The California native Hardhead is a "fish of interest" to the U.S. Forest Service because of concerns over the impacts of water temperature "decreases" on this apparently "warm water preferring" species by the hydroelectric power projects throughout the Sierra. (I know, we normally don't think of the Hardhead as a "fish of interest" or of water that is impounded behind a reservoir to being cooler, but we're still learning.) In the M.F. American River Project, tunnels through the mountains take water quickly from high Sierra streams to one powerhouse after another on it's way down to Folsom Reservoir. The Middle Fork American River Project is managed by the Placer County Water Agency and our interest in this project has peaked over the past 5 years as the Project has been undergoing the relicensing process required every 50 years by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). These tunnels actually transport the water in the dark, and quicker than would happen in the natural stream channel. Consequently, they discharge water that is actually colder than it would be if it flowed naturally down the rivers. On April 16, 2010 we observed the temperatures of water from the Middle Fork American River arm of the reservoir to be 10 degrees Celsius and the water from the Rubicon River arm to be 8 degrees Celsius at 10 a.m. The water from the Middle Fork runs freely for several miles upstream where it was released from the Interlay Afterbay Reservoir below Midway Powerhouse. The water from the Rubicon River arm is influenced by the flows through the Ralston Powerhouse just upstream about ½ mile.
Both the Rubicon and the Middle Fork were flowing colder on this date due to snowmelt runoff.
Lisa and two of her research assistants (Dennis Cochorell and Halley Nelson) (Photo 3) met with 8 GBF members and 2 Sac-Sierra Trout Unlimited Members for this first attempt to find Hardhead for this study in this watershed. They have already collected 18 Hardhead specimens from the South Fork American and Feather Rivers but they hope to gather at least 80 and their permit allows up to about 800. They are required to have a large sample size to make their results "statistically accurate", so they need more fish!
Our goals for the day were to:
1) Find out what the heck a Hardhead is (since most of us had never seen one)
2) Learn how to catch Hardhead and try to catch up to 10 specimens.
3) Introduce more anglers to the beauty and resources of the Middle Fork American River.
4) Enjoy a beautiful day in the Sierras to relieve "cabin fever" following an "almost normal" rainfall year that seems like it's kept us indoors for a very long time (since we've forgotten what a normal year of rain looks like after experiencing several drought years.)
The good news is that we met 75% of our goals!
Our first goal, following introductions of Lisa and staff to the watershed and to the volunteers) was to find out "What the heck is a Hardhead?" Lisa, Dennis and Halley were the only ones present who have ever seen a Hardhead (fish at least) in the flesh. One of Lisa's other duties is content manager for the U.C. Davis "California Fish Website." If you visit this site you can see photos of all kinds of fish that are found in California. From an online web search you may get on to the "Old" website (like I did). I found photos and information on the Hardhead, but Lisa now has a new site that is much improved and includes photos of non-native fish in California as well as Native California fish, and updated photos.
Our second goal was to learn how to catch a Hardhead and try to catch 10 fish. We knew that the researchers had found their best luck catching Hardhead using a glob of red worms basically "catfishing" for them on the bottom of the reservoirs. With this information we brought San Juan Worms and Wooly Boogers in various shapes and colors. Most of us hadn't brought spinning equipment (that may still be buried somewhere in our garages) so we were hoping to break new ground and catch them in other ways. From Lisa's website we could have learned that "... Hardheads tend to prefer warmer temperatures than salmonids and they are often found associated with pikeminnows and suckers. In general these fish will eat benthic invertebrates, aquatic plants and algae, or insects. The young Hardhead typically feed on mayfly and caddisfly larve as well as small snails." (Later in the day we noticed what appeared to be a mayfly hatch on the reservoir.) We could have also learned that "Older fish may focus on plants, crayfish and larger invertebrates." Unfortunately, most of us hadn't been aware of Lisa's website prior to making this first trip, so we weren't as prepared as we will be next time. Some volunteers did have artificial crayfish from their prior trips to the Truckee River where they are a popular "fly" to use. Two of the volunteers did think to bring float tubes, and one brought a small boat, the rest fished from the bank. The bad news is that no one caught any Hardhead on this date, even the researchers and volunteers who used red worms and night crawlers (but the researchers "claimed" to have gotten some bites). Lisa also set out 6 traps, three in each tributary, (Photo 4) in hopes of catching some juvenile Hardhead, but no luck there either.
Our third and fourth goals were to introduce more anglers to the Upper American River Watershed and help them shake off the "Cabin Fever" from several months of rain and winter weather. We are happy to report that we were very successful at reaching these goals.
The good news is that we will have other chances at these wily Hardhead in the future and hopefully (but no guarantees) we will have a little more advanced notice. We learned a lot about these fish, what they look like and what they eat. Next time the water should be warmer and hopefully the fish will be more cooperative!
More good news is that later in the afternoon the crew moved from the upper end of Oxbow Reservoir downstream to near the dam (Photo 5). The guys with the boat went out "in search of" schools of Hardhead and other probable locations where they might hang out. The guys used their high tech "fish/depth finders" and they located a lot of fish, at least on their fish screen. They only got one bite, but the result was good. Although the fish wasn't a Hardhead, this "incidental catch" of this "non-native" species provided an excellent end to the day for at least one of the volunteer anglers (Photo 6). What was it? A 22 inch 5 lb. German Brown. Who Caught It? Don Krueger, Sac-Sierra Trout Unlimited. Was it released? You betcha!