WHEN FISHING IS A LITTLE SLOW . . . : Call Stream Doctor : Rich McIntyre's Idea to Rehabilitate Wild Trout Waters Nets Him Big Profits

Times Staff Writer

On a warm August morning in 1978, Rich McIntyre was fly fishing with a friend on one of America's great trout streams, the Gallatin River, just outside Bozeman.

They were tossing grasshopper patterns at rainbow and brown trout. Occasionally, they sat on the bank, ate cheese and crackers, drank wine, and admired the Bridger Mountains and Spanish Peaks on the horizon.

As they waded the river, casting flies, they came to a small tributary that flowed into the Gallatin. McIntyre noticed that the little stream was completely silted in, offering no spawning habitat for brown and rainbow trout from the Gallatin.

He looked through the clear water, studying the silt and mud covering the stream-bottom gravel that trout need to spawn. He wondered if a private company could profitably rehabilitate ruined trout streams or possibly build them from scratch. In that instant, a remarkable small business was born.

Today, some folks call Rich McIntyre the stream doctor, or the stream cleaner. Others call him a slick salesman who charges too much and delivers too little.

"I said to my friend that day, 'I wonder if a company that rehabilitated or created wild trout streams could make it,' " McIntyre recalled recently, at his Bozeman office.

It could, as McIntyre has proven in the past seven years.

McIntyre formed a company and called it Timberline Reclamations. In 1979, he moved into an upstairs office across the street from a truck repair garage in Bozeman, and has since created or rehabilitated 130 wild trout streams in 17 states.

Most of his projects have involved land owners who hired McIntyre to restore life in what were once wild trout streams that were then ruined by cattle, pollution or siltation caused by development.

McIntyre, his three full-time employees and numerous consulting hydrologists, biologists and heavy-equipment contractors are typically involved in several stream-trout projects simultaneously, for contracts running into millions of dollars.

A current project, now in the feasibility stage, would have him building a wild trout stream at the Milwaukee County Zoo, complete with an underground viewing station.

Not bad for a 31-year-old who graduated from the University of Missouri 10 years ago with a music degree.

Music?

"My mother and my grandmother were both opera singers," said McIntyre, who grew up in a St. Louis suburb.

"I came out of college wanting to go into some kind of vocal music as a career. But the one consuming love in my life has always been fly fishing. I had an intense interest in the whole area of trout and fly fishing. After I started thinking about disabled wild trout streams that day on the Gallatin, I really got excited about it as a business opportunity.

"One of the first things I learned was that no one else was doing it.

"I got to know some fisheries biologists and learned a lot about trout biology and habitat. I read a lot. I talked to a lot of construction people, learning what kind of costs were involved in using heavy equipment. I met people I could hire on a consulting basis. By 1979, I was ready for Step 1--to advertise."

McIntyre placed an ad in Fly Fisherman Magazine in 1979. Bingo. Instant hit.

He had four responses to the ad, one of them by a Pennsylvania oil company that wanted to rehabilitate a trout stream at its corporate retreat near Erie, Pa. The facility was located alongside Fuller Brook, a tributary of the Allegheny River.

When McIntyre visited the stream to put together a feasibility report on a four-mile stretch, he found a stream where trees, rocks and logs had been removed years before, leaving slow-moving water with silt-bottomed pools.

A healthy wild trout stream has streamside vegetation to hold the bank structures together, and to provide cooling shade and habitat for insects. The stream should meander, so that silt flowing downstream is deposited on the inside of stream turns and does not cover spawning gravels.

"Fuller Brook was once a wild brook-trout stream, but it was in pretty bad shape when we saw it," McIntyre said.

"The undercut banks that trout need for cover were gone. There was very little streamside vegetation to hold the banks together and most of the spawning habitat was silted over. But I was certain we could bring it back to life.

"We decreased the width of the stream, increased the flow velocity and put in structures and spawning gravel. We put in wing deflectors (rock jetties), to create a back-and-forth flow. It was a three-year project.

"A year after we finished, we did some electro-shocking and found an average 54% increase in brook trout per 1,000 feet, and a 96% increase in brown trout."

By 1982, word of McIntyre's work on streams had spread throughout fly fishing circles. He made the Wall Street Journal. He was profiled in Smithsonian magazine. NBC came to Bozeman and filmed an interview with him for its "Today" show.

At about that time, Los Angeles fly fisherman Jim Valeo and several other partners were considering the purchase of a 100-acre ranch near Missoula, Mont.

"The property borders the Clark Fork of the Columbia River," Valeo said. "There is a spring system on the property's meadows, where water comes out of the ground and once flowed maybe a half-mile into the Clark Fork.

