Archive for the ‘wildlife’ Category


Saturday, December 9th, 2023

When I Was a Cowboy at the S Half Diamond  (All my Heroes are Cowboys)

The year was 1960. I was in Grade eleven at Sunnyvale High and hated it. My friend Victor (Sonny) Simon was also a disgruntled student and his Uncle Merle Simon was buying a ranch in B C and offered Sonny and I jobs. He also offered a job to his girlfriend’s brother: Gordie Duke. Sonny and I were marginal cowboys at best but Gordie was a top hand : wiry, smart and tough.

Before we got near the ranch we had to sell a carload of Christmas trees that were cut on the ranch. We secured a lot beside the El Camino in Mountain View and set up a large tepee advertising “Royal Canadian “Christmas Trees. We bunked in the tepee and sold all of the trees at a dollar a foot. They averaged about six feet long and were beautiful. They came out of the rail cars still frozen and snow covered. People loved them.

After we cleaned out the trees, we headed north in Merle’s big Oldsmobile with summer tires. It was a cold rain when we left the Bay Area and by Shasta Lake, you could see flecks of snow on the windshield. By Southern Oregon it had switched to heavy snow and you could feel the Big Olds start to slip. At one point we spun doughnuts for half a mile or so and almost hit the ditch. This was near the small town of Chemult which is in a snow belt. Thankfully the snow let up before Spokane and it was clear to the ranch.

When we finally arrived there was a surprise. A big bull elk had fallen onto the ice of Premier Lake and could not get up. He had been walking on snow covered old ice where he got traction then moved out to fresh ice with light snow cover where he slipped and fell. We took a rope down to the far end of the lake where we looped it lightly around his neck and dragged him over to the old ice. He got up right away then charged me. I ran back to the new ice. As he followed, he fell again in the same spot. The ice had melted a bit where he had lain and he and I almost went through this time. We dragged him off again but this time he was too exhausted to get up so we left him. Later on he was able to get up and stagger into the woods.

Another revelation. The ranch had several cats that “sort of” lived there fending for themselves. They had a hard stretch when the boys were in California. They were huddled around the ranch chimneys probably hoping for a ghost of heat. They’re ears had frozen off !

It was very cold at the ranch in those days. The only heat was what we could muster from scrap lumber we salvaged from a little mill on the property. We had a fireplace and two wood stoves of ancient vintage. There was no insulation. One morning it was minus 52F at Bill Bush’s ranch just north of us and minus 11F in our frost covered bedroom.

The place was kind of a Dude Ranch that boarded horses for the winter. Technically we were not cowboys because there were no cows on the place. Just 40 or more horses. We were wranglers.

Apart from myself, Sonny and Gordie, there was another top hand on the ranch: Rad Hartwell a very experienced cowboy/ wrangler from down in the states. Rad and Merle were not around much that winter so we were on our own. We kept the horses in feed and water and rode them about two or three times a week. We had some great horses including a race horse named Prevail. She could run but wasn’t very sure footed and spilled occasionally. Only Gordie rode her and even he got dumped once or twice. My favorite horse was a little chestnut mare we called Square Dance. She loved to run and was very reliable.-an excellent dude horse.

We also had a big stud horse called Tom – a palomino with a white mane and a lot of spunk. He would try to kick and bite you. A horse bite can do a lot of damage. And Tom was very sneaky about it. Aside from horse duties there was not a great deal to keep us busy. Ron Kuppenbender would sometimes bring a group of Kimberley girls out to do some riding and help make supper. There were some grand girls in Kimberley in those days.

Once we found a stash of fancy liqueurs. Things like Creme de Minth, Creme De Cocao and Bailys Irish Cream. Of course we had to sample them even though we knew they were “dude “ drinks for the rich and famous and not for poor cowpokes. As the night progressed Things got a bit out of hand and someone decided that our hair was too long for hard riding bush cowboys. So out come some clippers and the massacre proceeds. We woke up in horror with pounding heads afraid to look in a mirror.

Sometime in February, it was time to get our animals off the range. The East Kootenay is often called the Serengeti of the north because of the abundant herds of big game. Deer, elk, Big Horn Sheep, Moose and grizzlies are hunted along with a few Mountain Goats. These animals depend on healthy winter ranges for survival. Horses, cattle and sheep graze out the-preferred plants and place a heavy burden on wildlife. Therefore domestic stock must skedaddle to free up the range which is often quite damaged from over grazing by the time wildlife get to it in late winter.

I think the situation is better now. Biologists like Ray DeMarchi and Glen Smith worked with the cattlemen’s groups to improve the range and more closely manage the animals.

Our horses were from two groups: Wasa and Canal Flats. This was invariably where they ended up and is was quite easy to herd them back to the ranch by following the old Stagecoach Road that ran from Cranbrook to Canal Flats There was a wild card however: the owner’s kids horses. Roddy Simon had a. large mare he called Wonder. She and her colt were hanging around Skookumchuck. We rounded them up and I volunteered to take them back to the ranch. Merle was trying out his video camera watching Wonder make a leap over a snow bank. She then galloped into the woods and bucked me off. I tried to catch her and get back on but she kept kicking and bucking. The colt was following along so a caught him and used my coat as a halter to get the two of them back close to the ranch which was several miles away through knee deep snow. Temperature was 15 below Fahrenheit degrees. Wonder got the whip when we limped back to the barn. She had been spoiled and would need a lot of riding before the dudes showed up.

After our adventures in the great Rocky Mountain Trench, I lived in Kimberley for awhile then back to Nelson and eventually we all ended up in California for a new round of adventure. I even ended up at another ranch at Mad River in the hills of Humboldt County. I never saw Sonny again but did see Gordie on occasion He ended up working on the tow boats (tugs) where he became very well known.


