LA PUSH (July 1, 2003) — It’s one of those May days when it’s hard for Rueben Flores to distinguish work from play. He’s rowing a drift boat on the Sol Duc River on a sunny, 75-degree day and the river is in a pleasant mood with few rough spots.

Despite appearances, Quileute tribal member Flores and his fellow fisheries technicians are working, surveying a stretch of the Sol Duc River for steelhead redds, or egg nests. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has reduced the numbers of spawner surveys they conduct, so the tribe has stepped up their efforts and shares that information with the state.

As Flores rows, Jeremy Payne stands in the bow of the boat, scanning the river bottom for redds. Another boat with Jack Davis and John Penn works the opposite side of the river. The surveys for steelhead began in March and continued through June, providing critical data for tribal and state fisheries managers, such as numbers of successfully spawning fish, habitat conditions and age classes. As waters recede in the early summer months, the surveyors walk stretches of river where it is too shallow to float.

The fisheries technicians wear polarized sunglasses to assist in spotting the telltale signs of a steelhead making a depression in the gravel for her eggs. They drop rocks with colored flags near each nest and record its location. The flags colors are changed weekly to distinguish new redds from old.

“It’s all pretty low tech, but it’s effective,” said Roger Lien, fisheries biologist for the Quileute Tribe.

The Quileute Tribe conducts similar surveys for coho and chinook salmon on the Sol Duc as well as coho, chinook and steelhead in the Bogachiel, Calawah and Dickey rivers drainages. Sockeye surveys are conducted in and around Lake Pleasant, and that means tribal crews are surveying for salmon redds from August through June. “We and the state do some helicopter surveys of redds, but the boat and walking surveys are ground truth of those observations,” said Lien.

The redd survey information is combined with information obtained from scales. Because steelhead can return to their home stream anywhere from one to four years after they leave freshwater and, unlike salmon, may live to spawn a number of times, the only way to determine age is to observe the scales under a microscope. Steelhead scales have growth rings similar to trees, and their age is easily determined, giving an idea of the health of a particular run.

“This is the best job I’ve had in my life,” said Lien, who like most of the crew, has worked on the surveys for more than
10 years. “It’s not always pleasant, but you get to be outside, working with something alive, and I tell ya, when you have chinook swimming and running through your legs, it’s great fun.”