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NFC: Whats a Hitch....

Swimming upstream without a hitch
By Richard Macedo

Outdoor California:January/February 1994

Maligned and misunderstood by many, Clear Lake hitch have been cast into
that ill-fated group known as "trash fish." Like many species of their
class, they are not apt to publicize their true wealth.

In actuality, Clear Lake hitch are a fascinating species offering humans
a good example of why it is important to protect all species, even those
whose value is not readily apparent.

The value of a given species is not always obvious. In fact, it would be
difficult for me to define the value of many plants and animals that I
have encountered. As a biologist, I should be disturbed by my handicap,
but I'm not. How can we assign worth to species we know so little about?
We have yet to unlock the value of thousands of organisms on this earth.

With this in mind, it seems prudent to safeguard all species. Aldo
Leopold best summarizes this concept, the concept of "biodiversity:"

"The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or
plant:'What good is it?' If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then
every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the
course of aeons, has built something we like, but do not understand, then
who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog
and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent thinking."

Clear Lake hitch are in the minnow family. Adults reach lengths of up to
14 inches and exceed one pound in weight. Taxonomists recognize Clear
Lake hitch as a unique subspecies and have assigned them the scientific
name:Lavinia exilicauda chi. The word "chi" was used by taxonomists to
acknowledge the name given to this species by Pomo Indians, the native
people of the Clear Lake basin.

Two other subspecies of hitch have been identified in drainages of the
Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers and in Monterey Bay. Clear Lake hitch
differ from their relatives by having larger eyes and deeper bodies. This
adaptation is thought to be better suited for the Clear Lake environment.

Aside from a small number thought to exist in the Russian River, the
entire Clear Lake hitch population is confined to Clear Lake and its
tributaries. Due to diminished populations and a limited distribution,
Clear Lake hitch are recognized by the Department of Fish and Game as a
"species of special concern."
Throughout most of their lives, Clear Lake hitch remain hidden in the
concealing waters of Clear Lake, the oldest and largest natural lake in
California. As adults, hitch search the open lake for food items such as
plankton, gnats, midges and other insects. Clear Lake hitch would live
out their lives in complete obscurity if not for their vernal calling.

Beginning each spring, the entire hitch population stirs and their
methodical search for food is interrupted by a compelling urge to seek
out inlet streams. This stirring usually begins by mid-February and may
last through July. Contagious and uncontrollable, other members of the
animal community sense its arrival.

The stirring evolves into action as hitch break free from the confines of
Clear Lake and swim headlong into churning currents of tributary streams.
The spawning run of the Clear Lake hitch has begun.

As spectacular as any salmon run on the Pacific coast, hitch mass by the
thousands and ascend the many streams leading into Clear Lake. The
tumultuous splashing in creeks and the appearance of herons, osprey,
egrets and bald eagles in trees overhanging streams signify to the human
observer that the hitch are in. Along stream banks, raccoons, mink, otter
and even bears join the birds to feast on hitch as they make their way up
swiftly flowing streams. Hitch number in the thousands and creeks teem
with creatures eager to take advantage of this bounty.

Hitch spawning is an uncomplicated act. A ripe female will seek out a
shallow area, usually near a stream bank, where winter stream flows have
deposited silt-free gravel. Overhanging vegetation such as willows or
blackberries are a bonus, as they provide cover from potential predators.

After selecting an appropriate site, a female is joined by one to five
eager males which coax her into releasing her eggs. Males fertilize eggs
as they are released. Unlike salmon, Clear Lake hitch are not summoned to
death after spawning, although stress and predation make return spawning
an uncertain proposition.

Clear Lake hitch are not nest builders. Once fertilized, eggs swell to
about four times their initial size and sink to the stream bottom where
they disperse along the stream bed. Absent of any adhesive quality, many
eggs settle into openings in the gravel bed, while others are carried by
currents to downstream areas- including Clear Lake, where survival rates
are very low.

Eggs hatch in five to 10 days. Larval hitch need another five to 10 days
to become proficient swimmers. Once this is accomplished, juvenile hitch
will slowly migrate downstream and into Clear Lake.

In Clear Lake, juvenile hitch spend their first few months concealed
among the tules and willows that border sections of Clear Lake's
shoreline. Predators are numerous. Largemouth bass, catfish, white
pelican, western grebe, osprey, bald eagle and river otter are but a few
of Clear Lake's predators.

Clear Lake hitch reach two inches in length following their first 80
days. At this time, they leave the Clear Lake shoreline to roam the open
water for food.

Male Clear Lake hitch reach sexual maturity at one or two years and
females at two to three years. Hitch may live five or more years.

Hitch must race against time to complete spawning. Unlike most salmon
spawning streams, all tributaries leading into Clear Lake go dry during
summer months. In drought years, some spawning streams may dry as early
as April. To successfully spawn, hitch must ascend swiftly flowing
streams, overcome barriers, avoid predators and find suitable habitat.

For eons, hitch managed to win the race against drying streams. However,
human activities have altered their spawning habitat and jeopardized the
outcome of this primeval race.

As is the case with many of California's wildlife populations, human
activities have reduced numbers of Clear Lake hitch. Dams and bridges on
tributary streams and the introduction of non-native fishes into Clear
Lake have had the greatest impact.

