Narrows Creek Restoration

Before spring arrives, I suppose I should I report on some ongoing changes which ought to be of interest to our fishing guests. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, for several years we have been after Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to restore Elk Lake's Grayling population.

Afluvial Artic Grayling (lake dwelling) are native to the Red Rock Valley. They are native to Elk Lake. Most likely the 'originals' found their way from Upper Red Rock Lake, through Swan Lake, up Elk Springs Creek and into Elk Lake. However, many years ago, the decision was made to raise the level of Elk Lake a few feet by damming the lake's outlet on the south end. As a result, the lake became a sealed water source. While a few streams ran in, nothing ran out (above ground).

Elk Lake is well-known for producing fat, fiesty fish. The lake's fresh water shrimp and leaches produce amazing feed for its inhabitants. Unlike Hidden Lake, whose Rainbows need time each spring to recover from their lean winter, Elk Lake's trout are footballs year round.

But, as so often happens, over time things began to go wrong. One by one Elk Lake lost its spawning streams. First Limestone Creek - probably due to some heavy runoff which filled the channel with debris and eventually forced the water underground before it reached the lake. Then along came the recent dry years. Combine lower water flows with a less-than-helpful fish biologist (see an earlier post for those details), and Narrows Creek became seasonal at best. As naturally happens, debris and grass began to fill the empty channel. Spawning fish were left with little bitty Spring Creek - not a hospitable spawning stream although the trout, at least, tried to make it work.

As a result, over time, the Grayling population died out. Yet, with all the push to return native fish to native habitat, we wondered why someone was not working to return Grayling to Elk Lake. So. . .we started to ask questions. Then we started to make suggestions. And, eventually, we came to see the FWP's interests were similar to ours. These things just take time!

Narrows Creek's time finally came at the end of 2011. If you read that post I mentioned earlier, you know the first step was to begin reintroduing Grayling to the lake. The first year (nearly 3 years ago now), several thousand Grayling fingerlings were planted in the lake. However, while these fish were genetically the same as the original lake residents, the goal was to hatch Grayling here - at Elk Lake. Thus, when they reached spawning age, their natural instinct would drive them back to their birthplace.

Funding is always an issue - especially when you're talking government project. So when we heard this would proceed in at least two stages, we were not surprised. What did surprise us a bit was the decision to develop Spring Creek first. However, seeing the near-to-finished product, I am quite certain no one will complain. It is beautiful!

Five photos up is a picture of Narrow's Creek running full bore last spring. As you can see, the creek lives up to its name. From the pond (top photo) down, the creek is narrow with steep banks and grassy sides. While it used to sport a rocky bottom important to spawning fish, debris and dirt have eroded away at the things fish need most. On the other hand, Spring Creek has never been a good spawning stream. For one, it is very shallow. For two, it was 'never' (at least that I can determine) a developed creek. The spring was originally developed as the resort's water source. Once we had a well, the spring was simply allowed to run free and find its own way down to the lake. Over the years that produced a stream bed (of sorts), but it would have taken many more generations (and a lot more water) to have ever built this little stream into something hospitable to a spawning Grayling or Trout.

Yet, as you can see sevearl of the pictures above, the creek is taking on a whole new look. From something which looked similar to Narrows Creek as shown above (but with less water flow and shallower), Spring Creek is being turned into a work of art. So dedicated was its designer (an architect) and its developers, they not only opened up the creek and added gravel, they even paid attention to the 'little' things so important to a 'natural' spawning stream - logs, stumps, grasses, and even the creek bottom did not escape their attentions.

In other words, the Trout (and, hopefully, Grayling) not only received a new spawning stream, but resort guests received a beautiful new water feature! I can imagine it being a favorite spot in years to come - especially as those fish start spawning in its welcoming waters.

If I ever doubted the seriousness with which the FWP took our request (and their own decision to reintroduce Grayling and conditions favorable to their future survival), all doubts were removed as I watched the efforts which went into re-creating this simple stream. They even carefully designed riffles, such an important part of good spawning habitat (although I warned them I had a resident riffle-redesigner in residence :-)

Yet, lest you think this project consisted of merely planting a few fish and rebuilding an existing stream - well, it took a LOT more than anyone will ever see. In fact, some of you may have wondered about what I said earlier (about Spring Creek's low flow). The FWP certainly thought about this. What is the use of rebuilding a stream (outside of its athestic beauty) if it does not offer a spring runoff (apparently the 'trigger' to get Grayling into the spawning mood) and it does not have enough water volume? Well, the second phase began with the arrival of heavy equipment and a truck load of pipe.

The first couple of days (during this phase) things were pretty quiet at the resort. All the work was focused on installing a headbox at the outlet of the pond about 1/4 mile up Narrows Creek from the lodge. The headbox allows the FWP to direct the water in one of three directions. The water can run right through the headbox and down the creek (as it is doing right now)

Or, it can be directed down the new pipeline and either into Narrows Creek (below where the creek was virtually sinking out of sight the last few years) or all sent into Spring Creek for spawning habitat.

So, once the headgate was installed, the construction crew dug a trench down the slope all the way to a new outlet branch on Spring Creek. This pipe, then, will carry the water down to where it is needed for spawning habitat.

As I've already mentioned, this is a multi-step project. The first part was to introduce the fish. The second was to provide them with the best possible spawning grounds as quickly as possible. To facilitate this, the decision was made to combine Narrows Creek (whose flow has fluctuated greatly from year to year of late) with Spring Creek (whose flow has remained steady for many years). The combined flows (even if Narrows Creek has a low year) is considered adequate for the fishes' spawning needs. However, stage three does contain plans for restoring Narrows Creek. Thus, near where the pipe goes under the road, there is a valve which allows the FWP to direct all the flow to Spring Creek, all the flow to Narrows Creek or split the flow between the two streams.

And, as a final step in guaranteeing the successful reintroduction of Grayling into Elk Lake, the FWP installed a simple headgate near where Spring Creek comes out of the ground. This headgate will allow them to properly flood their fry incubators and, hopefully, produce many more youngsters to repopulate the lake - helping speed the Grayling's restoration.

All this for a fish. While I'm not big on government programs, I've had reason many times to scratch my head about their decisions, and I'm not even a big fisherman (and, for the record, this was not my idea :-); I must admit, this project has piqued my interst. The work which they have done is beautiful. In fact, the only thing I expect most resort guests will ever notice (outside of a beautiful creek flowing on the south side of the resort), is the headgate on Spring Creek. And, even this is non-intrusive. Thus, I hope it all works - but even if it doesn't, Elk Lake guests have gained a beautiful new addition to the resort's grounds, and I have gained new respect for those men and women who are fish-lovers at heart - to the point of creatively designing the best habitat they can put together, and all for a simple fish whose ancestors used to call Elk Lake home.

Lady of the Lake

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