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Flood damage latest salmon obstacle

Patrick McCartney

Last fall, more than 20,000 pairs of kokanee salmon made their way up Taylor Creek, spawning in shallow gravel beds before completing their life cycle and dying.

While the run may have been a record for the South Shore creek, the New Year’s Day flood of 1997 destroyed the spawning grounds and, with them, the millions of fertilized salmon eggs buried in the stream bed.

Now, with the annual salmon run expected to begin at any time, the flood damage threatens to disrupt a second straight spawning season.

When the floods receded, the U.S. Forest Service found a profoundly changed landscape at the creek, which flows from Fallen Leaf Lake into Lake Tahoe.

In some areas, the stream’s former channel is now high and dry, with mounds of gravel and cobble deposited by the rushing water. What once were deep pools where salmon schooled before spawning have become shallow riffles.

In other areas, the stream has carved out a new channel, its water fighting through piles of debris left by the flood, a hodgepodge of trees and branches, remnants of pedestrian bridges and covered by a thick layer of silt.

“This is definitely not the Taylor Creek we know,” said Mike St. Michel, the director of the Forest Service’s Visitors Center at Taylor Creek.

While the flood caused extensive damage, some good spawning habitat remains, leading biologists to believe this year’s population of 3- and 4-year-old salmon will once again return to the creek of their birth to fulfill their genetic destiny.

Kokanee salmon are not native to Lake Tahoe. They were accidentally introduced from a spill at a Tahoe City hatchery in 1941. Over the years, the species has spawned in a few other tributaries, but have returned in numbers only to Taylor Creek, probably because of the reliable release of water from the Fallen Leaf dam.

Last week, St. Michel walked the length of Taylor Creek with Forest Service biologist Jeff Reiner, surveying the quality of the surviving spawning beds. The Forest Service has decided, for the moment anyway, to allow nature to take its course.

“We’re not quite sure what we want to do with Taylor Creek,” St. Michel said. “We thought about bringing in heavy equipment and reshaping the stream contours. But now we’re thinking about letting it go a few years and see if the stream will heal itself.”

Instead, St. Michel and Butch James of the Forest Service have begun a low-impact program of clearing debris from the stream’s new channel to improve access to the stream’s gravel beds.

Next year, fishery biologists and other Forest Service officials will evaluate the stream’s recovery and decide whether or not additional work is needed.

In the meantime, they are still waiting for the first salmon to arrive.

Last year, salmon showed up in Taylor Creek as early as Aug. 20, possibly attracted by cooler-than-usual water. Although no fish have yet appeared in the creek, anglers report numerous salmon in Lake Tahoe near the stream mouth, St. Michel said.

By contrast, brown trout have already begun to arrive in Taylor Creek. Not only do the large browns spawn in Taylor Creek themselves, but they take advantage of the salmon run to feast on salmon eggs.

“Browns will actually nudge the female salmon, just as the male salmon do, and she’ll start to release eggs,” St. Michel said. “When she does, it’s a feeding frenzy.”


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