do a lot of feeding in water that deep. But there will be the big...the larger trout that aren't actively feeding that much. They're just kind of waiting for something to swim by, and they might attack it if it looks tasty enough.
So those fish, I would be willing to bet do more of their feeding in shallow water, particularly when they're on the hunt, or when there's an insect hatch. But if there's no insect hatch, you can find them in water that's 10 to 15 feet deep. They're not going to be as easy to catch. But you've proven that they can be caught. They were probably there to kind of get out of the way and rest. But you were able to put something in front of them that appealed to them. So the moral of this story is don't take everything I say as gospel.
Here's an email from Margie [SP]. "I enjoy your podcast, and learn something every time I listen. I recently heard your podcast with George Daniel, and have a few questions. I also listened to his podcast a few weeks ago, and I'm totally on board with his new ideas on Euro nymphing. I use a 10-foot 4-way Recon rod for most of my fishing these days. Number one, you and George discussed making a mono rig for a streamer and other types of fishing on the longer rods, and I'm in the process of putting one together for false streamer fishing. I'm wondering how he attaches a mono to the fly line. I always keep the loop on my fly line, and the loop on the leader and use a loop-to-loop connection. You both seem to discount the perfection knot for some reason, which is what I usually tie when my leader is loopless. Your thoughts? Use just a clinch or improve clinch knot. Not I'm confused. It is probably explained in his book coming out in December, but I'd like to know now since I'll be fishing for redfish then."
"I fish small streams a lot during the summer and like..." This is number two. "I fish small streams a lot during the summer and like to use my Recon for multiple reasons. It throws a dry fly pretty well, dry dropper, and also the traditional nymph system. In the course of using it this summer, I've noticed because of the rod's length, it eventually crosses over the body of water I'm fishing, and casts a shadow that I'm sure the trout can see. With all the rocks and debris in the small streams, it's not easy to cast a long line and not get it dangled on something while standing really far back. At 5'10", being stealthy is not my strong suit, but with my longer rod, I'm even less stealthy. I'm thinking it must spook the fish, especially if the water is clear and sometimes calm. There must be a way to achieve this with a 10-foot rod. Or should I just go back to using a shorter rod. Your thoughts?"
So, number one, Margie, as far as I know, George ties this longer lighter nymph ring leader, which is not really leader, it's just a level piece of line, to his fly line with a standard clinch knot. And the reason that I don't recommend putting a loop in there, for one thing, it adds a little more complexity to the system, and getting it through the guides might be a little bit more difficult. But I don't believe the perfection knots are very strong in smaller diameter monofilament, and I'm talking less than say 20 pounds, 20-pound test. It's perfectly fine in the butt sections of heavier leaders. It holds very well. But I don't think it's a knot that's really good for smaller diameter lines.
Some people use it, and they use it at the end of their Euro rig instead of instead of a tippet ring. But I'm just not so sure it holds. I've had it break too many times when streamer fishing when I attach to, say, a 2x tippet directly to my sinking line, or to my poly leader with perfection loop. It almost always breaks at the perfection loop. So not so sure that that's the best thing to use. So clinch knot right to your fly line, yeah, it's going to eventually wear through the coating on your line. But people are willing to deal with that.
Regarding your second question, that's an interesting one. I never really thought of that. And I probably should pay more attention to where my rod is located when I'm fishing a small stream like that, because you and I fish a lot of the same small streams, because I've seen you on a river. So, boy, I would just try to maybe...the idea of keeping your rod high and just casting the leader or a little bit of fly line, that generally keeps your line off the water, and helps you avoid drag. And if you keep it high, it's probably going to be closer to you. It's going to be at a higher angle. The other thing you might try is doing a sidearm cast and keeping the rod low. You can't always do that because of the way the drag is going to affect your line. But you might try a side cast. That's going to hopefully be below the fish's window, and will let you sneak in there with that longer rod.
I don't know if a shorter rod's really going to help you that much because you still got to put part of your rod close to the pool. So I don't know if a shorter rod is going to make that much difference, but it's something I'm going to pay attention to, and maybe experiment with this year. So not a good answer there. But just try to pay attention to where your rod is, particularly if you have a sun behind you, and you're casting a shadow on the water.
Gus: Hey, Tom. This is Gus from Vermont. I had two questions today. And also podcast suggestion. My first question relates to fish recharge time. I was recently in Ohio fishing for Lake Run Rainbows, and hooked into a big one. Fought them for a couple of minutes, and then broke off. How long would you wait to go back again for that fish, considering the fact that I fought item for a little bit? Would you go back at the end of the day, go back in a couple of hours, or give it a solid day or so?
My other question relates to brook trout streams on your property. I know you've talked before in podcasts about how you have a trout stream on your property. And I also have a brook trout stream that runs through my property. And I'm curious about how I can sort of maintain the...ensure the long-term health of the brook trout in there. We have a lot of downed trees that are close to the stream, but not in the stream. And I was wondering if it's worth trying to put a few of these downed trees into the stream to provide some more habitat for the brook trout? Or is the best course of action just to leave the stream alone entirely? Curious on your perspective here.
And finally, one podcast idea. I'm calling right now, it's late October. And I'm sure many listeners are getting more into tying flies as the winter months come. And I love hearing you talk on your podcast about different flies, different patterns, even using a tie. And I think it would be cool to sort of have a fly highlights section in your podcast where you talk about one or two patterns that maybe you've tried on a recent trip, or that you've enjoyed tying recently. I know you're wary of adding too many things to your podcast because it's a pretty simple layout, which I'm sure people like, but just a suggestion. I certainly would appreciate hearing you talk for a little bit about flies at the beginning of every podcast. Thanks so much to you and your team for everything you do. Bye.
Tom: So, Gus, regarding recharge time, I'm not sure, and it probably varies with each individual fish, and how hard it was played, and how tired it is, and how spooked it got during the flight. But I would guess that you could probably go back later in the same day and have a chance of hooking that fish, of course, I'd try a different fly. But I've heard a trout being caught the same day, and I've done it myself numerous times, caught one in the morning and then caught the same fish in the afternoon because I left a fly in the fish when I was netting it. It broke off, and then I got my fly back. So I know they will. But the problem with Lake Run Rainbows is that fish might not be there at the end of the day. It could have moved because they're migrating. So you never know if the same fish is going to be there. But I would expect it's worth a try later in the day.
