Sunday, 18 February 2018

Winter Steelheading – Part 3



Winter steelhead are found where they are found. They move around a lot, and thus you may find one in a spot where you did not expect it, nor catch one again. In other words, you have to consider fishing more water than just hotspots.

Having said this, winter steelhead are found most typically in: heads of pools, tails of pools and straight line runs of 3 to 8 feet deep. And there is pass through water and holding water. Steelhead move through pools to the head where they tend to lie under the frothy water, out of sight, with lots of oxygen and being first to see food swept from the riffle above. Make sure to fish that top foot, rather than step into the water.

Tails of pools, other than during spawning when it is unethical to fish them, represent a spot where steelhead have come up a riffle or fast water with higher than usual downward gradient. They stop to rest for awhile before continuing to the head of a pool. Sometimes they may be in direct view, depending on how high you can get above the tail-out. Usually though, they melt into the rocks and are not seen. If they see you, however, then they will not bite. 

There is nothing more aggravating than wading down a river and having a steelhead swim by you. Typically, you have disturbed the fish and they move up or down. Do remember these fish as where you find one, you will find another in the future. Make sure your fly or lure plumbs that water before you disturb it by wading. 

Runs present a crease in bottom structure where the water is deeper than the rest of the cross-section of the river. Seldom do you see fish, as the water is too deep and flow patterns destroy the windows – calm surface patterns flowing down current that allow momentary sight through to the bottom – but they are the highest percentage spots in most rivers. In these circumstances, steelhead stop for a period of time, many days for example, before moving on.

Note also that you should fish a river often enough that you see its evolution over time. Bottom structure influences fish position and if structure changes, so to does where fish come to rest. In one river, one day, I caught three ‘yearling’ winter steelhead in a small depression caused by scouring gravel beside a shoreline boulder.

Over the next few years, the riffle below changed its bank from the right, where the fish were, to the left, leaving the water little more than calf deep, and without a route directly upstream into it. Not expecting much, but because I had caught fish in the spot now several times, I plopped in the spinner I happened to be fishing one day (I typically fly fish for steelhead).

On the third and going to be my last cast before moving down 50 yards, a steelhead took the lure and streaked to the left and down river. Over the next twenty minutes I chased it 600 yards down river. When finally subdued and hook removed, I held it up and it was longer than from the middle of my chest to the end of my arm, meaning more than 34 inches. That made it more than 20 pounds and the largest steelhead I have ever caught.

The only reason I had caught it was that I had put a lure into a spot that I had caught steelhead before, even though it had become a very low percentage spot since then. Had I done what other anglers would have done and passed by the water, I would not have ended up with my largest steelhead. I surmised the spot must have a cool spring flowing up from the bottom, so in warmer months, fish would lie there, in a second-rate shallow spot, rather than move up.

Since that time, a large Douglas fir has keeled over and into the river at that spot. The river has scoured gravel down seven feet. With the river still a left bank river, it means there is a head of a pool, a riffle, then a tail of a pool, and then a direct line into this deeper water. I have not caught steelhead there since, but many cutthroat trout, and it looks like a killer spot for coho in the rains of autumn.

The most commonly used winter steelhead gear is a baitcaster reel, 9.5- to 10.5-foot rod and a dink float. The float is adjusted up the mainline from the sinker(s) the distance to get the lure to the bottom. The old saying is: if you are not losing some gear, you are not fishing deep enough. I would add to this that the better you know the river, the less gear you will lose.

Many terminal tackle arrangements include variations on a theme: Gooey Bobs, Spin n Glos, Pink worms and so on on a leader of 18- to 24-inches, or longer in ultra-clear water. Tackle is taken to the bottom by weights, of varying description. Hollow core lead can be crimped lightly to the tag end of the mainline below the triple swivel tied on – so that in a bottom snag, it slips off leaving you with the rest of the tackle. To the third eye of the swivel is tied a preassembled hooks, lure and leader of typically 10 or more pounds test, except for ultra-clear water.

