ContentsPutah and Cache: Monticello Dam

Previous chapter Previous piece More like this

Next piece

Next chapter


The Fishes of Putah Creek: After the Dam

Peter B. Moyle

For the salmon, steelhead, and lamprey that once migrated upstream during the high flows of winter, Devil's Gate was presumably a hellish obstacle to their spawning grounds in "heavenly" Berryessa Valley and its tributaries. Today Monticello dam renders it absolutely impassable, although no dam is forever.

Keep knocking at the gate
You chinook, steelhead, and lamprey:
Some day it may open.

Cold water is released from the bottom of Berryessa Reservoir to flow downstream for about eight miles before it is diverted into the Putah South Canal, with a small amount also allowed to continue downstream. Because water demand is greatest in summer when farmers in Solano County are irrigating their crops, the creek has much higher flows in summer than in winter. When flows are low in winter, air temperatures are cool, so the between-dam creek stays cold year-round. This means that the reach is really good habitat for trout and it supports one of the best trout fisheries in the region. In the winter, the stream is given over to catch-and-release fly fishers. They pursue brightly colored wild rainbow trout that hang out in the deep pools and runs. Some of these fish are over two feet long. The trout move up to spawn in the gravel beds just below the dam, where they can be observed mid-December through early January.

In summer, the main anglers are fishing from the bank, using marshmallows and worms for bait, for hatchery fish planted by the Department of Fish and Game (DFG),. These fish are domesticated animals conditioned to taking pellets of food from the surface. They are likely to die of starvation and predation if not caught in a couple of weeks. The fishery is very popular, especially with kids, because catching is easy. Curiously, few wild fish are caught in the summer fishery, evidence that two very different kinds of trout fisheries can co-exist.

The most abundant fish other than trout are riffle sculpin, small bottom fish that are occasionally eaten by the larger trout. A favorite "fly" for anglers is the muddler minnow, a sculpin imitation made of feathers. Suckers and sticklebacks are also common, especially in Lake Solano. In addition, DFG periodically plants alien brown trout in the creek for the dubious pleasure of anglers; fortunately these voracious predators do not reproduce in Putah Creek.

Alien fish do, however, dominate Lake Berryessa, an alien habitat. They are symbolized by the large common carp, native to Europe, which you can often see if you peer through the fence down into the water near the dam. They will be cruising about or browsing on the bottom with their fleshy lips. One of the main fisheries in the reservoir is for warm-water panfish: various kinds of bass, sunfish, and catfish that readily take baited hooks or lures. There is also a fishery for rainbow trout. Hatchery rainbows find life in the lake easy compared to life in the stream below, and they quickly learn to feed on abundant forage fish, mainly threadfin shad, a small herring. They grow quickly on this diet, feeding at the surface in the winter, when temperatures are cool, and in deeper water during the summer. In recent years, CDFG has been planting surplus juvenile chinook salmon which can also feed on shad and grow rapidly. These fish are unlikely to reproduce in the reservoir although steelhead-like rainbow trout do spawn every year in Putah Creek and other tributaries to the lake. These fish may be descendants of steelhead that got trapped above the dam and learned to complete their life cycle without going to sea.

In the drowned town
Do bearded old carp still cruise
Beneath the stone bridge?

Previous chapter
Cold Canyon
More like this
Next chapter
Lake Berryessa