Regarding your brook trout stream, woody debris in a stream is always beneficial. It's beneficial for the insects. It slows the current in places. It provides a good refuge for little tiny fish, the young fish, when they get chased by minke, or raccoons, or mergansers. So it's never a bad thing to put down trees in a river. That being said, probably you should contact the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Conservation if you're going to put more than a couple trees in the river. You never know, river dynamics are complex, as you'll see in the interview I'm going to do. And if you put wood in the wrong place, it could constrict the stream flow and cause some unexpected erosion, or it could widen the stream channel. So it needs to be done with care. But I think it's almost always a good thing.
And the people at the Agency of Natural Resources are very good about that. You probably don't need a permit to knock a couple trees in a small stream, but just to be on the safe side, I would contact them. They're usually very responsive. One of the other things that you want to make sure you do on your small stream, and the state recommends this, is to have a 50-foot vegetated buffer strip. So don't cut your grass within 50 feet. Don't weed whack within 50 feet of a stream. Let it grow up naturally so that that stream can get naturally vegetated by stuff falling in. And it's also going to help...the roots of the vegetation is also going to prevent this stream from being eroded.
And regarding the fly highlight session, yeah, I'll think about that. But if you really want something right away, I suggest that you watch my weekly fly tying sessions, which are broadcast live on YouTube and the Orvis Facebook page, because I do talk about particular patterns and why I like them there. So until I consider doing it here on the podcast, which isn't a bad idea, you can tune in usually on Mondays for that.
Here's an email from Matt. "First, I love the podcast and all the educational content you provide. It is all been instrumental in helping me progress as an angler. I've been fly fishing on and off for many years, but only got serious about it over the past few years as my kids are finally old enough to get out more often. I feel like I have finally progressed from the terrible stage to the not terrible stage, and your work has been a big part of that.
Now to my question. As I consistently catch more fish more often, I feel like I'm foul hooking fish more often than I would like, and I wonder what I could be doing wrong. I usually fish at least two flies, dry dropper or double nymph rig, occasionally three flies, although I don't find that increases my catch rate much, and it does increase tangles and lost flies significantly. When I fish multiple fliesm, it seems I am foul hooking fish 15% to 20% of the time. This bothers me as it makes it more difficult to land the fish. I have to handle the fish more often than I would like to get it free of all the tippet and flies. And sometimes there's obvious harm to the fish when I foul hook it in the eye or some other critical body part. I try to use best practices, but I haven't quite figured out what I'm doing wrong here, or if this is just par for the course once you start actually catching fish. And my setting too hard, too early, too late?"
"Also related question. If most everyone pinches their barbs or at least intends to, why don't manufacturers use barbells hooks more often? If it is a cost concern, why don't they just pinch the barb in a vise or something when the fly's being created? Do anglers who tie their own flies pre-pinch the barb when they first tie the fly? Why or why not?"
Well, there are some good questions, Matt. Your first question about foul hooking fish is...the obvious answer is to only fish one fly. But we don't always like to do that. And I'm a big fan of dry dropper fishing. And I think there's two things where you can lessen this, or pretty much eliminate it. One is to use a longer dropper, even if the water doesn't require you to have a 20-inch dropper, you'll still be able to...if the nymph isn't too heavy, you won't get hung up all the time. You'll still be able to detect a lot of the strikes. And by increasing the distance between your dry fly and your nymph on dry dropper, you're going to lessen that situation.
What happens typically is that the fish take the upper fly, whether it's a nymph rig or a dry dropper rig, and they spit it out really quickly. And by the time you set the hook, you've stuck the fly into the fish as the leader passes along its body. Now, there's one easy way that almost always works, and that is to tie your flies on droppers instead of doing it in line. So in other words, instead of tying your nymph to the bend of your dry fly, or if in a two nymph rig, instead of tying your lower nymph to the bend of the upper nymph, tie a separate dropper. That way they aren't in line, and they aren't right close to each other. And you're going to have far fewer instances of file hooking fish.
And you can do this with a dry dropper too. You can tie your dry fly on a dropper, short dropper, but at least it'll get it out of the same line as the nymph. And it should pretty much eliminate or at least lessen the number of times that you foul hook fish. And I really don't think it's striking too soon or striking too late. I mean, yeah, you maybe could try to strike a little quicker, but that isn't always going to help. So I wouldn't worry so much about what you're doing. And I'd worry more about how you're rigging your two flies or three flies.
Regarding pinching barbs, you'll notice that most of the new hook styles that are coming out are barbless. So the manufacturers are getting on the bandwagon, and doing a lot more barbless. So it's actually a little bit more expensive to put a barb on a hook because it's an extra step when they're making the hook. So it's definitely not a cost issue. But there are still some people who want barbs on their flies. So what you can do is when you buy flies, or when you tie flies, just go to barbless hooks. And it's so easy to to pinch a barb anyway. And yes, a lot of fly tires will just turn their hooks sideways in the vise, and smash the barb as they tie the fly. That's a procedure that a lot of people use. So the answer is I think we're getting there. It'll take a while. Fly fishing is a traditional sport, and people are slow to accept new changes. But I think that we're seeing more and more barbless hooks out there.
Here's an email from Ian. "I am a new fly angler having been introduced to the sport by a buddy last year. And once I experienced a thrill of a tight line with a big fish on the end, that was it. I can't get enough. Living in Northern New Jersey, I'm lucky enough that the catskills are only about an hour and a half away, along with some famous Jersey Pennsylvania rivers to my north and west by about an hour's drive as well. Most days, however, I'm still lucky enough to be near some small brooks and ponds that I mostly fish for panfish, creek chubs, and largemouth. And I do great with those and have a blast. I'm curious, though, is there a way to introduce trout to my more local streams? The closest brook with trout is just one town away, but they are hyper spooky, and still just far enough away that I'd have to make time, which I don't have to do it."