Rainbow Trout in British Columbia

Monday, February 8th, 2021


Rainbow trout are a premier sport fish – perhaps the greatest of them all. They inhabit a very large percentage of BC lakes and streams, are fished for almost year round and exhibit a wide array of features and forms all of which are of great beauty. On a global scale they range from Northern Mexico where relic populations are found as far south as the Rio Del Presidio to the Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska and again on the Asian side. The rainbow trout is so popular that it has been introduced to all parts of the globe where it might possibly survive and has done extremely well in places like Chile and New Zealand.


A lovely Pennask rainbow

Taxonomists generally agree that there are two main races of rainbows: coastal and red band. The main difference is scale counts. Both races are highly attractive. Steelhead is the major player of the coastal form but there are many resident coastal rainbows that do not enter the sea and live out their lives in lakes and small creeks. Some steelhead that run well into interior rivers (like the Thompson) could be red band trout.

Our common domestic variety used in major hatchery programs is termed the Fraser Valley strain which is sometimes termed the McCleary strain to recognize its developer who worked at a Tacoma hatchery as the rainbow was being cultured. Other fisheries historians claim this rainbow originated in San Leandro Creek in the San Francisco Bay Area; still others attribute it to Livingston Stone who developed it from a McCloud River rainbow native to the Upper Sacramento River system in about 1870.

The Fraser Valley rainbow is heavily spotted above the lateral line, grows fast and is fairly easy to catch. It is most commonly stocked in urban area lakes that are fished hard. The brood stock now resides at the Duncan Hatchery.

The other strains of BC rainbows are likely all red bands which have a great deal more variety than their coastal form. Some red bands are important in the BC Lake stocking program which is now operated by the Freshwater Fisheries Society, a spinoff of the BC Fish and Wildlife Branch. Over 800 lakes are part of the program which stocks a huge number of rainbows along with some kokanee, eastern brook trout and cutthroats from the six hatcheries it operates. Aside from the Fraser Strain, most of the stock is from wild fish. Eggs and sperm are collected from natural runs that are abundant enough to contribute without diminishing their numbers and reared in hatcheries then released at various sizes, usually quite small.

The Pennask Strain has been a stalwart of the program for decades. A large spawning run into Pennask Creek has been tapped since 1927. The Pennask race is well known for its light spotting and lovely slim and silvery form. It is also renowned for its leaping abilities and a good fight when hooked.

The Blackwater Race is becoming more common as a stocked fish. The Blackwater River is a large watershed west of Quesnel. It features numerous lakes and small rivers that are often loaded with shiners, pike minnows and chub which the Blackwater strain takes full advantage of. It is therefore an ideal target for lakes that feature these forage fish. Pennask rainbows are dainty insect eaters and turn up their noses at lesser fish. When these lesser fishes get into a Pennask stocked lake, they can quickly ruin it by outcompeting the trout for the available food. The Blackwaters will gorge on forage fish.

They are generally rather heavily spotted. In my limited experience with this fish, I have noticed that they are very strong in their first run. They can really burn the line off. I imagine a big one could easily tow a float tube or pontoon boat around.

The Blackwater brood stock is taken from a small inlet of Dragon Lake which is located in the south part of Quesnel.

Gerrard strain Rainbows are the ultimate rainbow growing to massive size. Years ago I was on the deck of the Kootenay Lake ferry the Anscombe talking with a tourist from England. He asked “ is it true about the big trout” I was about to answer when a school of kokanee flashed by ahead of a large arrow shaped wake that suddenly exploded as a big rainbow launched out in a blast of spray and scattered the little silvers . The big Gerrard must have weighed at least 20 pounds.

Gerrard rainbows have been stocked in other BC lakes but they only seem to do well in lakes like Kootenay which is one of our largest. Kokanee must also be present because the Gerrards can be picky as well. I once had a job examining the gut contents of the big Kootenay rainbows. It was invariably kokanee including some surprisingly large ones. There was wild card however. Every so often a gut would be jam packed with carpenter ants and nothing else. Of course, the smaller Kootenay rainbows will take flies at will. Some of my best days were spent fly fishing at Kootenay Lake creek mouths. Indeed. Fly fishermen from the South Arm communities like Boswell or Grey Creek and old time Nelson fly fishers like Danny McKay and Walt Palmer made great catches of smaller rainbows (up to four pounds) casting off the rocks. On some summer evenings there would be a huge rise of rainbows feeding on insects. The lake surface would boil at times.

So why haven’t the Gerrards done better in smaller lakes? Or were these South Arm rainbows a race other than Gerrards? There are other strains of rainbows in the West Arm and I was once told that Kootenay Lake rainbows spawn in an Idaho tributary of the Kootenay River called Deep Creek and that some also spawned in Kaslo River.

One smaller lake where they have done well is Premier but no one can be certain that the Premier fish were Gerrards. I worked there as a wrangler on the S Half Diamond Ranch in 1960. The lake had been poisoned just before then and had no fish but the cowboys raved about the huge trout that they said spawned in a small creek that flowed near the horse pasture. I think this creek even dried at times.

I wondered if it could be true but a couple of weeks later we went to the Bing Hotel in Cranbrook and one of Premier Lake’s giants was hanging on the wall! Could these fish been Gerrards or perhaps another pisciverous race that thrived on the lesser fishes that plagued the lake prior to rotenone treatment?

There are rainbows in Premier Lake again and some people say they are sometimes used as brood stock. They are nice fish but smallish. There is a small spawning channel at the south end of the lake and some eggs and sperm could be tapped there but I suspect these rainbows are Pennask fish and while it is nice to have another source of good rainbows, Pennask Creek still does well and we need more fish eating cannibals not more finicky gourmet diners.

Another strain of rainbows that is said to be stocked at times is the Tzenzaicut. This lake is also located near Quesnel and these fish feed on other fish. They are also said to be great fighters. I have never caught or seen one but they could also be a good brood fish for the stocking program.


