Searching for Steelhead in San Francisquito

Searsch for Steelhead, San Francisquito Creek, CA | © Kerri McLean

Searsch for Steelhead, San Francisquito Creek, CA | © Kerri McLean

My search for steelhead on San Francisquito Creek yesterday didn’t yield any fish, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Despite a major ongoing drought in California, we were lucky enough to have one significant rain event in Northern California a couple weeks ago. A portion of that rain fell in Palo Alto and its upland areas, briefly supplying San Francisquito Creek with a rush of perennial flows. In this important watershed, winter rains are essential to native steelhead because they provide a crucial opportunity for the fish to migrate up from the San Francisco Bay to spawn.

My friends and I hiked a few miles of the creek, carefully eyeing the creek bottom for fish. Although there were a few pools deep enough to justify the waders I was wearing, about 80% of the creek stretches were bone dry, making my outfit feel ridiculous. 

We didn’t spot any steelhead in the few remaining pools, though they may have been hiding out of sight. More importantly, we were relieved that we did not encounter any dead fish in the dry sections. It is not uncommon for San Francisquito’s steelhead, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, to get stranded in shallow pools when water levels drop after a large rain event. If those pools dry up entirely, the fish die.

Dried river bed of San Francisquito Creek, CA | © Kerri McLean

Steelhead can become stranded in pools as the San Francisquito Creek dries up around them. Luckily, no dead fish were seen on this outing, preserving hope that the steelhead made it to upriver spawning grounds before the creek dried up. | © Kerri McLean

I hope that any of the steelhead that entered San Francisquito Creek in this latest storm made it high enough into the system that they will have enough water to survive until the next big rain. These fish face many challenges, including those posed by Searsville Dam, the most significant fish passage barrier in the watershed. Searsville Dam, which is owned by Stanford University, stands 65-feet tall and blocks access to approximately 20 miles of habitat above the dam. Stanford’s dam and related water diversions also reduce and sometimes eliminate flows in the creek below the dam, making difficult conditions even harder for the steelhead.

American Rivers is actively working with Stanford to remedy the problems associated with Searsville Dam. As for the California drought in general, I think I will keep putting on my waders and hope that somehow they will bring the rains.

6 Responses to “Searching for Steelhead in San Francisquito”


Removing Searsville Dam is one of our nation’s best opportunities to restore a wild steelhead run to a relatively pristine urban watershed, while Stanford University shows leadership and studies a unique watershed recovery on their own campus. Good work American Rivers!

    Kerri McLean

    Thanks for your support Will! We could not agree more about the tremendous restoration opportunity that Searsville Dam presents.

William Stahl

Any chance of that dam being removed?

I guide on one of the best Steelhead rivers in the world. It’s hidden way up on the Aleutian Peninsula in AK.
They are a special fish worthy of protection wherever they swim.
Thanks for keeping an eye out for those Southern cousins of the fish I love.
All the best- Bill Stahl

    Kerri McLean

    Hi Bill,
    Dam removal is a very real possibility in the near term. Stanford is currently conducting an alternatives study and will make a recommendation to its President/Provost about the future of the dam by the end of 2014. AR is encouraging Stanford to demonstrate leadership in protecting the fish and the local community.


Keep wearing those waders, it’s working…Walked the Creek near 280 and Alpine within a day or so of the rain you spoke of a couple weeks ago. It dropped real fast. The water was too murky to see fish, but did see some outbound migrants in Los Trancos Creek. About 8 were in the 8″ class of the approximately 500 juvenile steelhead I saw. Most were around 3″. An egret was busy eating them in the low clear water. I’m sure a few steelhead will attempt the run up stream with this latest event. Keep up the good work, and keep Searsville Dam undone in your mind until it’s reality.

    Kerri McLean

    Hi Cliff,
    I am so glad the wader trick worked– we really need the rain! Thanks for sharing your experience searching for steelhead in the creek and please post your fish photos on our facebook page if/when you have any. We love to hear about what you are seeing!