I can see a large wild trout sipping small mayflies off the surface of the gin-clear water just ahead of where I am standing. The Town of Truckee is no more than 8 miles away as the crow flies, but I wouldn’t know it. I am completely immersed among the tall conifer stands, trembling meadow grasses and surrounding peaks, and the sound the of Little Truckee River flowing lazily from Stampede Dam on its course to the slack waters of Boca Reservoir.
The Little Truckee River between Stampede and Boca reservoirs has always been a favorite spot for local anglers. Short in length — only 3.5 miles — and highly technical in its demands on the angler, the “LT” is unique and beloved by anglers around the country for good reason. A 12-pound wild brown trout was landed here this past October. The LT is no longer stocked with hatchery trout, and since its conversion to a special-regulation water in 1999, it has emerged as one of the most popular and productive wild trout fisheries in the state. The LT is nationally recognized and visited, bringing good tourism money to the North Tahoe area, and attracting sportsmen looking to pursue some of the state’s largest wild trout in one of the most scenic Northern Sierra meadow settings.
Clearly, there are places where this resource can be improved, and those who fish the LT the most know this all too well. There is a classic saying among anglers who fish the river, “90 percent of the fish live in 10 percent of the water.” Since construction of Stampede Dam in 1970, the downstream flow regime has been modified such that annual low flows are higher and annual peak flows are lower than they were historically. This regulated or controlled flow regime altered the natural river processes and, in most cases, impaired aquatic habitat. Historically, large floods provided abundant spawning gravels, recruited large wood and scoured deep pools, which all led to a dynamic channel environment.
Today, in the absence of these processes and functions, the river no longer resembles a natural channel. In the mid to late 1970s a series of habitat enhancement projects were completed, which are large components of the burgeoning fishery we all enjoy today. However, where habitat enhancement has yet to occur, fish populations continue to suffer, and approximately 1.5 miles of the Little Truckee River between Boyington Mills Campground upstream to the Nevada/Sierra County line is in desperate need of instream structures that provide for juvenile and adult trout habitat. A historic field survey of the Little Truckee River, conducted by California Department of Fish and Game and the US Forest Service, supports this.
More recent survey work completed by these two agencies validated the historic field survey findings and anecdotal observations by dedicated anglers and local guides; wild trout currently thrive in deeper water with large structures, and conversely, fish are low in numbers or absent where structure and depth are deficient.
The Truckee Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the US Forest Service are looking to change all of this through a large-scale habitat enhancement project for this section of the Little Truckee River. Trout Unlimited (TU) contracted the services of Balance Hydrologics, Inc., which maintains an office in Truckee, to complete a preliminary assessment of the geomorphology and hydrology of the river and develop advanced conceptual designs that TU and the Forest Service can now use to implement a restoration habitat enhancement project, possibly as early as this fall. The Tahoe National Forest is currently working on the NEPA requirements of the project.
One key element of the restoration approach is the introduction of large woody debris and boulders, to help mimic some of the structures that were naturally recruited before the dam existed. Under the existing flow regime, these structures will be strategically placed to naturally create the deeper and more complex habitats this part of the river lacks. This project’s primary goal is to increase the number and diversity of wild trout in the system by enhancing some of the habitat that supports all life-histories of wild trout. In turn, this project may increase fishing opportunities that will help to disperse the concentrated angling impacts many visitors currently experience.
Trout Unlimited is excited to be leading the Little Truckee River Fish Habitat Improvement Project, which we feel will enhance outdoor recreation dollars in our community and make a great fishery beloved by many, even better.
— David Lass is the Northern California field director for Trout Unlimited, and Brian Hastings a geomorphologist/hydrologist for Balance Hydrologics, Inc. Both maintain offices in Truckee.