"Three questions. Do they only stock trout in specific locations due to quantity allocated for that year, or are there environmental factors that cause a pond or a stream to be not stocked? Is there a way to petition the state to stock my local streams? Number three, there are a lot of green sunfish around. I've heard they are invasive, so I'm supposed to remove them from my stream when I catch them. They're lots of fun to catch though. Great podcast. I've learned a lot, and enjoy your guests. Keep them coming."
Ian, state stock trout for various reasons, and I don't think there's any one answer. There are states and there are areas that get trout stocked where they have no intention of the trout surviving because the streams get too warm during the summer. But they put them in for people to catch in the spring, and then sometimes in the fall. So there may be a way to petition the state to stock your local stream. I don't know. I would suggest that you go online and contact the...I think it's New Jersey. Yeah. New Jersey Department of Environmental Conservation, or whatever they call it in New Jersey, and ask if there is a way to suggest that trout are stocked. But if the streams are not great habitat for trout, they probably won't be interested in stocking, because there are streams in New Jersey that will hold trout year round. And you're right, trout are expensive to raise, and they have limited numbers to stock, and they have to put them where they have a best chance of survival.
Regarding the green sunfish, you know what? If they're fun, go ahead and catch them. I wouldn't... They say you're supposed to remove them from the stream, but you're not going to're not going to change the population dynamics of the green sunfish population by throwing them up on the bank or something. So I would just catch them. And if they're big enough to eat, take them home and eat them. If they're not, just put them back and don't worry about it. I'm not of the opinion that we should be killing fish that are invasive for no reason at all, and not utilizing them for something. So either eat them or let them go. That's my opinion.
Here's an email from Scott from British Columbia. "Hey, Tom, in a podcast from July 2022, a question was asked about taking kids fishing. Your response about finding a less crowded body of water with easy to catch species, a lake with sunfish you mentioned, was spot on. I would also add that I learned three lessons from taking my sons fishing. Always bring snacks. Always bring a set of dry clothes and boots. And always bring toys. Those three things made fishing together more pleasurable for all of us. More importantly, I would add that taking your kids fishing isn't necessarily about catching fish. It's about building relationships with your kids, introducing them to the wonders and mysteries of the natural world, and igniting and nurturing that flame of angling. Sure, you want your kids to catch a fish, and that's why you pick spots like you've suggested."
"But I've been there when catching fish becomes too important, and them getting wet or bored causes me to get frustrated. And then it becomes a not fun experience for all of us. Focusing on the relationship and not making it all about the fish helps to take the frustration out of the equation." Well, thank you, Scott. I certainly couldn't have said it any better. And thank you for your suggestions. Those are great.
Here's an email from Edward. "Thanks for all you do for educating the world of fly anglers. I'm interested in trout spey, but before I go all in and purchasing the rod and various setup, I wanted to see if I could use my 11-foot 4-weight Euro fly rod paired with my 6-weight Orvis Bank Shot frontloaded streamer line to spey cast. I could simply go give this a try and see if it works, but I really want to understand if I'm missing something bigger on how the spey systems work and function. I'm trying to gauge. If yes, is that a simple or no? You don't fully understand how the spey system function. Would this be a good setup for a wet flies in smaller streamers? Could I add a pilot [SP] leader to this setup to get down for more larger rivers? Any info would be greatly appreciated."
Well, Edward, I wasn't sure about this, so I went to my handy-dandy expert, Shawn Combs, the Orvis rod designer, and reel designer, and sometimes fly designer. He actually designed the Bank Shot line. And here's his answer. "Yes, it should work. Bank shot is similar to a scandi line and taper. The bank shot floater has a 23.5-foot head, and while the belly is only 6 inches long, it doesn't differ drastically from a scandi short with the same overall head length and a 10-foot belly." So the answer is yes, it should work. Give it a try.
Male: Hey, Tom. In a recent podcast took a Fly Box question from a man that moved to Kentucky, and he's really gotten into fly fishing for small mouth bass. You responded to his question by stating there's not really a national level organization that's dedicated specifically to small mouth bass conservation. And that's largely due to how tough and well-adapted these fish are. They do just fine on their own, which I totally agree with. However, I would like to add an important small mouth fact that has changed the way I look at these fish. It's something I wasn't aware of until recent years. That fact is that a small mouth bass typically has a pretty slow growth rate when compared to other fish species.
A trophy small mouth, the big guys, and the 20-inch or larger range, a lot of times it's 10 plus years old, maybe even closer to 15. Of course, this can vary depending on environmental conditions and food availability, and all that. But either way, it's really long time. If your fishing a small river or a stream that doesn't have large numbers of small mouth bass, I would encourage to take in some extra care when handling these larger fish. If you take a trophy small mouth out of the stream today, there may not be another one to replace it for a number of years. So just some food for thought. Thanks for all you and Orvis do to support this wonderful sport.
Tom: Hey, that's a great tip. And yeah, if you want trophy small mouth, you need to take good care of them, handle them carefully, and most of all, release them. I didn't realize that small mouths grew that slowly, but that is a good thing to remember. And I want to thank you for that tip.
All right. That's the Fly Box for this week. Let's go talk to Chris about how we can improve our trout streams, or not. So my guest today is Chris Jordan, and Chris is with NOAA. And Chris, why don't you describe your position at NOAA to people?
Chris: Yeah, thanks, Tom. My official position as a Research Fish Biologist, and I work for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of NOAA. And the fish biology part is working on Endangered Species Act listed salmon and steelhead in the Northwest, in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. But my work is a bit broader than just the fish part. It really focuses most on the habitat, freshwater environment that these ESA-listed fish, these iconic fish of the Pacific need to survive and thrive. And the questions are they aren't surviving and thriving. That's why they're ESA-listed. So what do we do about it? And do we understand what good habitat is? And if so, can we find it? And even better, can we make it or recreate it and do restoration? So the fish part is broader than the population. Certainly count fish. But more importantly, it's how do we get more fish? How do we help nature generate more naturally produced wild salmon and steelhead?
Tom: That's a big job these days. It is a really big job.
Chris: It's a lot of people paying attention, yes.
