Removing the Snake River Dams, with Chris Wood
Tom: Hi, and welcome to the "Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast." This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer. And my guest this week is Chris Wood, who is president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. And Chris is going to be telling me about a monumental conservation project, which is the potential removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River in Idaho. So, it's a groundbreaking project, and it has many facets and many issues surrounding it, but Chris does a really good job of explaining the potential for this project, and I hope you enjoy that. But first, let's talk about fishing. I'm gonna try to answer some questions in the Fly Box. And if you have a question for the Fly Box, you can send it to me at
Anyway, let's get onto the Fly Box. The first question is an email from Mike from California. "I never figured I'd be the one writing in but I haven't heard this question before, although I certainly could have missed it. I'm from Northern California and live fairly close to a heavily-fished tailwater. Tailwater is known for finicky fish, lots of pressure, and also for the chance at some really large trout. While there's some mayfly hatches and a few caddis, this fishery, like most tailwaters, is all about midges. They often turn their noses at size 18 midges and routinely have to fish 20s and 22s to get an eat. Recently, I started euronymphing, as this river is very conducive to it. I've tied in some really great fish in the 18 to 24-inch range but keeping them buttoned up on these small hooks can be frustrating. I've lost far more fish than I've landed with the hook simply pulling free. I've tried horsing them in, I've tried the long, slow play, as well, but I get worried about exhausting the fish. I've chased them up and downstream trying to keep side pressure on them, but I'm still losing way more fish compared to when I used normal-sized flies in the size 12 to 16 range. I should add I always tie and fish barbless hooks. So, my question is this just the price of doing business with small hooks, less of a bite into the jaw? Is there any way to keep more fish hooked while using midges? While I've fly-fished my whole life I really dove off the deep end this year. Put it this way, there was no such thing as a podcast when I started fishing, and the learning curve due to people like you and Orvis on all platforms has made me and thousands of other people way better fishermen."
"Lastly, and specifically, for social media, I'd love to see more emphasis on everything fly fishermen do for the resource we all love. For me, I keep this little bag attached to my pack and stuff it with all the junk I find at the local river, monofilament, beer cans, flip flops, whatever. A full bag of trash out of the river system is a good day. My trophy photos now include a fish and a full bag of trash."
Well, that's a great thought, Mike, and we're all encouraged and inspired by what you do to keep our streams cleaner. Regarding those fish on midges, first of all, it is the price of doing business. You're gonna lose more fish, particularly big fish, in heavy water on small hooks. No doubt about it. There are a few things you can do. It sounds like you're playing the fish properly. It sounds like you're trying to get side pressure on them and not letting them get downstream of you, which is absolutely the worst with small hooks. There's a couple things that you can do with your flies. One is to try to fish a little bit heavier tippet. And I know that's tough on small flies. You won't get as many eats, but you may land more fish with having your tippet. You're probably normally fishing 6X or something. Try to go to 5X. You may get fewer eats, but you may land more fish because you can get the fish in quicker. The longer you play a fish on those small hooks, the more chance the hook is gonna pull out. So, the quicker you can get them in, the better.
And there are a few things you can do with your flies. You say you tie your own flies, which is good. One of the things you're probably doing but make sure your hook is ultra-sharp. So, even though the hook seems sharp, take a hook home to it, and really, really file that point down until it's super, super, super sharp. A sharper hook will penetrate better. Another thing you can do is to use short-shank hooks. So, instead of tying your midges on a standard shank hook, like, you know, a dry fly hook or a standard nymph hook, try tying them on a short shank hook. This would be things like the hooks they call shrimp and scud hooks, the short shank, curved shank hooks. You can get a smaller fly with a hook with a bigger bite on it by tying on a short shank like that. You just use up the straight part of the shank, and yeah, you got a big piece of hook sticking out there, but it doesn't seem to make that much difference to the fish. So, try tying on a short shank hook with a bigger bite. Usually, these hooks are a little bit heavier wire, which may help as well.
And then, there's one other thing you can do. And I, kinda, hesitate to give you this advice because it may or may not work for you. But one of the things you can do is to offset your hook slightly. Just bend them a little bit to the left or the right in your vice and possibly even open up that gap a little bit. It will give you a little bit bigger area of bite on those fish and, hopefully, will get the hook to penetrate a little better. You have to be really careful of this though because if you bend it open too much, you're just gonna lose the fish because it's not gonna seat the hook properly. So, try opening up the hooks just a bit and offsetting them by just a bit by bending them in your vice, and see if that helps. But I think if you're not using short shank hooks that may be the first thing to try.
Here's an email from Dillon in Denver, Colorado. "Thanks for the consistently interesting and informative podcasts. I learn a few things every time I put it on at work or on my drive to the river. Yesterday while fishing a popular South Platte tailwater, I hooked and lost a very sizable rainbow trout. The fish was in a fairly deep pool surrounded by decently fast water. It ran downstream, made a few jumps, and then I was able to coax it toward me with some side pressure perpendicular to the current. As part of this fight with my rod angle downstream and the fish at 90 degrees to me, I often feel like I've lost my leverage on the downstream angle, but it is too soon to flip my rod upstream. I took some steps downstream and flipped my rod to my upstream side to get some leverage back, but the fish had already found a spot on the bottom and parked there against my better judgment. I eventually lifted the rod tip a bit to try lifting the fish out of the spot and my 6X tippet broke. This is not the first time a big fish has done this to me. Usually, using my feet to move into a different position relative to the fish helps, but it's not always possible with steep banks or deep water. I'm sure big fish on pressured tailwaters have a few tricks up their sleeves and that fish have probably practiced that move a few times before. Still, I'm curious if you have any tips on how to move stubborn trout or gain a bit more leverage on them. Thanks."
Well, it sounds like, Dillon, you're really doing everything right. And, you know, sometimes you just lose fish, particularly big fish. We don't land them all, and that's I think what keeps us coming back. As far as trying to move a big fish that's parked in a spot and won't move, sometimes just trying a different angle on the fish, moving a little bit, and trying a different angle might move the fish. But if the fish is really stubbornly sitting there, there are a couple things that you can do. One is you can bang on your rod a little bit to send some vibrations down the leader. Sometimes, that will get a fish moving. You can also throw a rock in the pool. I mean, it's not the most orthodox way to get a fish moving. But sometimes a rock thrown in the vicinity of the fish will get it moving and out of that spot you don't want it to go to. But I think that, you know, in this case, you probably just were gonna lose that fish no matter what. And, again, that's what keeps us coming back.
Paul: Hey, Tom, this is Paul in the Southeast. I'm calling to get your opinion on something. A couple of days ago, I was fishing on a local tailwater in Tennessee. Well, I happened to catch a cutthroat. And at first, I wasn't really sure it was a cutthroat, being in the Southeast and all, but it had all the markings of one. So, I called the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency and spoke to the manager of streams, rivers, and trout. And he assured me that it was a cutthroat and they've started to introduce them in the river system. He also congratulated me on being the first person in 50 years to report catching a cutthroat in Tennessee. Honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about it all. I've got some good and bad feelings about the whole thing. That's why I'm calling to hear your opinion on the subject, introducing the cutthroat to Tennessee, that is. Of course, there's lots of variables that go into this topic and some very strong opinions about it also. But I was hoping to hear what your thoughts are on it. I hope you have a great day, and happy holidays to you and your family and Orvis.
Tom: Well, Paul, that's an interesting question, and it brings up a fascinating side topic in that they have never been able to get cutthroat trout to reproduce in the Eastern United States. They tried it back as far as the 1880s with Seth Green and his Caledonia Fish Hatchery. He tried some cutthroats, he tried some grayling too, which didn't work either. And for some reason, I've never seen a reason why cutthroats just don't naturally reproduce in eastern waters. It must be something about the water chemistry. I'm not sure what but they don't reproduce. So, what's my opinion of stocking cutthroat to the east? Well, you know, it, kinda, makes it interesting because it's certainly an exotic species. There are a few places where they're stocked in the east. One that I know of is on the north fork of the White in Arkansas. And the north branch of the Potomac at one time was trying to stock cutthroats in Maryland, and it sounds like Tennessee is too. And, you know, my opinion, I guess, is that if they're being stocked in a stream where there's no chance of other trout reproducing, brooks, browns or rainbows, and it's a put-and-take stream where the stream is gonna get too warm during the summer for trout, then I guess it doesn't do any damage.
