Klamath River Dam Removal & Salmon Survey News

Postscript to this post... On November 17, 2022, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) announced that the Federal Regulatory Commission (FERC) has approved the surrender and decommissioning of the four Lower Klamath Project hydroelectric dams! This is the final decision by FERC on the Klamath River Renewal project and allows KRRC to decommission and remove the four hydroelectric dams and implement related restoration activities.

The importance of clearing this final hurdle can't be understated. It's summed up nicely by Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers:
This isn’t just about the dams getting removed from the river, they’re getting removed from our culture and our way of life."

Fly Fishing Klamath River in 2020

And the fish survey says... I'll address that a little later. Probably need to put this year's trip to the Klamath River into some larger context. First, the obvious dark clouds covering the entire world - COVID-19 and then a distance second for us on the West Coast - the lack of any significant rain in November. Social distancing and the fact the Klamath is a tail-water fishery helped to make my 2020 steelhead trip a safe and productive one.

Steelhead photographed underwater on the Klamath River.

But the best news to share came on November 17, 2020. This announcement from the KRRC puts the Klamath River back in the running for the biggest river / salmon restoration project in our nation's short history.

The Klamath dam removal effort received an enormous boost on November 17 when California Governor Gavin Newsom joined with Oregon Governor Kate Brown, leaders of the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, KRRC and Berkshire Hathaway-owned PacifiCorp in announcing a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to advance the most ambitious salmon restoration effort in history. The new agreement provides additional resources and support to KRRC and describes how the parties will implement the amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) as negotiated and signed in 2016.

Driftboat floats the Klamath River Below Iron Gate Dam.

What's does this Memorandum of Agreement mean you ask? From what I learned, both the State of California and the State of Oregon have agreed to provide financial support to KRRC should the dam removal cost over shoot their current budget of some $450 million. With Oregon and California tax payers providing the new financial backstop to KRRC, the dam removal seemily will proceed with an estimated start date of January 2023.

Steelhead trout caught fly fishing the Klamath River in California.

Getting back to my fishing trip on the Klamath, I mentioned fish survey at the top of this write-up. Every year surveys of spawning fall-run Chinook Salmon on the mainstem Klamath River are conducted by the USFWS Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office, the Karuk Tribe, and Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program. These surveys typically start in early October and finish by early December. My favorite time to fly fish for steelhead is early part of November, and I've spotted the survery teams on the river over the past three years. They are easy to spot. They usually float in pairs, and the big tell is the person in the front of the big pontoon boat. That person wields a long fishing gaff.

Salmon survey crew on the Klamath River in California.

We floated by a survey team eating their lunch on shore under the shade of some willows. Drifting by them slow, I asked them how the survey was going this year. A woman from the group answered, "The count is low." I wanted to get a better picture, so I asked, "Is it lower than the average?" She replied, "It's one of the lowest counts. The past five years have been some of the lowest numbers of spawners we counted."

The historic decline in fall run Chinook Salmon took me by surprise. I decided to dig deeper then I returned home from fishing the Klamath. I found the Spawning Surveys on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's web site going back for over ten years. The final report for 2019 showed a total redd count of 1025 which is just below the average measured from 1993 to 2018. The Arcata Office posted an updated survey count for November 20, 2020 which doesn't include three weeks of survey data, but shows a very low total redd count of 760. This count is not encouraging, and signals a disturbing trend in the population of fall-run Chinook Salmon on the Klamath.

Fly fishing from a Drift boat on the Klamath River Below.

Yurok Fisheries Biologist Barry McCovey summed up the alarming declines in Chinook salmon on the Klamath River:

With the declines we have seen in the fish runs over the last several years, the situation is getting worse and worse. Extinction is always in the back of our minds. It is the worst case scenario. We feel a really strong sense of urgency to get these dams out sooner rather than later. I don’t know how much time we have left.

Fingers crossed, the removal will be huge for the Klamath water quality, and of course, salmon and steelhead. The migration won't just stop at the current location of Iron Gate (Iron Gate - meaning no passage beyond this point.)

Steelhead fishing the Klamath River is excellent in late October and early November.

The Klamath River below the hatchery during the fall gets a solid run of half-pounders and adult steelhead. With constant flows and good reports, floating this river late October and early November can get congested. With a limited number amount of good holding water, expect to either fish early and fast, or later and slower.

Fly Fishing the Klamath River in the late October or November is magic.

Normally around the first week in October, huge numbers of salmon arrive throughout this section. Not far behind, the steelhead take up position behind the salmon by the middle of October. Obviously, drifting egg patterns will be the most productive while the spawn is on.