Horsefly Rainbows are from Quesnel Lake and the Horsefly River. In the lake they get very large and feed on kokanee. They are very opportunistic feeders following spawning salmon into rivers like the Mitchell and Horsefly to gorge on eggs. They are not averse to feeding on minnows like shiners and chub so they can do well in smaller lakes where these fishes are abundant. The Horsefly strain is heavily spotted above the lateral line especially toward the tail and are said to have a yellowish tone to their skin. They are said to fight well and are aggressive feeders that survive well where they are released. They are the newest rainbow to be utilized in the stocking program and will undoubtedly become very popular.

The Freshwater Fisheries Society always has an eye open for new strains that will improve fishing in our province. Carp Lake rainbows were being considered awhile back and may make the list for northern lakes. In addition the society has modified the program to insure that stocked rainbows are either sterile or all females. These modified fish can put all their energy into growth and survival and will not hybridize with other strains

The people of BC can be very proud of their hatchery program which has provided thousands of anglers the opportunity to catch the best of the best by matching the various strains of rainbows to the places they are best suited for. I know of no other place so blessed with an abundance of wealth for anglers.

For more information check the Freshwater Fisheries Society web site which will lead to detailed stoking data and great articles on fish and fishing. There is even a guide to Forest Service Rec Sites on good fishing lakes. Some of these lakes even have fishing wharves waiting for anglers without boats. What could be better?

The Other Cutthroat

Sunday, January 24th, 2021


Most of BC’s population is concentrated in the lower mainland and southeast Vancouver Island so the fish they know as cutthroat trout if they know it all, is the coastal cutthroat both sea run and resident. A fine fish by any measure. but not the only cutthroat trout in the province. Not by a long shot


Westslope cutthroat. Water colour by V. Ericson in Native Trout of North America by Robert H. Smith

Journey beyond the coastal ranges and the Okanagan Valley and you will meet the Westslope Cutthroat. This is a very colourful and beautiful fish that I am going to now refer to as simply the Interior or Inter Mountain cutthroat. He has less spotting than the coastal fish and a part of his body is absent spotting completely. He is rosy orange on the side and kind of olive greenish or brownish on the dorsal surface. He is the Westslope in BC and some parts of the adjacent US but the Intermountain cutthroat have taken on an amazingly wide diversity of forms and characteristics further south. The western US is an area with a complex array of habitat conditions and climates and the trout has made many adjustments in order to survive in an often harsh landscape. Biologists have given these forms titles like the Greenback Cutthroat and Fine Spotted Snake River Cutthroat and more Taxonomists have likely had no end of debate whether or not these classifications are valid. The classifiers fall into two general groups: lumpers and splitters. Lumpers tend to be very conservative about giving a new classification and splitters delight in teasing out small differences and arguing they should justify a separate species or subspecies. We see it here with our rainbows. We speak of the Blackwater Strain, the Gerrard race and the Pennask strain. These have not been given separate classifications or sub specific titles because it is fairly evident that they are simply different forms of our interior rainbows. Take a Gerrard rainbow from a big lake with kokanee and put him in a small lake with sparse food resources and he becomes just another small tiddler. There may be some separation of our rainbows though. Some biologists have classed them as coastal and redbands (interior). Where the cut-off point is is quite vague but there seems to be some justification. But cutthroats are not so easy. One of the most prominent and respected biologists of our time spent more than fifty years and prepared more than 100 scientific papers on the interior cutthroats. More than any other person, he has informed anglers and other interested people on the diversity and biology of our native trout – he is a world authority on the classification of salmonid fishes.

Robert Behnke described at least fifteen forms of Interior cutthroat trout, our Westslope is just one. Dr. Behnke died in 2013.

The Westslope cutthroat seems to be strongest in the Upper Columbia Basin. The cutthroat has crossed the great divide into the Upper South Saskatchewan and Missouri River Basins. But is most common in the East Kootenay Region where it is the primary game fish of streams commonly cohabiting with Bull Trout. It is the native trout of the East Kootenay as rainbows were not able to navigate the falls between Libby and Troy Montana on the Kootenay River. Rainbows of the East Kootenay are hatchery introductions to lakes like White Swan and Premier. I believe these are Pennask strain even though they are reared at The Bull River Hatchery and Premier Lake may once have had a strain of its own or Gerrard Strain (there were some Gerrard size rainbows in Premier prior to rotenone treatment in about 1960). In the West Kootenay, the Westslope is almost absent from the big lakes (you could sometimes find one or two in the West Arm of Kootenay Lake following a year of strong spring freshets in the creeks. The Westslope is confined to reaches of mountain creeks above migration barriers. Kokanee, Lendrum and Woodbury come to mind. Here they are quite small with a 30 cm fish being a prize. It is in the West Kootenay mountain lakes where the West Slope has attained some fame. Not all mountain lakes have Westslopes and they are usually small and undernourished but it wasn’t always so. When some of these lakes around Kokanee Glacier Park were first stocked back in the 1930’s or so, some amazing fish were caught. My father used to fish Wheeler Lake near Ainsworth and catch three and four pound cutthroats for a number of years. The lake had lain fallow until then and food supplies had built up. Now the fish are all small. Some Interior cutthroats have attained great size. A 41 pounder was caught in Nevada’s Pyramid Lake back in the day and sixty pounders were said to have been taken in net fisheries. The original Pyramid stock is finished. They were called Lahontan cutthroats and still survive but are no longer super sized.

Westslopes are fragile and are not in a good state of health over much of their range. The usual land use issues like logging, intense agriculture and grazing have taken a toll as has mining especially East Kootenay coal mining. I cringe when I think of what might happen when some of those raw piles of tailings and overburden get loose. Even coal exploration is problematical when bulldozers trench side hills and pile the overburden wherever they can. The more mess a machine can make, the more ground is exposed and it is easier to decide on a procedure. Currently there is much concern about elevated levels of selenium in the Elk River a prime Westslope cutthroat stream. Some fish are showing deformities and invertebrates like stone flies and mayflies are showing declines. Another of the most outstanding issues in Interior cutthroat management is hatchery introductions. The main culprit is rainbow trout which have been displacing/eliminating cutthroats for decades especially in the US. Shot gunning hatchery trout around the west is coming to a close and was never much of an issue in BC. Our hatchery programs are directed to lakes and have been very successful. There has been some hatchery effort toward steelhead in streams but it is not favoured. The other thing about all cutthroats is their susceptibility to angling. They are very easy to catch and fishing may have to be curtailed even more than it presently is if we are going to keep this fish around.


