Archive for February, 2021

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?