Sunday, 7 January 2018


It has long been known that hatchery enhancement of wild salmon can lead to unexpected results. In the States, for many years, hatchery spring chinook were planted in many rivers in several states. This lead to obliterating natural genetics through inter-breeding between wild and hatchery fish. Diversity of natural genetics is key to survival of salmon, as they are adapted to the waters in which they were raised. Wipe out diversity and ability to adapt is also wiped out. Ditto for survival.

In Canada, we did not follow the same route. The intent was to use a raised stock in close-by waters that have similar genetics, rather than a generic fish for all rivers. For example, in the hatchery I know the most about, the Nitinat, chinook are used in that river, as well as Sarita, Sooke, Sooke Basin net pen and perhaps the San Juan, rivers that are close by and have similar genetics.

There are other approaches. Alaska, for example, does ‘ocean ranching’ which means pumping out billions of fry, most commonly, pink salmon, and reaping the abnormally high numbers of returning salmon to make the most money. Again, this wipes out genetic variation in wild stocks, but Alaska has chosen to make a commercial catch, in some basins, and ignore the genetic destruction. Catch results are impressive. Alaska’s catch of all species was 243 million in 2017.

In BC, right next door, the 2017 commercial catch was pretty much non-existent. A staggering comparison of side by side abundance and dearth. There are many reasons. The big four are: lack of adequate amounts of freshwater habitat restoration, DFO itself, fish farms and climate change. And factors like ‘the Blob’ offshore in rearing areas has lead to problems. As well, the PSF’s project for the Salish Sea is showing other effects, like seal predation of juvenile chinook to 40% and coho to 47%, phytoplankton differences in spring among other things. See the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, 2016 Canadian Progress Report:

In recent years, the genetic considerations in enhanced fish has received more study. While genetics may be the same in a wild fish from the same river that a hatchery fish is produced, the expression of those genes may be different, and account for different outcomes, especially as the gene expression can begin and end in different periods of a salmon’s life cycle. Measuring those effects out in the ocean is difficult because it is difficult to find the fish. But the effects can be studied during raising of fry, and in mature fish when they return.

This field is known as epigenetics. See this article for a non-technical take on the issue: Approaches to raising those fish are key. Here is a short quote: “Epigenetics is the physical and molecular processes that control how the instructions contained within DNA get expressed or turned into the proteins that affect day-to-day life. Often, epigenetics causes a gene to be expressed more or less frequently than it otherwise would. Everything from stress to chemicals to natural processes like puberty can cause epigenetic changes. Some of the changes are temporary or reversible, while others last forever.”

Louis Bernatchez, working at Laval University, has found that feeding and crowding in hatcheries accounts for much of the differences in gene expression. Perhaps surprisingly, this effect was consistent for fish of different stocks raised at different hatcheries. But, if you were brought up to gorge on brown pellets that nice people, or machines tossed at you, rather than be pretty hungry all the time, and have to hunt to find something to eat and stay out of the way of predators, the expression of some genes could dramatically differ. 

You will recall that evolution functions through ‘natural selection’ a concept that is the basis of all Darwinian thought. Do hatcheries ‘select’ gorgers, or is the food, temperature, relatively inactive life modifying gene expression? Regardless of the explanation, hatchery fish don’t always respond as well as wild fish. 

It is common, at least for chinook, for the fish to lose some or all of their ability to spawn in the wild. This may be good for wild genetics, but it suggests an important reason to rely more on habitat restoration than enhancement, something made all the more difficult in this time of climate warming, with its accompanying lower water flows, higher temperatures and lower oxygen in rivers. 

I think the time is coming where we will see convoys of trucks and helicopter buckets moving salmon above impassable river sections and depositing them in large pools to rest until the later rains of fall do the deed. This would serve the interests of chinook, coho and chum due to their October or later spawning pattern, when rain is more likely to be expected. I am not so sure about sockeye and pink, that can, due to their smaller size, navigate shallower water, and do spawn earlier, but sockeye have a problem with surviving in water above 20 degrees C. Coho are almost as temperature sensitive as well.

Spot fishing closures, as annoying as they are, to let wild fish through can make a lot of sense, as can producing hatchery fish that do not return migrate at the same time as their wild compatriots. But what about ‘fake’ food, couch potatoes and endlessly clicking iPhones?

The Nitinat Hatchery has been doing some interesting experiments in the past few years to try and find some answers. Researchers Kristi Miller and Sean Rogers are working with them. Miller you will know from the Cohen Commission presentation of her ‘Viral Signature’ work that showed sockeye dying at advanced rates of pre-spawn mortality in the Fraser. And she showed in 2017 that PRV causes HSMI, a serious problem for wild fish as up to 95% of farmed fish have PRV.

