It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be chinook salmon in Kleanza Creek, but then why shouldn’t there be? The stream hosts coho, pinks, steelhead, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a few dog salmon spawned in its cold, clear water. Even a run of sockeye is a possibility. The creek is a small version of the Zymoetz River, which is home to all of those species.
As I watched the spawning pair, it struck me that there would most likely be more upstream, and if there were, it was likely that there would be trout or char, lying in wait for eggs kicked free during the spawning exertions of the larger fish. I set out on the trail to find out if this was so.
Upstream of the bridge, the river is steep and the channel narrow for quite a way, thanks to the cribbing laid to protect the pipeline right-of-way. There are pockets in this fast water but the bottom is mainly made up of large cobble, hardly conducive to spawning even for the largest of the salmon species. Well inside the park, the pitch of the river lessens. This is where I slipped on my polarized shades to examine deeper, larger pockets from the trail, which is ideally located some six or so metres above the stream.
Because the valley is so steep and narrow, the river is almost always in shade, affording an excellent view of the bottom. I examined four pockets that had features which appeared identical to those of the pool beneath the Highway Bridge, except for the fact that the water flowing over them was just slightly faster. There were no fish and no evidence that fish had been digging. August is a good time to find spawning chinook. Was the pair I saw the last to spawn in the creek that year? Doubtful; if this was the case, I should have seen a carcass or carcasses and recently dug redds. Were the fish I spotted the only spawners in the lower river? Possible; cohoes and steelhead climb over the falls and the cataracts. I’ve seen steelhead some 50 kilometres upstream below the outlet of Kleanza Lake. Chinook salmon are strong fish fully capable of a similar feat, and there is ample spawning habitat scattered throughout that considerable length of river.
This exercise started me pondering the act of counting fish. If the water conditions are good, counting the larger salmonids from helicopters can be quite effective. I’ve had the good fortune to do some of this on the Zymoetz River, where chinook stand out dramatically against the light coloured bottom, but the really deep pools are impenetrable.
Jim Culp has probably done more fish counting from the air in this area than anyone. In the low, clear water of early spring, Jim says that overwintering Zymoetz steelhead are highly visible from the air, and he believes that fairly accurate population estimates can be obtained that way. The limiting factor is money of course. It’s well known that the steelhead of the Zymoetz spawn below Serb Creek and other places in the upper portion of the watershed, and it’s highly likely that they utilize the areas around Treasure, Mulvane, and Nogold Creeks as well. To assess the entire river would be costly, especially for a provincial government that disingenuously claims to care for wilderness and wild things, but treats the people charged with that responsibility with contempt.
Jim and I have been counting chinook in Thomas Creek on foot for a few years now. Since the salmon can’t ascend the falls located approximately a kilometre upstream of the Thomas Creek/Clore confluence, it is easy to walk a small stream with a counter and count fish, provided, of course, one takes this inventory when the fish are at the peak of their spawning.
Simpson Creek, lower down on the Zymoetz is even more easily assessed since the spawning area to the impasse at the falls is about 800 metres. On larger systems, extrapolation is necessary, and the counts are sketchy at best.
When counting coho, fish with a penchant for seeking out the smallest streams to spawn in, accurate assessments become really problematic. I’ve been on coho counts of the Lakelse River fish with Jim and the late Mike Hayworth on a couple of occasions and got a whiff of how complex an undertaking that is, thanks to the dark bottom of the river.
And what about the unjustly neglected dog salmon, increasingly rare and spawning in forgotten places? Here is a species whose numbers are vital to their survival, yet there is, to my knowledge, nobody collecting data on them with the possible exception of the Kitimat hatchery staff.
Ultimately, counting fences, like the one at Babine, the ones on the Kitwanga, and the one DFO had on Kleanza Creek half a century ago, are the best way to get a handle on fish populations. Since population abundances are vital to understanding each species and undertaking appropriate management actions, it’s surprising that so few streams in Skeena have fences.