Tom: Particularly in your part of the world. And I know that... God, I don't know how I first got in touch with you. Somebody recommended you. I don't even remember how, but we've been going back and forth for months trying to set this up. But I remember somebody saying that you are of the opinion that a lot of the habitat work that we do in salmonid streams is misguided and maybe misdirected, and that we can do better. Is that a fair statement?
Chris: That's a fair statement. And I'm not the only grumpy, unsatisfied fish habitat biologist or geomorphologist or hydrologist out there. I think this is a's a growing but it's a commonly held position. And I think that the data supports this idea. There have been papers in the science literature, in the public press, popular books, and long-form journalism about all of the money that's been spent on stream restoration, stream and river restoration. And where are the fish? And so it's a good question. It does make you think, are we not able to do this? Are we doing the wrong thing? Are we not doing enough? And I think it's all of those things.
But what I have worked on for the last 20 years is getting out that question of what really is functional riverscape environment. And seeing a big disconnect between our engineered, form-based, build a particular version of a playground. And I think really arrogantly assert that that's what fish want and need. And the fish answer quite clearly, "No, thank you." By not showing up, not using it, not reproducing, not growing, not surviving. But the places where we do let nature take over in these riverscapes, trying to do what we call process-based riverscape restoration, you get a really dramatic fish response.
And not just numbers, changes in survival, changes in life history expression. Fish being fish, nature being messy and complicated, and not static, not stable, not the kind of work that we have been doing in trout streams for over 100 years. And people have been pointing to it for over 100 years. In your podcast, you have talked to some of the best minds in, "We've been messing things up for a long time." Why do we keep that?
Tom: So let's talk a little bit. How about a couple examples of stream "improvements" that you've seen that were detrimental or didn't work. And then let's talk about some solutions that might have been done in that case.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good setup. I think the worst one is the idea that streams, rivers are single-threaded. That they are a meandering single channel going through the floodplain. I call those wiggly ditches because that's not a river. That's not a stream. And the fact that it's got curvature to it rather than being a bowling alley straight is a slight improvement. But it's still a ditch. It's a wiggly ditch. And you can see that if you look at, is the bed of the channel flat, that is it doesn't go up and down. You don't get pools and riffles. And so people, when they're making wiggly ditches kind of approach to stream restoration, they dig, and they form pools and riffles by making vertical structures in the wiggly ditch that drive the hydraulics, or force the form of the channel to have complexities and to cavities.
And that means that no erosion is going to happen or could happen. Otherwise it would fill those things in. And so what that points to is the fact that the form, both the plan form what it looks like from above, as well as along the channel longitudinally, and along the channels, multiple channels, that's formed by processes, that's formed by erosion and deposition, that's formed by biology getting in the way of the physics, the plants growing in the rivers, dead wood, trees falling in, beaver building dams. That's biology getting in the way of the moving water, and spreading it out and piling it up. And so when we build things, when we build, "Here's a logjam, here's a pool, here's a riffle, here's a...this is the radius of curvature of a river." Any of those kind of ideas, or we want to stabilize it, we're worried that it's going to move, all of that is contrary to the natural behavior, form, function of the riverscape.
And all of the biological productivity comes from that complexity and that dynamics. And so if you build this playground, which we do and we make these form-based, stability design kind of restoration projects, we're engineering out the diversity. The diversity in depths and velocities, the diversity in temperature, or the diversity in residence time of the water. It sticks around for a long time. It can do more stuff. The diversity of flow paths. How does it get from the top of a reach to the bottom of the reach? Does the water just stay in the channel, or does it go in side channels, does it go down in the ground and pop back out?
If there aren't a diversity of flow paths, then you don't have the diversity of biology, and then you don't have the productivity that what we're looking at is one indicator, salmon, or steelhead, or trout. Those fish are integrators of all of those biological processes. And so when we build these simplified physics systems, they have simplified biological veneer on them. And they're not productive. And that, I think, is the biggest thing. And so the difference between saying, "This channel needs wood, so I'm going to place it here, or this channel needs a bend or a pool, so I'm gonna police it here." That arrogance, that assumption that we know best, and that in a particular place there is supposed to be a particular thing, that's all wrong. It's just wrong thinking. It's not driven by science.
It's driven by...I don't know, it's our single-minded, arrogant view that we know best. And engineering solutions, which tend to be efficient, solve the problem by making a thing. That's not how nature works. And that's certainly not how these survivors, salmon and steelhead work. They work by having a suite of tactics that depend on a particular climate year, depend on micro habitat, as they're rearing as juveniles, as they're migrating out to the ocean, when they get to the ocean, different conditions. It depends on fish dying. Lots of the fish dying. That's natural selection. But that's also...that's the natural process by which a particular tactic worked for this group of fish this year. And if in that population, in that sort of reservoir of tactics, there's another tactic for the next year, then those fish survive.
And we see this, for example, in the Elwha with what is now the largest dam removal project and river restoration to be surpassed by the Klamath this year. But in Elwha, what the folks are seeing there with the national park, with the tribes, with NOAA, USGS, all the groups who are doing that work are seeing the river reawakening as it's released back into its floodplain. But also seeing the fish reawakening by different life history strategies, different versions of solving the problem are showing up that weren't there before because the options in the environment weren't there before. So building options into riverscapes is how we're going to build productive fish habitat. And that's not the singular engineering solution of there's going to be a J barb, or a V hook, or a step structure here.
There's going to be floodplain connection. It's going to be messy, it's going to be scruffy. It's going to look not like a movie set. And that's part of the problem, is that we have this weird idea that rivers and streams are these beautiful, wide open, single threaded, meandering channel that you can fish or boat conveniently. It's not convenient for the fish, unfortunately.
Tom: Yeah. So let's say you have a stream, whether it's a small trout stream or a tributary that's a spawning place for salmon and steelhead, and the habitat's degraded. Let's say maybe it was channelized, and it's just a straight shoot. What would you do ideally to go in there and improve the habitat?
Chris: Yeah. Good question. Well, you start by asking does the riverscape...and I use this word riverscape because it's not just the channel, it's not just where the stream or river is now. It's the entire floodplain. It's the valley width, from left to right. And that watercourse made that valley. And it needs to occupy the entirety of that valley at any stage, at any amount of water. So the first thing for that system to be healthy for fish, it's got to be healthy as a riverscape. And a healthy, functional riverscape needs space. It needs...that stream or river that lives in that riverscape has to be able to occupy all of it. So if it's channelized because of road infrastructure or levees just to push it into a place.
