Bio-Engineering Fish Habitat


Bow Valley Habitat DevelopmentPlanting Along the water's Edge

Important Links:

You can find some additional fish habitat enhancement techniques at the blog site link below. Just click on the titles listed on the black link list.

Photo: A Stage One Native Willow Plant

A Stage One willow plant after one year of growth

Fish Habitat

Below: Stream Tender Magazine is a free  internet magazine —published quarterly by Bow Valley Habitat Development

“ A New Approach to Fish Habitat Enhancement “

    Starting in 2012, Bow Valley Habitat Development made a dramatic change in its approach to the enhancement of fish habitat, on trout streams that were in need of work. Prior to changing how BVHD would create fish habitat on a stream, most of the enhancement work carried out was in-stream modifications, requiring a lot of planning and permitting.

    For years earlier, I had been thinking about using riparian planting techniques that BVHD had developed, to create naturally grown native plant structure and habitat to achieve specific deficiencies in stream fish habitat. Native willows and trees could be used to create pool habitat, overhead cover and in channel structure for both fish and aquatic invertebrates. It is the most natural way of stream habitat enhancement.

    In 1998, BVHD developed a planting system titled “The Head Start Planting System”. The technique involved growing native willow and tree cuttings into plants with both root and top development, prior to planting along trout streams. The process has evolved since then and now the system is much more efficient and successful.

    Recently, tens of thousands of native willow and tree plants have been planted on area streams where there were not any present, prior to the planting program. As these plants grow into maturity, they will provide excellent fish habitat, both above and below the surface of the streams.

    The newly planted native plants will also provide stream bank stability and improve water quality in the stream channel.

    Besides emulating the natural recovery of a stream’s riparian zone, the process is very cost effective, on a habitat per unit effort basis. All you need is time, before you can witness the transformation of a streams recovery and increase in fish populations.

    Bow Valley Habitat Development plants two different stages of native plants. A Stage One, which is less developed than the Stage Two plants. The Stage Two are tended for a longer period of time and they will grow faster, once planted.

    However, the most popular choice is the Stage One, which is the quickest stage to grow and has a faster turn over. Both stages are planted right thru the spring, summer and late into the fall. When planted close to the water, the native plants do very well.

Above: A Stage One plant and one that has been planted.

Above: A Stage Two Plant, ready for planting.

The Cutting is planted into the stream bank

Planting Tools

    Depending on the soil conditions along the stream bank, a number of different tools are used for the planting process. All of the tools are used to create a hole  in the ground for the placement of the rooted cutting.

    Drill bits, augurs and hole punch tools are used by BVHD to carry out the planting of native willow and tree plants.

    The power tools are only used when the ground is too hard for a hole punch tool. Both electric drills and gas powered augurs do a great job of preparing a planting hole in hard packed soil, with gravel and sand present.

    The hole punch tools make the job much easier and faster for the volunteers that do the planting.

Electric power drill bits of various sizes are used

Hole punch tools, like the one below, are used

A gas powered augur

Planting Along the Water’s Edge and on Eroding Stream Banks

    Native willows and trees require lots of moisture to get started. By planting along the water’s edge, in the capillary fringe, the plants will do the best. This area of planting will also produce the best results for creating fish habitat on a stream channel.

    The cuttings are planted with approximately 60 to 70 % of the shaft under the ground, so once the roots are established in the soil, the plants are less likely to be washed downstream in a high flow event. However, flooding can rip off the new leaf growth during the initial weeks after planting. Some plants will be lost, while others heal and grow.

    Another advantage of planting along the water’s edge is the extended planting season. Planting can be carried out throughout the summer and fall, with the available moisture in the stream bank.

    This extended season also is advantageous for planting on eroding stream banks. Much of the planting on eroding stream banks can be done after the spring run-off and rainy season. Some eroding stream banks will take a number of plantings to stabilize, but the cost effective method of using native cuttings to complete the task, makes it well worth the effort.

    I have noted a dramatic improvement in the water quality of Bighill Creek, due mainly to the reduction of annual silt loading into the stream channel. Presently, there are 58 stream bank stabilization sites that have been planted on the lower reach of Bighill Creek and these sites are near completion.

    A few the stream bank stabilization sites on the Bighill Creek are approximately 8 feet or greater in height, so they will take years to stabilized.

    I have found that it takes a few years before the root systems from a stage one willow plant are secured firmly into the stream bank. After the initial years of growing, the plants take off in their growth rate. Provided the soil PH is acceptable. A PH of between 5 and 7.5 is best suited for native willows and trees.

    Where the stream banks are steep along the creek channel, I like to plant willows right above water level, during normal flow conditions. This will provide the greatest benefit for fish habitat, by creating overhead cover and some submerged cover for resident trout in the stream.

    The submerged woody debris and live limbs will also provide great invertebrate habitat in the stream. Invertebrates that adapt to woody debris are less likely to be impacted by the movement of silt.

Willows bundled for planting

Above: Willows grow the best when planted in the capillary fringe along the water’s edge.

Above: Willows planted just above the water level, create the best habitat for both trout and aquatic invertebrates. The willows above were planted a few years earlier at this site.

Stream bank stabilization sites like this one are found on the outside of bends in the stream channel. Some sites are over 8 feet in height.

What Are The Long Term Benefits of Riparian Planting?

    When I look at a length of stream channel that is void of any native willows and trees, I can see the potential for what riparian planting could do to change the landscape. It can take a lot of work and time to transform a barren stream into a healthy eco-system, but the benefits are easy for me to visualize.

    Having spent a good part of my life in the outdoors and nature’s paradise, I see a trout stream beckoning in early morning hours or late in day, when clouds of midges soar.

    This may appeal to a fly fisherman like myself, but there are other things that make a healthy trout stream draw you in. It is natures call and with out it we are all at a loss. Our trout streams have suffered greatly as human development shapes the landscape and only seems to have a negative impact on healthy riparian eco-systems.

    Fortunately, I have had the experience of seeing how riparian restoration work can bring back an eco-system along a trout stream. It may take years to accomplish,

but what a great goal it is to work toward. As time progresses and the planted native willows and trees start to grow toward maturity, you will see the wildlife return to the once barren landscape.

    You will witness the improved clarity of the water in the stream, as the riparian zone takes hold of the soil along the stream channel. Fish and wildlife that once haunted the stream’s length will start to return. For me, I can take great satisfaction in knowing that we had a hand in the restoration challenge.

Left and Right:

You can compare the stream channel on the left and right, to see what a difference that a healthy riparian zone can do to the landscape along a flowing trout stream. It is quite obvious, what looks better?