Fly fishermen dream of fast water, clear as glass, and swirling eddies where insects dance and big fish feed. They treasure solitude. They’re drawn to rivers like the Little White Salmon, near Bingen, WA in the Columbia Gorge.
Prior to European arrival in the early 1800’s, salmon migrated up the Little White all the way to Spirit Falls. Here, in a roiling turquoise pool, tens of thousands splashed and celebrated their last moments during every spawn. In those days, long before dams, pollution, and European-American exploitation of the Columbia’s resources, more than ten times the number of salmon filled the river, fourteen million annually, compared to less than a million and a half today.
The Little White also had an indigenous fish above Spirit Falls. Early pioneers called them simply “black-spotted trout,” and said they averaged two pounds. While other Gorge streams sport small (virtually unstudied) indigenous redband and cutthroat trout above their barrier waterfalls, they rarely grow to more than a pound. Today it’s difficult to know precisely what these fish were in the upper Little White. Settlement happened early on the river and manipulation of the resource began almost immediately. Even decades before they built a fish hatchery on the lower stream in 1896, it’s possible industrious settlers had stocked other trout varieties above.
There are two hatcheries on the river now, the Willard National Fish Hatchery and the Little White Salmon Fish Hatchery. They use the river’s clean, cold and fast water to rear salmon and trout species in support of floundering populations throughout the Northwest.
And fishing continues on the river. Native Americans still use platforms built along Drano Lake at the river’s mouth, while other lake fishermen tool around in boats. Sport fishing there is as popular as it ever has been. Meanwhile, those who enjoy the upper river, including fly fishermen, are now enjoying more peace and quiet than has likely existed there in more than a century.
The twentieth century on the Little White was bustling. Loggers swarmed the woods like ants at a picnic and chose the river to get their goods to market. They built mills above the canyon to prepare logs and a flume to transport them to the Columbia. The Broughton Flume was a nine mile waterslide fed by river water that operated from 1923 to 1986. So much activity made solitude a rare commodity on the upper Little White.
Only when the old-growth of millennia was gone and lumber fortunes grew harder to achieve, did natural rhythms return to the canyon. A few decades on now, the flume is little more than a moldering relic, quickly being reclaimed by the land. And the river, for several miles above Spirit, has far fewer visitors, aside from kayakers who swish by, only infrequently taking time to linger along the shore. So once more, the Little White calls to fly fishermen, and anyone else who loves the quiet power of a mythic stream.
Stay tuned next time for Secrets of the Little White Salmon River part four: The Broughton Flume.