Cutthroats are not as invasive as brown trout in that they don't feed on other trout as much as a brown trout and to a certain degree big brook trout and rainbows do. They tend to stay insect feeders for most of their life. So, they're probably not gonna have too much effect on the wild trout population. But, you know, stocking them knowing that they're not going to reproduce is, you know, kinda, questionable. I mean, we haven't been able to figure out whether cutthroats can spawn in eastern streams. So, you put them in there, you know they're not gonna reproduce. It doesn't make any sense. Should you put a trout that may have a chance of reproducing and establishing a wild population such as brooks, browns, or rainbows? So, I guess I'm undecided about that. But, again, if you're gonna stock them in a stream where none of the trout are gonna hold over or reproduce, then I guess it's not such a bad thing.
Here's an email from Johnnie from Missouri. "I wanted to share a good practice recommendation for us fly-tyers and fly-buyers alike. When we either buy or tie a new pattern to test, I think it would be good practice to have at least two flies of the new pattern for when you go out fishing. Reason one, you can break off a fish that ate a fly or get a strong backcast hook set on the local lunker sycamore tree and then you can no longer test your new pattern anymore. Reason two, you could have a fish swallow the fly too deep as to get it out of the fish's throat ethically. Above all circumstances, the fish's well-being must weigh in heavier than the temptation of continuing fishing that fly whether it's a new pattern or not. This might be a well-known golden rule already, but I thought it was worth mentioning to come over-prepared with flies for a trip."
"I also have a question. Could you share a handful of your favorite hacks and DYI fly tying station ideas if you have any? To contribute some of my own, I dull an 8D nail with a hand file and then 2-part epoxy it into a spent 308 rifle casing for untangling craft store EP fiber cord. And I also use empty head cement glass bottles to store beadheads."
So, Johnnie, I don't know if it's a golden rule, but Tom's rule is to never have fewer than three flies of one pattern and in that size. So, in other words, when I'm tying a new pattern that I haven't used before or I've dreamed up, and I'm tying them in 12s, 14s, and 16s, say, I will have no fewer than 3, not 2 but 3, that's my rule, of each pattern in each size. Because you're right, you're gonna lose one. And my philosophy is you're gonna lose one in the fish, you're gonna lose one in the tree. That leaves you one left over. So, that's my rule. If I have time, I'll do a half-a-dozen. But generally, three is my minimum. So, I think that's a great rule. I think it's a good idea. And so often, I see people going into a fly shop and they ask the fly shop owner, "What flies are working?" And the fly shop owner gives them, you know, three or four patterns and they buy one of each, and that's just not gonna work in my book. So, yeah, two, but probably three of any new pattern.
Regarding DIY hacks, you know, I'm not super clever like Tim Flagler or Cheech at Fly Fish Food at coming up with really cool ideas for DIY stuff on my fly tying station. I can tell you some of the things that I have on my tying bench that either you can't buy in a fly shop or people don't think of. One is a bottle of acetone. I can use that to thin down UV resin or head cement and clean my fingers off if I get super glue on my fingers. So, acetone and a roll of paper towels is always underneath my fly tying bench. A utility knife, I use a utility knife actually not for cutting things but I use it for cleaning off my dubbing needles when I apply head cement or epoxy or whatever to a fly. I find that the best way to clean it off so that I don't have to get the bottle of acetone out because I don't really like opening it up if I can help it is I just take a utility knife, and I scrape the edge of the dubbing needle to get the old head cement off. A large pair of pliers, not for tying but for opening bottles of head cement and glue and stuff like that, that get stuck together, a pair of needlenose pliers for crimping stuff, a pair of wire cutters so that I can cut heavy mono or wire without having to use my good fly tying scissors.
And one of the best hacks I've come up with, which I just recently discovered, is I found this stuff called nano tape. You can get it in a hardware store or online, nano, N-A-N-O, tape. And it's a double-backed, thick kind of like a silicone that will stick to stuff but it won't leave a residue and is easily removable. So, what I do with this nano tape is I line the edge of my fly tying bench in front of me. I have a rolltop desk, and I stick it on the edge of the rolltop desk right in front of me. And I'll put a big, long piece of this nano tape on there, and it sticks to the desk and it will stay there. And then, I can park flies, I can park hooks, I can park bunches of rubber legs. I can even park hanks of EP fiber or Flashabou or anything else on that stuff. And then, when I need it, I can just reach up and grab it, and it's not all over my fly tying bench and doesn't get blown onto the floor if I sneeze or something like that. And this stuff is really great. It will actually hold beads. If you press a bead in there, it will actually hold beads for you. So, it's a good way of getting your materials ready for tying and keeping them out of the way. You can put it on the side of your bench or on your bench itself, on a table or something, but it does hold stuff really well and keeps it out of the way. So, that's the best hack that I've come up with recently.
Let's do another email. This one is from Dan from St. Peters, Missouri. "I've been listening to the podcast for a few months and truly appreciate the time and effort you put in to help us all learn more and become better fishermen. I listen to the podcast on my way to work or when running errands. But I usually don't have to commute very far so I tend to forget to pick things up so I have an excuse to leave the house again and listen to the podcast a bit longer. Don't tell my wife." I won't. "My father introduced me to fly fishing when I was 12, and I continued to go off and on into my late 20s. In recent years, however, it's grown into a true passion, and I've taken up fly tying when I can't get to the river."
"To get to my question, I've been looking into trying my hand at euronymphing as it seems to be a more effective form of fishing when done correctly. As previously mentioned on the podcast, Orvis Clearwater now comes in a 10-foot 3-way so I know that it's likely to be my rod. As for the reel, will any 3-way reel work, or are there specifics to a good nymph-style reel I should know about? One of the reasons I'm looking to get the Clearwater rod is due to the affordability, and I'd like to have a reel equally as affordable. I have an old Orvis Battenkill 3-reel I got on my first rod about 20 years ago. It still has the original line, which I need to replace anyways. Could this work? As always, thank you and Orvis for all you do for the fly fishing community."
Well, Dan, you know, the euro geeks might tell you that you need to exactly balance that reel to the rod because you're holding the rod sometimes up high, and you want balance so your arm doesn't get tired. And they go into all kinds of detail about exactly how you should balance a reel to the rod. Personally, I don't worry about it. When I euronymph, I put whatever reel is handy on that rod. And, you know, often, you're just using a long leader. It doesn't even matter what fly line you have on the reel. Unless you're using a dedicated euro line, you've just got a long 20, 30-foot leader. It never comes out of the guides, unless you hook a fish that runs so you don't need to worry so much about capacity because that doesn't take up much space on a reel. But I would go ahead and use that Battenkill 3. I don't think there's any reason that you should have to go out and get a new reel for euronymphing. And I know I'm gonna probably get some letters about how it's so essential to balance a reel with the euro rod, but I'm not going there, and that's my opinion. So, go ahead and use that old reel. I think it will be fine for you.
Joe: Hey, Tom, this is Joe from Little Rock, Arkansas. And I kinda had a little tip regarding the question from last week's Fly Box regarding removing and adding split shot. You mentioned using that mobile tungsten putty. And I love that stuff. Like you said, it does come off sometimes whenever you cast, but I seem to find that if you put the smallest split shot that you have on the leader, you know, snugly without kinking the leader, and then you mold a little piece or however much tungsten you want, if you mold that over that small split shot, that...and then you let it soak in the cold water, that it should not come off. So, that's just a little tip I had. It seems that if you put the tungsten putty on over the split shot that's already snugly put on there, then you can kind of add however much you want to that split shot. And as long as it's such a small split shot that you don't ever have to go lighter than that piece of split shot, then you should be good, and you can just add weight from there. So, kind of just a little tip for that.
