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Monday, March 30, 2009

Spawning of the Hitch

In this dry year the gates of the retention structure on Kelsey Creek were closed earlier than usual. The gates captured the flow from February rains as water backed up into the upstream riparian zone and helped recharge the local water table. But with the coming of the hitch migration in early March, the gates were opened allowing for the passage of thousands of the fish. It was easy to see them paired off or in gangs thrashing in the riffles. Many had passed through the gates headed upcurrent for points south. Continuous numbers were visible as they moved up from the lake and beneath the Soda Bay Road bridge. Some schools leisurely swam downstream, their spawning presumably completed.

A neighbor, remembering the heavy rains of an El Nino year in the 1980s, told me of the night when the flooded pear orchards were alive with splashing hitch under the light of a full moon. When the flood waters dropped, vast numbers were stranded, just as had been documented in old photographs a hundred years earlier.

The herring spawning runs that occur every Spring in New England are a local cultural touchstone, a promise of the coming end of harsh weather, and a tourist attraction. Called herring in some watersheds, such as on Cape Cod, "buckies" in others, particularly in Rhode Island, the species arriving in the brooks from the Atlantic is actually the alewife.

The hitch strongly resemble the menhaden or herring. Silvery, scaly and bony, they are an impressive ten-inch minnow found only in the tributaries of San Francisco Bay, Monterey Bay, and Clear Lake. Predators attend the spawning including ospreys, black-crowned night herons, great blue herons, and raccoons.

The creek as an artery of life coursing through Big Valley's monocultures of pears, grapes and walnuts, often offers surprises.
Beyond the hitch spectacle, there was a Western pond turtle, which somehow made a living in the creek, which is dry for half the year. There were also deer tracks, a rarity so far from the wooded hills surrounding the valley. Turkey feathers, too, were unexpected, until I remembered it was the first day of the Spring turkey hunt. Maybe the birds, like the deer, were seeking refuge far from where the hunters stalked. A camouflaged turkey hunter I spoke with earlier in the day at the Cache Creek wildlife area lamented the elusiveness of his quarry. I pitilessly told him about the flock of three hundred I had seen on private land.

After watching the massing hitch at the Soda Bay Road bridge I turned to look at Mount Konocti above the vinyards.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a peach tree bloomed.