Coal spoil: Elk River. Photo by Jayce Hawkins The Narwhal


Westslope cutthroat from the Elk River caught by Ryland Nelson. Jayce Hawkins photo from The Narwhal.



Monday, December 28th, 2020


A recent report published in the Narwhal explained that a recent snorkel count of Gold River winter steelhead FOUND NO FISH.

This has never happened before. Former counts range as high as 900 plus (no counts were ever made when steelhead were really abundant) but after 2017, they have dropped to next to nothing (1-4 fish). In a river like the Gold which features some huge, deep pools and some rough water, some fish could have been missed but certainly not many. In the last forty some years, snorkel surveys have proven to be a solid method of enumerating salmonids and biologists have gained a huge amount of experience with the method. So many people were dismayed by the report in the Narwhal. BC steelhead have been in trouble for decades but there always seemed to be hope. Hope because rivers like the Gold are strong and well constructed. Of all the Island streams, it seemed to have the best chance of holding on. For decades biologists have believed that the most significant issue for steelhead production was the rapid logging that occurred mainly prior to the 1970’s. Many watersheds were scalped utilizing some very destructive methods and during some risky times of year. Big time logging on the Gold really didn’t even get going until the 1960’s. There was no town of Gold River until then. Tahsis Company, a branch of the huge East Asiatic Company based in Denmark started up by building a pulp mill near the Gold River estuary and logging in the watershed. Gold River was an instant town that didn’t exist until 1965. It was built on prime deer and elk winter range that was also a good locale for humans. The town ramped up to more than a thousand people by 1968 and everyone was happy. 1968-69 was the big winter on Vancouver Island and people got so snowed in or plagued by cabin fever that they resorted to wife swapping until the sun and green came back. I know this because two of my friends from Nelson worked in Gold River that winter so I received some pretty detailed summaries of the action while guzzling beer at The Gold River Chalet.

Pacific Logging also had a hand in the Gold along with Elk River Timber.

Steelhead angling also started to uptick with the town. Delta Hotel even had expert steelheader Tim Timmons hired on as a permanent guide for hotel guests. Tim had very good knowledge of the Gold and Heber Rivers and I am convinced that he knew every summer steelhead lie in the Heber. Fishing was so good that pioneer biologists Dave Hurn and Bob McMynn caught 100 steelhead at the Gold-Heber confluence and held them in a pool they created on a bar there for 24 hours to assess hooking mortality. Most of the fish survived and the pool became known as the Century Pool. This happened in 1961.

On my first cast on the Gold, a fish followed the fly right to my feet before turning back to deep water. It was a bum cast and I wasn’t ready. I soon hooked another and had several more plucks at the fly.

That’s the way it was then. Highly experienced steelheader Barry Thornton considered the Gold to be the finest wild steelhead river in BC. The BC Fish and Wildlife Branch estimated steelhead returns to be in the three to five thousand range in the 1970s. Clearly, this was a special river. In the January 1984 issue of BC Outdoors, Alex Blake reported on a trip he and two other anglers from Coquitlam made to the Gold. In three days, they hooked and released 22 big winter steelhead. Now? Nada…

How could it fall so low? My own experience with the logging was that it was nowhere near as bad as it was in some other Vancouver Island basins. In my first encounter with the Tahsis Company, Dick Kossick their forester told me how he had a difficult time getting them to think long term. He had set aside some good low elevation timber for winter shows only to have the company cream it in the summer which forced the company to log less suitable areas in the winter. The Oktwanch River may have been the victim of this shortcoming. The Oktwanch is what I call a poorly confined river. It has a rather wide channel that is easily distracted by disturbance. It was winter logged just before my time and became unravelled during peak flow events following logging. Now the channel is over loaded with bed load and parts dry in the summer.


Oktwanch River lost much of its integrity following logging in the late 1960’s

But the Oktwanch enters Muchalat Lake which absorbs its impacts and buffers the Gold. Some other parts of the basin also suffered unduly. I once found the company washing the sediment off a newly constructed road surface by diverting a creek down the road for some 30 meters before it entered the Upana River.


A rough road surface ready to be washed

This road became the Tahsis Road. I let a sample of silt from this event settle out in a graduated cylinder and found the sand and silt were 100,000 parts per million. About as high as can be found. There were also some issues on some Heber tributaries like Saunders Creek and the creek beside Elk River Timber’s Branch 80 called Camel Creek. (Elk River Timber also logged part of the Heber Basin).

branch 80.jpg

A Heber River tributary called Camel Creek logged by Elk River Timber – debris and yarding damage

Because I haven’t been around the watershed for over twenty years,I recently performed a cursory overview of the watershed via Google Earth. My judgement is still the same: although there are places where it could have been done better, there are no obvious wounds that could have led to river degradation on the scale that steelhead would fail. But it still remains that a lot of the watershed has been logged and roaded and there has to be a cumulative impact. Death by a thousand cuts? It also evident that climate change is having an influence in the river and at sea. The monsoon like rains often called The Pineapple Express because they originate far to the southwest around Hawaii, seem to be much more common of late and they can have serious impacts on instream steelhead survival especially incubating eggs and over wintering juveniles . Warmer and drier summers also take their toll. To top it off, there is now a fish farm near the Gold River estuary.

