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Native Trout in This Southland Stream Will Get a Fighting Chance to Survive

Steelheads once were plentiful in San Mateo Creek, but nonnative species have taken over the habitat. That's about to change.

September 03, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

John Waters remembers fishing with his friends in San Mateo Creek in the 1930s and '40s, catching steelhead trout as big as his arm. He'd bring them home and the family would have trout for dinner. "You could catch four or five if you had a good day," Waters, 84, said.

Sometime in the '40s, however, the native steelhead seemed to disappear from the creek, which runs about 18 miles from the upper reaches of the Cleveland National Forest to Trestles Beach, south of San Clemente.

Instead, largemouth bass, the catfish-like brown bullhead, green sunfish and bullfrogs have invaded the steelhead territory and all but wiped them out by eating their eggs and young.

A state Department of Fish and Game study of several locations along the creek in 1998 found just 42 steelhead.

To help bring the steelhead back to San Mateo Creek, the conservation group Trout Unlimited has spearheaded a program to remove the nonnative fish from the creek.

"San Mateo Creek is the only native steelhead stream on the West Coast that's completely on public land and has no barriers," said George Sutherland, regional vice president of Trout Unlimited.

And it's all protected, he said. "The lower portion is on a military base [Camp Pendleton], and the upper portion is in a national forest."

He said there have been some sightings of steelhead in other Southern California creeks and rivers, but not many. The fish are more plentiful in Northern California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Steelhead look very much like rainbow trout. But the rainbow spends its life in fresh water, and the steelhead lives in both fresh water and saltwater.

"Like a salmon, they go through a transformation process where they adapt to saltwater. They go to the ocean for two or three years and then they come back to the stream that they were in" to spawn, Sutherland said.

Steelhead are an indicator fish, he said -- a signal that all's well with a river.

"If the river is healthy, the fish are healthy. If the fish leave for some reason, the quality and quantity of the water has changed."

The change that depleted the steelhead in San Mateo Creek was the arrival of nonnative fish, which came from private ponds and lakes upstream. After a big rain, the lakes and ponds overflow, carrying the predators downstream into steelhead territory, Sutherland said.

To help the trout's numbers recover, Trout Unlimited contracted to do a habitat assessment of the creek, documenting the trees, plants and topography and other conditions. That work began last week.

Part of the assessment involves defining the effect each proposed change would have on other elements at the creek.

"Most places, there's nothing we plan on doing in the stream that should have a negative effect on any other protected species," Sutherland said.

The assessment should be completed by December, he said, and then biologists will begin trapping or netting the nonnative fish or, possibly, using fish weirs to block them from moving downstream.

Botanists will also be called in, Sutherland said, if nonnative plants need to be removed or native plants inserted to improve the habitat.

The plan does not include adding steelhead trout to the creek, though.

"We're not building fish hatcheries, we're just restoring habitats," Sutherland said.

The idea is that once the predators are gone, steelhead eggs and young will be able to mature.

Sutherland, a San Clemente resident who fishes just about every morning, started working on the project 14 years ago.

Then, based on some stories he had heard about the runs of steelhead at San Mateo Creek, the plan was to find out if the habitat was still there and, if the fish came back, would they be able to survive.

That took about 10 years, Sutherland said.

"Until we found a fish in 1998, there wasn't enough evidence that it was still an active fishery," Sutherland said.

"Up to that point they had pretty much determined the fish were extinct" in San Mateo Creek.

Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), a former Marine at Camp Pendleton, included a $800,000 appropriation in Proposition 12, a $2.1-billion parks bond voters approved in 2000, to fund the restoration.

Sutherland can't hide his excitement now that the work is finally beginning: "I started 14 years ago and I want to see it to the end."

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