‘The fish will fool you’

“I’ve been really lucky,”  said Jim Smith, project leader for the Red Bluff Fish and Wildlife Office, reflecting on all of the people and places that have enhanced his time with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Above, Smith is interviewed by NPR’s Richard Rodriguez at the base of the Red Bluff Diversion Dam.  Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

Red Bluff leader looks back on long career that’s not over yet

By Steve Martarano
Decmber 19, 2017

While it would seem next to impossible to pack almost 40 years of memories into a half-day tour, Jim Smith, who has been with the Red Bluff Fish and Wildlife Office since 1983, gave it his best shot on a recent warm early fall day.

“I’ve been really lucky,” he said in his typical low-key manner, as he visited a number of his career highlights near his home base, reflecting on all of the people and places that have enhanced his time with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Smith, who used to run marathons until his step slowed with a recent hip injury, sums up his career with a phrase he uses often: “the fish will fool you.”

“The fish will fool you,” says Smith. “It’s what I always tell staff after something happens that we didn’t expect.” Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

“It’s what I always tell staff after something happens that we didn’t expect,” he said. “When it appears like we have it dialed in about what the salmon are doing and what we need to do to help them, something always seems to change.”

Smith has been pondering the fate of salmon for a long while now, and he’s packed in a lot of memories after directing the Red Bluff office as project leader for more than 25 years.

During the morning trip earlier this fall, Smith stopped at the long mothballed Tehama/Colusa Fish Facility salmon spawning channels behind the Red Bluff office. The facility, which used to block smaller fish from getting into the spawning channels, still looks like it could fire up tomorrow. The channels were abandoned after their primary water source from the Red Bluff Diversion Dam was lost when the dam was removed.

He reminisced about the lengthy restoration efforts on Battle Creek and the experience of seeing hundreds of thousands of Chinook salmon making their way into Coleman National Fish Hatchery, compared to less than 10,000 last year.

There was also Clear Creek Restoration, the gravel restoration at the Gorge Overlook and the thrill of a late 90s visit from U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (left) meets with Jim Smith (far right) at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery in 1997. Also in the photo is Tom Nelson (in uniform), Coleman National Fish Hatchery project leader at the time. Credit: Tricia Parker/USFWS

But most of all, Smith thought of the people and how the Red Bluff office grew from just a small office with a few main duties serving the Redding area to more than 40 employees today and several high profile ongoing projects.

A trip down memory lane, however, isn’t really what Smith’s all about, and he shows no indication of wanting to slow down. The affable lifelong outdoorsman has as impressive of a resume as you’ll find in the Service, and despite a lengthy list of accomplishments, he remains humble and excited by his job.

“Being able to watch staff members develop their own careers, and learning new technology from them has kept me going,” said Smith, who grew up in San Diego before leaving Humboldt State University with a Bachelor of Science in Fisheries. “The job has changed around me, and I’ve been able do so many different things. I haven’t become cynical.”

As he looked back on the days when the Red Bluff office totaled less than five employees, he noted several staff members that he’s worked alongside for more than 20 years each including deputy project leader Matt Brown, biologist Tricia Parker Hamelberg and Kevin Niemela, the office’s program manager for hatchery evaluation and monitoring.

“Jim is widely respected as a top expert on salmon management in the Central Valley,” Brown said. “His extensive institutional knowledge is invaluable for restoration actions and improving the operation of the Central Valley Project for the benefit of fish. He respects good science and expects it from his staff, which allows other agencies to trust his word and our work.”

Jim Smith (center) meets with current Red Bluff office staff. “When I joined the Red Bluff office, we had me, my boss Dave Vogel, and two or three technicians. One of my jobs was to hire more people,” he said. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

Hamelberg, one of Smith’s longest co-workers with the Service added that: “I’ve had Jim in my Rolodex since I worked on the Klamath River Restoration Program a few decades ago.