You may have had a serious laugh at the Jimmies, as one-year returnee hatchery male chinook salmon have been dubbed – Sarita, Nitinat. Take a six-weight rod and plop a generic Tom Thumb dry fly where they are snapping away and you can pretty much ding every one in the pool. They look like pink salmon, but have long sharp teeth, and that unmistakeable smell of a chinook. Presumably these, along with Jacks, sexually mature two-year-old males, that no one really wants - except in very low water - are the result of epigenetic changes in hatchery chinook.

The Nitinat has, with both coho and chinook, found interesting things by varying food, lifestyle, size of smolt at release and so on. They do both small and large chinook smolts and yearlings. They also compare standard raceway fry with others that have an ‘enriched’ lifestyle, such as putting objects, bushes, flotsam in their water to explore, hide in, feed on those mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies that show up on high algae objects, rather than solely pellets.

There is also putting fry into local lakes to bring themselves up, particularly with coho. The aim is to produce fish with more wild behaviour, fish that have a greater chance of wild spawning, and reduced percentage of young, sexually mature males. The more the epigenetics are right, the better the fish; and the more that enhancement becomes a better option for increasing salmon spawner numbers of wilder fish; in other words, a true companion to the over arching need for freshwater habitat restoration, the crux of the other half of the story.

Some experiments of smaller fitter fish lead to larger adults, and for chinook, the larger fish are typically female, the sex we want to return, not to mention that more five-year fish are returning as, yes, larger fish. Current experiments suggest that environment enrichment doubles smolt to adult survival, an important consideration when wild return is about 1% to maintain a run. So, we may be heading to lower density, lower growth rates and enriching environment more consistently across the Salmon Enhancement Program.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Salmon-chanted New Years

On the last day of 2017, you are, of course, going to welcome in a new year with a New Year’s salmon dinner before not watching Kathy Gifford once again embarrass Anderson Cooper in Times Square. Her depiction of Trump as a bleeding head got her removed from the annual embarrathon. I am sure Anderson is as happy as the rest of us.

He would even be happier were he to live in BC and have a nice salmon dinner to ring out the old and ring in the new. While I have several salmon recipes, I keep returning to one so simple and tasty, it is a winner.

Lay a salmon fillet out on tin foil in a cookie tin, edges of foil rolled up and over the edges of the tin, to keep all the sauce in with the fish, and to drizzle on during serving. Mix several ounces of Bullseye Bold Original BBQ sauce in a bowl along with an ounce or two of China Lily soy sauce. It must be China Lily as it has the best taste for this recipe of all the brands. It’s the carmelized taste and the salt. The soy sauce cuts the harshness of the BBQ sauce and allows it to flow when ladled out onto the fish.

Before covering the fish with the sauce, cut some garlic into thin slices. Also get out the Demerara sugar; this sugar has the most taste of all sugar products and you will taste the difference, as this is a strong-tasting recipe. 

Now completely cover the fillet with the sauce, allowing the rest to run out onto the tin foil. This is followed by laying down the garlic slices on the fish, as many as you wish. Then add raw pineapple in wedges, also the length of the fillet, and any remainders in the sauce around the fish. At this point, you take the Demerara sugar in your hand and completely cover the filet, so that nothing other than the sugar is showing.

Put another sheet of tin foil over the fish, and place the tray in the fridge to blend in the hours leading up to dinner. Once cooking time arrives, take the foil off the top, and put the tin in an oven preheated to 400 Degrees F. Cooking time will be 18 to 22 minutes to when you check the fish to see whether some of the protein is welling up onto the surface as a white liquid. 

Once you see some surface protein action, most of the fish will already be cooked. Take the tray from the oven and twist in the shoulder with a fork or knife. The meat should still be raw in this thickest portion of the fish (the rest being cooked). If it is cooked, rest the fish. If you see raw flesh, put the fish back in the oven.

As soon as you see white liquid coming from where you twisted the flesh, the fish is done. This will be less than five minutes from when you have put the fish back into the oven. Fish is cooked in the instant you see the liquid and there is nothing worse than over cooked fish. It is better to be a minute under than a minute over. Watch the oven like an eagle (hawks don’t eat many fish here on the coast).

Put the tray down on a towel on a surface. Put the second sheet of foil back on the fish, and neatly over the edges. Cover with a bath towel double folded so it will keep in the heat. Cover the entire tray so no part of it is showing. And then rest the fish until it is time to serve. You should rest it for a minimum of 15 minutes, as it really improves the dish.

When serving, use a spatula to slip between the skin on the bottom and the fish just above it. Slice pieces from dorsal to ventral surface gently with a regular knife (it need not be sharp as the fish is cooked and soft and will come apart easily). Finally, drizzle on some more sauce and pineapple.