And I do have a question regarding social media and fly fishing and your opinion on that. I recently, probably almost a year ago, started a fly fishing social media channel. And I also noticed, I feel like there is an impact both good and bad on the fly fishing community that social media has. I just wanted to know what your thoughts were on that. It seems, obviously, that fly fishing has...became a lot more popular in the last couple of years, and it's gaining popularity. It seems social media has a big part to do with that. All these people with their cool videos and photos and just fly fishing itself is just such a cool sport. But I just wanted to know what your thoughts are because, you know, the more people that realize and see fly fishing and get into fly fishing, the more people care. But also, there's gonna be more people that are fishing in waters, say, like in Arkansas where you only have about four or five tailwaters that have trout, and everyone's learning to fish trout, then that place becomes really pressured. Obviously, they have stocking programs, but I'm just wondering, your thoughts on water becoming very pressured due to the popularity of fly fishing and also the flip side of more people caring and being more conservation-minded due to social media. So, thanks for all you do and have a good day.
Tom: Well, Joe that is a great tip, and I'm going to use that one myself. You know, if you want to remove all the weight from your tippet, you still have to take that split shot off. But it's probably easier to slide a small one off and not damage the tippet. So, thank you for that tip. That's a really good one. The other thing you could do actually is you could put a tippet ring or a micro-swivel in your leader, and that would also hold the tungsten putty on it, but that's a great idea.
Regarding my thoughts on social media, you know, it's part of our lives now, and that's not gonna change. It's not gonna go away. There are good and bad things about social media. It's certainly brought a lot of anglers together. I have "met" some fishing buddies who have become real fishing buddies online. And I'm very grateful for having met those people and gotten to know them, and they've now become good fishing buddies. On the other hand, you know, hot-spotting is bad. And I think the worst part of social media is it raises our expectations to an unrealistic point where, you know, people typically don't post pictures of the little fish they catch. They catch one big fish, and they might have caught it three months ago, or they might have caught it last year, and they post it on social media, and you see these big fish and you think, "Oh, I've never caught a fish that big. How come I can't catch a fish that big, or why didn't I catch a fish that big when I went to the same stream they're fishing," and I think that's been bad. I think that's really, really been bad. And, you know, as well as the usual crap that inhabits social media everywhere, you know, too many opinions, and a lot of them pretty wild and out there. So, you know, each individual has to decide how they use social media in their fishing. It has some good things, and it's definitely had some detrimental effects on fly fishing.
The other comment that I might make is, you know, your trout streams in Arkansas are getting crowded. Why are you just fishing for trout? There are lots of interesting fish in Arkansas. You know, if the crowds are bothering you, why not go fishing for smallmouth bass or panfish or hybrid stripers or, you know, any of the other fish that you have in Arkansas? It's not just all about trout, and you can have lots of fun fishing for other species. So, for anyone who is bothered by the crowds on trout streams, there's two things you can do. If you really gotta fish for trout, then fish small streams. You usually don't have much pressure, and I know that in Arkansas you probably don't have many small streams to fish for trout because it's tailwater-supported, and you need a bigger river for that. But the other thing is just fish for alternative species. You can have just as much fun fishing for different kinds of fish.
Here's an email from Andrew from Denver. "Hi, Tom. Thanks for taking the time to answer questions. It's often my favorite part of the podcast, as I learn little nuggets that lead me to explore further topics. I have two questions related to when things go wrong while trying to land or release a fish. The first question is if you're struggling to land a trout, rainbow, or brown, and you've been fighting it for a while, is there a time limit that if you haven't landed it, you should consider cutting the line for the fish's safety? The second question, if you are struggling to unhook the fish for whatever reason after a certain time, is it better to just cut the line best you can and leave the hook in, or is it always necessary to remove it for the fish to live? I was told it would eventually rust out by a friend of a friend but I'm not sure of the time required and prognosis for the fish. A related question, do you personally debarb your hooks when fishing for trout every tingle time, sometimes, or most times? To me, there's no enjoyment in the sport if you're doing harm to the animal. So, I'd like to understand what to do in the rare situation where things may go bad. Thanks again for all you do for anglers."
So, Andrew, first of all, if you're struggling to land a fish and you just can't land it, consider using heavier gear, using heavier tippets so you can put more pressure on that fish. And you can land a large trout on a light rod like a 3-weight or a 4-weight very easily, even a big fish, because you can put a lot more pressure on that fish with a rod that bends more like that. So, you shouldn't have to cut the line, and actually, you don't want to cut the line because you're gonna be out anywhere from $40 to 100 bucks by cutting a fly line. And if you're close enough so that you've got the leader close to you, then you should be able to land that fish anyway. So, I wouldn't ever consider cutting the line. You know, maybe sometimes backing up and pointing the rod...if you're worried about breaking your rod, backing up, pointing the rod right at the fish so the rod's not bending, and walking backwards will sometimes bring a fish in surprisingly well. And there, either the tippet's gonna break or you're gonna land the fish. So, you know, all you're gonna be out is maybe a tippet and a fly or maybe just a fly, and the fish can go free.
And as far as cutting the leader or cutting the tippet in a fish that's hooked deeply, and you can't get it out, yeah, that's really good practice. I do it all the time. If I hook a fish in the throat or way down deep and I can't get it out, I just get as close to the fly as I can with my snips and cut the tippet off. Fish will get that fly out of there quite quickly. You won't have to wait for the hook to rust. The wound where the hook entered the fish's jaw or mouth will fester slightly. And the fish will get that fly out pretty quickly. And even biologists will tell you that it's always best to leave a hook in a fish and don't worry about it. The fish will get it out of there. And fish can actually survive for a long time, maybe for life, with a hook stuck in them. I've caught many fish before with one or two hooks in their jaw, and they seem to be just fine. So, yeah, always, if you hook a fish deep, always cut the leader.
And do I personally debarb my hooks when fishing for trout? I would say most times if I remember. There are times I forget to debarb my hook, or maybe sometimes I debarb them when I'm tying. Often I tie on barbless hooks. But, you know, there's an occasion when I forget to do it. But if I can, I make sure my hooks are barbless.
Here's an email from Peter from Norway. "Thank you for a wonderful podcast. I'm an avid trout angler and have been fishing local streams here in Western Norway since I was in my early 20s. A couple years ago, I found a river that holds some serious fish. I can't name it. I've come to understand that there are a lot of Norwegian trout anglers listening to your podcast, Tom. The problem is, of course, catching these fish. The river is quite deep and flows quite fast so the fish are holding very close to the bank. I usually manage to fool a few on the dry fly with a straight upstream cast, but seldom get more than one chance. You know the drill. If the cast is too short, the fly will land on the fish's head, and it will spook. If the cast is too long, the fly line will scare it. And yes, I'm using a very long leader about 16 feet, sometimes longer if the wind allows it. So, I've come to the conclusion that I might have better chances with a downstream presentation, but here comes the second challenge."
"The bank is so overgrown with trees that even a bow-and-arrow cast is out of the question. So, the only way to make a downstream presentation is to wade out a meter away from the bank or so. Any longer than that, and the river is too deep for me to stand. I also have to wade out at least 60 feet upstream to avoid spooking the fish. And here comes my problem. Since I'm so far away from the fish and so close to the bank, there are many small currents downstream between me and the fish preventing me from getting a smooth drift. I even find that my legs are creating swirls in the water that makes it even harder. What would you do in such a situation, Tom? Do you have any tips for presenting a dry fly directly downstream in challenging conditions? Are there any special fly casts that you could recommend or perhaps a mending technique that I haven't tried? I always walk and wade and love it. So, using a boat would be out of the question. I hope you can give me some tips. And, by the way, why not make a whole episode on how to catch trout that are hard to reach with a normal cast, why you need to practice different fly casts, different mending techniques, etc.? That would be wonderful."
