Catching Breakfast: A fish story
Before this was Wine Country, it was trout country. Sonoma Creek was known as one of the best fishing streams in the Bay Area. Kenwood resident Al Guffanti remembered so many steelhead in one stream that you could “kick them out of the water.” He said he would go out and catch five or 10 fish for breakfast in half an hour.
The story was the same in 1823 when Jose Altimira arrived and founded Sonoma’s mission. Native guides told him that Sonoma Creek had lots of fish, “especially salmon.” They were probably referring to some combination of steelhead, rainbow trout, and Chinook or coho salmon, but clearly salmonids, as they’re collectively known, were abundant.
Trout and salmon hatch out in the stream gravel and live their early days in freshwater. Later, most migrate out to sea and spend several years feeding and growing. Eventually they return, trading salt water for fresh, to the same stream where they were born. The female digs a ‘redd’ in the gravel, lays her eggs, and the male fertilizes them. Then she covers them with gravel and the cycle begins again. Salmon die after one round-trip, but steelhead make the journey several times. Rainbows, identical to steelhead in other ways, remain in freshwater their entire lives.
The salmonid life cycle depends on many things. The gravel has to be the right size to hold and protect the eggs. The water must be the right temperature and reasonably clean. The fish must be able to migrate past any logs, dams, or other obstacles. And, of course, they have to avoid being caught by people or animals. Salmonids are considered excellent indicators of the overall health of a watershed. If Sonoma Creek’s salmon and trout are doing well, then the rest of the local ecosystem is probably also in good shape. Likewise, a decline in their numbers is a signal that the watershed is feeling substantial impacts.
Despite Altimira and Guffanti’s similar descriptions, the story of Sonoma Creek is more complicated than it first appears. Settlers arriving in the 1850s and ‘60s continued to find an abundance of fish. But soon, an early county history reported, “as fishermen increased, the fish rapidly decreased.” Overfishing was only partly to blame – logging, woodcutting, and livestock grazing also contributed to the decline. By the 1870s things were so bad that hardly anyone tried to fish any more.
The same thing was happening all over California. When a similar decline had occurred decades before on the East Coast, hatcheries were built to raise fish for stocking the creeks. In 1878, A.O. LaMotte of Glen Ellen established the Lenni Fish Company. In 1880, the Sonoma Index-Tribune reported the company was building a dam to supply water for its operations, which would “stock Sonoma Creek with trout.” A few years later, the paper reported that: “One hundred thousand fish eggs from Klamath River received by A.O. LaMotte will be hatched at his fishery.” LaMotte’s fish were shipped all over. In fact, New Zealand’s rainbow trout originally came from the Glen Ellen hatchery and possibly others in Sonoma County.
By 1889, the newspaper was reporting stories like: “150 trout caught in small stream in the valley by one man in one day.” The stocking of Sonoma Creek had apparently had its intended effect. LaMotte’s hatchery closed around 1900, but Sonoma Creek continued to be stocked. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Southern Pacific Railroad delivered about 10,000 fingerling trout a year. As life-long fisherman Bill Basileu described it, “The day they were coming” there would be “ten fishermen there waiting – each guy would take a bucket [of fish] back to his pet stream.”
During the 1950s, the Department of Fish and Game (now Wildlife) began to realize that native trout were healthier than hatchery fish. Stocking was diluting the native gene pool and the fish were becoming weaker and more prone to disease. In the short run, stocking provided lots of fish for fishermen. But in the long run, it wasn’t such a good idea.
Good fishing continued into the 1960s, but soon went downhill. As had happened a century before, the trout population went into a steep decline. The cessation of stocking, increased erosion, and barriers created by bridges, dams and culverts were all working against the fish. By 1971, Bill Lynch, editor of the Index-Tribune and an avid fisherman, published an editorial titled ‘Obituary of a Trout Stream.’ Soon after, a severe drought in the mid-1970s struck another blow. By the 1980s, concern for the salmonids’ long-term survival caused Sonoma Creek to be closed to fishing.
Protected for many years, recent studies suggest our trout are making a modest rebound. Chinook salmon have spawned near Kenwood in the last few years, and also within a short walk of the Sonoma Plaza. Organizations like the Sonoma Ecology Center, Sonoma Land Trust and Trout Unlimited have been working hard to protect and improve fish habitat, restore streamside vegetation, and remove migration barriers. No one knows what the future will bring. But salmonids are by nature tough and resilient. Looking back allows us to envision their potential – a day when they return once again from the sea in abundance.