Or it was what really happened all over the world, but North America is certainly no stranger to this behavior, is just pushing streams off to the side. Not necessarily with a berm, but just moving them off to the side of the valley. That tends to straighten them, channelize them, the stream energy goes up, and then they down cut, and they hold themselves there. It's a very stable configuration. And if you drive around, you will see, no matter where you are, you'll see the stream off to the side and down cut. And it stays there, well behaved, and we get to use the whole valley floor. So the first thing is trying to connect it back to that valley floor.
And if there aren't structures that we've built that hold it there, so where we have piled up material that you might have to remove. So that would be the first thing, is there an access issue? So do we need to regrade those, or break up those levees, or move roads. Or actually the thing that's really common in the Northwest that the folks have forgotten about, up until the '50s, logging was done by a railroad into the forest. And the railroad berms were put right up the middle of the creeks or the creek of the valleys. And when the logging was done, the steel was removed because that's a valuable reusable part. But the berms are left. So there's still something that is just much bigger than the stream or a river can deal with right in the middle of the floodplain.
So that's job one is what's the current configuration of the topography in that valley? Is there anything that's keeping the river in a place? Or is the river just downcut, but the old terrace where it used to live is still at the historic level? And what we're finding in a lot of places in the Forest Service, the U.S. Forest Service is leading this effort of doing this historic evaluation of the topography, and saying, "What's been built up, either by us piling stuff up, or because there's excess sediment that's moved down because of disturbance of the land up uphill, upstream, and where is the system cut down too far?" And that's usually from incision. And then let's recreate that.
And so the most extreme version of this is what's called a Valley Reset or a Stage Zero Project. And that starts with giving the space back to the water. And that means changing the elevations of the material that's on the floodplain surface. It looks horrible. It scrapes to bare dirt everywhere. But it's restoring that level. And in some cases, that's really invasive. Other cases, it could be done pretty easily just by removing levees. So you need to understand that. So that's the first.
The second is, assuming you have the water, that water hasn't been stolen and moved somewhere else, then you need to slow it down. Unhealthy riverscape has very inefficient flow, has very inefficient conveyance of water from upstream to downstream. It's not a ditch. We make ditches to move water quickly from one place to another for some beneficial use. We make ditches for transportation, sort of move things on that water, but that's not a natural system. So you need something in the way. There has to be structure in the stream, and it's mostly biological. This is where the vegetation or beaver dams or deadwood, not in discrete piles, but pretty much everywhere making complicated flow paths, lots of slow paths for the water to move, not collectively down valley. So those are the big things. Those are the design objectives.
Tom: Okay. So if you have a berm stream, and you've leveled the berms or the dikes on either side of it so that the river can meander or overflow or whatever. And then you want to put some kind of structure in there, wood, rocks, whatever. Is there an engineering part of that exactly where you put the wood, and the rocks, or do you just haphazardly...
Chris: Absolutely not.
Tom: Okay. Haphazardly dump it in, and hope the river uses it the way it should?
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. One of the analogies is this is a meal. Because a natural system is fed by sediment and wood moving from debris flows. So you have a big storm event, you have a fire, you have intermittent channel that doesn't flow all the time, that's just a hill slope and a gully. That delivers stuff. And we've known for a long time that river junctions are the most...are biological hotspots, because that's where stuff has contributed to that river. It's where stuff moves down from the hill slope into the channel for the first time. It's where little channels that integrate large areas move into a big channel. They move biological stuff, they move inorganic material. Those are fans. That's the delivery of material of sediment that then gets chewed up and worked. So the meal is a good analogy by the big system.
And so it's not just dumping stuff in streams because first off, we want to get rid of the single stream, right? We basically want to have access to the entire floodplain. There isn't a big deep channel that's just in a now flat open floodplain. That single threaded channel is an artifact as well. And so you really... And this is why you can't engineer it, because the subtleties and the dynamics of a natural system really evolve, and the system moves around naturally. So you might give it a starting condition where it has an awful lot of options, and it evolves, and you need to get out of the way. You need to let go of the need to control the system, and have a little faith that the natural resilience of riverscapes will prevail.
But there are these conditions, right? It needs to be supplied with food, it needs sediment, it needs biological material. And so if you are doing this project downstream of a dam, that's cutting off the sediment supply. So you're going to have to add a maintenance contract if you want this process-based approach, and that is you're probably going to have to add sediment at some point. We have changed forests into plantations. They don't grow big trees, they don't grow the same kind of trees. They don't deliver wood through the floodplain. They deliver wood to the mill. And so we are going to have to keep doing that. We're going to have to keep supplementing until we have figured out how to have both forests that deliver trees to us, and forests that deliver trees to riverscapes.
Tom: So if you have a stream below a dam, obviously you're not going to get much wood migrating in there.
Chris: Exactly.
Tom: So you do have to throw some trees in, right?
Chris: Yeah. And you might have to keep doing that. And so some of these big where large river systems have done this valley reset, and seeded with lots of wood, and decay resistant conifers, maybe they're given a 20 or 30-year head start. And we're not really sure what that means in terms of their maintenance, but we certainly know for the next decades they are way better off and they're going to function naturally. And we're going to have to watch as they start to degrade, and figure out what the maintenance is. When we do this with much smaller scale structures, when we mimic beaver dams, when we mimic smaller wood structures. So beaver dam analogs and post-assisted log structures is the jargon. These are things that are built by hand, not built by bulldozers and excavators.
We're expecting beaver to take over the maintenance, or we are going to have to be doing lots of additions of small wood over a decade to get the system to start being more natural. And so this is...we are not building form. We are building processes. And these are self-maintaining processes. And if they are broken somewhere else, then we're going to have to stay there as a maintenance team. And that's the big difference between process-based restoration, and form, and stability-based restoration, where it's a one and done, come in, do the work, sign off, it's as built. We're done. See you. Give me my check. Nature doesn't work that way.
