Wednesday, 28 November 2018

A Man And His River - 2

5,000 chinook at Glory Slough:

Note the scum and bubbles on the surface. From their circular pattern, moving up, across, down and back across, etc., chinook schools carry surface detritus, bubbles from releasing them after sipping air at the surface along with them. You will see these patches that are moving upstream, rather than down, because of all the fish underneath creating the current. A good way to spot big schools. This is just a detail of the entire school.

A bright 12-pound coho in September:

A nice, big chum:

Cutthroat Trout taken with a dry fly:

Me and my kickboat:

A big chinook and happy angler:

Winter Steelhead Gear:

Winter Steelhead Flies:

Winter steelhead taken on a pink worm:

Who says you can't land a flounder on a fly?

Bunny Leeches

Fly fishing for coho in deep fall in the Little Nitinat canyon:

A nice winter steelhead on the fly:

Laying out a Spey cast:

A nice chinook salmon:

Stoneflies. These can be deadly:

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Winter Chinook Structure

I want to say more on structure and winter chinook fishing. As everyone knows, winter chinook cruise around typically at 100- to 180-feet deep staying in contact with lunch, which is also deeper in winter than summer.

Last week I made the point that a point of land concentrates fish. The reason is simple: a bay that is an inside curve, and with little in the way of bumps or rocks spreads the fish out. I made the case that Ross Bay in Victoria is just such a place. Most of it is 60 feet or less, and as you move south it slowly gets deeper to 110 feet and on a curve between Clover and Trial, a distance of several miles.

When you come to structure on both ends (yes, there are several bumps just west of Trial, but the point remains), both Trial and Clover stick out south into the water, perpendicular to land. And both drop off to 100- to 120-feet quickly. In the inside, shallow curve the fish are spread out over several miles and finding them is pretty much luck. And to reach the 110-foot mark in Ross Bay, you will be more than a mile off shore.

Not so at either end. Both Trial and Clover reach 110 feet within 100 yards of shore. So, for a simply passive reason, all the fish in the inside curve will bunch together when they go by either point. They have no choice, and this is worthwhile remembering: always fish structure for winter chinook, and only fish wide, flat, shallow bays when you are sure the fish are not at the point/structure.

The same principle applies everywhere: Otter Point in Sooke, drops off on both sides, although on the west, the flat for Muir Creek is also like Ross Bay. However, Otter Point on the west side has a ‘trench’ and is a good spot for both summer and winter chinook even though the fish are there for different reasons.

On the east side of Otter Point, the water is also fairly deep near shore and thus is worth a cruise in setting up your winter fishing. Other bumps and structure include Secretary Island (its correct name is Donaldson Island), then to the Trap Shack and Beechey Head which is once again a major piece of structure that sticks out from shore.

Once the winter fish mosey inside the bay, Aldridge and Creyke points, along with the Bedfords and Church Rock are also fishy because they also stick out from shore.

Similarly, the same principle is used on the beaches for pink salmon fishing at all the estuaries from Nanaimo north all the way to Port hardy. Points are better fishing than inside curves, for the passive reason I have mentioned. The fish have no choice but to bunch together to swim around the point.

In winter fishing, there is another point to, er, points: tidal flow. On the flood, the bait and fish are pushed to the east in the Victoria/Sooke area. The ebb moves them west. In each case a back eddy is set up on the east side on the flood, west side on the ebb. A back eddy is where flowing water moves in a circle, first past the point, then turning toward shore, then following the shoreline back to the point, and so on.

This is what makes the west side of Otter good on the ebb in the summer for big fish. Once when the traffic was too high at the point, I simply motored directly west in the ebb tideline, with the intention of swinging back into the trench leading back to Otter Point. In the tideline, half mile off Muir, I was rewarded with a 30-pound summer spring, which of course I wasn’t expecting because it wasn’t lined up with the on-shore theory we all use in the summer. I didn’t refuse its willingness to swim into my net.

