The Sagehen Fish House

Fish House

As part of the original trout research at Sagehen in the 1950’s, Needham wanted to do observational studies. From UCNRS Transect, 21:2:

“From the start…Needham wasn’t content just to count and weigh fish. He also wanted to observe their behavior up close. To do this, he needed an underwater observatory, so he set about getting one. Just as he had done with the station’s buildings, he sketched his idea on a scrap of paper and gave it to someone else to build.

Based on Needham’s drawing, the builder responded with a large steel box. Unfortunately, he failed to reinforce the openings for the windows. Consequently, each time students attempted to install a plate-glass window in the curved wall of the box, the glass broke. The students struggled with the problem throughout the summer. After a number of frustrating attempts, they finally developed a solution, using heavy plastic and sponge rubber to seal the gaps. It was early December when they finally hauled the box out to the creek and there discovered another problem: when they tried to sink the contraption, it floated.

After much piling on of boulders, the students were able, finally, to make the observatory at least partially functional. Needham was ecstatic. Sure, the observatory leaked a little. Sure, it was damp and freezing cold inside. Sure, they could only get it eighteen inches into the water. But it worked! Needham wanted to put it to immediate use to see how the trout made it through the winter. He asked his students if any of them would be willing to stay behind. Flittner and John Sabath volunteered for the task.”

Later iterations of the steel fish observation tank had racks on the side to hold the rocks, and a house-like wooden top (see photo above).  Don Erman states,

This large steel room and associated rock ballast cages were stored eventually outside the lab buildings when I arrived and I finally arranged as Director for a steel salvage yard in Truckee to haul them away for scrap (at no charge to us) in the 1980s when Mike Yoder-Williams was manager.

As of 2018, the old wooden top of the portable structure still sits at the end of the Classroom.

Eventually, a grant from the Max C. Fleischmann Foundation funded the construction of the current fishhouse and diversion weir in 1962. Later renovations were funded by private grants, as outlined below.

Several interesting things came from work done in the fishhouse, including the discovery of the anchor ice phenomenon, and film documentaries on the reproductive behavior of Brook trout.

  • R. L. Butler and V. M. Hawthorne, Reproductive behavior of the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). Film, 1975.
  • R. L. Butler and V. M. Hawthorne, Anchor ice, its formation and effects on aquatic life. Science in Agriculture 26(2):2, 1979.
  • Stead, J. E. 2007. Exploring Reintroduction of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout in a Headwater Stream. Masters, UCD.


Short history of collaboration of Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club and The University of California, Berkeley, Sagehen Creek Field Station

By Don C. Erman (2018)

Faculty Director, Sagehen Creek Field Station 1978-1984

In the mid 1970’s , UC Berkeley Professor Howell Daly, Department of Entomology and a member of the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club asked me if I could arrange a tour of the Sagehen Creek Field Station facilities and in particular a visit to the underwater observation tank built on Sagehen Creek. Some of the members knew about the tank, mostly from word of mouth, because the tank and facilities were restricted to researchers and the station did not hold tours. By this time too, the USDA Forest Service had based their own facility on Taylor Creek in South Lake Tahoe on the permanent structure at Sagehen. This facility was open to the public and gave reference to the design from Sagehen Creek.

I made arrangements for the Club and a tour was attended by a large number of the members. During their tour it became obvious to many that the facilities were showing age and in particular, the observation tank windows leaked badly and the
concrete diversion structure was in near total decay. The Station was originally founded in the early 1950s as a place for field studies in fisheries and wildlife. One of the founders also was keen to observe fish and related stream conditions in extreme winters common to the Sierra Nevada. To that end several temporary structures were fashioned of steel (large boxes) and buried along side the stream so that researchers could climb inside and look through portholes at fish in Sagehen Creek. The concept of a structure for viewing proved valuable for a number of studies but the temporary structures had many problems. Eventually, the university secured a…grant to construct a permanent instream diversion structure to direct flow past a large, underground observation facility with nearly 30 feet of plate glass viewing. By the 1970s, however, the concrete of both the diversion structure and the buried portions of the observation facility had badly deteriorated under the harsh winter conditions.

The Club members decided after their tour of the station that they would like to take on the task of fund raising necessary to refurbish or replace the observation room and the diversion structure. Over the next year or so, the Club held raffles, auctioned donated prizes (equipment and fishing trips), and had other fund raising events and activities. Having seen the field station and learned of the research in fisheries, ecology and natural history, the members were enthusiastic and dedicated to the task they had chosen.

With funds from the Club and evidence of such public support, the Department of Forestry and Resource Management also made a request for additional funding necessary to complete all aspects of a renewal of the fish observation facilities from the [Max C.] Fleischmann Foundation in Reno, Nevada. The fund had been a major contributor to earlier construction of buildings of the station and knew the history of researchers and the field station. This appeal to Fleischmann was also successful and work began immediately on reconstruction. Once completed after a year of rapid work, I organized a ceremony in honor of the contribution and efforts of the Club on behalf of the Sagehen Creek Field Station. The ceremony was held at the Field Station and was attended by Club members and UC faculty. A brass plaque is mounted on the entrance to the underground observation facility in recognition of the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club and The Fleischmann Foundation.