The winter steelhead fishery on the Zymoetz River has changed markedly in the last 10 years. Where there were formerly only a few hard bitten anglers willing to endure the all too numerous discomforts that attend the pursuit of cold fish in the coldest months, now hardly a day passes without there being something in the order of half a dozen fishers working the pools, riffles, and runs of the lower five kilometres of the river that are still open to angling. The Kalum and the Skeena too have had similar increases in angling pressure, and, surprisingly, most of the anglers pursuing steelhead on those rivers are wielding two-handed fly rods.
There are several reasons for this. The fly gear of today is simply light years ahead of the fly gear of yesteryear. Recent advances in fly fishing technology include lines that will plummet toward the bottom at a rate of eight inches per second, innovative new flies as appealing to fish as spoons (and not all that dissimilar) and long but light rods capable of casting them great distances. The internet has made information – some true, some false, all of it alluring – available at light speed to any and all. The determined angler can now find out where to go to find steelhead, when to go there, and what gear to use.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, climate change had given us globally warmed winters with less snow and more open water. When Finlay Ferguson and I were the only winter fly fishers working the Zymoetz in the 1980s, there were times when we couldn’t get at the river because of ice and snow and frigid winds.
All of these changes are problematic for steelhead, the least numerous of salmon species and the only salmon that overwinter in rivers as adults. To illustrate how exposed to predation these creatures are, consider the results of a radio telemetry program the staff of the Ministry of the Environment, Fish and Wildlife Branch, conducted in partnership with some of the members of the Northwest Chapter of the Steelhead Society of BC some 25 years ago.
On a bitterly cold late November day, eight of us set out see if there were any new steelhead in the lower river. Most of us were skeptical, and for good reason, as none of us had hooked a bright fish in that part of the river so late in the year. To our surprise and delight, we hooked 27 between us. Ten of those fish were implanted with radio transmitters. Three days later, Ron Tetreau of MOE climbed aboard a helicopter, receiver in hand, and set out to check on the whereabouts of those steelhead. He found two of them holding off the mouth of Legate Creek, an event that begs all sorts of interesting questions, one in the vicinity of Chimdemash Creek, and the remainder in the lower Copper River.
Mike Whelpley and I tracked those Zymoetz fish for the rest of that winter with the aid of a receiver given us by the Ministry. We pinpointed those steelhead – one was at the upstream end of the Wall, a couple lay at the head of Blackie’s, one chose the deepest part of the pool beneath the Old Bridge, two were sequestered somewhere in the lower canyon, and one was just above the Highway 16 bridge in the run we call the Ombudsman – where they lay, unmoving for six months, so sedentary that we feared they might have died. Then, late in May, the signals started moving. Mike tracked the last fish to tidewater where he lost its signal in the brine in the first week of June.
Those steelhead sat suspended in low clear water and were therefore vulnerable to the lures of fishermen for seven months. Fortunately, that winter was harsh, typical for those years, and as a result, nobody fished over them. That would not be the case today. Had somebody fished those fish, would they, in their winter torpor, have taken the bait? Work conducted by Fisheries biologist Dionys deLeeuw on Haida Gwaii steelhead to answer that question, strongly suggests they would have.
Despite that one good day late in November, all the aerial fish counts conducted on the Zymoetz over the years suggest that there are very few steelhead in the lower river in winter. Added to that, the anecdotal reports of steelheaders over the last four decades indicate that the majority of that population are dark summer holdovers.
This begs a couple of questions: first, will hooking and wrestling with these fish cause them to die later or cause sublethal damage that will adversely affect their ability to spawn? Secondly, is it ethically sound to fish target fish as vulnerable as those steelhead are? It’s been three decades since the fisheries staff in what was then the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Ministry of the Environment closed the Skeena and its tributaries above Kitwanga to steelhead fishing to protect ripening, sedentary fish in that area. Clearly, it’s high time to adjust the regulations for the lower Zymoetz so that they harmonize with the regulations upstream.