It didn’t matter that it was wet and windy, or that the cold, clear stream was running more swiftly than usual.
With waders up to their armpits, Chris Brown and Sheila Tomas plunged Saturday into Ennis Creek. The water sometimes reached above their knees.
The two Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group volunteers were on a mission to find evidence of spawning coho salmon: live fish, dead fish and eggs.
Ennis Creek, a tributary near the headwaters of the Samish River, is one of several streams Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group volunteers such as Tomas and Brown survey for spawning activity each fall.
The local nonprofit and the state Department of Fish & Wildlife use the survey results to track how fish are using habitat that has been restored.
This is the seventh year Brown and Tomas committed to looking for signs of spawning coho. It’s something they do once a week, October through January, rain or shine.
With each step carefully calculated to accommodate the push and pull of the current, and with eyes peeled for any sign of spawning, it took about three hours for the pair to make it 0.7 of a mile upstream.
They weren’t the only ones on the lookout. Eagles circled above sections of the creek, waiting for a chance to dine on fresh fish.
Tomas, a nurse who lives in Anacortes, said she enjoys the time she gets to spend surrounded by wildlife.
“When I was a child I always wanted to be a forest ranger or something,” she said. “This fills that need.”
Brown, of Bellingham, is a retired archaeologist who is active with several fish and wildlife-related volunteer groups.
When the pair finds a dead fish, they document its size, its sex, whether it is a hatchery fish and whether it spawned before dying.
They spot fish, both dead and alive, by looking for deep red hues, as well as yellow — the color that appears where a fish’s scales are worn off — and bristly tails and fins, which can look like old paint brushes, Brown said.
“Coming in from the ocean, it’s just unbelievable what they go through. They’re just brutalized,” he said.
On their way to their spawning grounds, the fish fight their way upstream and dodge predators. The females use their tails to dig out a place in the streambed where they can lay their eggs.
Unless their fins poke through the surface of the water, live fish appear as no more than shadows with a splash of color swaying in the water.
Toward the end of the spawning season, the remaining fish aren’t in much of a hurry.
“It’s like they’ve done their thing and are just dying,” Tomas said.
For salmon, it’s the natural order. They hatch in freshwater streams, migrate out to sea, return to spawn and die.
Although there weren’t many fish to be found in Ennis Creek on Saturday, signs that they had been there remained.
A handful of new depressions where eggs had been laid were added to the survey list, and dozens of green tags on tree branches marked where volunteers had previously seen eggs.
“This whole stretch has tags, so it’s been a spawning highway,” Brown said.
Tomas and Brown joined Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group’s spawning surveys in 2009. The two monitored a section of Parson Creek, another Samish River tributary, for six years before taking on Ennis Creek this fall.
In Parson Creek, Tomas and Brown counted about 120 fish during during last year’s spawning season, they said. In Ennis Creek, they surpassed that number within the first few weeks of the survey, Brown said.
Yet in prior years, volunteers documented spawning coho in the thousands in Ennis Creek.
“Since this is kind of an indicator stream it makes you wonder what else is going on out in the environment,” Tomas said.
According to Skagit Fisheries, Ennis Creek is the most productive coho stream in the Samish River watershed. As such, Fish & Wildlife and co-managing tribes use it to estimate the fish population, predict future returns and help plan fishing seasons.
Skagit Fisheries partnered with the Whatcom Land Trust on restoration work on Ennis Creek between 2005 and 2007.
During that time, an undersized culvert that was blocking the creek’s natural path was replaced with a bridge, allowing the creek to move onto wetlands owned by the land trust.
Ennis Creek is one of 18 sites being surveyed this year by 36 Skagit Fisheries volunteers.