Truckee River restoration give trout a boost

SPARKS, Nev. -- Fish populations are flourishing in a stretch of the Truckee River east of Reno where crews have been restoring the river banks and bottoms to a more natural setting, biologists say.

A recent population count shows the efforts are paying off at the historic McCarran Ranch about 15 miles east of Sparks, where a once-sluggish section of the river was altered into a fish-friendly environment.

Trout are now plentiful where carp and sucker fish dominated in the past, said Kim Tisdale, a fisheries biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

"There's some really good water in there now, and we picked up a lot more trout," Tisdale told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "The population is extensive down there."

Key to the change is the construction of a series of riffles, which are shallow areas of rapidly moving, rock-strewn whitewater that spills into deeper pools. The natural variation of riffles and pools is beneficial to fish, insects and other wildlife.

As part of its $8 million project to restore the river at McCarran Ranch, the Nature Conservancy installed several riffles in 2003. Crews finished installing more riffles -- using rock removed for construction of Reno's train trench -- late last month.

Last July and August, state and federal biologists surveyed the river where the initial riffles were built in 2003. While few trout were found there during previous counts, things had changed.

There were brown trout and lots of rainbows. They found some hatchery-raised Lahonton cutthroats, a threatened species, as well as some mountain whitefish that normally are only found upstream of Reno, Tisdale said.

"Pretty much every place they put in new or enhanced existing riffles, the fish responded," Tisdale said. "They were out there, and there were lots of them."

Bringing the riffles back is just part of an overall effort to restore the river at McCarran and other areas downstream of Sparks. The river channel was straightened and many river rocks removed as part of a flood control project conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s.

"They came here and just bulldozed out all the rocks that were here naturally," said Michael Cameron, desert rivers program manager for the Nature Conservancy. "We're putting them back. We're creating complexity in the habitat that's necessary for a healthy fish population."

Others have noticed the changes, including anglers allowed access to the McCarran Ranch by the Nature Conservancy. They found plenty of rainbows and browns in the area.

"It's definitely, markedly better than it is upstream or downstream from that area," said Andy Burk, manager of the Reno Fly Shop. "It's pretty spectacular fishing down there."

And, while it might be several years away, that improved fishing will someday be enjoyed by the public. Once the Nature Conservancy finishes its restoration project, it plans to allow public access to the McCarran Ranch.

"It's really going to put the river in an excellent light for the fishing world," Burk said.

"Long term, this is going to be really good not only for the fishery but for recreationists," Tisdale agreed.