Casting pattern depends on covering all the good water in front of you. The gear is cast upstream, and the rod tip is high in the air so that line can be mended so you are in contact at all times with the float. If the float goes down, strike. If the float continually points downstream, the tackle is dragging on the bottom and the distance between weight and float is shortened.

Once the gear passes you and carries on downstream, you are free spooling the reel, a circumstance that lets centre-pin reels shine. The point is to be in contact with the tackle and strike quickly when the float disappears.

You make successive casts run straight down current, each one adding a foot of distance to the cast. In other words, you fish the entire run from side to side and up to down stream. On cold days, you would add less distance in successive casts, or make multiple passes in the water before moving on – remember the 40 casts I put over a male steelhead in a frigid Gold River before it bit.

Comment needs be made on two types of water: pass through and holding water. The first is typically slow water, perhaps the inside of a bend and the incoming steelhead simply swims slowly through it up to the next head of a pool or run. You pass down the water, and then, because new fish can always come through, you can actually fish pass through water again. 

Holding water on the other hand is where steelhead sit for some time. Typically, a lower speed spot in faster water, behind a rock – steelhead are found in connection with rock far more than they are with wood, for example, logs and root-balls. Cutthroat, on the other hand favour wood.

When fishing, you need to bear in mind that from holding water, once you are finished you have to move on because you have disturbed the fish there, rather than in pass through water, that can have new fish in it at any time. So, your day, will depend on planning to hit several high percentage spots, and you may fish pass through water more than once.

Finally, steelheading reaches its highest percentage days when the river is rising or falling and clarity is restricted to a few feet or less. Rain stimulates fish to move into a system, rise in the system or perk up wherever they may be. It makes sense to fish lower ends of rivers toward estuaries on days rain starts in earnest, then move to other hotspots. If you are fly fishing, it makes sense to fish pass through water, as it is moving slower than other sections of a river, and thus maximizes fly penetration.

DFO Has Failed Chinook and Sport Anglers – Let’s Improve



If anyone doubts DFO’s stewardship of BC’s iconic animal, the salmon, has been anything other than derrilection of duty, just look at a morning’s catch of Nahmint River chinook by a bunch of sport fishers just like us. As you can see, such catches were common in the 1960s. Note that in the middle, just beside the camera flare, is Jimmy Gilbert, famed Saanich Inlet guide, of whom I will have much to say in upcoming articles.

The Nahmint River, in Albernia Inlet, is just one river, but it had a great reputation because its fish had great numbers of 50 pound chinook, and lots of fish. They are pretty much all gone now, and as DFO is responsible for salmon in BC, they have overseen the destruction of this and many other runs without doing anything about sustaining their numbers.



Victoria area sport fishers have watched fish drop in numbers for decades. I have letters to the minister going back to the ’60s, a time when DFO said coho could not be caught by sport fishers because they did not bite lures. Hmm. Now, our summer fishing is compromised because DFO is watching, but not doing freshwater habitat restoration or enhancement, of low Fraser River 4/2s and 5/2s. They dwindle in numbers to alarming levels. We have had restrictions for several years now.

And we all know that the Southern Resident Killer Whale, only 76 individuals, are not doing well, to some extent because chinook are in such low numbers. Rather than beefing up chinook numbers, DFO proposes closing sport fisheries to protect them. See the PDF:  Discussion Paper: February 15, 2018, Proposed 2018 Salmon Fishery Management Measures to Support Chinook Salmon Prey Availability for Southern Resident Killer Whales. I attach it to the email. You are asked for comments.

Of interest, while the SRKWs can range from California to Alaska, their main spring and summer feeding grounds are: “the transboundary waters of Haro Strait, Boundary Pass, Juan de Fuca Strait, and southern portions of the Strait of Georgia (also referred to as the Salish Sea). This area is identified as Critical Habitat (the habitat required for survival and recovery of the species) in the SARA RKW Recovery Strategy.”

SRKW are known to feed primarily on chinook and chum. During the summer, runs of both are coming home through Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait, with chum a bit later. I have seen them feed on other things, but we all know from fishing, that once they pass you, fishing ends for several hours before salmon once again will bite. They obviously can sense killer whales in the area, presumably by echolocation and you pack up your gear and move five miles ‘upstream’ of where the killers are coming from, fish, and then return hours later.