The best vegetables to eat with this dish are strong ones. Broccoli is the best, followed by Brussel sprouts – adult flavours, and for children carrot is best. Also add steamed - but not over cooked - beans. Serve with a plate of diagonally-sliced bread, a baguette or one of those multi-grain ones that require a few minutes cooking in your oven to crisp up. Enjoy.

The ingredients are:

Salmon fillet
Bulls Eye Bold Original BBQ sauce
China Lily soy sauce
Demerara sugar
Sliced garlic cloves
Sliced pineapple.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Spoons in Saltwater Trolling

Spoons are probably the easiest type of lure to troll. You can have confidence in their ability to continue fishing, once they are set at trolling depth, and thus need only check them every half hour, rather than sooner, as with other types of lures.

The useful thing about downrigger fishing – spoons are usually used at depth in winter months, in saltwater – is that once the release clip has been attached to the cable, chances are that any weed/flotsam that gets caught on the mainline at the surface, will not get past where the clip attaches to the mainline above the lure/flasher. 

If you trip the line to check the lure, do not assume that ‘weed’ has been on the lure for long, because any that reaches the clip and stops there, simply migrates toward the flasher once the line has been tripped from the release clip. And it is worthwhile saying that ‘weed’ is less common in the winter than in summer.

Unlike hootchies that can have lots of reasons for their fronds to get caught on one another, hooks and so on, spoons, if you watch them descend from the surface without weed, will not foul on themselves. Bait has many reasons why it may not continue fishing for long without some decay in its spiral pattern, for example, it may slip back from the teaserhead and end up with a ninety-degree unfishy bend in no time flat.

Ease of use is one of the best reasons to use spoons. In winter, at depth, it is useful to have spoons/flashers that have glow and UV properties, so that beyond about 90 feet where surface light does not penetrate, the tackle is actually emitting visible light, or UV that can also be seen deeper. 
Spoons can be run with or without flashers in clear winter water. If with a blade, use four- to six-feet of leader to the spoon, and vary your speed so that you accommodate the two- and three-year old chinook that will pick up speed to catch a meal unlike their four-year old brethren that are losing their bite reflex prior to spawning. In addition to fishing with the tide, consider zig zagging if a straight-line pattern runs you through a fishy area too quickly.

Twenty-five-pound test leader is good for spoons. Higher test dampens spoon action, while lower test risks a break off after the bite. As with hootchies, you will find some spoons catch more fish, even though they look identical to the second one you throw out that never catches anything. Fish those killers until they break off, rather than change leaders and kill their mystical properties altogether.

Over the years, many spoon lines have evolved. In the beginning, commercial spoons like the whole silver, or half silver half brass Tom Macks ruled the day. Then the Clendon, and Clendon Stewart spoons came along, as did Krippled Ks. Perhaps the time when spoons evolved most quickly occurred more than 30 years ago when Radiant Lures put out a line with multiple colour combinations, soon imitated by Luhr Jensen. We tend to think of a Coyote spoon, half white, half glow green as a Luhr Jensen lure. But it was first put out by Radiant (Now called Supertackle).

Other colours soon followed, including Cop Car, Cop Car Glow (for west coast Van Isle) Army Truck, Glo-Below, Tiger Prawn… the list goes on. And in recent years, yet another explosion of spoons hit the market, Coho Killers, for instance, G Force spoons from Gibbs, as well as Skinny Gs, and AP Tackleworks (their spoons are made with stainless steel). The issue with long line-ups is: which of the many colour patterns actually work. This is best answered by fellow anglers, at least those who catch fish, launching ramps and weekly fishing reports, Island Outfitters, for example. 

The White Lightning in Coho Killers is good in the winter. As is the Outfitters G Force. Do note, however, that some lures have issues. Coho Killers, for example, are made for freshwater, and thus the lure and hook rust in saltwater. The downside is needing to use a lotion-style (not sandpaper that simply rubs the finish off the spoon) metal cleaner like Brasso on the lure from time to time, and taking care to remove it all – scent is the issue. Then change the hook, to a Siwash, or Octopus style kerbed hook, and finally, watch the lure wriggle beside the boat at trolling speed. The issue is to retain the fishy action that caught fish before the original hook rusted.

And, finally, don’t hold a fish up by the spoon. If it is a stamped tin one, it will bend, and you may have just ruined a killer lure. It is worthwhile keeping your ‘spidy’ senses on at all times, as superstition can be a good thing, when figuring out which spoon is your best spoon.

Some Useful Links:

A link to Radiant spoon colours:

A link to Coho Killers. Scroll down to get a good explanation of the issues with this lure, which, nonetheless has been, and continues to be, an outstanding spoon for saltwater trolling year-round in the greater Victoria area:

A link to AP Tackleworks – all stainless steel spoons, a real advantage, and with a non-rusting hook, means you won’t have to change a hook and wonder whether you have ruined the spoon's action: