Fisheries NW Volcanoes Have Created

It was 30 years ago this month that I was sure the Germans had invaded the countryside of my youth.

I heard three muffled blasts that Sunday morning and ran outside to take up a position to plink at the Panzers.

They never came, probably a good thing for a kid armed with only a BB gun and dirt-clod grenades.

A far bigger gun had actually gone off – Mt. St. Helens splattering herself halfway to Berlin.

MT. ST. HELENS FROM THE SOUTH. (ROBERT KRIMMEL, USGS)

Upwards of 7,000 deer, elk and bear, some 12 million hatchery Chinook and coho fingerlings and 57 people died in the May 18, 1980, eruption.

As horrendous a toll as that was, brand-new landscapes were also created for wildlife.

The massive landslide that came off the volcano’s north face and triggered the eruption also plugged the outlets of Coldwater and Castle creeks. Two new lakes were born, and since stocking at one, they’ve both become quality trout fisheries for rainbows into the mid- to even high teens.

CASTLE CREEK VALLEY BECAME CASTLE LAKE WHEN LANDSLIDE DEBRIS FROM THE VOLCANO DAMMED THE TOUTLE RIVER TRIBUTARY. (ROBERT L. SCHUSTER, USGS)

IT’S BEEN THIS WAY for eons. Ocean plates colliding with and sinking under the North American continent fuel our rumbling, grumbling giants. And volcano building and erosion up and down the Cascades has created many lakes that Northwest sportsmen enjoy these days.

They’re not all alpine trout waters either. For instance, about 2,500 years before St. Helens went topless, she fired off a massive lahar that dammed up a low valley near the town of Toutle, says Willie Scott, a geologist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver.

Water backed up, spinyrays were eventually stocked and today, you can find bass tournaments and great crappie fishing at Silver Lake.

2,500 YEARS AGO, A MASSIVE LAHAR DAMMED UP ANOTHER TOUTLE TRIB, CREATING WHAT WOULD EVENTUALLY BECOME SILVER LAKE, WHERE LONGVIEW'S CHRIS SPENCER CAUGHT THIS 19-INCH LARGEMOUTH ON TUESDAY, MAY 11. (CHRIS SPENCER)

Then there was the Electron Mudflow. Some 530 years ago, rock weakened by acids on the southwest face of Mt. Rainier suddenly gave way, says Scott.

Near the burg of Electron, where the mountains meet the Puget Sound lowlands, the flow was nearly 100 feet deep. It advanced into a side valley and plugged what once was “probably a marshy lowland forest,” he says.

The shallow lake, still studded with the stumps of drowned trees, is today’s Lake Kapowsin, known for its bass and panfishing.

From the flanks of Mt. Baker came lava and debris flows that served to enlargen Baker Lake, which supports good spring kokanee fishing. (Modern dams bullwark Baker and Silver).

And duck hunters can also give a tip of their camo hats to our seemingly idyllic snow-capped peaks.

“A lot of the areas like the Nisqually and Skagit deltas have grown from sediment swept down from volcanoes by lahar,” says Scott. “The Sandy River delta was built from lahars from Mt. Hood.”

WHILE GLACIERS carved out many Washington’s high lakes, lava flows are responsible for creating many of those on the Oregon side of the range, including a who’s who list of some of today’s better trout fishing waters.

Scott says Lake of the Woods, and Davis and Waldo Lakes owe their origins to such.

“Sparks, Lava and Hosmer were all dammed by young lava flows – the ones that built Mt. Bachelor,” he adds.

LAVA LAKE, WHERE KOLE HENDRICKS CAUGHT THIS RAINBOW, IN FALL 2008 WAS CREATED WHEN LAVA FLOWS BLOCKED A STREAM VALLEY. (LAZER SHARP PHOTO CONTEST)

(Washington’s Merrill Lake, on the upper Kalama, was similarly created.)

The headwaters of many of Oregon’s most celebrated trout streams – the McKenzie, Williamson, Deschutes and Metolius – have their beginnings in cool, fertile springs bubbling up through the basalt too, says Scott.

Then there are the crater lakes – and not just That One. Paulina and East Lakes, known for brown trout and kokanee fishing, sit in Newberry Crater, a half-million-year-old, still-active volcano.