Well, thank you, Peter. There's a couple things I can suggest. There's two casts that you should learn, and both of these are on the Orvis Learning Center in the advanced, intermediate casting section demonstrated by the great Pete Kutcher. It's the parachute cast and the pile cast. These casts are designed to give you lots and lots of slack. They will work on longer casts. And it allows the leader and part of the line to fall in loose coils that have to drift downstream before the fly starts to drag. So, I would learn those two casts. Those are gonna be about the only way to catch a fish directly downstream of you with a dry fly.
Now, the other thing I might suggest is that instead of trying those fish with a dry fly, you try to fish a soft tackle wet fly. And in this case, drag isn't gonna be so much of a problem. Fish will take a dragging wet fly, and they'll sometimes take a wet fly that's just hanging in the current. So, what you may want to do is try the same slack line cast, but use a soft tackle wet fly that sinks just a little bit below the surface. And as that slack pays out and the line starts to tighten, that fly will rise to the surface looking like an emerging mayfly or caddis fly. So, those are a couple things to try, and I hope those suggestions help.
Here is an email from Cal in Boston. "After spin fishing for many years, I was inspired to take a fly casting class this past spring and haven't looked back. Today, I'm a super passionate a.k.a. borderline obsessive fly angler. Your podcast and YouTube videos have been integral in fueling my passion for the sport while helping me hone my skills. I have two questions for you today. My first is about brown trout behavior. Here's a bit of background. I generally fish a river system in Central Massachusetts that has a solid population of native brookies, wild browns, and stocked rainbow trout. As recently as mid-October, I was catching browns with some regularity on both dry flies and nymphs. However, as weather and water temps have cooled off, I haven't had any luck on locating them. Any thoughts on where the brown trout may have moved recently, and any tips on how to target them?"
"My second question is about nymphing technique. Recently, I caught a few brookies and rainbows accidentally while letting my double nymph rig sit in the water after finishing a drift. Generally, I let my nymph swing and hold them in the current for three to five seconds before retrieving my line for a new cast. However, the accidental catches I mentioned have happened when I completed a drift, let my nymph sit in the current, and turned my attention to check the time, reply to a text message, etc. I'm guessing I mindlessly let my nymph sit in the current for about 10 seconds in these instances. Does this mean I'm not letting my nymphs swing and sit in the current for long enough on my standard retrieves? I'm not one to complain about catching more fish, of course, but I'd love to better understand why this happens so I can intentionally catch more fish. Thank you for your time and for all that you do in support of the fly fishing community."
Well, Cal, the first question is easy. Brown trouts spawn in the fall, and October is the time when they seriously start to spawn and they have moved somewhere else to spawn. Generally, they go upstream and, frequently, they will go into smaller tributaries to spawn because the water quality might be a little better, and the gravel might be more suitable. But they'll go to a place usually that has some spring influence or groundwater influence with fine, pea-size gravel to spawn. So, yeah, those fish have moved out to spawn. And I can't tell you where they're gonna be. But probably targeting at that time of year is not a good idea anyways because we like to leave brown trout alone or any trout alone when they're spawning. So, I wouldn't worry about it. They'll be back in a couple weeks. They usually don't take that long to spawn. Then, they'll drop back, and they'll start feeding again. And they'll probably be back in the same place as they were earlier in the season or in deeper holes.
Regarding that technique about letting your fly hang, you know, it's funny. In certain streams, that works quite well. And I'm not sure why but it does seem to work well just letting your fly hang sometimes rather than retrieving it right away. You know, the current's probably pushing the fly back and forth, and it looks natural, and the fish are looking at it and looking at it and, finally, they can't stand it anymore, and they eat it. So, I would just... Yeah, really the answer to your question is that you should let your drifts hang longer in the current before you strip them back to make another cast. And, you know, don't worry too much about why because we don't really know why.
Here's an email from Bill from Williamsport, Maryland. "Thanks in advance for answering my question. In your book, 'The Orvis Guide to Leaders, Knots, and Tippets,' you give formulas for knotted leaders. The longest leader that you have listed is 12 feet. In the body of the book, you discuss 15-foot leaders but don't say how to tie them. Could you discuss how to tie a 15-foot or maybe even an 18-foot leader? I'm tying for fish in clear, slow run, and they are very spooky."
Well, Bill, there's two ways you could approach that. One is the complicated way in that if you want a 15-foot leader, it's 20% longer than a 12-foot leader, so just add 20% to all those sections in the formula, and you'll end up with a 15-foot leader. But that's the hard way. The easier way, and the way that I usually do it, is to just add a longer butt section to your leader. You can keep adding quite a bit of butt section to a leader without affecting its casting characteristics. So, what I generally do if I've got a 12-footer and I want to go to 15 feet is I just cut the loop off the leader, tie another 3 feet of whatever diameter the butt section is, usually twenty 1000s for most of those leaders in that formula, and then just go from there, and it seems to work fine. But if you really want to get fancy, just add 20% to all the lengths on those leaders, and you get a longer leader.
Here's an email from John from Duluth, Minnesota. "Hi, Tom. I heard someone one a recent podcast episode who recommended using Google Earth for finding trout fishing spots. I'd like to recommend an app called Gaia GPS," and Gaia is G-A-I-A. "This app has many different maps available like topographic maps, USGS maps, maps that show public lands, and fishing easements, hiking trails, and even Google Earth satellite maps. You can combine all these different maps however you like. The most valuable thing about this app in my opinion is that you can download maps of any area you wish so you can navigate using the downloaded map and your phone's GPS, even when you don't have cell phone service. You can save specific locations with notes and photos and organize them into folders. I use this app all the time for finding and navigating new rivers and streams, which brings me to my question. I often get out and explore new rivers and streams looking for brook trout. Many times, I hike along a stream finding no fish. Then, I will get into an area where I find a lot of creek chubs. Some of my go-to brook trout spots also hold a lot of creek chubs. So, when I find these fish is that a sign I might be getting closer to finding trout, or just a coincidence? Thanks, Tom."
Well, John thanks for that tip on Gaia. Gaia is actually an app that I have on my phone and I use all the time. I don't use it so much for fishing. I use it for hikes with my families foraging for food and looking for wild mushrooms or just general hikes if we're in an area that we don't know, and it is a terrific app. And there are a couple other apps that have similar applications and are similar to use, one is called onX, and the other one is called Basemap. All of those are very, very good apps, and you can download the maps, and you don't need to have cell service or wireless when you're using them. So, thank you for that. Thank you for bringing up that tip.
Regarding the creek chubs, generally, creek chubs live in warmer, slower water than brook trout. And if I was looking for brook trout and I found creek chubs in a stream, I would tend to move upstream where the water is probably gonna be colder. But if you're finding creek chubs and brook trout in the same water, then yeah, I would think that finding some creek chubs would indicate that there might be some brook trout around. Generally, the creek chubs are gonna be in the slower water, and the brook trout will be a little bit faster. So, if you find some creek chubs in an area and you do find creek chubs and brook trout together, then I would look into the head of that pool or the riffles above it to see if you can find some brook trout.
Dan: Hi, Tom. This is Dan from Madison, Wisconsin. I fish primarily the Driftless Region here in Wisconsin. I had a couple of quick questions, and then a suggestion for you. The first question is we have a lot of real nice undercut banks on the streams here, and I've traditionally let just kind of my downstream swing head over to those undercut banks, and hopefully, it looks like something emerging. But I was just wondering if there are any specific techniques for targeting those fish that you could suggest. The other question is I had something happen on the last day of the season here where I was fishing [inaudible 00:46:15] I think it was [inaudible 00:46:16] and had a pheasant tail following it and had two fish hit simultaneously and, luckily, very nervously, landed both of them. And my friends called it a Scotch double but I think that refers mostly to...is a hunting term where you take two birds with one shot. I was just wondering if there was a more specific term that you used if that happened during fishing besides being lucky.
The last thing was in the March "Field & Stream" magazine, there was an interview with a Dr. Mark Klempner, K-L-E-M-P-N-E-R, from UMass Medical School. He's worked on lyme disease vaccines for a couple of decades I believe. But he gained FDA approval for testing and with a possible release in spring 2023 of a vaccine. That's probably one of my biggest fears as fishing through deep brush is just...are ticks and I just thought that that might make an interesting interview for you on a future podcast so I just wanted to bring that up. I really appreciate everything you do. I'm working through a lot of past podcasts now, so if you've addressed any of these questions, I apologize, but I always look forward to catching the new podcast from you, Tom. Thanks a lot. Bye.
