Counting Chinook

This week our columnist Rob Brown starts us off counting Chinook in Thomas Creek

Jim wants to count the number of Chinook salmon in Thomas Creek. Not all of Thomas Creek. Where the logging road crosses it, roughly a kilometre above its confluence with the Clore, there are falls the salmon can’t pass.

We pull on our waders. I put a bear banger in the chest pocket of my shirt and hand another to Jim. When he has finished attaching his plastic horn to his vest, I command Oona to come and the three of us walk the short trail to the creek.

Three there, says Jim, pointing to the pool immediately upstream.

Three large crimson fish hover for a moment in the milky blue water then, when they sense our coming, disappear like souls in fog.

It’s high, I observe, looking downstream to where the water clatters over a riffle and piles up against a rock wall to which is pinned a tangle of tree bits.

We push our way through the riffle, leaning against our staffs in the knee high water. Many of the rocks under our feet aren’t big enough to withstand disturbance. We kick some free. They clatter downstream. We stop on a shingle mid stream. We both stare downstream. We’re thinking the same thing. I voice it first.

If we continue on, we’re going to be forced to travel through the bush. Maybe we should head back and take the Gordie’s Trail to the bottom end where we can get a feel for the number of fish. What d’ya think?

Jim appreciates that this corridor is a cafeteria line for grizzlies when the salmon are in. He knows how difficult it is to push through the dense tangle of brush and slide alder lining our prospective course.

I think that would be a good idea, he says.

Going is more difficult than coming was. I’m a little concerned that Oona may cross at the wrong spot and get swept downstream, but she makes the crossing easily.

Alder has grown up around the rusting machinery left by Gordie Doll after he built his trail. Some blow down slows us up. We pass the remains of the trap cabin and make our own trail through the lush tangle where Gordie’s garden used to lie. Even though the gradient of the creek is much less in the lower section, we have some difficulty crossing.

I grabbed a trout rod when we returned to the truck. As Jim looks for salmon I pitch a single egg into the head of a plunge pool where it is eagerly grabbed by a large Dolly Varden. As Oona rushes into the shallows to explore the commotion, the fish bolts. I horse it upstream, turning to shield it from the dog, slide my hemostat down the line and twist the hook free.

We make our way downstream slowly, peering into likely spawning locations. By the time we reach the spot where the creek joins the Clore River, Jim’s only depressed the button on his counter three times.

The report on this year’s Chinook Salmon return to the Skeena is not good. The exertions of the hatchery crew on the Kitsumkalum River bear out the bleak forecast.

Frank Thodt is helping Chris net this year, Jim tells me. Chris has got a good crew but they’re only averaging one chinook a set.

Last year on the same date, Jim and I counted upwards of seventy chinook in the   creek. Although it appears there are far fewer fish than that this year, we agree that the height and turbidity of the water affords little more than a glimpse into the current state of affairs. All we can do is give the creek a week to drop and clear, but no more than week. After that the window into the end of their lives will be closed.

We push across the creek then make our way past the remnants of Gordie’s cabin. He’d had some bad luck with his cabins. He built his first high above the Copper River overlooking it’s confluence with the Clore and the long glide below it that soon was dubbed the Trapper’s Run, easily the most magnificent steelhead run in the Zymoetz watershed ­– until the fall flood of 1978 took it out along with the 100-foot high bank that presided over it, and Gordie’s cabin.

Gordie sacrificed the view and built his new cabin well above the flood plain. It was more modest than the first, set it in a grove of hemlock, one of which came crashing down smashing the new cabin in two and pinning the unfortunate trapper down until a couple of friends came for a visit several days later.