Greater conservations measure are needed if the fish—and fishing the river is known for—are to survive.
FIFTY YEARS AGO, just as pale green catkins dusted with yellow pollen began to emerge on alders that scant weeks earlier had been merely a bleak, grey rattle in the wind, serious anglers like Art Webster would be getting out their split cane rods.
We now inhabit the age of technical fishing, of mass-produced fibreglass, unbreakable alloys and the science of powerful, super-light carbon graphite rods. Anglers download coordinates from satellites to pinpoint favoured fishing holes and deploy digitized maps on hand-held computer screens to get there.
A time in which anglers would walk three days to get to a good stretch of river and their prized rods were hand-assembled from bamboo strips—and not just any bamboo, either, not Tonkin or Calcutta, it had to be from Malacca cane—then hand-glued, hand-varnished, hand-rubbed to a luminous gloss, the blued steel and agate-lined guides hand-whipped to the rod with silk wrapping thread, well, that time can seem impossibly quaint today.
So can the unwritten rules and occasionally stuffy conservation etiquette that proscribed certain unsporting and unmentionable conduct—one didn’t use “hardware,” one didn’t fish on spawning stocks, one didn’t bounce bait along the bottom and so on.
But when the snowy summits had already begun shedding melt water from the glittering drifts and cornices more than a kilometre above, anglers still governed by a courtly Edwardian sensibility would check their floating fly lines for cracks and run them—metre by painstaking metre—through a basin of soapy water to wash off the winter grit. Screws would be tightened, leaders coiled, and the drag mechanisms checked and adjusted on their simple single-action reels.
I know the routine because I once used to follow it myself, although my own rods have been in the rafters for years now and I doubt they’ll ever come out again.
Veteran fishing guides like Joe Saysell, who has lived on the Cowichan River for more than 70 years, would watch the resident belted kingfishers flashing in the spring sun, get their drift boats shipshape for the coming season and keep an eye peeled for signs of that first insect hatch dimpling the emerald current, signalled by the shimmering clouds of gossamer-winged flies drifting upstream on the invisible river of air that always runs counter to the flow of the water.
“The thing is, we’d wait until April 16 for the upper part of the river to open and when the opening came, it always felt like winning the lottery,” Webster recalls.
Lacrosse fans will better know Webster as the professional lacrosse star who came west from Ontario, won two Mann Cup titles playing for Victoria, and then won a fistful more as a coach. But spend a few minutes chatting about fishing and it’s clear his passion for the river runs as deep as his passion for lacrosse.
“I’ve been fishing the Cowichan since the Victoria Shamrocks brought me out here [from Brampton] in 1978,” he says, and he fell in love with what’s long been considered one of British Columbia’s blue ribbon angling destinations with its long, slow pools, fast-moving riffles, deep holes and canyons and thundering waterfalls as it hurries from Cowichan Lake to its estuary on Cowichan Bay, 30 kilometres to the southeast, itself once a saltwater angler’s Eden for the vast run of huge slab-sided Chinook and aggressive coho salmon that would hold in the salt water awaiting the fall freshet before returning to the upper river to spawn.
These days Webster and Saysell, a pair of icons from the halcyon days of fly fishing on the Cowichan, are part of a movement that’s lobbying the provincial government to put a stop to some of the most popular angling on Vancouver Island.
They want the magical upper stretches of the river closed to angling from the end of October to mid-April. It’s difficult to argue their logic. Angling pressure on the extremely sensitive habitat is now so great, our knowledge of what’s happening so limited, the technology so efficient, and the possible consequences so dire that these wise old anglers say not to invoke the precautionary principle is irresponsible and, worse, profoundly unethical.
“Look,” Webster says, “we don’t hunt grouse in the spring; we don’t hunt ducks or geese in the spring; we don’t hunt pregnant does; or elk, or moose. What would be left if we did that? Why is fishing on the upper Cowichan River any different?”