Tom: That's for sure.
Chris: So we're learning. And even the permitting and funding process for doing restoration isn't amenable to that. Because what if your project is 10 years of interventions? Right now, you would have to apply for funding every year, you'd have to apply for a permit to do the work every year. It's kind of inefficient. So we are having to adjust a lot of the process around doing restoration in order to do restoration the process-based way.
Tom: Yeah. And it's probably easy enough on public land, but if you have a private land, or a road next to it, and you start saying you want to let the stream migrate across the valley, I imagine you run into a lot of resistance.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. The needing space is really needing space. And there are definitely compromises. If you can't get to this stage zero, which is the historic pre-contract, pre-settlement condition, pre-disturbed condition. There's just short of that something we called Stage Eight, which is a subset of the floodplain is given back to the riverscape. And that has to be then...that's defined. There is infrastructure that needs to be protected enough of the floodplain so the processes can occur is returned to the riverscape. And you restore to that target. So that's possible. And when you get down to there's so little available, well then clearly the processes can't be there.
And then you do get into engineered and form-based solutions because they have to stay in the place. So in downtown Reno, in the Truckee River, it's a great example of hydraulic diversity and accommodation space for the river as it goes up and down at that stage heights. But it's all concrete. It's all concrete. It's not going to move. It's always going to be there. But it is not just trying to make a channel like the LA River, or Mill Creek in Walla Walla, or places...every river that you may see going through urban environments are very channelized because there isn't space. So there's compromises. So where you can give space...
Tom: What kind of compromises have they made in the Truckee? What kind of habitat enhancements have been done in that limited floodplain?
Chris: Well, so you have hydraulic diversity, you have depth and velocity changes which dissipate energy. That's a good thing. Right? But it's not provided by trees. It's provided by concrete structures. It's not going to move. It's not going to have biological productivity. But it is mimicking the energy dissipation and the accommodation space of a more natural system. So you're getting some of the function out of by mimicking nature in that case. But you're not asking to grow fish there, but you are asking to deal with high water events, high energy events. And possibly make a playground for people. There's lots of kayak, water sport kind of structures that are built that mimic the hydraulics of a natural system.
So there's ways that we can engage in not having generalized ditch versions of rivers that then exist in a very built environment. But when we're out of that very built environment, what's the options for us to give space back to rivers? Rivers have...inherently they should have rights to the water and the space that makes them healthy. We give personhood to corporations. Why not have some more respect for riverscapes? The Yurok people, the Māoris in New Zealand advocate for rights, personhood for rivers, so that rivers can be represented in our legal system, can engage in this dominant society's way of engaging in stuff. Which seems kind of unfortunate, but it also seems appropriate that what's the voice for these natural systems that we say we need. We want all these ecosystem services from riverscapes. We need to allow them to be functional.
Tom: So question. Let's say... And this is really putting you on the spot because you don't know all the particulars. But let's say there's a private landowner that has a stream, not a terribly big stream, running through their property, or let's say there's a Trout Unlimited chapter who has a stream that...where the habitat's degraded. But they don't have access to the floodplain. They don't have access to upstream and downstream. They're just trying to take a little piece of river, let's say a mile or half mile. What can they do, or what should they look at to try to enhance the productivity of that habitat?
Chris: Yeah, you're right. You handed me a difficult task. Because I said rule one is space. And so if you don't have space, if you just have a ditch, and you can't make lateral complexity and lateral multiple flow paths spreading out laterally. You only have the vertical direction. You only can dissipate energy by making water go up and down by piling it up.
Tom: Well, let's say you have a little horizontal space. Let's say you have a little bit of floodplain to use.
Chris: Take advantage of it. Get the water able to be on that floodplain at every stage. So if the channel's incised, it needs to come up. And what you might to do is end up with an inset floodplain. You can't connect to the historic floodplain because the historic floodplain is occupied with infrastructure. But you have some space. So right now, if the channel is down in a ditch, in a floodplain, it needs to have its own floodplain. It needs to have the floodplain that you can afford to give it. And that's going to require erosion. Erosion is a good thing. Erosion makes material available for that riverscape to work elsewhere.
And so having avulsion events, having lateral migration of the channel is good if you can catch that material. So start... And we do that. We build things to hold bank blusters [SP] that push the water into the side that does an erosion. But we also then have some deposition structures right downstream that catch it. So what you want to do is widen the trench into an inset floodplain. And give whatever space you can to that creek, stream, or a river.
Tom: So basically just kind of level it off, and let the river go where it wants to?
Chris: Well, yeah, except that if it's also...if the processes of sediment delivery and wood delivery, or beaver dam building are disrupted, then you have to mimic those processes. You have to replace processes. So just letting the river go where it wants to is just letting the physics part of the equation. And that's not how it works. It's the physics of the river going where it wants to. But it's also the biological component, which is resisting the river going where it wants to. Which piles water up, which spreads water laterally, which forces water down into the hyper rios [SP]. So you need both. And so you can't just say turn it loose.
So I was looking at the North Fork Toutle River, which is a tributary that comes off of Mount St Helens. And it looks like a a brand new river before plants had evolved because so much material came off from a volcanic eruption, even though that was 40 years ago and still coming off that you have these big fans, you have these big alluvial areas that are just a lot of material with no plants. And so the river is wandering all over the place on them. And that's just a physics system. Because it's so young, you don't have the biological component that starts to hold it together. Not stabilize it, but come to some compromise of islands, and braids, and things meandering around, not on a seasonal basis, but maybe on a decadal basis.
So when you make your new wider ditch, you're in such floodplain, it has to have biology in there. There has to be things that are fighting that power of the moving water.
Tom: And so that part of it does have to be engineered, right? You have to estimate what's going to happen during high water events, and low water before you can do anything.
Chris: Well, yeah, I would...not to put engineers out of work, but unless you are really worried about infrastructure downstream, or you have some regulations about no wood that's not anchored, you really want to allow dynamics. And so then that's where we work in these hand-built environments with smaller caliber material, so that when it does move, not if, but when it moves, it's not going to do damage. Right? And so you're not going to take out a bridge piling farther down downstream. Because you have mobile large wood, which is what people are terrified of. But you have a meal that gets moved around. And some of the best work that's been done has been done in the Asotin which is in Southeast Washington. It's a tributary to the Snake. Restoration building hundreds and hundreds of small hand-built structures, and keeping track of the material that the crews put in, and seeing that that material moves around between structures or makes new structures. It doesn't just get all flushed out into the Snake.
