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The Elwha River Will Soon Be Home to Fly Fishing’s Ultimate Grand Slam

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With dams gone, the Elwha River is set to become a fly fishing paradise.

“There is no question but that the Elwha is harnessed at last and forever,” wrote a reporter around the turn of the century.

He was referring to the Elwha River Dam, and the later Glines Canyon Dam, which spun electrical current from the flow of the 45 mile Elwha River in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The two dams powered an industrial growth spurt in the area, but the cost was high; the Elwha is unique for hosting runs for all five species of Pacific salmon, as well as four species of anadromous trout. With the Elwha river dam cutting off spawning grounds just five miles from the river’s mouth, the fish dwindled, and what had been one of Washington’s fishing treasures languished for a century.

Fifty years of advocacy later, Glines Canyon Dam on the upper Elwha came down in August. The demolition follows the 2012 removal of the Elwha River Dam closer to the mouth of the river. The fish have already shown signs of recovery since the removal of the Elwha River Dam. With the final barrier to the upper spawning grounds now removed, hopes are high for the return of a great fishery.

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Long Way Home for the Elwha River

The fight to remove the dams and conserve the Elwha River began more than 50 years ago. Though the dams were still driving economic growth, the Lower Elhwa Klallam tribe were suffering from the loss of their traditional livelihood—the fish in the Elwha River. Their problems were compounded by the submersion of traditional fishing grounds and sacred sites, which more or less nullified the fishing rights they secured from the government in the 19th century.

In the ’80s, the Klallam—by now partnered with conservationists and environmentalists—began seriously to push the outright removal of the two dams. It was a daunting prospect.

Bob Irvin, the president and CEO of the conservation group, American Rivers said;

Thirty years ago, when I was in law school in the Pacific Northwest, removing the dams from the Elwha River was seen as a crazy, wild-eyed idea. Now dam removal is an accepted way to restore a river. It’s become a mainstream idea.”

The dam removal project has been a huge success, and early signs show that the it is working as intended; coho have been the first to recolonize the river, and within a year of the first dam removal surveyors and scientists started to see smolt lining the banks of the upper reaches. The silt outflow has started to rebuild the beaches at the northern outflow of the river, and vegetation has started to grow in the bottoms of the former lakes.

A few issues remain, however. Even with careful management, sediment flow has been sufficiently heavy to impact the local ecosystem. It’s believed that the silt was the cause of a large number of dead hatchery-raised coho smolt found on the banks of the river. And the Klallam tribe, eager to jump-start the local fishery, has attempted to stock non-native steelhead in the river, a move environmentalists claim will muscle out the native population. In 2012 the Klallam agreed to postpone releasing the hatchery fish, but disputes are ongoing.

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So, That Fishing You Were Telling Us About…

Salmon smolt in a fish hatchery. Photo courtesy USFWS/Courtesy of Yakama Nation Fisheries
USFWS/Courtesy of Yakama Nation Fisheries

For the time being, we’ll have to wait. The river lies within Olympic National Park, and the river and its tributaries are closed to fishing while scientists allow the ecosystem to recover and evaluate the health of the local fish populations. A full recovery is going to take a few years, but given how fast the coho have resurged, and with a strong conservation movement behind it, it might not be long.

As for the grand slam I spoke about? Chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, and pink salmon; steelhead, coastal cutthroat, bull, and Dolly Varden trout; before the dams went up, 400,000 salmon spawned in just 70 miles of river habitat. Keep your eye on this one.

To learn more, check out the Elwha River Restoration project.

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The Elwha River Will Soon Be Home to Fly Fishing’s Ultimate Grand Slam