Unprecedented pressure on vulnerable habitat
It’s sure to be a controversial quest. October through March are the months when there’s the most intensive recreational angling on the 10-kilometre stretch of water from what’s called the 70.2 mile trestle, an old logging railway bridge, and the weir at Lake Cowichan, which holds back water for release in the increasingly arid summer months that are shaping into the new normal of global warming.
But Saysell says winter fishing has simply got to stop or anglers’ love of the designated heritage river may wind up extirpating the very abundance and diversity that’s been bringing elite anglers from around the world for well over a century.
Anglers come for prized but increasingly rare winter run steelhead, for rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout. Once-large but now much-diminished chinook and coho runs also return to the river each year, although a rebuilding program for chinook has been encouraging. Conservative observers like Saysell note, however, that while a couple of improved chinook returns may be hopeful cause for celebration they hardly represent a recovery at a time when stocks around the Georgia Basin are endangered or threatened, and steelhead returning to most other streams on the east coast of Vancouver Island are virtually on life-support.
Veteran fishing guide Joe Saysell has lived on the Cowichan River for more than 70 years.
“The Cowichan River has some of the finest trout fishing anywhere from late October to December,” announces one website still promoting the winter angling there.
But that’s precisely the problem say Saysell, Webster and the Friends of the Cowichan, a local conservation group that shares broader environmental concerns.
Because so many Island streams are in trouble, the enthusiastic marketing of recreational fishing simply channels more and more anglers and their professional guides to the upper Cowichan where they can still catch fish and where the experience provides an historic cachet that reaches back to that Golden Age when trophy catches were posted outside London’s exclusive Victorian clubs and were reported by the New York Times.
That’s putting unprecedented pressure on vulnerable habitat precisely when the fish stocks are themselves most vulnerable.
Letter urges more data collection and closure of critical spawning habitat
In a letter from Friends of the Cowichan to Katrine Conroy, the provincial minister responsible for forests, lands and natural resources, Saysell points out that the opening on the upper river takes place right in the middle of critical spawning habitat for steelhead, chinook, coho and rainbow trout. Even worse, the heaviest fishing pressure takes place at exactly the time that already imperilled game fish are actually spawning the next generation of trout and salmon.
Anglers in chest waders tramp through spawning beds where fish have just deposited their eggs; drift boats drop anchors that churn and drag through the redds where eggs wait to hatch; and the fishing pressure is both utterly relentless and intensifying.
How much pressure is there? Nobody, apparently, really knows. It’s just open season. Anybody can fish there and seemingly without limit; whatever traffic the river will bear.
“The upper river from the 70.2-mile trestle to the weir is where the vast majority of the chinook spawn. It is also where a large percent of the coho and steelhead spawn. And we also know that this area is where 95 percent of the rainbow trout spawn.
The upper Cowichan River, below the weir at Lake Cowichan.
“This area is one continual spawning redd at this particular time,” the letter says, “and is considered the ‘delivery room’ and ‘nursery room’ of the Cowichan River. Yet it is open for angling during the fall, winter and early spring, when fish are very vulnerable.”
“People are getting out of their boats and walking through the redds,” Webster concurs. “People are just marching through. We have no idea how much damage is being done.”
The Friends of the Cowichan letter raises that same question for the Province and for the minister in charge of managing what seems more like a bizarre mis-management policy.
“How much damage to the redds are all the anglers doing by wading or anchoring on this fragile area, or how much damage is being done to fish that are in spawning mode (dark and laden with eggs)?” the letter asks.“We cannot say because there have not been any studies done on this subject.”
Regulations haven’t caught up with technology
Chris Morley, a fisheries consultant who has lived on the river for 29 of the 35 years he’s worked across BC and the Yukon, says he supports the concerns in the letter.
Over the past decade, Morley says, he’s observed a steady increase in angling pressure on the upper river from both drift boats and shore anglers.
“Based on my work experience and my observations on the Cowichan River, I believe that the upper river should be closed to angling during the winter months to protect spawning trout and salmon and their redds,” he says. “The Province should regulate the fishery appropriately to protect this resource.”