Tom: Well, Dan, that's amazing that you caught two fish simultaneously. I've done it a few times. And I don't know if...you know, it happens so infrequently that I don't know if we have an official fly fishing term for it. But, you know, Scotch double, you're right, is not a true double. A true double in upland hunting is when you shoot two birds with two consecutive shots on the same flush. A Scotch double is when you shoot two birds with one shot, which is usually more of luck than it is skill, whereas a true double is an example of a really, really good shooting skill. So, you can call it a Scotch double if you want, or you can invent a new term and share it with the rest of us.
Regarding fishing undercut banks, you know, fish will hide under undercut banks but there isn't much food there. You know, the fish don't get much food there. Drifting surface food doesn't get under the bank often. And there won't be as many nymphs drifting in an undercut bank. So, generally, what I just try to do if I find a fish or if I think a fish is under an undercut bank is to cast as close to the bank as possible. And, you know, 9 times out of 10 if the fish is interested in eating and you haven't spooked it, it will come out a little bit from that undercut to take a fly. So, you know, just cast as close as you can to the undercut, and make sure that you cast well above the place where you think the fish is so that your fly drifts down to the fish's level. Or if you're fishing a dry fly, just fish that dry fly just as close to the edge as you can. You're gonna lose some flies, or you're gonna get hung up but it's about the only way to fish those undercuts that I know of.
And yeah, I have heard recently about the potential for a lyme vaccine, which, you know, in our part of the world in Vermont, we have rampant lyme disease and lots of ticks. And so, I'm excited about being able to get a vaccine for lyme disease. It seems like we're getting vaccines for everything these days. But that's something that, once it's approved, I will go out and get one immediately.
All right. Let's go talk to Chris Wood about the potential for removing those four dams on the Lower Snake River. I've pressed the record button. Are you ready?
Chris: I'm ready to roll.
Tom: All right. So, my guest today is a great guy. Chris Wood, who is president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, and, in my opinion, in my biased opinion, Chris is the best thing that has ever happened to Trout Unlimited since its inception. Chris has been really working hard to increase diversity into the programs and the policies that Trout Unlimited has followed. And, you know, their professionalism and science-based projects that they do are...I'm just a huge fan. So, Chris, welcome to the podcast.
Chris: Oh, Tom, it's great to hear your voice, and thank you for the very overly-kind introduction.
Tom: And we're gonna talk about a, you know, relatively controversial subject today. We're not gonna learn how to catch any fish probably but we are gonna talk about an important topic and one that you're well-versed in. And so, what are we gonna talk about today?
Chris: How about we talk about recovering Snake River salmon and steelhead?
Tom: That would be a good one. That would be a good one. I think a lot of people would like to see the salmon and steelhead in the Snake River recovered.
Chris: Well, you know, if you think about it, Tom, in the '50s, which isn't that long ago, you know, 70 years ago, they had a 2 or a 3-month season in the middle fork of the salmon where you could keep up to 2 fish per day. That's how abundant the fisheries, the salmon, and steelhead were. And today, we're at about 1% to 2% of the numbers from pre-dam construction...
Chris: ...which is, you know, 70 years ago, we're down to 1% to 2%. So, the scientists tell us that we basically have probably four, maybe five generations to turn the trend around.
Tom: Generations of fish, or generations of humans?
Chris: Generations of fish, and salmon specifically. So, we're talking four or five years each generation. The lifecycle of a salmon is, you know, they're born in freshwater. And then, actually, they don't swim downstream. They're pushed by the spring freshet downstream in their first or second year, depending on the species. And then, they rear in the ocean. They make these massive migrations. And then, they come back to their natal streams, to the very streams that they were born to spawn. And then, of course, their bodies die and provide the nutrients that keep those systems intact. And that's typically about a 4 or a 5-year cycle. And so, we've got about 20 to 25 years to figure this out before those fish, these remarkable fish that can travel, you know, 750 miles from the mountains of the Sawtooths down to the Pacific Ocean, you know, that when they come back to places like Redfish Lake, they'll swim for 750...they'll enter the freshwater, they'll drop their scales. They'll end up swimming back to the very stream they were born in. They never feed. So, Tom, they climb 7,000 feet in elevation, and they swim 750 miles, and they never feed once simply to go back to the streams that they were born in to, you know, get the next generation started. It's one of the most remarkable biological and physiological experiences in nature. It's like nothing else.
Tom: And steelhead are similar, except they don't always die, right?
Chris: That's right. One of the more amazing experiences of my life was years ago I began my career essentially as a seasonal employee for the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho. And we were up in the South Fork of the Salmon River drainage basically snorkeling these streams and looking for steelhead and bull trout and other imperiled species, which is a freshwater species and I came... And, you know, for your listeners who haven't snorkeled streams, it's one of the coolest experiences. You see these giant stoneflies tumbling toward you. And it can actually be somewhat frightening because they're really magnified. But I came around a rock, and there were two steelheads, you know, that were probably close to 800 miles from the ocean just fanning over a [inaudible 00:55:24] and...but you're right, those steelhead will try to turn around and go back out to the ocean after they spawn but, obviously, the closer they are to the ocean, the more likely they are to make it. The steelhead from the Snake River Basin have a long ways to go to get back to their ocean habitats.
Tom: And they're typically bigger, right, because they have such a long journey?
Chris: Yeah, they have two runs of steelhead in Idaho, and they call them the A run and then the fabled B run, which are really big, much bigger fish. And yeah, that's right. I mean, salmon and steelhead, they're really remarkable creatures in that they're evolved specifically to get to their habitats. So, Idaho's steelhead will be larger fish quite often because they have to go so far, and they have to store so much fat. And you think back to, you know, the famous June hog Chinooks, Chinook salmon, which they were, you know, around before some of the dam construction in the Upper Columbia River Basin, and they had to climb these hugely steep elevations. And there are stories, we don't know because those fish were all wiped out, but there are stories that you could catch 100-pound Chinook salmon...
Chris: ...in freshwater. I mean, it's like catching a sturgeon. It's unbelievable, yeah.
Tom: So, we're down to 1% to 2% of both salmon and steelhead or just salmon?
Chris: No, the salmon numbers are down for 1% to 2% for Chinook salmon in Idaho specifically. But the steelhead numbers aren't much better, Tom. I mean, in Idaho, you're talking about some of the best salmon habitat in the world. Central Idaho has these massive wilderness complexes, the Frank River...I'm sorry, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Hells Canyon. You know, it's 40% of the habitat in the state of the anadromous fish habitat, salmon and steelhead habitat, is pristine. And now, that's not to say that there aren't places in Idaho that were degraded by, you know, historic logging or mining but, you know, this is 5-star hotel quality habitat just waiting for fish to come back, and they can't get back because they have to traverse eight dams, four in the Columbia River Basin and four in the Lower Snake River Basin to make it home. And at each dam, there's a cumulative effect of about 23% mortality. So, the fish are killed...juvenile fish are killed as they go downstream, and adults are killed as they come upstream.
And it's not like these fish are always being chopped up through the turbines, but it's the cumulative effect of having these giant reservoirs, right? It's 140 miles of what used to be spawning and rearing habitat is now basically inundated and become these giant bathtubs. And those bathtubs because of, you know, the changes in the climate, they become overheated in the summer. And remember what I said earlier, baby salmon, so-called smolts, they don't actually swim downstream. They're pushed downstream by the spring flows. And, obviously, those flows don't work through big reservoirs. And so, those fish become subject to all kinds of predation from, you know, both native but also invasive species, things like walleye, you know, that they planted in these reservoirs. You know, they'll gobble up all the baby salmon as they come downriver. So, basically, what happens, Tom, is that the dams are increasing on average about 10 times the journey that a salmon has to make downstream back to the ocean is about 10 times what it would be in the absence of having those dams and their associated reservoirs. And that is what's killing Idaho's salmon and steelhead.