Another example of a peak rising from the bottom, the spire off Christopher Point, just west of the Race, rises to 47 feet below the surface, and quickly drops off to 75 feet and then deeper. On several occasions on the ebb, I have put the first rod down 45 feet, moving west, and before I could get the second rod out, had a fish on the first rod, powerful proof that fish are on the downstream side of the rock on either prevailing tidal flow.

Constance Bank has a number of similar structural features that concentrate fish. The shallowest part is 60 feet deep, and the north side edge, running east/west, can be a good spot for fish right on the edge, at 100 to 115-feet before it drops to water as much as 300 feet deep. Similarly, the 140-foot lip on the west side is worth fishing around as it, too, then drops off to far deeper water. If you mosey a half mile south, then find the several bumps that project up from bottom on the west side, you will find, that they, too concentrate chinook. 

One last thing. Do make a point of fishing across a point of land, rather than lifting lines, motoring across and setting up in the back eddy. As odd as it may seem, I can’t count the number of times I have got a fish absolutely off a point of land, even though the current should move the fish to the down-current side into its back eddy. 

This phenomenon occurs in the very slow water Saanich Inlet as well, where you would think  the fish could easily swim around the points. For example, I have taken many chinook directly off McCurdy Point, as well as Mackenzie Bay ‘point’ heading to the Boulder, Yellow House Point and so on. In summary: structure = chinook.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Epigenetics: The Case for Wild Enhanced Salmon

DNA in wild and hatchery fish from the same river may be the same, but expression of genes may differ widely. They result in different outcomes, that begin and end in different periods of a salmon’s life. Measuring effects in the ocean is difficult because it is difficult to find the fish. But epigenetic effects can be studied during raising fry, and in mature fish when they return.

There is indeed proof that, as odd as it may sound, a wild/enhanced salmon may be a better fish. Epigenetics is the physical and molecular processes that control how DNA gets expressed day to day in structural and functional proteins. How a fish is raised, changes how a gene is expressed. Stress, chemicals, feed and maturation cause epigenetic changes. Some are temporary, 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 is 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 hungry all the time, 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. 

The Nitinat Hatchery has been doing some interesting experiments in the past few years to try and find the 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. So we need those enhanced fish to return and spawn.

On the other hand, you may have had a serious laugh at the Jimmies, as one-year returnee hatchery male chinook salmon have been dubbed in the Sarita and Nitinat rivers. Plop a generic Tom Thumb dry where they are snapping away and you can ding every one in the pool. They look like pink salmon, but have long, black, sharp teeth, and that unmistakeable smell of a chinook. 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.

They also put fry into local lakes to bring themselves up, particularly 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; thus enhancement can become 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 Nitinat 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, 18 November 2018

Winter Chinook – 2018

The annual fishing calendar has moved into the best time of year to capture a fish and bring it home as the guest of honour for dinner. All the summer chinook bound for spawning have past through, entered their rivers and done the deed.

Winter chinook in our neighbourhood are mostly American. That is because DFO has allowed BC chinook to dwindle over its tenure, while our American friends have done the opposite. Fraser chinook are in short supply, and the main ones remaining for killer whales are the Harrison and Thompson rivers, which are also in decline.

Still, the Cowichan has had a stellar recovery in the past few years, and these fish circle Georgia Strait for a year before migrating offshore. It’s an example of how fish can come back, when given a helping hand. 

Summer fish are higher in the water column and closer to shore within 150 kms from their river. Apparently, they taste the water as a method of helping find their river, and the shallower water is where the river water lies, presumably because freshwater flows out over saltwater, as it is lighter and has lower ionic pressure, mostly, salt, or sodium chloride. I would bet that close to shore also tastes like the shore they are going by.

But winter fish aren’t going anywhere other than to three meals a day. They stay close to the bait, which are usually herring or sandlance. They are deeper than summer fish, and oriented around structure. Herring are midwater fish, while sandlance are substrate fish, so one either fishes at a set level or on the bottom.

