A Fishy Project - Grayling Reintroduction

I have mentioned Narrow's Creek in numerous previous posts. The pond on Narrow's Creek (which sits up the draw from the lodge) has been the 'star feature' of numerous photos. Many guests have traversed the quarter mile or so up the narrow canyon from which the creek derives its name to enjoy the wildlife which frequent the little stream and the pond.

However, the real story behind this unassuming creek is a lot deeper than the few inches of water which trickle down the canyon and a lot more impressive than the pond's pretty face. In fact, Narrow's Creek has been the subject of numerous studies and even more stories over the years.

Why? For at least a couple of reasons. One, Narrow's Creek, that little, unassuming, NARROW creek which flows down the canyon, has been the spawning grounds for numerous generations of fish. Cutthroat Trout and Grayling have entertained guests and produced a healthy population of young fish for Elk Lake over the years.

Many times I have heard stories of the fish spawning in this creek. Thick as fleas on a dog's back, I've been told. You could reach in and grab them as they swam by, I've heard. Water splashing marked their passage and lullabied many to sleep, so they say.

That story ended several years ago. By the time we came to live at Elk Lake, Narrow's Creek was an intermittent visitor, certainly not reliable enough to provide spawning habitat - for that matter, not even reliable enough to keep the creekbed grass free. Thus we lost our Grayling population, and the Cuts have lost their ability to reproduce. Thankfully, that is about to change!

For several years we have complained about the management (or mis-management) of the creek. For several years we have asked to have the Grayling reintroduced and their spawning grounds restored. Finally our voice has been heard. Simple, unassuming Narrow's Creek has hit the top (or nearly the top) of the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks' priority list.

Unlike Trout, Grayling are difficult to raise in a hatchery situation. Thus the best way to protect Montana's native Grayling population is to protect their spawning habitat. At least that makes sense to lay-people like me. However, the fact that Narrow's Creek has not flowed properly in several years to testimony to inconsistencies and mis-placed authority.

While I have little doubt everyone involved in the past Narrow's Creek management had good intentions, sometimes people were allowed to 'put their theories into practice' without having to prove the viability of their ideas before applying them. As a result, Narrow's Creek has been tampered with. Having lived here several years - up close and personal with Narrow's Creek - I believe I have earned the right to say: it has been harmed.

Like every other publicly owned 'situation', the management of Montana's fisheries is not without issues. One major issue which has had direct impact on Narrow's Creek and Elk Lake's Grayling population is the 'ownership' issue. It seems the USFS owns (okay, we, the people, own, but it sure seems like they own) the land and the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) manages the fish living in the streams on that land. This works fine until there is a disagreement on how the waterways ought to be managed.

When we first arrived at Elk Lake, there was a 'fish' guy working for the USFS who was convinced the reason Narrow's Creek's flow had diminished was because the acquifer which fed it was diminishing. Basically his theory said: If I slow the creek's flow, I can replenish the acquifer and thus, ultimately, improve the stream's flow.

This theory, based on a study done in Colorado (I have the study as I questioned his ideas and was given the study as 'proof' he was right), required the re-introduction of beavers. However, because the FWP did not hold to the same idea, the beavers failed to arrive (and, based Beaver dam issues which have plagued the Grayling spawning out of Upper Red Rock Lake, I am glad they did not). So, to 'prove' he was right, he stuffed the creek bed full of every piece of downed timber and natural junk he could find.

Take a look at the preceeding photo. As you can see, the meadow around Narrow's Creek is virtually 'junk' free. The creek bed, however, is crammed full of everything 'natural' which he could lay his hands upon. For a broader view, take a closer look at the photo at the top of the page.

Unfortunately, this person had the authority to make such drastic changes based on a study done in Colorado. And, his idea was implemented the full length of the creek bed - from the upper meadow, clear down to where it crosses the road and enters the resort grounds.

Perhaps, had all things been equal, this would have worked. However, this is Montana, not Colorado - and that resulted in some big differences. The major difference - the soil makeup. As the moles reveal each winter, the ground over which Narrow's Creek flows is full of rock - little rock! In fact, these tunnels look like they've been created in a gravel pile.

So the inevitable happened. The creek, gagging on all the junk in its path, slowed. As it slowed, more and more water seeped into the soil instead of running down the stream. Slowly, but surely, year after year, less and less water made it downstream to the spawning beds. Without doubt it made it to the lake - but through the soil, not down the creek bed.

To the USFS's employee's credit, we did endure several dry years. However, I have talked with a grand-daughter of the first owners. Gloria spent many years at Elk Lake as a young person and then as an adult. In fact, she is one of the few Selbys who continue to visit the Centennial on a regular basis. Thus I have had the privilege of hearing some of her memories.

She spoke of the fish spawning in Narrow's Creek. Her stories confirmed the stories I'd heard from numerous past guests. I asked her if the creek had ever NOT run. No, she replied. It had always run - even in the dry years. Perhaps they didn't have to put up with well-meaning but mis-informed Forest Service employees who were given too much authority with too little accountability.

