Is the Kalum actually full of steelhead?

Angler often hears fishermen say that that is the case, but he isn't so sure

Gene Llewellyn, who was logging here when they occurred, was adamant that the log drives on the Kitsumkalum River had a devastating effect on the river’s Chinook. John Hipp, the DFO fisheries officer in Terrace for many years, thought so too.

Gene spoke of looking down from the Highway 16 bridge when the annual return of the mighty Chinook was at its peak and being unable to see the bottom of the river, and how that phenomenon disappeared after the drivers plugged the Kalum’s canyons with logs, apparently oblivious to the fact that the salmon were spawning at the time.

Another, more insidious, effect of the drive was the habitat alteration caused by the cribbing and diking built under the misguided idea that these structures would facilitate the passage of logs downriver. All this environmental mayhem was, of course, additional to the ecologically brain dead logging practices of the time.

If they knew what a riparian zone was (which is doubtful), the logging companies of yore didn’t have a clue when it came to the vitally important role that vegetation has for fish. In all too many places along the Kitsumkalum corridor, and most recently on the Cedar River, stumps betray the fact that the loggers felled trees right up to the river bank. Large creeks like Goat, Leanto, Glacier, Deep, and Spring, were similarly disrespected, and the small feeder streams, equally important as part of the river’s hydrological circulatory system, were ignored altogether.

The deleterious downstream effects of these depredations weren’t confined to Chinook Salmon, of course. The river’s Coho Salmon and Cutthroat Trout must have been particularly adversely affected by the impact of logging and road building on the small streams that are so important to their lives. In the case of the latter species, some longtime resident Terrace fishermen have told me that the cutthroat angling in the Kalum was particularly good in Deep Creek and very good in the other smaller tributaries and in the Cedar River and its feeder streams. This is certainly not the case today.

What goes for Cutthroat Trout almost certainly applies to Bull Trout and Dolly Varden Char, since those species utilize much of the same habitat. In fact, in the case of char, the effects of habitat loss may be more critical since they are a less abundant species. And what about the steelhead that return to the Kitsumkalum?

If other kinds of fish have suffered as a result of poor logging practices, it follows the same must hold true for steelhead. Whether they have taken a larger or lesser hit because their life cycle is different from that of their fellow salmon is probably impossible to determine, but the diminished Kalum Chinook and work done by fisheries biologists on the long ranging effects of logging in the Carnation Creek watershed, suggest that there are fewer steelhead returning to the Kalum than in the past.

I often hear fishers venture that the Kalum is full of steelhead. After fishing the river for steelhead for 40 years, I’m confident that these estimates are exaggerated. It has to be understood from the outset that the Skeena is on the edge of the steelhead range and is therefore generally less productive for steelhead than the rivers of the western United States. Historic returns to the rivers there prove this. It is also necessary to appreciate that steelhead, even in their natural abundance, are much less abundant compared to the other Pacific Salmon. It is also helpful to know that steelhead return to the Kalum year round. The largest number show up in the summer and fall, a smaller number return during the winter months, and an even smaller number of new fish arrive in the spring.

Absent a fish counting fence, and understanding that the test fishery at Tyee is a pretty rough tool for estimating steelhead numbers in general, and of little use in estimating returns to the Kalum specifically, early in the 1980s, the fisheries staff of the Ministry of the Environment decided to conduct a mark and recapture program on the Kalum. The idea behind these programs is to capture then release as many steelhead as possible, inserting a numbered spaghetti tag in each animal. Doing this yields valuable information on the distribution of the target fish and their numbers.

Working under the supervision of Ron Tetreau, Mike Whelpley, Stan Doll, Jack Hodgkins, and I fished from Kalum Lake to the runs below the boat launch from September until May. After we’d tagged a little over 400 fish, we began hooking tagged fish. Surprisingly, some of these recaptured fish had initially been tagged in the upper reaches of the river and been caught again in the lower section. The aggregate return to the Skeena that year was fairly large. Assuming that the Kalum return that year was representative of most good years, the result of the program suggests that Kalum steelhead numbers are not that large.

This being the case, there is a strong argument to be made for a strict regulatory regime to protect steelhead, since they are the most exposed of the Kalum salmonids and thus more susceptible to predators like anglers.