In Victoria, Clover Point illustrates a point well. Regardless of other factors, points naturally concentrate fish. Ross Bay is a flat that slowly curves toward Trial Island several miles east. If we assume there are three fish spread out across the flat, it takes some time to find them. However, to move by a point all three fish need to be in the same place, because the point eliminates the area where the three fish were spread out.

So, there is a natural concentrating effect around points, banks and structure. I typically fish about 110 feet deep in the winter, and Clover drops off quickly to 100 feet and then drops to 180. Do catch the outfall pipe on your screen and lift your lower line so it doesn’t hang up. 

Moving west, the Victoria waterfront has several more natural choke points, or bottom structure: the Flag Pole, Harling Point, Brotchie Ledge and the Breakwater, and thence to Macaulay Point. And wherever we fish, the same pattern reveals itself. Otter Point is a more dramatic point than Clover, but it has the same principle. Trial Island is the same (and water drops quickly to 120 feet), as is Ten Mile Point that gives access to the Sidney waters, with Darcy Shoals between.

Even in waters that have almost non-existent tides, the fish are spread out on the side of structure opposite from the direction the tide is flowing. I cut my teeth in Saanich Inlet and found that the Bamberton shore which is pretty much straight had a half dozen hotspots. From the north end, first was the Silos, then two small reefs in front of the dock, then what I called The Slide – it being where concrete had been dumped from trucks to the south of the docks, and was a small depression, there were two more unnamed points where the structure came out from the shore, until a half mile from Sheppard Point, where you began angling off shore following the straying structure and set up for going around the point in deep enough water not to hang up your planer, thence to McCurdy, Stone Steps, and so on. Regular as clock work the fish were found in exactly the same places, but, as stated, on the side opposite from where the tide was coming from, even though you wouldn’t notice it in the boat. On several occasions I told my fishing companion that if we were going to get a fish, it would be right now on the port rod, and was rewarded with a bite. The point is that fish position was precise.

The other factors are lunch and tides. As smaller fish, midwater herring are naturally moved by the tide, one way and then the opposite roughly every six hours. Chinook keep close to them and thus reading bait schools on your depthsounder tells you this is the spot to concentrate your fishing. Sandlance, even smaller, are also moved, but concentrated near the bottom, are moved less so as current rises off bumps creates a vertical eddy, then continues on. The spire off Christopher Point in Sooke is an example of a vertical eddy. To a lesser extent, the Oak Bay Flats has a few of these spots, but it is an area of conflicted tides – tides going in both directions on different sections of the Flats – with the major structural gremlins being Brodie Rock, the Great Chain Islets and Discovery Island.

As it is the case all year round, it makes more sense to fish with the tide rather than against it. You move with the tide, find the bait and fish, and then circle the spot. If the tide is moving quickly, it makes more sense to pick up your lines, move back up stream far enough that your gear is down and working properly before the fish spot. Near shore reference points, it becomes abundantly clear that you are going nowhere when you fish into the tide, as that spot where the fish are can take an hour to crawl back into, and even then, you are pointing the wrong way, as fish typically line up facing the current, and you have to move by them to make a turn and fish through them with the current, another half hour.

One final thing for this week: take a look at your downrigger before winter fishing. That is because more line is out than in the summer, and corroded electrical connections cause more problems in the winter. Clip the cable and replace the swivel above weak line. Check the plug end of the downrigger, sanding with emery paper or light sandpaper to a nice copper finish. Similarly, do the same with the leads that go to and from the battery.

I recently had inconsistent starting when I turned the key, checked for being out of gear, and that the kill switch was on, then did the next thing, which is investigate the battery. These days most batteries are closed and thus you cannot look in the capped spots and fill with distilled water. Instead, I looked sequentially at the leads. On one post there were three and all were corroded. So out came the sandpaper and each was sanded thoroughly, cleaned, the post cleaned and leads put back on.

The second post, had, to my surprise, seven leads. Little wonder it could cause a problem. All seven needed shining – each on both sides – the post sanded and the area around the post cleaned of all the shavings, before putting the leads back down. Things now feel solid. Remember that connections should be inspected at least once a year.