Yet he doesn't deserve all the blame. I chuckle when I think of our first conversation with the USFS before we purchased Elk Lake. We were told Narrow's Creek was a sensitive and important fish habitat. Well, I must say, it makes one wonder how come such a sensitive and important habitat doesn't warrant a decent culvert! While this has been a very good water year, every spring, at least for a little while, the creek runs over the road. Why? Because the culvert is in such bad shape it cannot handle even a 'normal' year's water flow. In this picture you can see the water running over the road, the 'pond' it has created over the years, the 'new creek bed' which flows from that pond to the creek bed, and the 'real' creek bed off to the right.

All that said, the FWP finally set their sights on fixing the problem. And, as these things go, we finally broke free of the low water years. As a result, this spring we had more water than has ever been documented flowing down Narrow's Creek. We had trout trying to spawn up the creek. And, we have hope that at least some of the issues which have harmed this 'sensitive and important' habitat will finally be handled properly. In the mean time, we've enjoyed a babbling creek outside our door - even if it did threaten to go over one of our footbridges.

A walk up the creek this spring (and even this summer) has been a totally different experience. While the creek has always flowed (or at least trickled) above and below the pond, this spring it ROARED out of the pond. (By the way, I asked the Selby's grand-daughter if she knew if the dam at the pond's base was natural or man-made - since it seems no one else knows. Her answer: I don't know. So. . .we still don't know).

The pond practically burst at its seams this spring. Obviously the water could only get so high before it flowed over the dam. However, its limits were maxed out (and it was a great sight to see).

Never a large creek, Narrow's Creek still couldn't contain itself within its banks. It's almost as if the little creek knew it had finally received a friendly glance and was doing its best to show its true worth.

Further up the trail the creek passes through what I call a 'rocky scree'. This very rocky section has a faint creek bed, but, for the most part, the creek appears to have traditionally flowed underground from the base of the upper meadow to just below the rocky scree where it pops back up again to chatter its way on down the valley. However, this year, for a short period of time, the underground passage couldn't contain the water flow. Thus it spilled all over the rocky little canyon - a sight to behold and admire.

Even the upper meadow's creek bed (which traditionally has run every spring for at least a couple of months) could not contain the water's flow. Thus, for a few short weeks the meadow floor became a mini-swamp.

But the point of this post is not just to harp on mis-management. While it does frustrate anyone who has been privy to the ways of government, there is reason to rejoice. For, not only do we appear to have broken free of the dry-cycle, Narrow's Creek has finally received the attention it deserves. And, while no one has attempted to un-clog its waterways (which I still cannot understand), there is a plan in process to once again re-establish the Grayling and their spawning habitat at Elk Lake.

The first phase focuses on getting Grayling back into the lake. As a result, three years ago the Flathead fish hatchery hatched a bunch of Red Rock Grayling eggs. However, no Grayling made it to Elk Lake that year. Nothing the next (in spite of hatching a few more eggs). But finally, last year, we received a load of Grayling ranging 5 inches and up. So far, no one has caught any of these newcomers.

But, according to FWP, the best way to get the process going is to hatch the eggs here. Thus, this spring, the little un-named creek which flows on the south side of the property took on a new look. Several man-made pools created with rocks and tarps slowed the water and created a reservoir into which the FWP put PVC pipes.

These pipes carried water into the Incubator Buckets. We were first introduced to these buckets last year when we helped transport some Grayling eggs to another set of incubator buckets on Elk Springs Creek. They are quite an ingenious setup which has showed promise in other areas (i.e. not an untested, unproven idea) and has worked well on Elk Springs Creek.

Water, carried from the pools by the PVC pipes, flows into the lower part of the bucket. About two-thirds of the way up, a screen is placed across the bucket. The fish eggs are placed on this screen. Above the screen and near the top of the bucket, the water exits the incubator. While this experiment did not have the success it has enjoyed on Elk Springs Creek (for numerous reasons), a portion of the fry did hatch. You can see a few in this photo - white strings with a 'bump' head.

Once the fry hatch, they swim to the top and are carried by the water flow out the pipe near the top of the bucket. From here they begin to make their way downstream. Here you can see another fry (middle right side) in one of the lower 'pools'.

If everything works right, these fry will be imprinted by this stream. Thus the second stage of the project must move ahead. As of right now, it sounds like the FWP (working with the USFS for a change) will be piping water from Narrows Creek (during spawning season), to what they are now calling Spring Creek (that unnamed creek on the south side of the resort). Spring Creek will undergo some work to make it 'spawning friendly'. Thus, Grayling which are looking for a place to spawn (and any of these young who survive life in the big bad lake) will have a place to pass on their genes. And, eventually, Narrows Creek is to be re-habitated as well. So - - - if (and, of course, these are always big 'ifs') everything goes according to plan, Elk Lake will end up with two spawning streams and once again enjoy a locally reproducing population of Grayling. . .

And, if this trout (it is cammoflauged between the two pipes about the middle of the picture) has any say, some Cutthroat Trout as well. One way or the other, there is hope simple little Narrows Creek will once again be allowed to run free. And, best case scenario, native Grayling will once again live and reproduce within the waters and tributaries of Elk Lake.

Lady of the Lake

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