MANY OREGON CASCADES LAKES AND RIVERS OWE THEIR ORIGINS TO LAVA FLOWS (RIGHT) BLOCKING VALLEYS, BUT HERE PAULINA AND EAST LAKES SIT IN ANOTHER VOLCANIC FORM, THE CRATER OF A SHIELD VOLCANO. (LYN TOPINKA)

Reflecting on all that volcano-related activity, Scott says, “Damn, that’s what’s created fishing in the Northwest.”

Well, there was that little spill in the Columbia Basin known as the Missoula Flood, and that whole Canadian ice cube thing that left so many lakes in Pugetropolis. But what happened at St. Helens in our times, and what’s occurred throughout the Cascades back when, show that some of our best fisheries are hot in more than one sense.

A NO-GO ZONE STILL

When St. Helens erupted, the landslide that created Castle and Coldwater lakes also sluiced Spirit Lake, its contents and ol’ Harry Truman up over a ridge and down the Toutle Valley.

What was left of the lake was a gray, log-filled anoxic dead zone.

SPIRIT LAKE, POST-ERUPTION. (LYN TOPINKA, USGS)

But eventually life returned, and so too did rainbow trout. The first, nicknamed Harry, was netted in 1993.

“The fish really took off in 2000,” notes Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife biologist John Weinheimer in Vancouver.

During sampling in July of that year he held one that was over 2 feet long – an amazing size for a lake where the forage base was relatively small organisms.

TITLE PAGE FROM A WDFW PAPER FROM THE EARLY 2000s SHOWING WEINHEIMER AND A VERY LARGE RAINBOW FROM SPIRIT LAKE. (WDFW)

Spirit was not supposed to be stocked and it’s still a mystery who put Harry back in the lake, but now that the fish are there, Weinheimer and a local fly fishing club are among those who’d like to open the lake to limited fishing. It would present anglers with a nearly out-this-world fishing experience just outside the volcano’s crater.

However, the lake and 30,000 surrounding acres have been set aside for scientific study, a one-of-a-kind chance to record how plants and animals come back from catastrophic eruption.

“The pace (of recovery) is picking up,” notes Peter Frenzen, a U.S. Forest Service researcher.

He likens it to a snowball effect. Recent winterkills and more liberal state hunting management have led to an elk population more in line with the carrying capacity inside the blast zone, what has essentially been a giant meadow. And that’s allowed trees to not only take root but flourish.

“There are some fairly happy tree seedlings that have their tops,” says Frenzen.

Scientists say the area should remain closed to public access.

“Some people say, ‘It’s been 30 years; aren’t you done yet?’ But if you think about the life of a forest, 30 years is nothing,” says Frenzen. “Some of the most interesting things are just starting to happen. The experience continues.”

They had enough friends in the state legislature this year to again kibosh fishing plans that were passed out of the House but died in budget reconciliations.

Meanwhile, the window for catching those really big fish at Spirit appears to be fading as the fish stabilize with habitat and feed themselves. But as the May issue of National Geographic notes, there are still lots of 20-inchers in the shallower waters.

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3 Responses to “Fisheries NW Volcanoes Have Created”

  1. Jason Bauer Says:

    Great story! Makes a person think about the resources just a little bit more. Mother Nature is really looking out for us!

  2. Ron Campbell Says:

    The 30th anniv. of St. Helens inspired me to search around a bit. I was always curious about how some of the lakes around MSH were formed. I visited St. Helens Lake in my younger years and remember the trees in the water and guessed that was from another eruption similar to 1980.
    I’m most curious though about Lake Merrill since I grew up there fishing with my dad before those “fly fisherman” took it away from us. It used to be great fishing for cutthroat, brook trout and some rainbows when I was a kid.
    I noticed trees in the water there also (but maybe stumps rather than upright sinkers as in St. Helens Lake) and the fact that the porous bottom (or whatever causes it) lets the lake level drop in the summer. You can also see remnants of a creek channel in the south shallow end. Do you know of any research or other historical info that would shed some light on this. It would appear that this has happened in recent times geologically speaking but long enough for the old growth forest to develop that I remember so fondly.

    I would be greatful for any insight,
    Ron Campbell

  3. Andy Walgamott Says:

    Ron,

    From what I gather Merrill Lake was created somewhere between 200 B.C. and 300 A.D. during what geologists call the Castle Creek Period, so yes, very recently geologically speaking. Andesitic lava poured off the mountain and damned the headwaters of the upper Kalama River, similar to what happened in those OR Cascade lakes I mentioned.

    The folks at the Cascades Volcano Observatory would know a lot more, but are only taking messages on their phone (360-993-8900).

    AW
    NWS

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