Troubled trout

Columnist Rob Brown began to worry about the Lakelse River Cutthroat Trout in earnest last September

I began to worry about the Lakelse River Cutthroat Trout in earnest last September. When I first fished the river some 40 years ago, the cutthroat were abundant, as were the Rocky Mountain Whitefish. There were always fewer Dolly Varden and Bull Trout, but even those naturally less numerous species could be found in greater numbers in the Lakelse River than in other tributaries of the lower Skeena River. There is little doubt that the fecundity of the short river is in large part attributable to the large runs of salmon, most notably the large numbers of Pink Salmon that fill up the river each fall.

Lakelse cutthroat gorged themselves on Pink Salmon fry every spring. Anglers with only a rudimentary understanding of fly fishing could tie a silver bodied fly to their tippet, make their way to the river in April and May and hook prodigious numbers of trout. The limits were generous in those days and the notion of catch and release had little currency. As a result, a lot of trout were killed from the time the first fry began wriggling free of the gravel until most of the fishermen vacated the Lakelse to chase Spring Salmon at the end of May.

Those of us who had watched the demise of formerly robust sea trout fisheries on the Lower Mainland knew that cutthroat are a fragile fish and that apparently healthy populations of trout and char, like those returning to the Lakelse River, could be fished to the point where their numbers could no longer support a sport fishery, or, worse still, to the brink of extinction.

This understanding led us to successfully push for reduced bag limits and a fly fishing only restriction on the upper Lakelse River. These changes were accepted, in many cases grudgingly, but over time the character of the Lakelse River trout fishery changed to the point that it was rare to see a fisherman kill a fish. Concurrently, we lobbied to preserve the old growth forests alongside the river, understanding the importance of this green strip to the overall wellbeing of Lakelse salmonids. The cutthroat thrived. The fishing continued to be excellent both in the spring and again in the fall when the searun cutts returned to the river with the salmon.

Then, about five years ago, the  spring fry hatch produced mediocre fishing. It was hard to tell whether there were fewer fry hatching as a result of poor egg to fry survival over the winter or if there were fewer cutthroat feeding on the juvenile salmon. It was the first time I’d seen this and it was vaguely troubling.

The trout fishing in the following four springs wasn’t much better. There were days when there seemed to be a lot of migrant fry and a lot of fish preying on them, but there were a lot of days when the fishing was only a shadow of what it once was. The fishing in the fall remained excellent. There were plenty of ravenous cutthroat competing with char, whitefish, and steelhead for eggs and flesh.

Late in August of 2014, that started to change. I went to the lower river in the last week of that month in search for the first wave of silvery sea run trout that enter with the first wave of pinks. I was alone. The river was low. There were no boot tracks. I fished two kilometres of river carefully. There were small schools of pinks in every pool and riffle. I caught nothing, but convinced myself that it was a timing problem and that there would be more trout when the pinks were in the river in good numbers and had started spawning. A week later, they were doing just that, and I was back fishing with fly patterns that have produced extraordinary catches for me so often in the past. Over the course of that afternoon, I hooked one small cutthroat.

I enlisted Webb’s help and together we fished the middle river. The salmon were everywhere, other anglers were nowhere. We didn’t catch a single trout between us in an entire afternoon of fishing. We were gobsmacked. Everything was set up for great trout fishing of the kind we’d experienced so often in the past at this time of year.

I went out many times after that during the fall and into the winter, and though I released some fish, the fishing was decidedly mediocre. I hooked more steelhead than cutthroat, and I didn’t hook all that many steelhead. There had been a huge return of pink salmon. The coho return seemed to be average or above. The numbers of returning salmon were in direct proportion to the size of the number of cutthroat, so, where were the trout? I’m a far better fisherman than I used to be. I fish well-known spots and places where almost nobody fishes, and I log, and have logged,  more time on the Lakelse than anyone else I know, which makes me a decent sampler of fish populations.

Some will immediately say the substandard trout fishing is due to a cyclic downturn. I certainly hope that is the case, but in four decades of stalking Lakelse Cutthroat Trout this is the first I’ve experienced.

Next week, some thoughts on what may be happening…