A fishing guide’s woes on the Skeena River

This year was riddled with poor salmon returns, murky flood waters, and poor management in Terrace

Dustin Kovacvich paid a visit a few days ago. Dustin operates Nicholas and Dean, a guiding outfit that takes its name from his middle name and that of his former partner, Tim Lepp. Dustin and Tim acquired their operation from guiding legend and innovative marketing pioneer, Noel Gyger, who together with his partner, Brian Owen, had the vision to sell the rest of the world on the then fishing riches of Skeena through a telemarketing scheme they ran under the name of Big Fish Country.

In its time, the idea of advertising a number world wide that people could phone for a regularly updated report on the fishing in this watershed was revolutionary. This was years before the internet, the way that Dustin and rest of the guiding industry uses to attract business today. But, despite having the extraordinary marketing power of the internet at their finger tips, Dustin and his fellow guides find themselves in a precarious situation.

As beautiful as the scenery in this country is, the people who hire fishing guides are spending big bucks to hook fish. If the rivers turn the colour of red brick or, as is most often the case, concrete, the best fisher in the world guided by the most skilled guide, will not make contact with a single fish. In the peak time of the last fishing season, this area was hit hard by two floods of the kind we used to expect every 80 years.

We had some big gully washes in the 80s, and anyone who lived here the decade before that will still carry vivid recollections of the great fall flood of 1978. Those floods were quick enough, building up over a number of rainy days and nights, and they were devastating. In 1978, forty-eight hours of driving rain on snow turned Terrace into an island and rendered the more placid rivers unfishable until the next spring, while the more volatile streams were out until late the next summer.

The floods of 2017 were different. The rain was heavier and quicker, causing swollen creeks to rocket down side hills, filling rivers that in a matter of hours overflowed their banks and shredded riparian vegetation as they cascaded toward the Skeena. The people who retired to the campers they’d parked in Radley Park in the early evening to get out of light rain, and had to be evacuated as the Kitimat River’s flood waters threatened to wash away their rigs some six hours later, can testify to rapidity of the flooding. These were flash floods, remarkable for their short duration and ferocity.

Roads were ripped up including parts of Highway 16 that had been secure for years. A kilometre of the Copper River Haul Road was washed out, leaving the Pacific Northern Gas line bobbing up and down until crews could fix it a few days later.

On the Clore, the deluge caused a large landslide through a ten year old cut block that blocked the road near the 12 kilometre board then spilled over into the river.

Dustin guides the tricky water in the Clore Canyon, which lies below that slide. Not only did his business take a hit because of the sudden pair of floods, but it will inevitably suffer from the lost opportunity on the Clore, which will colour up in the slightest water perturbation for years to come.

There is a growing market for the world renowned Skeena steelhead, but the most highly prized sport fish in this area have long been its chinook, principally the giants bound for the Kitsumkalum and the chinook of the Zymoetz.

Last summer the Kitsumkalum Band gave notice that they were going exercise their right under Section 35 of the Fisheries Act to conduct an experimental fishery for Chinook Salmon in that area below the Kalum known to local red necks as the “Hog Line” and the “Kraut” Bar.

The Kalums asked for a four day moratorium on sport fishing while they carried out their FSC fishery. As a result they were attacked on the water, in the social media, in the print media, and during CBC radio interviews. This lack of respect has led to discussions amongst the First Nation of closures in and downstream of the Kalum River, including a closure of the entire lower river to sport fishing.

Dustin guides for chinook. So, though he respects and understands the Kalum’s concerns, he worries that the action of others will eliminate another aspect of his business.

But Dustin’s overarching worry is the health of all Skeena salmon and chinook in particular. All the trends are downward. Under 5,000 chinook returned to the Kalum in 2017, the lowest escapement ever recorded. By way of comparison, in 1987 there were 12,000 that returned, and we worried then. It’s clear there is a crisis. Given this fact, it’s incomprehensible that the DFO would have suggested an experimental fishery to the Kitsumkalum instead of allowing a modest sockeye fishery to meet the Section 35 requirements, but it’s too late now.

Bad runs, bad water, uncertain weather, poor management, an unstable political situation — I wouldn’t want to be in Dustin’s wading shoes, and not just because they’d be two sizes too big.

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