Last summer a pair of newlywed farm kids, Leslie and Barbara Kales, moved into a trailer on the sandy shore of Barnaby Slough, a mossy 30-acre stretch of the Skagit River's backwater tucked away at the foot of the Cascade Range in Washington State. The setting was a good one for any couple starting the adventure of married life, but in the past year the Kaleses rarely ever had time to lead the carefree life of honeymooners. Les Kales is a hatchery assistant for the Washington State Department of Game, and in their first year on Barnaby Slough, Les and his bride were responsible for the care, protection and feeding of 350,000 prize fish.
Four times a day Les traveled up and down the shore, scattering measures of fish meal in the rich water to supplement the natural feed of the extravagant population of steelhead fingerlings that had been planted in the slough. Many times each day he recorded water temperatures and water levels and the activity of predators. With shotgun in hand, Les and Barbara patrolled the banks of the slough and the mile-long channel joining it to the Skagit River, guarding the fingerlings against the raids of kingfishers and mergansers.
In the warming waters of early May this year the Kaleses' steelhead wards, by then husky yearlings measuring seven to 11 inches, began to seethe in an urgent silver mass, and at the rate of 10,000 a night fought their way into a small fish trap leading to an outlet channel of the slough. Night after night Les Kales, assisted by District Fisheries Biologist Lewis Lund, who developed the slough, netted up the fish, clipped the right ventral fin of each and set it free, while Barbara huddled by the light of a gas lantern and kept count. Before the work was done 150,000 husky yearlings had been released—a fantastic survival under wild conditions from a plant of 350,000 two-inch fingerlings last summer.
The success at Barnaby Slough is the best news for steelhead fishermen—who come to the Skagit from all over the U.S.—since the first homesteaders learned to appreciate the challenge of the species long ago. The slough is the full-scale culmination of experiments begun on the Stillaguamish River by Clarence Pautzke, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the years when he served the Washington State Department of Game. In Blue Slough, a small pond covering two to three acres, Pautzke proved that hatchery steelhead, reared to seagoing size under wild conditions for the first year of life, will return at double the ratio of those fish turned out on their own as vulnerable fry. Blue Slough, whose outgoing bounty runs year after year to around 25,000 migrant-size steelhead, is the pilot rearing area upon which Barnaby Slough is patterned. Eventually the Washington State Department of Game, fully cognizant of the fact that the state's wildlife constitutes a "crop" whose value is exceeded only by the worth of the state's wheat, will go ahead with rearing ponds on all the main steelhead rivers west of the Cascades.
The Skagit River generally is conceded to be the world's No. 1 steelhead stream, producing an annual sportsmen's catch of around 15,000. When the Barnaby Slough yearlings return, the biologists estimate that the best steelhead waters in the world will become just twice as good.
The biologists guess, on the basis of returns from small rearing areas, that about 15,000 of the 150,000 steelhead from Barnaby Slough will survive the adventuresome life in the open sea and make it back to the river. Fifteen thousand from an original plant of 350,000 seems scanty, but in the hard business world of fish it is a very handsome yield. Out of an equal-sized hatch in nature less than 1,000 fish would ever return to native waters. Out of the 350,000 plant in Barnaby Slough, game department men expected to lose 15% to 20% as "poor fish"—cripples, runts, the feeble condemned before they can perpetuate their weakness. An equal proportion was doomed as culls, or fish that failed to attain migrating size and thus were not fin-clipped and counted. The toll of predation, even under the most faithful care, is high. Droppings of mink and otter, found on the banks of the slough, are nothing but heaps of fish scales.
In the straight hatchery operation, in, which steelhead are turned out on their own at fingerling stage, adaptation 10 environment often is so poor that some heretical fisheries biologists have begun to question the value of the process. Any river—any fresh water—is limited in nutrients. It cannot expand a healthy population of fish indefinitely. But Barnaby's hand-fed babies use the river only as a means of reaching the sea. As far as the fish are concerned, Barnaby Slough is wild. They run into no problems of adjustment on release. Stumps and drowned brush—splendid hiding places for young steelhead—dot the slough's surface. Outside of the fish trap and the trailer, no mark of man is visible. The environment has been improved and is under constant surveillance, but it has not been altered in any major way other than by the erection of barriers at either end.
Steelhead normally return to their native waters to spawn in the fourth year of life and every year thereafter as long as they are able to elude predators—including fishermen—in wait for them. Unlike salmon, they do not die after spawning but linger in the river, regaining strength for a return to the rich nutrients of the sea. Barnaby Slough's output, advanced a full year by tailored environment and supplemental feeding, will return to spawn in the third year, the fishing winter of 1963-64. Since the slough will be replanted each July in perpetual cycle and closed to the entry of fish either from above or below, this presents a staggering picture of 15,000 mature steelhead trying to fight their way back over barriers into the rearing waters of Barnaby Slough.
"We want fishermen to catch them all," Biologist Lund insists. "Every fish, without exception. These steelhead are being put into the river for just one purpose: to increase sports fishing on the Skagit. They'll return at six pounds and up in weight if conditions at sea are favorable for them."
While it is the biologists' hope that all the fish are caught, a good many Skagit steelheaders already are cherishing the heady thought that not all of the returning spawners will be taken. Those steelhead that get as far as Barnaby Slough will pool up below the barrier into the slough while they try to figure the whole thing out.
The wily steelhead
Steelhead are more amenable to reason than salmon. Salmon barred from home waters will strive as long as there is life in them to surmount the barrier and will die unspawned. Steelhead will give up the attempt when their sexual products ripen, and find an alternate spawning spot. The main channel of the Skagit suits them, as do any number of tributary streams flowing into the upper Skagit above the slough. It is entirely possible that some of these Barnaby-raised fish will start new natural runs in the river with their spawn.
Perhaps the most cheerful part of the fabulous Barnaby Slough story is the price. The initial investment in land purchases and in preparation of the slough as a rearing area was only $40,000. The annual cost of operation is about $10,000. Weighed against the expected yield, this figures out to be a small price per fighting pound of fish, and one that anglers will be happy to pay.