Tom: So, there is a plan or an idea in place to remove the dams on the Lower Snake.
Chris: Yeah and, you know, this is a shameless plug, and you can edit this out if you'd like...
Chris: ...but we have the whole issue of "Trout Magazine," which is really the, I think, the finest periodical that's out there on conservation and fishing, but the whole issue this quarter is dedicated to that plan that you just mentioned. And what happened is there's a congressman in Idaho named Mike Simpson, who's a conservative Republican from Idaho, he's been there for many years, and he was getting on his life, and he realized, you know, "I want to see salmon come back to Idaho in my lifetime." And so, he and his office, they spent about 2 years talking to, I think, it was over 500 people about what could be done, what should be done. How can we bring these fish back? And they tried everything they could to think of about how to do it without taking out the dams, and they simply couldn't find an answer. It's because there isn't an answer.
We have spent about $17 billion, $18 billion in an effort to recover salmon and steelhead since those dams were built, and we've improved hatcheries, we've cut back on commercial fishing, we spent millions of dollars in habitat restoration, but the fact is that if those dams are up, those fish just simply can't get back. And so, what Congressman Simpson has done is he basically said, "Look, I'm gonna figure out what everyone who relies on those dams needs, the agricultural interests, the irrigation interests, the City of Lewiston, the Tri-Cities, I'm gonna find out everything they need, the transportation interest that rely on the barging, and I'm gonna figure out how to make them whole." And so, he came up with a $32 billion plan to take out the four Lower Snake River dams and make all of those socioeconomic interests whole and...
Tom: And how...
Chris: Yeah, go ahead.
Tom: Well, just how does he plan to do that? I mean, how does he plan to...? I mean, there's hydroelectric interests, right? There's...irrigation certainly is huge in Idaho. There's the transportation. You want to kinda take these one at a time and what he plans on doing...because these dams were built for economic reasons, right? Somebody thought they would be beneficial, spent millions and billions of dollars to build these dams. How can we replace those economic benefits?
Chris: Yeah, but times have changed. It's imperative that we change with the times. I mean, you know, there were a lot of things that were happening in the '60s and '70s when these dams were built that we wouldn't want to repeat today. You know, I mean, some important things like civil rights and different voting standards to insignificant things like the fact that I was rolling around my parents' station wagon, you know, without the consideration of a seat belt, you know. We've learned a lot in the past 50, 60 years. It's important to apply that learning to contemporary situations. So, taking these things off one at a time, you've got...those dams provide about 3% to 4% of the power...this is the four Lower Snake River dams we're talking about, they provide about 3% to 4% of the power in the Columbia River Basin. And when they were constructed, there were no wind farms, there were no solar fields. That power is a lot less important today than it used to be because of the proliferation of renewable energy resources. And that's gonna increase, not decrease. And so, Congressman Simpson's plan guarantees that that power would be made up. Importantly it...
Tom: At the same cost?
Chris: Right now, part of what's happened is an organization that's a quasi-governmental organization called the Bonneville Power Administration that runs those dams, that administers how that energy is marketed, and part of what Congressman Simpson realized was...and they're called BPA for short, BPA used to be the cheapest energy on the market. And so, they could sell these 10-year contracts and futures, and energy companies would buy them knowing that they were the cheapest market. But, in part, because BPA is spending about $600 million annually to try to keep salmon and steelhead from going extinct, their power rate, and we've had this explosion of renewable energy, those two factors have made their power a lot less cheap than it used to be. And so, there's an economic reason to actually change the status quo, as well.
And then, you think of irrigators, right? There's a lot of irrigators who rely on, you know, the Snake River dams in order to get their water to irrigate crops. Well, Congressman Simpson provides for that. He's got several billion dollars that would go in an effort to basically extend their pipes, right? I mean, re-divert water from running rivers all over the west. It's just a matter of converting, you know, some of the plumbing in the system to make sure that they can continue to get their water. Then you've got the... Go ahead.
Tom: So, the reservoirs would be replaced with headgates off the river?
Chris: Exactly like we do in countless rivers around the country. Then, he's got $1.5 billion or so to do that. Right now, Idaho, they've put a whole bunch of water downstream for spill, you know, trying to replicate the spring flows that don't happen any longer because the reservoir has captured all the flow.
Chris: And so, basically, the Idaho farmers wouldn't have to do that anymore. And one of the questions that Congressman Simpson has asked is, "Why does Idaho bear all the costs of these dams and get so few of the benefits?" They're not getting the power generated by the four Lower Snake River dams, and they are losing all of their fish. You've got cities like Lewiston and the Tri-Cities which are dependent...they've become port cities, inland port cities in Eastern Washington and Idaho, and Congressman Simpson would, you know, spend tens of millions of dollars on economic revitalization plans, you know, to help build those cities, you know, with a real emphasis on things like recreation and tourism and etc.
And then, there's a whole bunch of money that Congressman Simpson would put toward restoration knowing that that 140 miles of river that I mentioned, it doesn't exist anymore. And so, we'd have to, you know, work with tribal partners and state agencies to go back in and, you know, put the bends back in the rivers, fix the riparian areas up, and make the habitat habitable. So, the thing that Congressman Simpson says that I think is so compelling is that there's nothing that we couldn't do on that river system differently as a species, right? Whatever we're doing, we could still generate energy. Instead of having barge traffic, we can have short-gauge rail systems that move Western Washington...Eastern Washington, rather, wheat downstream. There's nothing that we can't do differently on the river. But the one thing the fish can't...the fish need a river, they need a flowing river to get back. We've turned all the knobs on this engine, you know, to the tune of $17 billion, $18 billion. The one knob that's left to turn is taking out these four Lower Snake River dams.
Tom: And so, what's the timeline? Is there strong public support for this?
Chris: You know what? You know, we just finished thanks, in no small part to the great support of Orvis, you know, it took about 15 years, but we've finally locked down protections for Bristol Bay. I think this is gonna be a similar fight in terms of its intensity and its duration. Interestingly, not to get political, but interestingly, the politics of this are fascinating, right? Mike Simpson is, kind of, a...you know, Idaho, if it's not the reddest state in the union, it's gotta be pretty close, and he's a fiscal conservative. And there were a lot of us who thought, you know, when Mike Simpson, a rock-ribbed Republican from the reddest state in the country came out with a proposal like this that a lot of Democrats would jump up and down and say, "Hallelujah, Jordan. Let's go, Mike. Hell, let's go arm in arm down the park." And that didn't happen. Only Earl Blumenauer, a liberal Democrat from Portland, came out and is now a co-sponsor of this plan. And the Pacific Northwest, just by virtue of its member seniority, has probably the most politically powerful delegation probably in the country, and so this is really a good time to be talking about this.
And so, there was... Simpson came out with his proposal in February... Bless you. Simpson came out with his proposal in February of last year. As I mentioned earlier, it was met with deafening silence. But the good news is that a couple of the senior members of the delegation, Patty Murray, a senator from Washington, and then Governor Inslee of Washington, have come out with...they're basically asking the question through a series of fora, forums, "How can we replace all of the benefits that are provided by the dams? So, if we get to this place where we have to take the dams out, how can we get to a place where everybody's accommodated?" So, they're approaching this from a slightly different perspective than Congressman Simpson. But the important thing is that the leaders in the Pacific Northwest are talking. And I think it's probably gonna be a 10 or a 15-year struggle but I do think ultimately we're gonna prevail.
Tom: So, you think 10 to 15 years of political battling and horse-trading and so on.
Chris: Yeah, you got it, all that ugly stuff that happens in Washington. Look, it's a big idea.
Tom: Yeah, it's a huge idea.