The scat scientists are sent out to find the scat, scoop it up and bring it back for analysis, which shows: “Genetic analysis of prey fragments from SRKW foraging events shows that from May to September, the diet is comprised of about 90% Chinook Salmon, despite this species being far less abundant than Sockeye and Pink Salmon.” And their preferred diet is age 4 and 5 chinook. You can imagine them echolocating the big bodies on the other side of schools of pink and sockeye and going after them.

After the sockeye and pink move on, coho are also taken, with diet switching to the later-returning chum. By December, the SRKW are moving out of our area and down the coast. Fecal analysis shows other species as prey items, along with nursing chinook. I wonder whether the highly recognizable chinook smell contributes to prey use at this time of year, but this paper does not mention this possibility. And it seems hard to believe that animals as intelligent as killer whales would not switch to other species to avoid starvation.

Page 4 has a map of the critical summer feeding areas in southern BC, as well as gets on to talking about those Fraser 4/2s, 5/2s, etc. that we all know DFO has not done much about over the decades. Their take is that the stocks have been declining, avoiding, taking responsibility for it, and, finally, has a document that describes restoration and distribution: http://frafs.ca/sites/default/files2/SBC%20Chinook%20Strat%20Plan%20DRAFT%20for%20dist%20Sept%2021_v2%20%28updated%20List%29.pdf

We have had various methods employed to increase chinook levels, including reducing WCVI fisheries, Alaska fisheries, and for sport in our areas, slot limit and hatchery clipped fish, to avoid the mostly Fraser chinook, and lesser Puget Sound chinook.

DFO says: “Conservation measures for these populations over the last 10 years have included substantially reduced exploitation rates on Fraser Spring (age-4) and Spring/Summer (age-5) chinook designed to allow more wild Chinook to reach spawning areas. While these measures have decreased exploitation rates to well below historic sustainable levels, there has not been rapid recovery for many Chinook Salmon populations, suggesting that other factors are also contributing to on-going low productivity [Read the Warm Blob]. These populations exhibit an offshore migration pattern and appear to return to Fraser primarily through the Strait of Juan de Fuca in spring and early summer months.

Fraser Summer (age-4 ocean type) have been at high relative abundance for over a decade and have a far north distribution with return migration to the Fraser in August through Johnstone Strait and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lower Fraser Fall (Harrison/Chilliwack) Chinook are locally distributed in southern BC waters and are present year round. Harrison Chinook have declined in recent years and have not achieved the PST escapement goal in 5 of the last 6 years. Further measures are under consideration in 2018 to improve terminal returns of Harrison Chinook.”

So, what does DFO plan for fishing in 2018? Yes, you guessed it, closed sport fishing areas in regions of Juan de Fuca, Haro Strait, and off Saturna Island, in our area. In their own words:

1. Mouth of the Fraser River (Area 29)
2. West side of Pender Island (Subarea 18-4)
3. South side of Saturna Island (Subarea 18-5)
4. Strait of Juan de Fuca (Area 20)“

You will note the lack of a conservation, enhancement plan for chinook. This seems pretty obvious when you consider that numbers are so bad, that our winter fishery is primarily for American clipped fish. Why aren’t we doing the same thing here? The reality is that we have finally come to the ‘managing chinook into extinction’ phase of DFO abrogating its responsibility for decades. Go back and look at the morning’s chinook catch photo from one small river mouth on Van Isle. The fish just aint there.

And, in those days, DFO put threshing blades on the bows of boats to kill basking sharks which were thought to eat salmon. Hmm. They eat primarily plankton. Salmon sharks eat salmon.

In all fairness, though, the PDF has links to lots of science going on. The problem is it’s mostly not about increasing chinook numbers. Here are documents to look at: http://www.marinemammal.org/marine-mammal-research-unit-publications-2/.

