BONANZA — Winston Churchill once said, “History is told by the victors,” but that’s not entirely true. History is told by the survivors.
Sadly, this means those who don’t survive cannot tell their stories unless someone tells it for them. This tragic tale is one such story.
One of my high school classmates told me stories of how he used to fish for trout in Miller Creek. I’d always assumed he meant the Miller Creek found in northern Klamath County, the one connected to Miller Lake that was loaded with brook and brown trout.
Only he wasn’t talking about that Miller Creek; he was talking about the Miller Creek in southern Klamath County that flows out of Gerber Reservoir and eventually makes its way into Lost River.
It was one of the best kept secrets in the Klamath Basin. That’s why, when the fishery began a slow decline in the 1990s and ceased to exist around five years ago, you never heard about it.
Historically, Lost River held native redband trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss newberrii), just as the rest of the Klamath Basin did. Years of pollution, channelization, irrigation, influx of invasive species and a laundry list of other reasons more or less wiped that population of redband trout out before most readers were born — save for one confirmed, albeit isolated, population in Miller Creek below the Gerber Dam.
Just under 8 miles in length, Miller Creek provided a thermal refuge for a population of rainbow trout for decades. The dam’s metered water releases lowered water temperatures just enough to keep fish alive in the grueling heat of the high desert summer while maintaining a frost valve flow of two or three cubic feet per second (CFS) to keep it from freezing during the winter.
This careful balance was supplemented by the limited springs and groundwater present in Miller Creek, though neither have been documented with much detail.
Regardless, trout populations trended downward for years before something tipped the balance. According to Torrey Tylerv, Klamath Basin Area Office Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) fish biologist, “(BOR) manages the water in Gerber Reservoir for beneficial use through contracts with water users in the Klamath Project. Reclamation also manages waters … regarding ESA-listed suckers.”
While BOR manages water in regards to suckers and controls the dam itself while ODFW manages game fish such as trout.
It’s unclear if the trout fishery already existed when the Gerber Dam was built from 1924 to 1925, but what is clear is that shortly after BOR sealed leaks in 2014, anglers stopped catching trout there.
It wasn’t the first time BOR had altered flow. Several times since 2010, BOR has adjusted dam releases, and this, paired with the uncertainty of groundwater consistency during dry years, caused problems for the fish.
When the water stopped flowing, dissolved oxygen decreased while water temperature skyrocketed, putting an end to what Dave Buffington, owner of the Bonanza General Store, called a “phenomenal fishery for 16- to 20-inch rainbows, like the Klamath River.”
ODFW fisheries biologist Bill Tinniswood, who once enjoyed fishing Miller Creek, noted that the fish were not pure redbands, but a sort of hybrid strain created from years of native redbands interbreeding with the rainbow trout once stocked in Gerber. The genetics of those fish “show(ed) closest relatives in the (South Fork) of the Sprague system,” Tinniswood wrote.
The fish were there, and then they weren’t.
It appears that other fish persisted, but not the trout. At least, not in fishable numbers. Mike Tyrholm, owner of nearby Pronghorn Lake Ranch, has been arguably the most vocal about this tragedy — perhaps because some of those wild fish used to find thermal refuge in his lake.
Tyrholm stocks his lake with hatchery rainbows no smaller than 16 inches, but for years he’d find smaller trout at his feeders, cruising the shoreline, occasionally getting caught by his anglers. These were wild fish that had found their way into his lake through connected irrigation pipes.
In a timeline that isn’t entirely clear due to different sides reporting different details, what is clear is that these irrigation pipes were sealed, and wild fish stopped getting into Tyrholm’s lake.
All nearby landowners were forced to put fish screens on all irrigation pipes. In theory, it was a good idea to keep fish — namely endangered suckers — from being stranded in pastureland. In practice, when that trickle stopped flowing and water warmed up, it stopped countless trout from escaping to cooler waters and cooked them alive during the long, hot summer.
To be fair, so little was officially recorded about these fish that it’s hard to understand the scope of what was lost in terms of genetics. For this reason, restoring the fishery on the sole grounds of restoring a unique genetic population would be baseless because we don’t know what the unique genetic population was, exactly. That doesn’t mean restoration is a dead-end, though.
Tyrholm, Buffington and less vocal anglers like Mark Doolittle all lament the loss of this fishery, but odds are, they are not alone.
Restoring this fishery is within the realm of possibility, but it would require public support. It was once a great fishery and could be once again.
Given the lack of available information of the population’s genetics, “this restoration work would likely be geared towards increasing recreational opportunities instead of restoration of a native population,” wrote Ben Ramirez, the other ODFW fisheries biologist for the Klamath Basin.
That said, water in the Klamath Basin is always contentious, and water rights certainly come into play. That’s a topic above my pay grade, but public opinion certainly matters.
Let ODFW (541-883-5732) know if you’d like to see this fishery return or if you’ve caught trout in Miller Creek below Gerber Dam since 2014.
We can point fingers and argue about what single factor finally broke the population, but it won’t bring those fish back. A restoration project, on the other hand, will. If we can spend half a billion dollars or more to extend the Klamath River salmon run, tens of thousands to restore a historic trout fishery is a drop in the bucket — or a trickle of the financial frost valve.