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Coho salmon spotted in Mill Creek

Coho Salmon swimming underwater at the Eel River Recovery Project
Patrick Higgins of the Eel River Recovery Project
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Coho salmon in Mill Creek

Coho salmon spotted to Mill Creek surprising the leading fisheries biologist and coastal communities.

September 19, 2022 — The rain arrived over the weekend, bringing relief to firefighters and salmon alike. In Mill Creek, which makes its way to the South Fork of the Eel River in Laytonville, Coho salmon surprised a leading fisheries biologist.

Patrick Higgins, director of the Eel River Recovery Project, sent out an email last week, reporting that he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Coho near some restoration sites, just a few days after a scorching heat wave. On Saturday afternoon, just before the clouds moved in, he led a tour of the restoration sites, including a visit to a shaded pool tucked into a bend of Mill Creek where living shadows flickered among the rocks.

“I didn’t know that Coho still actively used Mill Creek, so it was kind of a minor miracle when I went in there last Wednesday, and there were these beautiful showy fish,” he marveled. “And not the steelhead, and no warm water fish, just mostly Coho…it’s a sign of resilience…it’s a further illustration that we do need to improve the habitat here for fish like Coho, that like three feet of colder water…and then we also found them at the Verhaegen Cahto Creek Ranch, so that means the adult Coho went by there, and other Coho in that year class also went by, and temporarily used the habitats that we’re going to improve…the Coho probably went by here in late December, early January, which was the last flood peak, and that’s exactly perfect for their spawn timing. And then the rain skinned out between January and March, and so there were fewer steelhead juveniles to compete with them, so it was just kind of the luck of the draw.”

Landowner Joe Faigon said the site has been affected by events ranging from the great flood of 1964 to a variety of non-indigenous practices in the last two hundred years. Little Case Creek comes into Mill Creek at his property, he said. “And Little Case Creek has a longer history of rich guys redirecting it. And it's pretty much a straight run…Nine tenths of the year, it’s dry as a bone until it gets wet, and then it’s like a fire hose. Geigers and the local kids would use this corner as a swimming hole during the summer because it became that deep, mostly because of this log jam and the stuff they did over there to keep the meadow from flooding. And it was probably used as a sluice channel, way back,” when loggers used rivers to transport logs to the mills. The practice scoured the river bottoms and tore out many of the bends in the channel that slowed down the water velocity and created refugia for wildlife.

Higgins is studying a number of factors at this site and several others in the Eel River and its tributaries. “We’re doing an analysis of flow in Cahto Creek and Mill Creek, to see how they differ in flow from Alder Creek, which is an old growth system over in Angelo Reserve,” he said, as fingerling Coho flickered in and out of visibility. “Likely we will see that flood peaks are greater on Cahto and Mill than in Alder, and also that base flows are maintained better on Alder, and that the descent of the hydrograph reflects greater evapotranspiration,” he predicted. He added that the ponds in Mill Creek had been just about dry for a week during the Labor Day heat wave, but, “as you can see, it’s flowing beautifully, just from the cold nighttime temperatures, and the trees reducing evapotranspiration. When the pool is disconnected, they have to kind of scour around for food.” He paused to watch a fish snap a bug off the surface. “That’s almost always true of watching fish,” he said, in what may be a time-lapse analogy of humanity’s history of endangering species and then trying to restore them. “You come up to the creek, you see very little. First of all, you probably scared everything. Now we’ve been here for about five minutes. And they’re all just kind of going, okay. We’ve got to eat lunch.”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.