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Published: December 2008

Klamath River

Fishing Net

Reuniting a River

After fighting for years over its water, farmers, Indians,
and fishermen are joining forces to let the troubled
Klamath River run wild again.

By Russ Rymer
Photograph by David McLain

Silver shapes glinted up at Thomas Willson out of the river depths, shining like spilled coins through the surface rills. Before his square-nose aluminum skiff even reached the sandbar, Willson could tell it wouldn't be the worst of mornings, one of those days when he came up with nothing but a soiled net and went home empty-handed. But when he leaned over the gunwales and hauled the gill net up out of the strangely warm Klamath River water, what he found didn't please him: a large chinook salmon that should have been the day's prize, except that its flanks were dull and pocked with whitish sores. When Willson ran his fingers under its gill scutes, the tissue floated out in a viscid pinkish soup. "Never used to see this," Willson grumbled, and with a discus thrower's shoulder spin he heaved the blighted carcass onto the riverbank. Above him a buzzard floated in the river canyon's narrow slice of California sky. It would soon get its commission.

Willson's expression fell on the sorrow side of anger. Fishing was more than a pastime for him and more than a vocation; it was a patrimony. In the annals of father-to-son enterprises, the Willson family franchise surely ranks among the venerable: Thomas Willson and his ancestors have been fishing this very species in this very stretch of this very stream without interruption since Yurok Indians first made their home on the Klamath River and fed themselves on its salmon. Indian tribes have resided alongside the Klamath for more than 300 generations. In all that time, the river had never suffered the troubles of its recent years. The signs were everywhere: in the tresses of algae clinging to every twist and tie of his net; in the warmth of the mountain river water, which would reach 74 degrees F before midmorning; in the smoke floating overhead from forest fires that no longer burned themselves out. And in the paucity and poor condition of the fish. The underlying source of the problems, Willson knew, was a resource crisis of growing magnitude in the western United States and globally: too many users for not enough water. Looking around him on this not worst of mornings, Willson had the feeling there wasn't much about his little patch of Earth that wasn't out of balance. The Klamath River was in trouble, and Willson was certain where the trouble came from: upstream.

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