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Baby coho at home in Maxwelton Creek

"For nine years, the Maxwelton Salmon Adventure has been a South Whidbey institution built on hope -- hope that annual fish releases, ecosystem study, and some tender loving stream care would bring big runs of wild salmon back to Maxwelton Creek.Until this spring, the Salmon Adventure did not have much hard evidence to show that the fish were on their way back. Students visiting the Maxwelton Outdoor Classroom and landowners living along the creek said they saw more fish, but no one had hard numbers. Last month, Langley biologist Jan Holbrook started getting those numbers when she convinced the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to put a live fish trap into the creek. Since April 21, more than 200 coho salmon smolt have swum into the trap, along with scores of cutthroat trout and a few crawdads. Holbrook, who is also a board member with the Salmon Adventure, has counted every one of the creatures, putting her emphasis on the little salmon. They are the barometer, she said, that proves that the Salmon Adventure and landowners in the watershed have been doing right by fish over the past few years.That's proof we have some very healthy fish in the stream, Holbrook said.Holbrook's trap looks more like a device for sifting gold out of a mountain stream than it does a live fish trap. Hooked to a culvert through which the stream flows, the trap starts with an 8-foot, screen-sided plywood tube. All but a small amount of water flows out its sides, leaving the fish in a shallow, fast-moving current. At the end of the tube, the fish and remaining water fall into a big, loose net, where they swim until Holbrook checks up on them.Twice a day -- once in the morning and once in the evening -- Holbrook dons a pair of rubber waders, grabs a fish net, then scoops her little captives out of the big net into a bucket, where she can better count them. As soon as each fish is noted as a hashmark on a clipboard, Holbrook pours them back into the creek.As interesting as what she has caught in her trap is what she hasn't. So far, Holbrook has not found a single beer can, grass clipping, or foam cup in her net. The stream is clean, she said, and even the water's brownish tint -- from an upstream peat deposit -- is the sign of a healthy water ecosystem. If they could speak, the more than 200 smolt caught in her trap over the past few weeks would attest to that cleanliness. Unlike other salmon species, coho remain in the freshwater streams where they hatch for a full year, braving whatever contaminants might be there. Maxwelton Creek, it seems, is quite coho friendly.To me, that's an indication that this stream's a healthy habitat, Holbrook said. It's just this stream with these great fish. Actually, there was one exception to Holbrook's clean stream prognosis.Ask if there's a little boy or girl on Maxwelton Creek who lost their superball in the water.Holbrook said she wants to see the fish count become an annual experiment in the creek. Provided the Department of Fish and Wildlife is willing to loan its fish trap to the Salmon Adventure, Holbrook said the fish count will be useful for gauging the future health of the stream. It could also be a hands-on science project for South Whidbey school students, the very same students who release thousands of salmon fry into the creek every year as part of their earth science studies.Holbrook will continue her fish count for perhaps another month, or until daily smolt counts decrease into the low single digits. "

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