There are some restrictions in place already. Fishing is permitted only with artificial flies on the upper stretch of river and it’s strictly catch-and-release. Yet Morley is doubtful about even that.
There’s ongoing discussion and debate about mortality rates from catch-and-release angling, he notes, “however, there have been no studies done on the Cowichan to quantify these mortalities.
“The Province should provide studies that can show some supportive data either for or against regulation changes. Until there are studies, we should err on the side of caution before it’s too late,” says Morley.
Those concerns are echoed in the letter to the minister. It argues that technological advances in equipment call into question whether the current regulations restricting the upper Cowichan only to fly fishing are even relevant any more.
“They are using extremely heavy lines, sinking leaders and extremely heavily weighted flies, which actually makes this angling bottom bouncing,” the letter says. It points out that the gear restrictions on the upper Cowichan were established in 1975 precisely to eliminate the practice of bottom bouncing which was then considered a factor in the collapse of trout and salmon populations there.
“Technology has come so far today with the new weighted lines and new weights for flies that the method of fishing in the fall and winter in this area can no longer be described as fly fishing. The regulations and ministry are way behind the times and need to catch up.”
Bob Hooton, one of BC’s leading steelhead experts until he retired from the provincial government, says a case can be made that wading anglers can have an impact on eggs and frequently hatched alevins, particularly if the foot traffic is concentrated in a small area at a vulnerable time.
“Anglers, of course, will never be able to get on the same page with respect to an upper river closure. The typical demand is for science-driven decisions but no one is ever prepared to down tools long enough to facilitate the collection of the science demanded.
“I’d be in favour of some thorough baseline data collection/assimilation on where, when and how much angling traffic of different types is occurring in areas alleged to be affected, assessing the juvenile salmon and steelhead abundance in those areas, closing the fishery for a year or two and repeating the same data collection. What are the chances?
“There aren’t any clean answers here,” Hooton says. “If there were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
It’s just more traffic, more traffic, more traffic
Ironically, Webster points out, when he first began fishing on the Cowichan River more than 40 years ago, there was then a complete winter closure for angling on the upper river between October and mid-April—to protect spawning fish.
That closure was removed in 1988 under the government of Premier Bill Vander Zalm.
“I was totally against them opening the river even at that time,” Webster says. “Now, with so much more pressure on the river than ever before—it’s just more traffic, more traffic, more traffic. I’m just glad there are no jet boats!”
He says that at 68 he’s noticed one major change. Many younger anglers, some of them guides, appear to have never been schooled in some of the time-honoured etiquette of angling with the fly, the principal one being the duty to a deep and abiding respect for the river and its at-risk inhabitants.
That, too, echoes a point made in the letter to Conroy.
“In the past, anglers were considered conservationists as they did everything possible to protect fish, especially spawners. But today that does not describe the anglers who are fishing this area during December, January, February and March because real conservationists do not fish in spawning areas or over spawning fish. It is unethical to do so, yet this is exactly what is happening.”
At very least, the letter urges the minister, current regulations should be amended to impose restrictions banning all but floating fly lines, banning use of weighted flies, and setting strict catch-and-release quotas that limit anglers to a single steelhead and four trout, although it acknowledges that with presently available resources, effective enforcement is not feasible.
Rules that aren’t or can’t be enforced simply invite flouting of the rules. A far more effective protection for spawning fish on the upper Cowichan River would be a simple winter closure.
“Since we do not have the science to justify keeping this section open during these four critical months, we believe that the ministry should close it until it is scientifically proven that no harm is being done to the fish and redds,” the letter says. “Err on the side of caution and conservation rather than angler opportunity.”
Indeed, such a closure would leave almost 90 percent of the river still open to angling during the winter months, the letter argues, and it would represent both the right ethical and and the sound biological decision.
All rivers need a sanctuary where fish can spawn undisturbed. Provincial fishing regulations recognize that for most other rivers in the province where there are seasonal and area closures to protect spawning fish when they are at their most vulnerable.
”Why not the Cowichan?” Saysell asks. It’s a fair question and it’s one the minister should answer. Promptly.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.