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Where Are the Fish?

Every late winter or early spring a great migration takes place from Clear Lake into some or all of it’s 17 main tributaries, involving mainly two species of it’s inhabitants, the Sacramento Suckers and Clear Lake Hitch. The Sacramento Suckers lead the way, heading upstream roughly a week or so ahead of the smaller Hitch, probably because the Suckers are able to navigate the stronger flows after storms. The Hitch can range in size from 8”-11” for the males and up to 15” for the females, the Suckers (which look like but aren’t a Catfish), can get up to nearly 24” for the females. Both species can get in some cases several miles upstream depending on water conditions, where they can stay anywhere from a single day to several weeks as they spawn before they quickly return to the lake.

The water conditions have to be just right for this to happen, the flow cannot be too strong yet needs to be enough to permit passage, the temperature must be at 54 degrees or above, and the clarity must also be high. The reason clarity is a critical issue is that the fish rely on their olfactory senses to locate their favored spawning grounds, and sediment-laden water disturbs this process. The degree of precision demonstrated by the fish in finding “their” spot is phenomenal, year after year they will congregate in the EXACT same spots, literally down to the same rock or tree. 

The Hitch have been making this annual migration for around 100,000 years here, and in the last century were still doing it by the millions, but in recent years that number has bounced around from about 30,000 to less than 5,000 observed fish, the primary reason for this being the introduction of non-native species of fish including the Silversides, Threadfin Shad and Large Mouth bass. The Shad was introduced in illegally in 1986 by fishermen as a forage fish for the bass and Silversides were brought in by the state to combat the Clear Lake Gnat in 1967,  the Florida strain of large mouth bass were first put in the lake in 1969 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the combined impact of fish that either compete for food or eat them has devastated the Hitch population. Much has been made of the impact of human development on the Hitch’s ability to reach their spawning grounds, though this has likely been overstated and is a common talking point used by those defending the large local Bass fishing industry.

It is true that until recently when the Hitch were granted protection under the “threatened” category of the Endangered Species Act there were some harmful practices by landowners along the tributaries that had an impact, in particular the practice of drafting from Kelsey Creek during the Hitch runs for vineyard frost protection. This untimely drafting had been very limited up to the early 2000s, and involved parking a farm tractor at the creekside where it used it’s PTO to drive a large pump typically fed by a giant 8” diameter hose. Right before the new protections went into effect in 2015 on one 600’ stretch of the Kelsey Creek three of these pump systems were in operation every frosty Spring night, where they would on a daily basis suck-up hundreds of thousands of gallons of water along with thousands of tiny newborn Hitch and Sucker fry.

But Kelsey Creek (which in recent years has been the primary spawning grounds), is the exception,  this method of protecting vineyards or orchards is not known to have been practiced along other tributaries, and it is hard to make a case for other human land-based development to have played a big role in the decline of the Hitch population as well. It should be noted that the Sucker populations have remained fairly steady, as they are not on the menu for the Bass except perhaps when they are juveniles. Many years ago an elaborate fish ladder was constructed to facilitate travel past the Main Street bridge in Kelseyville, but due mainly to an extremely poor design it has never been known to allow any species of fish to navigate it and seems more suited to much larger Salmon or Steelhead-which don’t exist here. Another fish ladder of sorts was built below the Kelseyville dam over 20 years ago, but even after repeated tweaking as late as 2017 it remains a formidable obstacle and last year no Hitch were observed upstream of it.

A few years ago a third fish ladder was constructed at a cost of around $170,000 on Seigler creek in Lower Lake, where like the Kelseyville Main Street bridge ladder it too has so far not managed to serve any purpose other than to injure some of the few Suckers that have managed to navigate it, but in this case the design seems to be more suited to feeding birds of prey an easy snack as the Blue Herons and Bald Eagles would surely set-up camp there if any attempts by the Hitch were made to use it. Even though the number of hitch to reach the Main Street bridge has in recent years has been zero, there are still plans to upgrade the ladder there to get the Hitch past the 5’-6’ foundation of the structure, though with the lack of Hitch making it that far upstream and the rapidly declining population that project is beginning to look less likely.

This year things are different because as of this writing (April 6th) there have been no sign of either the Suckers or Hitch anywhere in spite of all the critical water criteria having been met for extended periods of time. This is quite unusual, as the runs can begin as early as late January, and even though this year the creeks have probably been at times impassable due to low flows in our current low rainfall year, they should have been to navigate them most of the time to all the usual spawning grounds and should have been able to at least part way get there the whole year. Hitch have been known to “shore spawn” in Clear lake occasionally, but that is only during years of heavy rainfall when flows were too strong or sediment-laden to permit upstream passage, and it has not been observed in decades.

Last year there were well over a dozen people working with the monitoring group (the Clear Lake Chi Council, which has an excellent website with all sighting reports from every year), so there is a formal observation team of unpaid volunteers comprised of people who in some cases have done this for decades and who have a very good idea of what to look for and when, the chance of this being a case of nobody paying attention to the right place at the right time is really not plausible. Also it is clear that no one in the government cares much, the county of Lake has done little to protect the fish besides spend money on fish ladders that don’t work and the DFW created the Hitch’s biggest threat by bringing the largemouth Bass here-which they are still in a state of denial of as being the fish’s primary cause of demise even though their own biologist predicted it in the early 1960s if the Bass were introduced. One of the main reasons the 2020 water flows have been marginal in Kelsey Creek is that the Kelseyville dam has for weeks been used to limit them in order to recharge the aquifer for agricultural use later this summer, and as of today the barricades just upstream of the dam at the Dorn low water crossing are still open, allowing cars and trucks to ford the creek and seriously muddy the water in the process which in turn makes it harder for Hitch to be seen or to use their homing instincts. 

The county road maintenance yard is a mere quarter mile from the crossing, so its not like they don’t know its open and being used or would not be able to move the concrete k-rails quickly to close it again, because as far as the county is concerned life would be easier if the Hitch could simply be crossed-off the list of things to worry about. This is what happens when you are in a a demographic that doesn’t make campaign contributions, as even the Chi Council which is dedicated to the study of the fish makes it quite clear that their charter does not include advocacy for the Hitch. Two of the local tribes have made some attempts to augment this study group along with some DFW help, but even with two tribal chairmen on the county BOS there has been no actual county policy change or action in spite of the tribes having depended on the Hitch for thousands of years as one of their primary food sources.

So the question remains: Where are they? If there is no sign of them in next two or three weeks its highly unlikely they are coming, and in the case of the Hitch its possible that there may be none left to make the journey. Even the birds of prey who usually stalk the fish as they travel the shallow, clear water of the tributaries are hard to find, along with the other predators like bobcats or scavengers like raccoons who search for the fish that have died along the way. Its worth mentioning that the Hitch are not some minor species that has limited importance, as they have supported a large part of the local food chain including apex predators, so their loss impacts a broad range of animals in a major way. Why are both the Suckers and Hitch missing in action? Why no sightings of shore spawning? As April progresses the flows will diminish as the forecast until the end of the month is looking rather dry, meaning that soon there won’t be enough water to make the journey. 

The deadness of the creeks is eerie as usually at this time they are teaming with life, but in this the year of the plague even nature seems to have gone into hiding.

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