“I first met Jim before I worked in the Red Bluff office, and he impressed me from the start,” she said, noting that he eventually supervised both her and her future husband, former Coleman National Fish Hatchery project leader Scott Hamelberg. “Jim always shows a good attitude even when things seem bleak.”

When Hamelberg started in Red Bluff in 1996, she was the only full-time female fish biologist there, and as the number of women in the workforce grew, Smith continued to be a fair and objective project leader accommodating all staff’s needs, she said.

Jim Smith outside the Red Bluff office in September. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

The Red Bluff office, located off Interstate 5, is about a two-hour drive north of Sacramento. While sometimes hidden to outsiders, despite physically covering 167 acres of land southeast of the city’s main core, the office continues to be a force in the state’s fish and wildlife picture that carries the stamp of Smith’s long tenure there.

“When I joined the Red Bluff office, we had me, my boss Dave Vogel, and two or three technicians,” said Smith. “One of my jobs was to hire more people.”

When Smith first arrived, he said, the Red Bluff office had two main functions – evaluating the federal fish facilities (Coleman and the above mentioned Tehama-Colusa Fish Facility) and evaluating the fishery impacts of Red Bluff Diversion Dam, which at the time was fully operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The dam went partially offline in 1986, then completely offline in 2013 and now mainly serves as the anchor for the four rotary screw traps used for juvenile fish monitoring.

"Our office does a lot of research focusing on management needs," said Smith. "The program also illustrates our key working role with other agencies." Above, biologists work on restored salmon and steelhead rearing habitat on Clear Creek, west of Redding, California. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

Another event of significance was the passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) in October 1992. This addressed environmental needs in the Central Valley and Trinity River basins of California, significantly altering the Upper Sacramento River landscape for salmon and steelhead, Smith said.

It paved the way for one of the most ambitious components of the CVPIA – the Anadromous Fish Restoration Program, which aims to increase the natural production of fish that migrate between fresh water and salt water.

“CVPIA changed quite a number of programs the Service was supposed to evaluate,” said Smith. “Our work has definitely expanded.”

The Anadromous Fish Restoration Program, the high-profile juvenile anadromous fish monitoring effort, led by Red Bluff office staff, began daily sampling of juvenile salmon, steelhead and sturgeon at the base of the diversion dam in 1994. Jim Smith with a staffer at Red Bluff office. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

As a result of the CVPIA, the high-profile Juvenile Anadromous Fish Monitoring Project, led by Red Bluff office staff, began in 1994 sampling daily at the base of the dam for juvenile salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.

The importance of the trap surveys continues today developing an abundance estimate for juvenile fish passage at that key location. The information gathered is used as a basis to estimate the number of winter run fish entering the Delta system and is utilized to set the salvage limits established in National Marine Fisheries Service’s biological opinion on state and federal water operations located near Tracy, California.

When winter-run Chinook salmon were listed, the need for more information increased, and the monitoring project began, said Smith.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses the best available science to make its decisions, and our office has been at the forefront in generating the baseline data to assist the Service and other agencies to make the best decisions,” said Smith. “Our office does a lot of research focusing on management needs. The program also illustrates our key working role with other agencies.”

Smith cites working with the Bureau of Reclamation on temperature management to help the Chinook salmon winter-run as one of his top achievements. Other highlights include the Clear Creek restoration and the long-running Battle Creek Restoration Project.

“My time and work here at Red Bluff has been an adventure that has had high points and not so high points, but has always provided me with challenges to keep going,” said Smith. “Figuring out how the fish made a fool of us, and especially me, is why I keep coming in the office every day.”

Jim Smith tours the Gold Dredge floodplain habitat restoration site at Clear Creek. “My time and work here at Red Bluff has been an adventure that has had high points and not so high points, but has always provided me with challenges to keep going,” said Smith. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

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Steve Martarano

About the writer...

Steve Martarano is currently the public affairs specialist in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Fish and Wildlife Office located in Sacramento, California.

He has spent almost 30 years in both state and federal government public affairs after a 10-year stint at a daily newspaper in Sacramento.

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