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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on place-based stewardship education. Since 2001, a partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department (KNRD) has supported this newsletter and allowed us to expand class offerings through EPA funding. Further staff support comes through Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA). Many thanks to our partners and to you, our readers, for your continued enthusiasm for "digging" into the natural history and culture of this part of the world.

A World Swimming with Fish

by Jack Nisbet • Historian and Author

The fish of the Columbia drainage relate the story of our mother river across the vast expanse of time: from unnamed creatures swimming in the primordial sea to fingerlings boiled alive as massive basalt flows bent the young Columbia’s course north and west across the basin; from spawning sturgeon blocked by ice dams to people lined up along the shore to observe, for generation after generation, the way that food moved through the water. When early fur trader David Thompson spent two weeks at Kettle Falls in the summer of 1811, one of his journal entries paid a fisherman’s compliment to the tribes gathered for the summer salmon run: “Experience has taught them the delicate perceptions of the fish.”

In the two hundred years since Thompson wrote those words, nothing in the North Columbia landscape has been so drastically altered as the movement of water and the makeup of the fish populations. The dynamic mosaic of species to which local cultures adapted over thousands of years has been buried beneath a crush of introductions and hatcheries, dams and irrigation canals, family feuds and international political scuffles. In such an emotionally charged atmosphere, most of the core issues still circle back to what lies beneath the surface of the water.

Dennis Dauble’s Fishes of the Columbia Basin: A guide to their natural history and identification (from Keokee Press in Sandpoint) offers a starting point to address some of the basic questions about what fish are here now, how they have changed over time, and what their future might hold. Dauble certainly has the qualifications to take a shot at his chosen subject. Growing up in northeastern Oregon, he spent much of his youth trout fishing in the upper reaches of the Walla Walla and Umatilla drainages. He earned a doctorate in fisheries from Oregon State University, then returned to the Columbia Basin to work at Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, where for the past 35 years he has watched the largest remaining interior run of fall chinook salmon out his office window on Hanford Reach. Still an avid fisherman, he ponders the elements that comprise a fish’s world with both a broad perspective and a deft touch for details.

Between the covers of his new book, Dauble reconstructs the Columbia and its feeder streams between Celilo Falls and and the mouth of the Pend Oreille River from the bottom up. The first chapter explains how geology has determined the look and feel of the fish’s universe. He rewinds time from tribal culture to the period of contact, from opportunistic naturalists like Meriwether Lewis and Alexander Ross to the legendary initial scientific survey conducted by Charles Gilbert and Barton Everman up into the Pend Oreille in 1893. He summarizes the environmental factors that have so violently altered that initial picture, and is not afraid to challenge curious readers with cogent explanations of the baseline technical measurements that determine which fish can survive in our present conditions.

The meat of Dauble’s book is the key he has developed to identify all the fishes likely to be caught within the limits of this territory, followed by accounts of the natural history of each species. The key would have allowed Kalispel children to count the three distinct kinds of teeth inside the oral cavity of the eels they were peeling off ledges at Kettle Falls and identify them as Pacific lamprey, Lampetra tridentata. Kootenai women processing a huge fish for its oil with the intention of exchanging it for a fur trade copper pot could have counted the lateral scutes along the monster’s side up to 48, noted the odd mustaches called barbells drooping from the end of their snouts, and told their friends that they were dealing with white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus.

Dauble’s species accounts, besides relating the life cycles of fish both familiar and strange, are peppered with surprising facts, humorous asides, and many nods to all the descendents of Isaac Walton who still want to outwit what’s in the water so they can enjoy it for supper. A quick glance at the way he treats our native bull trout reveals the breadth of his approach. He begins his account by separating this inland species from the anadromous and more northern Dolly Varden - acknowledging their similar appearance, and touching on the polka-dotted dress pattern that for years was applied to both of these char family fish. He explains how habitat fragmentation and degradation have ground away at traditional bull trout range, and names the rivers that still maintain viable populations. With a fisherman’s eye, he reconstructs the deep cool pools littered with woody debris favored by adult bull trout, and the slow side channels and shallow nearshore gravel bars frequented by young of the year. He lists the Washington and the Oregon sport records for length and weight, at the same time making clear that since bull trout are relatively easy to catch, they can be subject to overharvest. Ethical fishermen, in other words, must be aware of what’s around them.

Within the same account, Dauble employs a biologist’s precision to mark the water temperature required for successful bull trout spawning, then the period of egg development, growth rates, and and their shift from aquatic insect larvae to fish prey as their size increases. In conclusion, he combines all his experience to stress the need for an effective conservation plan that includes this threatened native species.

It doesn’t take too many life histories like this to make even rank amateurs anxious to count scales along the lateral line of the next trout that falls into their hands. They might want to ponder why cutthroats, unlike rainbows, rarely become established outside their native range, or to nod their heads in slow comprehension when absorbing the fact that a greater rod-to-cone cell ratio in the retinas of brown trout, which allow this species to see more clearly in the slow, muddy water of their native European rivers, might work as an advantage in many of our own altered drainages. With his multiple sources, clear organization, and confident pen, Dauble has created a guidebook for anyone who wants to peer into the liquid soul of the Inland Northwest. “Life is too short,” he insists, “for anyone not to have a book on fishes.”

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