Clear Lake hitch are not strong swimmers or jumpers. This species had no
reason to develop exceptional swimming and jumping abilities because
native spawning streams were gradually sloped and void of large
waterfalls and rapids. During the spawning run, their only concern was
the drying of streams during the summer months.

Today, bridges, stream crossings and other in-stream structures threaten
hitch spawning. Many old bridges and stream crossings in Lake County were
not designed with Clear Lake hitch in mind. By changing the direction of
stream flows or creating waterfalls of one or more feet, bridges can
delay migration or completely block upstream access for spawning hitch.

Competition between developing eggs and juveniles is another problem
associated with barriers. I have seen millions of hitch eggs lining the
bottoms of streams below barriers. Lower layers of eggs suffocate due to
lack of oxygen or high concentrations of nitrogenous wastes, a by-product
of egg development.

The same problem can occur when stream sections become overpopulated with
juveniles. If spawning had been possible throughout the length of these
streams, egg and juvenile survival would have been much greater.

Dams, such as those on Adobe and Highland Creeks, completely block
upstream access. Newer dams such as the Kelsey Creek dam have retractable
gates which can be opened during the spawning season. However, newer dams
are not without problems. Altered flow patterns and slight increases in
the slope of the streambed have been enough to reduce the number of
spawning hitch above the Kelsey Creek dam.

The Department of Fish and Game, in cooperation with Lake County and
Caltrans, have worked to correct some of these problems. Caltrans
engineers now consider hitch migration in their road and bridge designs.
Lake County personnel have assisted Fish and Game in improving conditions
at county facilities. This cooperative effort has improved conditions for
Clear Lake hitch.

One final impact to Clear Lake hitch habitat results from agricultural
irrigation in the valley and domestic water diversion in upper watershed
areas. Prior to discharging into Clear Lake, most Clear Lake tributaries
meander through rich agricultural lands which produce pears, wine grapes,
walnuts and kiwis. To support these water dependent crops, farmers pump
water from aquifers which directly affects surface flows in tributary
streams. Water use by residential users is also increasing.

The diversions have caused streams to dry prematurely and have restricted
the time hitch have to successfully spawn. Although numbers are well
below historic levels, hitch continue to survive in the Clear Lake basin
despite these significant alterations.

Clear Lake splittail, a close relative of the hitch, were not as
fortunate. Last seen in the mid-1970s, Clear Lake splittail are thought
to be extinct. At one time, splittail used Clear Lake tributaries in
numbers equaling hitch. On average, peak spawning for Clear Lake
splittail was two weeks behind Clear Lake hitch. This slight difference
aided in their demise. Early drying streams and the presence of migration
barriers impaired reproduction of this species and ultimately aided in
their extinction.

Introductions of non-native fishes may have also played a role in the
loss of the Clear Lake splittail. What's clear is that slight alterations
of habitat can have devastating consequences for some species. In the
case of Clear Lake splittail, the consequence was extinction.

Clear Lake hitch are an important component to the food chain in the
Clear Lake basin. Without them, many fish, birds and mammals would not
have adequate forage. While examining Clear Lake's record bass, a
17.5-pound monster, I discovered a large hitch in its stomach. Many large
bass specifically target hitch as prey.

Bass anglers who frequent Clear Lake recognize this relationship and have
attempted to trick bass with a technique known as "ripping." The ripping
technique involves the use of a large rapala, or other fish-like lure.
After casting in a desirable location, the angler retrieves the lure by
alternately jerking on the rod and quickly retrieving the line. This
technique has proven effective for many anglers targeting bass in Clear
Lake. What some anglers may not realize is that they are mimicking the
actions of hitch.

Clear Lake hitch epitomize the importance of maintaining biodiversity
among California's wildlife populations. To the uneducated observer, this
species may seem worthless. To the informed person, hitch may be worth
their weight in gold. Hitch provide benefits to the sport fishing
industry which, in turn, supports hundreds of restaurants, motels and
other service oriented industries.

Hitch help reduce populations of nuisance insects and provide forage for
hundreds of wildlife species. Because of their unique habits, Clear Lake
hitch offer excellent opportunities for educators. Lake County and all of
California should strive to protect all native species, regardless of
their perceived value.

The best months to view Clear Lake hitch are March, April and May. Prime
viewing areas include Seigler Canyon Creek at Anderson Marsh State
Historic Park and behind the visitor's center at Clear Lake State Park.
The visitor's center houses a large aquarium with several fish species,
including Clear Lake hitch. Two other locations, the Soda Bay Road
crossing of Cole and Kelsey Creeks, are within bicycling distance from
Clear Lake State Park.

For more information on these areas, call the Clear Lake State Park
office at (707) 279-2267. Adobe Creek also supports large numbers of
spawning hitch. The Argonaut Road crossing offers excellent viewing. This
area is visible from State Highway 29 between Lakeport and Kelseyville.
Look for the stream just west of the Konocti Winery.

For more information on viewing Clear Lake hitch, contact the Department
of Fish and Game's regional office in Yountville at (707) 944-5500. Lake
County offers a wide variety of activities and is a well established
vacation destination. For more information on Lake County, contact the
Lake County Visitor Information Center at (800) 525-3743. 

Richard Macedo is the California Department of Fish and Game's district
fishery biologist for Lake and Mendocino Counties.

Robert Rice
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