Chris: It's a really big idea. But you know what? Dams are coming down all over the country. You know, we took out two dams and bypassed a third on the Penobscot. Now, we haven't seen the bounce-back that we wanted to see in Atlantic salmon, but by gosh, the striper populations, the shad populations, the alewives, which all those other fish eat, they've exploded. And then, you know, in the Elwha we took out a couple dams a few years ago, and a couple of TU scientists went up there and snorkeled that stream... And we fought. There were folks who wanted to put a hatchery in after the dam was taken out. So, you know, restock the area upstream of the dams.
Chris: We fought that and...because there hadn't been steelhead up in the...you know, behind the dam for a hundred years, so we took those two dams out. Two years later, last summer, maybe the summer before, two of our scientists went in there and snorkeled it, and they found 300 mating pairs of steelhead.
Chris: And so, what happened was those rainbow trout, those resident rainbow trout, that remained, you know, in the river back behind the dams, they did what scientists called they recovered their anadromy. They remembered that they had this ability to migrate out to the ocean, you know, eat a lot more food, get a lot bigger, and they came back as steelhead.
Chris: How cool is that? So cool. And it's happening. I mean, dams are coming down all around the country. And I think people are realizing that the damage caused by these four dams, in particular, outweighs their societal benefit. And, you know, it's just a race right now, it's a race to get as many people as we can to make their voices heard, to talk to their elected leaders before those fish blank out. I think there's a lot of...I hate to say this, you know, we're not...TU is not a...you know, we're not, you know, wading to the left, you know, we're not tying ourselves on trees or anything like that but, you know, we're not known for monkey-wrenching at TU. In fact, our form of conservation is called collaborative stewardship. We really like working with people. But I think there's a lot of elected leaders who don't want to lead on this. And what they're doing is they're dragging their feet. And nobody wants these fish to go extinct. But they're dragging their feet until they will become extinct. And then the issue will go away, and they won't have to deal with it.
Tom: So, what about the dams on the Columbia, how do they pass fish up through? Do they use fish ladders? Do they truck them? I mean, there's still how many dams on the Columbia between the ocean and the Lower Snake?
Chris: There's eight main stem dams.
Chris: And part of the agreement with Congressman Simpson, for example, is that... You know, because there's always this camel's nose under the tent argument. You know, oh, you take these four out, then they're gonna come down for the next four on the Lower Columbias. So, part of the tradeoff that Congressman Simpson posited was no, those four will be guaranteed for...I think it's 50 years or 60 years. So, these dams typically have to go through, like, a relicensing process every few decades. And they would get a pass for some time certainly. But they do, they pass fish with fish ladders. They do this thing they call spill from Idaho where they try to create the spring freshet and hope that enough spill comes down to push the fish over the top. There are some places that do trucking.
But here's the thing to think about. So, scientists talk about this thing called smolt-to-adult return ratios. And it's basically the number of smolt that come downstream for number of adult that come home to spawn. And basically, the recovery goal is 4%. You want to have 4% smolt to adult ratio. And in the Deschutes where you've got, you know, fish having to pass four dams...steelhead have about a 5% smolt-to-adult return ratio. On the John Day where you've got, you know, I think it's four dams, you've got...actually, yeah, four dams, you've got a smolt-to-adult return ratio of a little bit below 5%. And on the Yakima where you've got four dams, you've got a smolt-to-adult return ratio of 4%. On the Snake where you've got, you know, eight dams, these fish have to traverse eight dams, the smolt-to-adult return ratio hovers a little bit below 2%, 1.8%. And if you get below 2%, you've lost what they call the replacement value. So, you're basically in a death spiral if you're staying below 2%. And they haven't been above 2%...I think they've been above 2%, like, twice in the past 15 years. So, I mean, we are literally running out of time because of those four Lower Snake River dams.
Tom: So, do you think you can get it up to 4% or 5% by removing those Lower Snake River dams?
Chris: Yeah, I mean, evidence suggests that, you know, Deschutes, they've got two dams that are up at 5%, on the John Day, they've got three, they're close to 5%. On the Yakima, they've got four dams. They're around 4%, you know. And that's the recovery goal. But on the Snake because they've got eight dams, they're down underneath 2%, and they've been underneath 2% consistently for the past couple decades.
Tom: So, we've got other threats to steelhead and salmon, obviously, because runs this year have been really, really poor. What are the other problems that they face?
Chris: Well, I mean, look, they talk about the four Hs, you know, habitat... You know, there's a lot of areas in the Columbia River Basin that, you know, were degraded by historic mining or timbering practices or road construction. You've got harvests. And, you know, there have been consistent fights over the decades about harvest allocation for commercial fishing, you know, in the Pacific Northwest. And then, hatcheries, of course, you know, can be really pernicious in terms of their effect on salmon. They can, you know, dilute the wild gene pool with hatchery fish that can outcompete native fish because they're raised in concrete tanks and super aggressive, and they don't fear predators so, you know, they'll take food faster.
But, I mean, we've spent, like I said, you know, $17 billion as a nation to kind of figure out, all right, how do we have harvest practices that, you know, won't be so harmful to native fish, or that won't be so unsustainable? How do we fix the hatcheries so that, you know...like in places like the Olympic Peninsula this past year, we convinced Washington State that they're gonna have some rivers where you can have take, anglers can take fish home, and they're gonna be predominantly, if not exclusively catching hatchery fish. And then, you're gonna have other rivers where they're not putting any hatchery fish that are gonna be managed solely for wild fish and you're not gonna be allowed to take any fish from those rivers.
So, there's all kinds of ideas like that that have happened for three of the Hs. But this one H, hydropower, is the one that remains. And on the habitat side, I mean, that's what TU does. We're in the business of fixing habitat. We've spent tens of billions of dollars in places like the Yankee Fork and the Pahsimeroi, places that are tributaries of the salmon river that were turned upside down by mining back at the turn of the century and before. And the sad thing is, Tom, that...so, some of these rivers, I mean, just take the Yankee Fork as an example, in the '50s, it was basically a straight shoot. They just kinda reamed the river out and, you know, used suction dredge mining, which is a pretty nasty form of mining. So, they took all the bends out of the river. They took out all the habitat and all channel complexity, all the small cobbles and the [inaudible 01:20:45] that fish need to spawn on. All that stuff was gone.
And in the '50s before dam construction, even with all that damage, there were about 10 times as many reds or salmon nests as there are today. And we just 4 or 5 years ago won an award from the Forest Service for a restoration project where we put all the meanders back in the river. We put all the bends back in. We put the large woody debris back in. You know, we restored the cobbles and the [inaudible 01:21:16]. And we're seeing a tremendous recruitment of native and wild trout that don't need to migrate, you know, to the ocean, but we've actually seen a decline in the number of salmon. So, we have pristine habitat that's been recovered to the point that, you know, public agencies are giving awards recognizing it and yet, we have 10 times fewer the number of fish coming back than we did in the '50s when it was still basically ruined.
Tom: And besides the four Hs, on top of that, of course, you have climate, right, the changes in the ocean currents and acidification and...
Chris: That's it, yeah. I mean, that's the X factor is climate change. And I've had a couple of members of Congress tell me, "Well, look, you know, we could still find out if we take these dams out that because of climate change, because of," like you said, changes in the ocean condition, changes in the acidification, changes in stream temperature, you know, "that we may lose these fish anyway. So, you know, we're just throwing good fish after bad." And what I would say to that is, in some cases, that might be accurate. But in the Snake River Basin it wouldn't be because of the high elevation, you know, the nature of the...you know, it's a mountainous region, scientists are predicting that within...I think it's by 2065 or 2040 even...no, it's like in 2080, 65% of all of the predicted cold water habitat in the Columbia River Basin is going to be in Idaho...
Chris: ...because of the combination of the, you know, high-elevation areas, so, you got...you know, you have less climate impact and pristine impact because 40% of the state of Idaho is wilderness and that's right where the salmon are. And the other thing I'll mention is that these are incredibly resilient creatures. I mean, remember what I was saying earlier about the Elwha. I mean, can you imagine that? There's these little old rainbow trout that were hanging around. They were like, "Hey, let's be steelhead." Boom. I mean, that's so cool.
Tom: Yeah, you always hear that rainbows and steelhead are genetically identical, and that's proof positive there for sure.