The closed area maps start on page 8, in which ‘salmon fishing or fin fish closures’ are proposed. Beside those areas are areas where the regular, Fraser-chinook-refined measures will be in place, as in some fishing is allowed. Note that you are asked to give your comments on this plan, so please do:

· Do you have suggestions for information that your organization could provide and/or assist in collecting?
o Ways to increase overall natural production of Chinook Salmon (e.g., habitat enhancement/restoration)
o Adjustments to production of enhanced chinook. DFO has a comprehensive coast-wide Chinook production program delivered through its Salmonid Enhancement Program. Current hatchery production increases the abundance of adult Chinook in many marine areas, including those areas where SRKWs forage, and as such may be beneficial to SRKWs. This production directly benefits fisheries and provides key assessment information used to manage Chinook stocks, as well as increasing abundance of chinook as a potential SRKW prey item. It may be possible to modify hatchery Chinook production to benefit SRKWs but more information is required to assess this relationship. Increasing hatchery production to benefit SRKWs would be dependent on DFO hatchery capacities (e.g. facility capacity, facility location), knowledge of which stocks would best benefit SRKWs, and careful management of wild stock status and hatchery-wild interactions.
o Manage impacts of other consumers of Chinook Salmon (e.g., seals, sea lions, seabirds, etc.)
o Increase abundance of forage fish consumed by Chinook Salmon (e.g., habitat restoration/protection, adjust harvest removals, etc.)
o or, other measures.

You may have thought that the Right Whale problem in eastern Canada has over-received attention recently – with more than 500% more animals – and while DFO is a Johnny Come Lately to the SRKW issue, it is indeed doing something.

How about some of the following suggestions:

1.     As the problem is lack of chinook, let’s put chinook enhancement on the front burner so that by 2019 there will be new chinook in the water, not four-year-old fish, but a growing number that will be four-year-old fish sooner than if no enhancement is undertaken.

2.     Clip as many hatchery chinook as possible, so that a directed fishery can be afforded for an affected stock, taking pressure off other stocks, and non-clipped stocks, too.

3.     Figure out why the Cowichan recovery has resulted in unprecedented numbers of chinook – the current number for 2017, is still 26,500 – and quickly do the same for other stocks in the SRKW area.

4.     Twelve new net pen operations with 2 million sterilized, clipped chinook fry each, every year for the next 10 years, collect the data and reassess at that point.

5.     Find a way of stimulating the planktonic base of the food chain, to ensure enough prey species for the increased numbers of released chinook.

6.     Enhance the Fraser chinook stocks in peril. There are many now, including the Harrisons that comprise our late summer chinook.

7.     Freshwater habitat restoration in SRKW region rivers. That  includes south coast Van Isle, along with those of the Fraser. 

8.     Add spawning channels to SRKW rivers for chinook. Good examples that work include the Big Qualicum chum channel, and the Taylor River coho channels. Find that flat land, in the woods where it is cooler, that there is adequate water to flood, and introduce channels. For example, the San Juan River, which has easy access in the lower reaches. Merritt area rivers also have land that can be used. In those areas, plant trees beside the new channels. Add pumps to bubble air, and thus oxygen through the channels. In deep water and in sun add solar powered cooling. Budget enough to include removing equipment before winter floods. 

9.     Hatchery enhancement in SRKW areas, maintaining genetic qualities by emphasizing epigenetic considerations.

10.  Hatchery enhancement with new, more successful techniques, the several approaches by the Nitinat hatchery, for example.

11.  Cull Salish Sea seals and sea lions. The PSF study shows, as I recall, 40% of coho smolts being eaten, along with 47% of chinook. Find a way of selling this to ENGOs and the public, presumably, to help the SRKW which everyone prefers.

12.  Eliminate the herring roe fishery for a decade.

13.  Maximize funding by recognizing the financial return from sport/commercial/processing/North East BC sport is $2.52 Billion, and that no one will keep a boat in saltwater if they can’t fish. A ‘jobs and revenue’ strategy – and one of far higher jobs and revenue than fish farms.

14.  Take fish farms out of the water and set them up on land.