Ocean survival is also becoming a stronger factor. Temperatures at a station off Washington have increased by 2.7 degrees centigrade over the average. A warmer ocean is hard on salmonids because predators from the south become involved and warmer seas hold less plamkton. Ocean smolt to adult survival of Keough River steelhead has fallen from 15 to 4 % since 1990.

There may be a solution to logging impacts. In the early 1990’s, I prepared a report for the then Ministry of Environment that delineated what were termed Recreational Fishing Corridors. They covered a broad swath of streams including the Gold. The corridors don’t just protect access and aesthetic considerations, they also protect Fisheries Sensitive Zones like over steep ravines, zones of instability and highly riparian areas possibly subject to flooding. The zones would cover all aspects of development, not just logging.

I have been unable to follow up on the fate of the corridors to any degree but after moving to Port Alberni in 2017, I was shocked to learn that a big house was built right on the trail to Money’s Pool. When I found out why I was told that the ministry was reluctant to apply the corridors to private land and most regional district planners are not much concerned with matters to do with fish protection which is very unfortunate.

But according to The Narwhal, there may be others who are certainly interested. The Nuu chah Nulth Tribal Council has proposed the idea of Salmon Parks as a means of protecting salmon streams. Much of their assessment work may already be done via the Recreational Fishing Corridors. But the heavier part of the work is having government and industry accept them. The Forest Companies will argue that they have improved their act markedly which is certainly true. But they are going to have to get even better if we want to keep steelhead and salmon around.

Ted Burns, December 21, 2020


Unlike the Oktwnach, the Gold is a strong river well put together


Part of the Lower Gold. Increased bed load is starting toe show up (1990 photo)



Tuesday, December 15th, 2020


For the better part of 20 years I lived and worked in and around Chilliwack, a good hockey town but overblown with bible passion. What bothered me most about living there was the state of the watercourses .The vast majority of them were ditched and virtually useless as salmonid habitat despite the Fedfish claim that much of the Fraser’s coho production came from the lower valley. The most frustrating thing about these ditches was, despite the mess they are in now, a relatively simple fix would have brought them into a decent level of production. Most of the ditches are very slow moving with a mud and silt substrate. There is almost no gravel spawning habitat and not much cover or complexity. Nonetheless, these waterways could support a reasonable number of coho fry if reproduction was possible – I believe it is.

There are some valley streams with good levels of habitat essentials including spawning gravel and there are some degraded ditches that have a few stretches of gravel with suitable gradients. I once walked for miles along ditched and dead water Chilliwack Creek. I wondered if there may be some gravel and gradient up toward the Ryder Lake area and perhaps a few spawners there . Sure enough, as I rounded a bend and heard a waterfall in the distance, I also heard the thrash and splash of spawning fish. There were several groups of chum salmon making the best of a stretch of good gravel below the falls. In those days (mid 1990’s), I was working as an environmental monitor for West Coat Energy. They were more than game to replace muddy substrates with gravel when they backfilled ditches they had excavated to replace old sections of gas pipe. They were also agreeable to shape the ditches somewhat to speed up the current. They did this at a few locations at Maria Slough. I had the crew narrow and shape the channel at the pipeline crossing and above and below Cuthbert Road Bridge. An excavator shaped the channel and the gravel was cast in place by a clamshell bucket

I was able to monitor the improvement for 22 years and was surprised to learn that smallish red Chinook salmon most often used the platforms. 39 chinooks used the sites along with 15 chums 6 coho and 8 sockeye

Since 1993, I have built a number of these riffles. The outlet of Cowichan Lake, the outlet of Gillespie Lake, Beaver Creek, and Kissinger outlet. I guess my first attempt was at Six Mile (Duhamel ) Creek near Nelson when I moved boulders aside to expose good gravel. The spawning kokanee swam right to the newly exposed substrate  and started digging. Of course my efforts were washed away in the spring in this steep mountain torrent that gallops along in high water rolling boulders and gravel downstream. There is a fair amount of scattered  spawning spawning habitat in this creek where Mountain Whitefish and Bull Trout also spawn  I just wanted to try and help the redfish of that year (1968). The  Fraser Lowland ditches are highly deficient in gravel and the careful placement of spawning riffles with some streamside cover thrown in make it even more attractive to shy spawners like coho is a sure winner.

DFO has also utilized similar methods to improve habitat In the Fraser Valley. Another location on Maria Slough has been successful as well as an improvement on Hope Slough at Quarry Road Below .

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Hope Slough at the Quarry Road footbridge. DFO squeezed the flow already constricted by the Quarry Road foot bridge by adding a directional berm and placing gravel in the right side channel.

I am not aware of how successful the improvement has been. But I have seen both Chinooks and chums using the site.where, as far as I know, no fish spawned before.


Maria Slough spawning platform at the West Coast Energy (now Enbridge) natural gas pipeline crossing


Paula Ditch in Chilliwack with fresh willow stakes starting to grow on the left bank.

paulagunk 003.JPG

A sample of Fraser valley ditch water – a mix of sediment, manure and who knows what? Conditions are especially bad in the spring when field are still saturated with water and farmers spread liguid manure to fertilize their fields


Rough sketch of a Burns Riffle. Vegetation band should be species such as willow and red osier not the usual Fraser Valley ditch assemblage of Himalayan Blackberrry and Reed Canary Grass.

Ted Burns

December 13, 2020

Steelhead in BC

Sunday, September 20th, 2020



Steelhead is the name given to the great sea running rainbow trout, considered by many anglers to be the finest of sport fish. Some say commercial fishers provided the name because the fish were hard to dispatch when whacked on the head. Whether taken in October on a wet fly in Morice or Thompson, a dry fly on the Dean in August, a spoon in May in the Squamish or a spin – glo in December on the Cowichan, an encounter with a fresh run steelhead is always memorable for the angler.

