Small fry

This week our columnist Rob Brown talks about how tough it is nowadays to be a small fry in a shallow stream

All winters are long. As you age, years get shorter and winters get longer –   not only longer but harder. This is the way of decay. Joints stiffen. Cold days become less tolerable. A good sweater and water proof waders trump a good rod and a killing fly. Light and the amount of wind become important considerations when determining if one should go fishing. All of this is natural. It’s the way things go. The way they flow.

The young angler is exhilarated by   Spring and the new fish it will bring. The old angler sees it as confirmation that things are still working as they should and that he is still here. Old men are thrilled to see the first greenery on the forest floor, to see fiddle head ferns and skunk cabbage shoots pushing out of the saturated swamps. The distant calls of flickers, geese overhead, and mallards bursting from ponds are all events made more wonderful with the passage of years.

I began walking the river channels of the Skeena below Braun’s Island in March when winter still had them in its icy grip. Everything was dry and cold. The river was as low as I’ve ever  seen it. The occasional cry of an eagle or a raven was infrequent and startling.

What was the main channel of the Skeena before the flood of 2008 was so low we crossed it in gum boots. The Dougs, Steele and Webb, and I had travelled up Hell’s Gate Slough early in the month and spooked some steelhead holding far out and far down the tail out of the Slough, in a place where no fisher could reach them. After that, the place intrigued me.

Karen, Oona, and I made numerous trips there, following the old logging road that skirts the canyon then drops down to the Slough within eyeshot of New Remo. On a few occasions we hiked in the other direction, making our way along the back channels to the Kalum confluence. I looked for fry ­– more than anything else, schools of juvenile salmon in the shallows are an undeniable signal that spring has begun.

In a half dozen trips we hadn’t seen a single fry. Then, one Sunday toward the end of the month, Oona and I were walking a dry high water channel when I came across a pond with an active beaver lodge, in it were little fish, jumping for emerging insects. After this, I expected to see salmon fry in the shallows of the Skeena, but  when we reached the river again there were none.

I’d recently read a paper by some fishery scientists who work in Montana. The paper described how the scientists had constructed a box then put together a small bit of river bottom inside it. They placed trout eggs in the gravel at the same depth fish would deposit them in the wild. Next they walked on the gravel to determine if there was mortality, and if so, how much, and at what stage in the development from egg to fry. The findings showed that before they were eyed up and when they were in alevin stage, the creatures were vulnerable. In some instances the pressure exerted by the waders exceeded 50 per cent.

Of course there are a lot of variables. The species of fish, the size of the gravel, and the fact that the eggs in the experiment were walked on far more often than their wild counterparts, to name three. Still, it’s clear that fishers need to exercise care and avoid stepping on redds. There were redds along the margin of the Skeena and in some of the side channels I was walking. Even though they appear  high and dry, they still have enough moisture that they hold viable eggs over winter while waiting for snow melt and run off.

The eggs in these nests are safe from the pressure exerted by a man walking, but it’s not clear if they can withstand the pressure of someone on an All Terrain Vehicle. And, though it is illegal to operate motor vehicles in salmon habitat, wet or dry, there were ATV tracks in all of these channels and alongside the Skeena.

About a week later the dog and I walked the same route again. The small fish were dimpling the beaver pond still. We followed tracks to the Skeena, and I noticed the water had risen a few centimetres and areas that were dry the week before were turning into small ponds. Every one was full of silvery salmon fry. Small streams had formed. They were teeming with fish too. I was elated until I heard the sound of motors.

I turned. Off in the distance was a man on an ATV. Between him and the handlebars was a small girl, three maybe four years old. Neither wore a helmet, nor did the two boys who looked to be about six years old, perched on the ATV next to them. The man, presumably the father of some or all of the children, was leading the kids through the same fry-filled channels I  had passed a few minutes earlier.

The sight was ineffably sad.