Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) (c) Timothy Knepp – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The following newspaper brief was published in the San Francisco Call on March 11, 1896 and testifies to the way things once were not all that long ago in the wilds of Santa Barbara County. Whereas historic steelhead runs on the Santa Ynez River are estimated to have numbered up to 30,000 fish, today the number is thought to be somewhere around 100. And, of course, fishing for them is strictly forbidden.
While the story is from the late nineteenth century, large steelhead runs like it describes, aside from the exaggerated number, routinely happened at least as late as the 1940s. Many of the fish identified as salmon in the news clip would likely have been upwards of two feet long, based on historic photos and the stories told by those who were there. And then the monster-sized fish vanished from the forest.
“Anecdotal accounts suggest that run sizes declined precipitously during the late 1940s and 1950s, due possibly to both drought and to anthropogenic changes to the river system such as dam construction,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports in a technical memorandum from 2005.
Ponder the thought of seeing a 30-inch steelhead in a tiny tributary of the Santa Ynez River, deep in the Los Padres National Forest. Not just once, a rare freak happening long thought to no longer be possible, but seeing them routinely through the years. It’s something that sounds preposterous, a laughable fantasy, as based on common experience in the forest these days.
A person just does not expect to see very many or very large fish in the creeks and rivers around here anymore. Tell younger generations or even some middle-aged men who’ve never heard these sorts of true fish stories from the past and you’ll blow their minds.
The news clip from 1896, aside from noting the steelhead run, relates the common practice back then of spearing the fish as they passed through the shallows. One might imagine the historic population of Chumash Indians taking the large sea-run trout in a similar fashion through the centuries to supplement their diets with fresh and dried or smoked fish.
A report from a Santa Barbara newspaper reprinted in the Los Angeles Herald on March 15, 1909, which tells of yet another method in which steelhead were once taken by means other than a rod and reel.
On occasion I daydream of the small riverside town of Lompoc, near the mouth of the Santa Ynez River, as a renowned fishing destination. A place where anglers and fishermen flock during steelhead season, the motels and inns fill up, and the breakfast joints and cafes hum with fish stories bantered back and forth among old men in flannel and denim, suspenders pulled tight over shoulders, sipping black coffee. The walls of the eateries decorated with old fishing rods and reels, handcrafted lures and flies, taxidermy, and scores of photos documenting the memorable fishing experiences of its out-of-town patrons and locals alike, men, women and children, and the town’s main street dotted with small tackle shops and pickup trucks and SUVs, their rear windows and bumpers polka dotted with various outdoorsy-type stickers.
The town is nothing like that today, and I don’t necessarily wish it was, but I entertain the thought amusingly, because it very well might have been.