Hatched and reared in the waters of western North American coastal river system, this magnificent fish migrates sea ward in its youth and grows to maturity in the energy rich waters of the North Pacific before returning to the river of its birth to spawn. Unlike salmon, steelhead do not necessarily die after spawning. Some survive and may return more than once to spawn again. Repeat spawners are rare however because he upstream migration, the spawning event and the readjustment to ocean life are strenuous and drain a great deal of the steelhead’s energy reserves.


When the massive ice sheets covered BC over 10,000 years ago steelhead survived in what are now Oregon, California and Northern Mexico. Imagine catching a steelhead in the Los Angeles River! As the ice retreated steelhead gradually recolonized the rivers of BC. They presently range from Central California to Alaska. They are also present in The Russian Far East on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Steelhead have been introduced to many exotic locales far beyond their native range.

Although a large portion of the4 world’s steelhead streams are located in BC, very few support large populations. Most of these streams drain small steep basins


A mint summer run from the Gordon River

which are low in soil nutrients, have wild flow fluctuations and cold water for most of the year and often do not allow migratory much access due to waterfalls close to the sea.

Some exceptional systems which have lower gradients are stabilized by lakes or drain lands rich in nutrients support larger populations. The Columbia River system including the BC section once supported large numbers of steelhead. Rivers further south like the Klamath, Rogue and Umpqua still support many more steelhead than the best rivers of BC. These streams drain richer lands with more gentle weather and terrain.

BC anglers should not feel too unfortunate however. We still have many beautiful rivers to choose from that support generally large fish. We must be aware of our stream’ limitations and govern our expectations. Currently, BC steelhead are just hanging on in many rivers and catch and release regulations have become universal in our province.


A steelhead begins life in late winter or early spring as a pink pea sized egg buried in river gravel. As the water slowly warms, the egg hatches and slowly begins to look like a little fish. Early in the summer, it begins struggling upward to the stream as an alevin which is about half fish and half egg. The shifting of the gravel by floods and the smothering effects of sand and silt prevent most eggs from reaching this stage: of several thousand eggs deposited by the female, only a few hundred generally survive to emerge as free swimming fry about 30 mm in length.

When the fry break through to their new environment, they quickly seek out the protection and gentle current of the stream edge. They feed on small insects and hide under stones at the first sign of danger. They are highly vulnerable and many are eaten by kingfishers, mergansers and larger fish or are swept downstream by higher flows. As summer progresses, the survivors grow and move to more favourable feeding stations further out in the stream. Chances of survival are increasing now but the heat and dryness of summer take their toll of young fish. This is especially true in watersheds that have been extensively modified by man.


A fry salvage crew works on a drying stream

As the rain and cool nights of fall begin, the steelhead juveniles now called parr or fingerlings gradually become less active and seek out a refuge area where they can avoid the perils of winter. Because they are cold blooded their body temperature falls and they can no longer muster enough energy keep pace with the increasing current. They try and find protected off channel habitat like side channels with groundwater input, riparian wetlands or areas of log jams or over hangs and boulder gardens where they can tuck themselves in. Winter is a time of stress and mortality: the survivors are strong fish that have chosen well protected hiding places.

When the milder days of spring finally return, the young trout seek out feeding stations back in the current to regain their strength and vigour. Spring is a bountiful time on the river and the fish grow rapidly. In a few of our most productive streams, some of them are now one year old fish and are large enough to undergo the physical and chemical transformation to smolts and move down to the estuary then out to the North Pacific. But for the majority one, two or even three more years is necessary to bring them to smolt size.

The ocean environment is less hostile and offers a rich energy supply. Young steelhead are quick to take advantage and grow fast .Most of them make their way to the open sea in the Gulf of Alaska where they spend two to four years growing to be the large beautiful trout so favoured by the angler. A few fish spend the summer feeding around the home estuary. They return to the river the following winter as 30 – 40 centimetre fish.

When their physiological conditions dictate, the open ocean steelhead begin the long journey to the home river. Summer runs are the first to show sometimes as early as March. They work their way into deep canyon pools and hold there ripening and darkening until they reach full sexual maturity late in the following winter or early spring. The more common winter runs begin entering the rivers in the late fall and winter and continue until April or May.

At spring spawning time the females select sites, usually near the tail spill of a pool, to construct a red or nest to deposit her eggs. In preparing the redd, the female turns on her side and with strong tail flexes, moves the gravel and small stones to form a depression some 15 cm deep. Males fight to position themselves beside the female. When the redd is ready, both sexes settle into it and simultaneously release eggs and sperm. The female moves upstream immediately and covers the eggs with gravel then begins to excavate another red and the process is repeated. She may lay from 3000 to 15,000 eggs depending on her size.


When spawning is done, the fish are much weakened. They hold near the red for a few days then drift downstream. They are termed kelts now and are often a sorry looking lot, dark and thin with worn tails and battle scared. Some will recover and mend but most will not make it.


BC steelhead stocks have undergone a steep decline since at least 1965. For decades, there was no information to work with. The BC Fish and Wildlife Branch began query anglers via a questionnaire in the 1960’s and that provided some clues. Anglers also began to respond in more direct ways. By the late 60’s, concerned fishermen, were expressing strong concern about the state of their resource. The province responded with more conservative regulations almost immediately and the fish started to respond. But the issue was not just one of too liberal catch, far from it. Many land use issues had driven down the fish. Logging was especially rough before the mid 1970’s but agriculture, dams, road construction and general urban development have taken a large toll. For decades BC was the land of dusty roads and ten cent beers where one could buy a good house for less than ten grand but those days are long gone. Now we have vast cities sprawling into what was wild country and five dollar beer.

The commercial fishery was also highly problematical in the steelhead decline. Some of the land use issues have improved greatly. I am especially proud of how the forest industry has improved, but commercial interception of steelhead by the salmon fishery has proven to be hugely vexing especially where the salmon runs have been enhanced and require intensive fishing to harvest them. Steelhead run in with the salmon and the fish are caught in nets which kill everything that encounters them including steelhead. General runs of salmon are also hurting so the enhanced runs are under even more pressure. Many people at much higher pay grades than I will ever see, have tangled


This slope on Upper Harris Creek was clear cut and slash burned – 1960’s

with this issue without much resolve. Commercial fishers are a fiercely independent, hard headed bunch who are barely hanging on themselves so it will take some kind of miracle – like intervention to solve this issue.