"But a previous owner, decades ago, had run the creek (Crystal Creek) into a ditch to make the meadow more productive. All that was left when we first saw it was the ditch and some ponds. We asked Rich to take a look at it, and he told us he could start from scratch and build a brand new wild trout stream.

"He dredged a channel through the deepest of the ponds, took another six-inch-deep pond and filled and narrowed it, and turned it into about 100 yards of spawning habitat. Now, we're seeing 24- to 30-inch trout in there.

"The stream is about a third of a mile long. It flows into the Clark Fork, like the old one did. Parts of it has riffles 6- to 8-inches deep, and other parts have pools 6- to 8-feet deep.

"He pulled old stumps and logs out of the Clark Fork and put them in the stream for cover for little fish and anchored them with cables. As the streamside vegetation that he planted grows and the flow undercuts more of the bank and provides more cover for trout, and more insects use the stream, we expect to see better and better fishing over the years."

McIntyre said he learned something on the Crystal Creek project about the eagerness with which spawning trout will seek new spawning habitat.

"I'd heard and read when I was getting started in this business that it takes years for trout to use new spawning habitat," he said.

"Nonsense. We had 22-inch spawners in Crystal Creek before we were even finished with the project. In fact, one day when we were putting spawning gravel in the stream, one of the workers was grinding his boot heel in some gravel to flatten it out and a male rainbow suddenly appeared, thinking it was a female, building a nest."

When McIntyre works on a stream, he plants native North American grasses--such as orchard grass, fescues and bromes--grown by a Salt Lake City native-plant nursery, on the streamsides.

Trout stream rehabilitation is not a new science. For nearly a century, state wildlife agencies have been learning how to make life better for stream trout.

Says Phil Pister, fisheries biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game: "The states get aid money (from federal excise taxes on fishing gear) to use for stream rehabilitation and we use it for a lot of projects. We've used it to do work on golden trout habitat in the Southern Sierra, for example.

"I've read about McIntyre's work, and from what I know, he does the same kind of work we do. I doubt if he does anything better than we do. The difference is, he's an entrepreneur."

Pasadena fly fisherman Barrett McInerney said of McIntyre: "He's got the enthusiasm of a snake-oil salesman but he's selling the best product around."

Said Art Whitney, fisheries chief for Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Dept.: "I've seen McIntyre's work and he knows what he's doing. He definitely knows how to improve stream trout habitat. But some of us have a problem sometimes with the data he comes up with after he's completed a project. We've seen some exaggerated data, I'd say."

McIntyre's Milwaukee County Zoo project is the brainchild of a fly fisherman in the Milwaukee Zoological Society, Richard Steinman.

"My idea was to build a river in the zoo, to display Wisconsin wildlife as part of a Wisconsin heritage exhibit," Steinman said. "In addition to native strains of trout, the exhibit will have wolves, pine martens and beavers.

" The feasibility study McIntyre did calls for a quarter-mile long, pump-driven stream, with an underground viewing area. If we can raise the money and go ahead with the project, it'll cost about $1.3 million."

McIntyre has been mentioned as a possible mitigator in a suit between some Mammoth Lakes fly fishermen and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power over water volume in Lower Rush Creek in the Eastern Sierra. The DWP attempted to divert water from the creek last fall, imperiling downstream trout.

The fly fishermen and the DWP are in court, and some involved say McIntyre could wind up with a contract to modify the stream, which flows from Grant Lake into Mono Lake.

McIntyre has invented a labor-saving device that removes silt from streams, one he hopes to have manufactured as a sideline.

"I learned early in this business that silt removal is the hardest, most time consuming part of stream rehab work. I've come up with a vacuum-like machine that removes silt but not the gravel from a stream bottom. I call it my silt-sucker. I'm trying to find someone who'll manufacture them for me."

McIntyre also has learned that wild trout streams running through housing developments greatly increase property values. In 1982, he built a stream running through a Boise, Ida., development, River Run, featuring $100,000-to-$300,000 condominiums. Today, the stream has wild rainbow and brown trout.

Said James Bussard, an executive with the developer: "The wild trout stream flowing through the property proved to be an important amenity. As an inducement for sales, we found it to be similar to having residences on a golf course, or with an ocean view."

McIntyre said: "You'd be surprised how many fly fishermen you hear from when you advertise property with a trout stream flowing by. I'm presently inventorying all the cattle ranches I can find in Montana that are coming on the market.

"I'm looking at the idea of putting a group of fly fishermen together, buying a ranch property, building or rehabilitating a trout stream, building small residences and selling it as a corporate retreat.

"A lot of Montana ranches have streams that have been long since flattened and ruined by cattle. All you need is a water source to bring them back."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°