Chris: Yeah, that's exactly right. So, I do think this is...it's kind of a grim story, but there's tons of reasons for hope and it's because the hope lies in the fish. There's a guy named Shannon Wheeler, he's been sort of Congressman Simpson's...I don't want to call him his wingman, but his partner, and this person's just been tremendous leaders in salmon recovery. And they united all of the tribes in the northwest in support of this idea, dam removal, to bring these fish back. And, you know, for people like you and I, we can talk about the science of salmon recovery and, you know, why the combination of geography and land tenure patterns give great hope for the future, but when Shannon Wheeler, who's the vice-chair of the Nez Perce, when he talks about salmon, he talks about salmon being the golden thread that tie us all together. And when that part of our culture is in trouble, we're all in trouble. I mean, that's one of these things that, you know, it's easy back here in Arlington, Virginia or even up in Vermont where you've largely lost your native or wild Atlantic salmon component to forget about how culturally significant these fish are to indigenous people. So, that's another, you know, thing I think that we have going for us here.
And it's not dissimilar, frankly, to the fight to stop Pebble Mine. The reason that we won in Bristol Bay, I am convinced of it, and it was in part because of companies like Orvis doing their thing, it was in part because groups like TU, you know, were able to mobilize political connections that people wouldn't otherwise have thought of, but the real reason that we won is because those Bristol Bay native villages were 87%, 88% opposed to the Pebble Mine, you know, because they knew that those fish are their lifeline. It, you know, connects their grandkids to their elders who have long gone. And so, I think what we're trying to do is, you know, connect to that passion, that sense of place that people from Vermont will understand, even if they don't have it. You know, you don't have Pacific salmon in Vermont. We don't have them down here, but I think we all hold within ourselves this passion for, you know, protecting and recovering God's creation, and I think this fight is one of the best examples of that that I can think of.
Tom: Yeah. Well, it's even bigger than Bristol Bay, right?
Chris: Yeah, yeah. I mean, if Bristol Bay was under threat, you know, Lord help us. You know, that's... If there was a place that you could pick any place in the world and say, "This is the worst place to build an open-pit mine," it would be the headwaters of Bristol Bay. And, you know, happily, common sense prevailed there. And so, it's almost a tougher lift because there's a whole education process that has to go on. And, you know, when you're talking about Bristol Bay, it's like, you know, one of the natural wonders of the world, and the Snake River could be that again. But, you know, there's this other thing that scientists talk about called the shifting baseline theory. And so, some of the opponents of dam removal, they pointed this year to the fact that salmon returns were up, like, 7% from last year. But what they're overlooking, and I think intentionally overlooking, is yes, so now, they're 99% lower than they were in the '50s as opposed to, you know, 99.4%.
Tom: Yeah, we see the shifting baseline in many places.
Chris: Yep. Yep. Yep.
Tom: Well, Chris, it's an incredible project, and there's hope for the future. It's monumental, and, you know, my hats off to Senator Simpson and Trout Unlimited and the tribes and all of the other people who are trying to restore this amazing, amazing resource.
Chris: Yeah, you should... Well, you know, Orvis is right there too. I mean, it's interesting. In this issue of "Trout Magazine," people will see an ad where it says, "Remove the four Lower Snake River dams," and we were able to get 200 leading companies and brands from the outdoor industry on that ad in a matter of days. You know, I think something's happened. And, again, I'm not blowing smoke here, I think Orvis is sort of...you all set the standard for conservation and have for years in the fly fishing industry. But I think people have realized because of the Bristol Bay fight where the industry, again, led by Orvis, was so united and unified that hey, conservation is fun, and look, we can win, right?
Tom: Yeah, and the Everglades too is a bright spot. You know, it's gonna be a long road.
Tom: But the Everglades is something we're very proud of. But, you know, it's interesting you say that because in the old days, and you know this because you've been on the podcast before, in the old days when I did a conservation podcast, I would see the downloads go, [vocalization], you know. How to catch fish on nymphs, oh, boy the downloads would be absolutely off the charts.
Chris: That's right.
Tom: And then Chris Wood talking about conservation, [vocalization]. But it's not the case anymore. The conservation podcasts get as much, if not more, interest. And, you know, I can watch these numbers. And, you know, people now ask me for more conservation podcasts when I, you know, ask, "What do you want more of?" So, it's really exciting and encouraging. And I think a lot of it's due to young people, more young people getting involved in fly fishing. I think that the young people, you know, are really, really pushing this agenda for all of us.
Chris: I think that's right, Tom. And, you know, you think about it for a second, I agree but then, also, you think about it that, you know, right now, I think there's this...I don't know whether it's one of these things like the good old days that ever were, but there's kind of a yearning for when things weren't so divisive and so divided and, you know, you had to be so...maybe it's social media or, you know, maybe we didn't have the opportunity to debate with a guy we went to third grade with, politics, you know, 40 years ago, you know.
Tom: Yeah, really.
Chris: But when you think about it, that, you know, I do think there's sort of this, you know, desire to come together again, especially after January 6th and all the riots and stuff. And conservation, right, this idea that we can take specific actions today to make the world a better place for our kids tomorrow, it's the most optimistic and affirmative idea that America ever gave the rest of the world. And I think people are gravitating toward it because of that. I think people really want to have a sense of, I'm not just who I am because of my differences with you, but I am united in kinship under this idea that we all share the same planet, and we ought to leave it better off than we found it.
Tom: Yeah, and conservation is the American way, isn't it? It's part of our legacy.
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Tom: Wow. We're getting pretty heavy in this podcast today.
Chris: What happened? What happened?
Tom: I don't know.
Chris: Should I embarrass everyone by telling them how when I was a student in Vermont in college, there was this guy, Tom Rosenbauer, who wrote this book on fly fishing and made everything seem so easy, and how I would go out and take all the lessons that I had read about the night before, and it took me 13 tries before on the New Haven River while wading back in frustration to my car a trout ate my Zug Bug in the water?
Tom: You're making me feel old, Chris.
Chris: And I finally said, "I understand what this Rosenbauer guy means now." You've been such an inspiration to me, Tom. You were my fly fishing sensei long before I ever met you.
Tom: Oh, God. Well, that's very flattering. But you should know, as we've been talking about before I turned the microphone on, that I'm in a terrible slump these days. I'm gonna go out and try a Zug Bug. Maybe I can catch a fish.
Chris: Just get a knot in your line and walk upstream.
Tom: Okay, I'll try that. I've tried everything else. Well, Chris, I want to thank you for taking the time today. It's a great subject, it's great science, it's optimistic, and tell everyone exactly what they can do to help move this project forward.
Chris: So, you can go to standup...
Tom: Other than giving money to TU. That too, yeah.
Chris: Oh, that too.
Tom: That too, yeah.
Chris: Given the season that we're in, that's the first thing. Write a check to Trout Unlimited.
Tom: But other than that?
Chris: Seriously, yeah, other than that, go to
Tom: Great. You want to give that website address again so people can write it down?
Tom: Great. And, you know, if you aren't a member of TU and you join, you'll get that incredible magazine that Chris is talking about, which is edited by one of the finest journalists in fly fishing, our friend Kirk Deeter, who's done an amazing job with the magazine.
Chris: And hear, hear to that, Tom. I agree. I called Kirk as soon as I saw this, and I've probably done this a few times but I said, "Kirk, this is the best magazine I've ever read." I'm not...I mean, and, Tom, wait until you see it, it's gonna knock your socks off.
Tom: I can't wait to see it. I haven't gotten it yet, but I haven't picked up my mail in the office. They say my mail is piling up so I gotta go into the office and pick up my mail. Actually, I'm gonna do it today.
Chris: Tom, it's so great to hear your voice.
Tom: Thank you, Chris, it's great to hear yours. And, again, we've been talking to Chris Wood, president, and CEO of Trout Unlimited and an all-around great guy.
Chris: Thanks, Tom.
Tom: Thanks for listening to the "Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast" with Tom Rosenbauer. You can be a part of the show. Have a question or a comment? Send it to us at