Every time I think of a Thompson River steelhead ending up in a net, I become enraged. And I have seen them in the native fishery near Chilliwack – lovely silver slabs hanging by their gills with the sockeye bound for the same river system.

The natives must feel about like the steelheaders but even more so because they have lost so much and it seems impossible to get more than even a shadow of it back.

I haven’t even spoken about climate issues and the changing ocean environment. Are these issues are even possible to mitigate? Before too long we all may know how the natives and the steelheaders feel. Indeed.

Ted Burns

August 2, 2020

This is a modified version of a publication called STEELHEAD TROUT IN BRITISH COLUMBIA published by the BC Ministry of Environment in 1981. It was written by me and featured photos by Eric Carlisle and Tony Pletcher and art work by Jack Grundle,



Girl releases a Cowichan River steelhead

The Steelhead Story

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

The Steelhead Story

It was a mild afternoon late in the winter of 1969 – a big snow winter on the South Coast. I’d finished a good day of steelheading on Nanaimo River and dropped into Johnson’s Hardware to brag. “Hit nine fish between the Willow and Haslam Runs and a couple were real sharks”. Ernie Johnson just shrugged. “You young guys just don’t know” he said. “Years ago you could catch forty on a good day”. He had the photos to prove it. Dog eared slaughter shots that would produce howls of outrage today. “Yeah, there were sure lots of fish in those days” I agreed.

But there weren’t; not in the way it seemed.

Few people fished for steelhead in BC before the 1960’s. Winter fish were ghosts of grey days and murky rivers. Most summer steelhead streams were remote and little known. Specialized steelhead tackle was still in the future. The early days were heady for the few angles who fished steelhead. Imagine having a lovely river like the Cowichan almost to yourself. Herman Mayea, a pioneer Cowichan steelheader can. “I remember one year back in the fifties when I had a contest with my fishing partner. I caught 300 but he caught more than 500.”

It’s not surprising that steelhead were thought to be abundant in the past. This misconception was one of several that led to the perilous situation in the mid seventies when steelhead numbers became dangerously low in many streams.

It was aided by information from American rivers where steelhead were more abundant. Lacking research of our own, B.C. relied on US knowledge. But steelhead streams to the south are different. Aside from Northern Washington, their basins were never heavily glaciated, their watershed soils are deeper and richer and climate and terrain are less harsh allowing the fish a longer growing season and better access to the upper reaches of rivers.

Many BC coastal streams drain short, steep basins of gravel and granite where run off is super charged by heavy rain and snow melt which causes wild flow fluctuations. The water is often cold even in the summer months and ice can be a factor in the winter. Nutrients are sparse and waterfalls often block passage a short distance from the sea. Young steelhead in the Northwest States usually smolt in their first of second year while many BC juveniles don’t head to sea for three or even four years. Every year they spend in freshwater takes a toll.

In short, most of our steelhead streams are much less productive than those to the south and where we thought we had thousands of fish, we had hundreds. Where we thought there were hundreds, there were tens.

Aside from a few premium streams like the Cowichan, the Stamp the Gold, the Dean and the Bella Coola in their good days, most of our streams carry a few hundred steelhead. With the forty fish annual catch quota before the mid-seventies, a few good steelheaders could easily catch most of the run. But steelhead research was thin in BC and American data was solid. What difference could a few hundred miles make?

By the mid –seventies, steelhead were falling back in many of our streams. Two fortunate circumstances combined to propel their recovery:

  1. Steelheaders began to lobby for catch and release and reduced kill. Some steelheaders began asking for a much reduced kill as early as 1969. In 1970, the Steelhead Society of BC was formed. Steelheaders like Barry Thornton, Earl Colp and Ted Harding Senior not only lobbied for better angling regulations but they were instrumental in helping to improve forest policy and practices around streams and reducing the commercial interception of steelhead.
  2. The Salmonid Enhancement Program(SEP) began in 1977

In my opinion steelheading has always attracted many anglers more interested in quality fishing rather than filling the freezer so it didn’t take much for steelheaders to demand more careful management of their resource when it appeared to be in trouble. Many anglers practised catch and release long before it became law. SEP provided funding for population surveys which quickly revealed that steelhead were by no means abundant. Prior to snorkel counts, the only available indicator of steelhead abundance in BC was the steelhead harvest analysis which was based on an angler questionnaire rather than direct observation.

More careful regulation began in 1977 when the annual catch quota was reduced from forty to twenty. It was then quickly reduced to ten and catch and release, barbless hooks and bait bans followed and have persisted to this day along with total closure in some cases.

Steelhead numbers were thought to have bottomed out in about 1979 and the 80`s were a period of recovery. In 1985, I spent a lot of time fishing the Riverbottom Reach at my friend Linda McLeod`s. She had lived there for ten years and had never caught a steelhead despite putting in lots of effort. She believed catching a steelhead was beyond her even though her yard fronted on Asha`s Run, one of the river`s best steelhead holding areas. In 1985, she caught over fifty and her nine year old daughter even caught several. I lost count of those I caught.

The bonanza was very gratifying but it didn`t last. By the 1990`s fish were dropping off again and scientists were beginning to realize that ocean conditions were a strong factor in salmonid survival. Many had thought that if the freshwater environment was protected and fostered, steelhead numbers would hold. A lot of effort was put in to careful catch regulation and habitat protection and more effort was expended on basic research. But so many factors are ganging up on these beautiful fish that their survival is very tenuous.

