Sunday, 21 January 2018

Winter Steelheading – Part 2

To start, a bit more on weather and water conditions. As mentioned, the murkier, or more blown, the river, the greater the importance of hitting a steelhead on the nose with the lure as the visibility for them can be less than a foot. This means covering good water several more times before moving on. And it makes good sense, when the wading is difficult because of deeper water, to take a float- or drift-boat, to cover more water. And cover water that those on foot cannot reach. You will find untouched fish in these spots because shore anglers cannot reach this water, in other words, you get ‘first water’ where fish have not bitten or been disturbed, much more frequently, and longer in the day.

As for weather, the longer it has been between rain storms, the staler the fish. Water grows clearer the longer it drops and the fish bite far less than on rising or dropping water; they become far more wary, ‘pooled up’ as steelheaders put it, particularly for summer steelhead as the summer wears on. The other part of pooled up is where steelhead come to rest in a deep pool and wait for rain to stimulate them toward spawning. Unbity, to coin a term, they sit and wait out the months until spawning, typically in April for winter steelhead.

The other weather condition is: cold. When it is below freezing and ice is forming in your line guides, steelhead sink to the bottom and will not move to your lure/fly. It really does have to bonk them on the nose. We tend to forget that rivers can be colder than the ocean, which, while cold for humans, is the natural temperature range for salmonids. Rivers can be colder because they have far less water to be cooled off by the cold air in winter than the ocean.

One cold clear day in February, I stood on a tributary of the Gold at a spot that a guide, who was taking me fishing in return for my writing an article on the fishing, said was good. He said there was a fish there and that I would catch it. I just had to keep fishing, in this case gear. A pink worm at sinker level. 

Well, I ran that worm down the run a dozen times, making little adjustments to the downriver ‘slice’, six inches closer to me, or successively further away. I thought there was no chance of catching a fish. About my 40th cast, a nice male winter whacked the worm and the fight was on. Since then I have been a believer about giving the best water more casts before moving on in cold weather. Don’t waste this time on low percentage water though.

On the other hand, anyone who steelheads knows that you don’t stand and cast. You cast, take a step, cast and take a step. Steelhead are plenty aggressive and there is no point wasting your time staying in one spot – they will move to your fly or lure. You have the day planned in advance, of the spots you will try, hitting the highest percentage water first, and then head elsewhere. The point is to get first water, and the more difficult it is to reach a piece of water, the greater the likelihood it will not have been tried by anyone else.

In addition, do remember where you see footprints in the sand. These are places where others know the spot, too. It is important to pay your dues and find other good water spots, and ones where you find no footprints. Also, get to know whether the footprints are new or old. New prints have crisp edges while old ones have softer ones – commonly wind will soften tracks over time. In addition, it is common for the surface to have a different water content than just below it. For example, if the sand/gravel is dry, but you can see a footprint that is in wet sand, that means you are looking at a very recent print, that has gone through the surface into the deeper substrate, but has not yet dried. Similarly, if the sand/gravel is wet, but you find a track with dry material below the surface, then someone is also just in front of you.

Other track features come to mind. If it is raining and the track you are following has no pool of water in it, it is recent. On the other end, if it is no longer raining and the track has water in it, it is likely from yesterday, if it also is a crisp-edged print.

As for trails, anytime you are following a well-worn trail, that means you are moving to a high percentage spot that a lot of anglers know about. The trails on the Cowichan and Stamp come to mind. On the Stamp, for instance, downstream of Money’s Pool, there is more than one track. You go down, as close to the water as possible. The river breaks into boulders, and rock is fishy steelhead water. On the other hand, boulder water is hard on the feet, and awkward wading.

A bit less than a mile down, at Black Rock, the river bears to the left. You fish down a ways, then find the second path back up. It cuts the corner off, and runs through the trees up a side slope back to Money’s. As mentioned, it takes years to find all the paths on rivers you intend to know well and fish often.

Another trail issue is one you use often, but don’t want others to know of it. One essential vest tool is a pair of pruning snippers that fit in a side pocket. You leave the first 50 feet of the trail unclipped, then start clipping growth, which grows back every year, hence the need for clippers. The unclipped portion conceals that there is a good, useful path beyond, and makes it look like no one has used the spot, hence it can’t be good.

I have a few that are as long as three miles. I am left handed, so I carry the clippers in this hand and cut the left-side branches on the way out. On the way back, clippers still in my left hand, I clip off the growth on the other side of the trail; that may add up to as many as 300 in a day, and so it doesn’t take using the path more than a few times and you have taken a thousand twigs out of your face.

Another useful thing to remember, is that you continue walking at all times. Don’t stop to cut off a branch, just take them in stride. If you miss them one day, you will catch them another, and still have gotten to the water you intend to fish before anyone else gets there, and with time in the bank for reaching those second and third bet waters in the same day.

Yet another tip is that you should, over time, investigate all seasonal streams that you pass while walking on a trail. That means on the way back – don’t waste time on the way out – you walk down the stream to where it enters the river you have been fishing. Thus, you know a shortcut to a certain stretch for when the water is too high to wade down the river and can get to high percentage water, that very few other anglers ever get to. 

One final thing: pick up one of those hats that have LED lights in the front brim, make sure the batteries are charged, and wear it on days you will start or end in dark. This commonly happens in the fall, as the days get shorter. The lights keep you from tripping over something and falling, something that can be a bad thing, particularly if there is a broken off branch below you that is hidden in the fern but pointing up at you. You can be impaled in a split second.

Okay, one more final thing: get to know your river, as sometimes, it does not pay to fish a stretch early, particularly in summer. When water is dead calm or before the caddis and mayflies start hatching, which is based on temperature, they will bite less frequently than when a wind has set up to ruffle the water, or the higher temperature has brought fish out in search of food.

Okay, yet another tip: you fly guys should get to know the cycle of insects in your river. Mosquitos and no-see-ums are munching on your arms and face in March, the moment you get out of the car (carry bug spray for this time of year). In your river, caddis-, may-, damsel- and stone-fly hatch at different times. I’ve seen mayflies in January, though that is uncommon. When you see flying insects, your chances with dry flies are higher. But through-out the season, take a look at the nymphs on the gravel and rocks. They tell you what to match. 

And remember that those stonefly nymphs can be deadly because they are the largest nymph you will carry, and in a current, the easier a nymph is to see in the split second it goes by at fish, the greater the likelihood it will get a bite. Note that typically by early September that all the nymphs may be gone and thus there is no point fishing with them. Time to switch to bright, generic flies like marabou Popsicles or fish for salmon.

More next time.

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.