And so that's the exercise of the natural system. If it's fed with material, that material moves around and builts its own structures. And so you want to try to mimic that process. If you don't have wood delivery, you are going to have to be adding stuff. And so these are really cool projects for watershed councils, or for TU chapters. This is ongoing work. You need to replace the natural system until the beavers move in and they build the dams. Right? As long as there's woody vegetation for them to work. Until your chapter has inspired the landowners to say, "Holy crap, this is amazing. You can have the whole floodplain." Right? And it's a demonstration of the success and the beauty of these messy, natural systems that I think is changing how everyone is thinking about riverscapes.
And Trout Unlimited here in Oregon and Washington is a leader in that, in realizing that trout streams are not just picture-perfect fly fishing environments. They're scruffy, messy fish factories that might be a little more challenging to work. But that's what the fish need. So what is it that we need to advocate for? Angling opportunities or healthy fish populations?
Tom: So describe some of these hand-built structures that you're talking about. How they're put in, and how do you construct them?
Chris: Yeah. Well, so the crews that do the work, generally the only power tool is a hydraulic post-pounder that might be used to drive fence posts into the bed to hold things together. Chainsaws to cut wood. There are some crews that use grip hoists which are come along on steroids that you could pull large pieces of wood. You can pull trees over. So you can do all this without needing the heavy machinery, which causes a footprint of impact. You're moving things that you can carry. We call them two-people wood, so two people can move something around. And you are building hundreds of small scruffy structures that have a design expectation of a year at most.
And it might change. They might get buried, they might get moved, they might partially fall apart. So you're not obsessing. They need to look messy. They don't have to all be built and anchored with posts. They could be built by hand. Beaver build very functional dams with their tiny little arms and their teeth. And so if they're able to do that and being 60-pound rodents, we with our primate hands and brains should be able to do that. And so we can. But it's hard work, it's handwork and it's strength in numbers, and it's strength in messiness. This is not build two of them and pat yourselves on the back. That's a day's work. Now, do that for the 60 days of the summer and come back next year. And when you've got hundreds of them, then you're starting to have an impact on the hydraulics, on the hydrology.
Tom: So the posts that hold these...because obviously you have to have something to hold the debris against the current.
Chris: Not necessarily. No, no, not necessarily. I mean, think about if you've got trees that are near the bank, you can wedge things in. Stuff racks up, things rack up on any kind of roughness element. So we have become obsessed in thinking about how you do stream restoration where stuff can't move. It has to be anchored. It has to be keyed in. It has to be cabled. It has to be pounded in. That's not how natural systems work. Natural systems work with stuff moving around that hangs up, and it hangs up and more stuff hangs on it maybe until it gets too big, and then it moves the river or the river moves it. But we need to get away from our love of permanence and stability when we're thinking about doing restoration actions. And again, that's sort of our arrogant view that I know that this thing looks like this, and it's going to live here. And you got to let that go.
Tom: Yeah. So I'm still trying to wrap my hands around the current, just a normal current is going can't just throw wood in the river because the current's going to wash it downstream pretty quickly. Right?
Chris: Yeah.
Tom: How do you... I assume these are like a pile of brush, right, that you're putting in a river?
Chris: Well, no. Or you can carry up 6 to 8-inch pieces of wood if they're not too long. You're not putting in just brushing, you're not putting in firewood. You're making something that itself is sticky enough, and keying it in some place. That it's, one piece might reach onto the shore and grab onto a crotch in the tree, and then everything else is going to hang up on that. But you're right. If you have a plain bed channel and a ditch, you're going to need some anchoring. If you 100 to 1000 CFC flow events, you're going to need to do a little anchoring. But again, you're not trying to make something that you expect to be there after too many high flow events.
You you want it to grab sediment and bury itself. And that's really one of the ways that these things become stabilized in the sense is they act as hydraulic shadows. And you get deposition of material. And that material then moves the channel to someplace else. And you end up really quickly taking that flow work, that tractive force of the river off of the device, because the device did what it's supposed to do, which is change distribution of velocities. And you had sediment move out, settle out. Now, that means you have to have stuff moving. So if you have an armored overly coarse bed because its system has been too high energy for too long, then you're not going to have stuff moving. So then you are looking at a system where it''re going to have to do a little more work to get started.
But once you get these processes started, they are self-reinforcing. So having some trust, some faith, some understanding of how these systems work once they start acting, you can back off on saying, "I have to make sure this thing stays here forever," when you put something in. And you also have to be okay if you put in 10 things and none of them wash away. It's like, "Huh? Well, maybe I have to learn a different...a couple different moves to work with this." It's a conversation with that creek or that stream. What's it going to take to get you to change your behavior?
Tom: Yeah. I mean, the reason I've been pushing you really hard on some of these...
Chris: I don't think you're pushing me hard, you're also being polite. So if you want to change the tone, I mean...
Tom: No, no, it's good.
Chris: ...I'm so tired of how people do approach restoration. I really wish they would change what they're doing.
Tom: No. I have a stream in my backyard that is quite low flow. I don't know what the CFS is, but it's tiny in the summer. Hold wild trout. Three species. And I have tried over the years runs through farmland, and it's been burned throughout most of the valley. And my property is one of the only places where the river gets to let loose. So it's very unstable, very unstable. And I have tried riprapping, and dumping stone in, and structures, and they all go away. And so I'm very, very cognizant of the fact that the things are going to change. And I've stopped trying to do really anything. And luckily, the past couple of years beavers have moved in.
Chris: Yeah, there you go.
Tom: And it's interesting because the beaver dams that they build can't hold during high water, but they still do it. And so they build a dam. High water comes through, blows them out but all that nice debris gets sorted at other places, and then they build another dam somewhere else. And that gets blown out, and adds more wood. And you're absolutely right. I'm amazed with the stability of these structures that they're doing just with mud and twigs.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. We underestimate how, if you change the distribution of velocities a little bit, you reduce the energy. And actually, the first structures that we built were reinforcing beaver dams. So we're doing exactly that. We just pounded posts in the beaver dams because the beaver chose to build there, which means that they...if they stay there... And you're not recording this too, so unless you restart your recording...
Tom: No, I'm recording it. I'm recording it. It's okay.
Chris: Oh, you are. Okay.
Tom: Yeah, that's fine.
Chris: No, it's great. I'm happy. The first structures that we built were exactly that situation where beaver, which is the biological engine to slowing the water down, lived in the system. This is in Bridge Creek, which is a tributary to the John Day in Central Oregon. Every year those dams would be breached by the high flow snowmelt because of channel incision, so the unit stream power was too high. And the riparian vegetation was just one species of willow, coyote willow, it just doesn't get very big. And so they don't have a lot of material that's large caliber. And they don't have energy dissipation by having the water move in different channels.
So the first thing that we did was reinforce those dams, and build mimics of beaver dams that are just speed bumps that are 50, 60 centimeters tall, try to impound water and therefore slow water down, and have sediment deposition and bed aggregation move the bottom of the channel up. But if nothing else, add some structure to the system. And they blew out, and the beaver didn't build on them, if we made them. But eventually by putting in enough of them, and having beaver be...beaver occupancy in a particular place be a little more stabilized, just a bit, push the system over the edge so that it became self-maintaining, self-healing, got floodplain connection, got multiple flow paths, spread the water out, dropped the energy down. Beaver could just take over.
And they could build valley-spanning dams out of mud and small material that withstood these enormous flow events. Thousands CFS, flood events. Because the energy was just a sheet of water moving across a very large area, as opposed to a jet in a channel. And so the space, I think we really underestimate in our intuition that spreading water out and dividing, robbing the energy by causing it to even just go over vegetation, pull energy out of the roughness, allows much...what we think of as smaller, weaker things to survive that further dissipate the energy.
And that's this feedback between the biological components and that geomorphic or physical components of a functional system. If it's a ditch with smooth surfaces, and all the water concentrated in a jet, it's a powerful thing. But if biology can get a leg up on that system, and build roughness, it's not a powerful thing anymore. And then you get this cooperation, you get this functional system emerge. So I think if you have beaver, that's the best maintenance contract. And you have a single threaded channel that sounds like it's a little entrenched.
Tom: Yeah, it's pretty entrenched.
Chris: Yeah. If you can encourage them, reinforce them, you'll get aggradation. Maybe you get more flow. Water getting up and out of that channel more often is the dissipation of the energy at this higher flow events. And you just get this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of the system taking care of itself. But it does so by needing space. So that really is...that's the thing that we have to honor and respect these riverscapes as they need the space. And if we don't give them the space, they're not going to do what we want them to do, which is provide stuff for us.
Tom: Yeah. And we need to give them time. Too often we want immediate results. And as I've learned over 20 years living on this stream, it takes a long time.
Chris: It does. And then it doesn't. Because when you get those systems back in control of themselves, the response is breathtakingly fast. And the reason that it's breathtakingly fast is because it just switches from one impaired state to a new, much more healthy state. And there really isn't any space in between. It can't be stuck in between. It's either a ditch, or it's a connected floodplain. There really isn't anything in between. And once you get this connected floodplain, the vegetation starts to grow. It's just amazing how quickly the natural system... And that's the resilience of nature. The resilience of these natural systems is they are self-repairing if you can get them back into their condition.
The plants are still there. The right soil's chemistry is there. And this has happened all over the world in these restoration actions where there's some perturbation, like overgrazing, channelization of river. And you remove that, and let the natural system take over again, and it rebounds really quickly. So if you're not seeing the rapid response, you're not doing the right thing yet. But when you see the rapid response, like, "Oh, all right, we got it."
Tom: Yeah. Well, I'm not doing anything right now as the beavers are...I'm hoping the beavers do it for me. And everything I've tried to do with the occasional log along the bank is just...that hasn't worked. So, the river does what it wants to do, and unfortunately, it's above me, it's fairly well bermed. So I still get the energy coming through.
Chris: Right. Right. You get the fire hose delivered to your property, which is unfortunate. Yep, yep.
Tom: All right. Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. No, it has. And I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. I know it's going to be of interest to a lot of my listeners because a lot of people either volunteer for Trout Unlimited projects, or they have small streams or rivers on their own land. So it's really valuable to have this discussion.
Chris: Yeah, I really appreciate you asking me, letting me tell my story, my version of how I think we disrespect our riverscapes, and how we need to let nature back in, and as a partner in our restoration. And I think there are some amazing projects that are starting to do that here in the Northwestern Salmon country. And it would be great maybe in future podcasts to focus on some of those, get some of the Trout Unlimited project folks to talk about the really cool things. The Forest Service is inventing a new way of seeing river escapes and doing restoration.
And those folks's ground breaking in this low-tech process space restoration approaches as the non-burning diesel version of the same thing. And the high mountain meadows work in California. Working in wilderness where you can't use anything, not even wheels. You have to horseback in and do all the stuff by hand. But you can. And these these water suppliers, the head waters of this system, the green glaciers, as they call them, need our attention. And it really is just floodplain reconnection. So that's my one message. If there's one message, is we have to respect the need for space, and connection, and messiness of riverscapes.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. And the fact that we don't need heavy machinery to help things along is an encouraging message as well.
Chris: Yeah. Not always. Some places we do. We've burned a lot of diesel to mess them up. So we should not be surprised that it's going to take some work to get that out of the way. An engineer geomorphologist with NOAA, that's his line, and I completely agree.
Tom: Yeah. All right, Chris. Well, thank you so much. Appreciate it. And hope to get you on the podcast again sometime in the future, because this was really, really fascinating.
Chris: Yeah. And if you're ever out in the Northwest, let's go look at some process-based riverscape restorations.
Tom: I would love to do that. I will definitely do that if I'm out in that area.
Chris: All right. Thank you.
Tom: Okay. Thanks, Chris. Bye-bye.
Chris: Bye.
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