Ocean survival has dropped off the scale in the last two decades and there does not seem to be much that can be done about it because the problem is global and beyond the control of BC or Canada. Even if a co-ordinated world effort was undertaken, resolution would be very tough. People with far more grey matter than I have strained themselves almost beyond reach looking for answers and there are many that do not even agree about the true nature of the problem. But there are things that we can do as Canadians to make sure we are doing our best for the fish.

Commercial interception in salmon net fisheries is still a huge problem. Premier world class steelhead are being killed so we can sell our salmon to the highest bidders. I have long advocated for a more controlled salmon fishery where the harvest would be more terminal and selective. This means taking more sockeye, pinks and chums and releasing more chinooks, coho and steelhead – probably all the steelhead. At one time, salmon traps were utilized along important migration corridors like Juan de Fuca Strait. This required a shared, collective effort but fishermen wanted to catch their own fish and boats and gear developed so the Wild West approach could be employed. Efforts have been made to thin the fleet and loads of fishers have been squeezed out but things have not improved much and the few fishermen left in the not so wild west are still griping in their five dollars a glass beer when they can afford a few. Meanwhile salmon farming has moved in to supply the demand. There are issues with that but I believe they can be largely mitigated or controlled.

Can a renewed collective effort of reduced or eliminated commercial interception, continued habitat improvement and protection and some kind of fish culture input start us back to a steelhead return? Perhaps but it will not be easy or anywhere near it. I can hear the howls of outrage already as I have heard them ringing off the walls for more than fifty years in my life as a salmonid biologist.


Ted Harding with a summer steelhead from Money’s Pool on the Stamp River  in 1971


Death Down the Alley

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

Death Down the Alley

There is little that is more vexing to me than a useless death – a death for a life unfulfilled or a death for no good reason. Now you are probably thinking about death from addiction or some young person felled by a rare disease but no, what I am thinking of is animals that are killed by police or conservation officers for just being animals.

Bryce Casavant, former Port Hardy Conservation Officer must also be wondering if police and CO’s may be a little too quick on the draw when it comes to dispatching “problem” wildlife. Casavant ran into trouble when he refused to kill a pair of young bears when someone complained about them so he decided to try and find out if the problem was more an itchy trigger finger than a problem with wildlife. He speculated that many CO’s were associated with the culture of hunting and perhaps tended to view wildlife as an economic asset to be exploited and killed or as a danger to life or property instead of a resource to be nurtured and appreciated. At any rate, I can’t help but feel there is a far too cavalier attitude to killing wildlife that could cause a problem – especially predators. Between 2011 and 2019, 4341 black bears, 162 grizzlies and 780 cougars were killed. That is a lot of lives lost for what I think could be rather flimsy reasons. Of course you cannot know for sure and the officer always must err on the side of caution when human life is involved. But how often is it really? Are there not better, more humane methods of dealing with problem wildlife?

When I lived in the West Kootenay Region, bears were a constant presence and if you let your guard down, they could quickly become problematic. Ted Rutherglen was the Nelson CO. He got very tired of having to almost constantly kill bears so he began tranquilizing them and transporting them away from where they were causing a problem. I sometimes helped him out. He attached a tranquilizer dart to a ski pole then climbed up the tree to stab the bear with the dart. When the bear came down, it was moved into a trap then re – located. Eventually, the dart could be fired with a rifle which saved Ted a few scraped shins. The bears never bothered Ted but they usually showed up in the same places again somewhat chagrined but still an issue. The bears were usually black bears but sometimes he had to deal with grizzlies. On one occasion he had to shoot two young grizzlies in Kokanee Glacier Park. The National Ski Team was training on the glacier in the summer and they befriended the bears who started to hang around. I had friends on the team and they told me the bears were very friendly and were even ridden by some of the kids. Somehow the Fish and Wildlife Branch got word of this and Rutherglen was ordered to dispatch these beautiful young bears or find another occupation. This was very hard on him but he eventually complied under protest.

For awhile, trapping and relocation became very common. However, it wasn’t as easy as it may have seemed and many if not most returned. I remember trying to catch a bear near Kaslo for about a week without success. We finally had to buy a side of bacon to get him in the trap.

Traps can be hard on animals especially if long trips on rough roads are involved which they often are. When you do figure a spot you can pretty well bet that another resident animal will be there and your animal will have to crowd its way in or try to find another space or go back home. Sometimes you separate parents and siblings and the list goes on.

Another factor may be the way the Conservation Officer Service is set up. Prior to about 1980, the service was part of the BC Police or the BC Fish and Wildlife Branch. I can’t say much about the BC Police time but I do know about the Fish and Wildlife Branch/ Ministry of Environment days. At that time, the CO, s were part of a team of biologists and technicians and were not directly wedded to issues of enforcement and wildlife control. Most of the CO’S were involved with habitat inventory and management, regulation formulation and public education. The job was more conservation oriented and had more variety.

I remember that many of the CO’s of the time were not completely comfortable with the variety of the tasks and some just wanted to be bush cops. They constantly lobbied for special uniforms and side arms. More police things than conservation things.

I have lost contact with today’s Conservation Officers but I occasionally come in contact with “Natural Resource Officers”. They tell me they do environmental enforcement and don’t have much contact with CO’s. In the early seventies, he CO’s were the face of the environment and well known in the communities they worked in. Most would do whatever they could to avoid killing problem wildlife. Is today’s Conservation Officer a different breed? A few years back I lived in Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, a place with an about normal degree of bear human conflicts. It got so the people of The Lake refused to call the CO’s or RCMP about a bear because the bear almost always got shot.

There has to be a better way. I know live in Port Alberni another place with a normal supply of bears. They are in our yard a lot and we have noticed that those that get scared off in their initial contact are very careful about sneaking back and flee easily. I wonder if it would be possible to condition bears to stay away with an aggressive dog, bear bangers or other frights. If these things were combined withal the other safety suggestions or regulations, it may be possible to save a few animals.

Ted Burns

July 18, 2020