Cottonwood Creek

Cottonwood Creek

Cottonwood Creek rises in a deep little lake of the same name some ten kilometres south of Nelson and joins the West Arm of Kootenay Lake in the west part of town after dropping some four hundred metres along the way. It’s a small creek and seems to get smaller every year. But every so often when winter becomes summer almost overnight in the wild Kootenay hills, Cottonwood goes on rampages of surprising violence. Little tributary creeks one hardly notices for years like Smith, Gold and Giveout, suddenly remember why they are there and fling galloping torrents of cold and dirty melt water down to Cottonwood. The main creek gathers this frenzy and races down to Nelson sometimes carrying a careless wood shed or chicken house along for the ride.

The little valley of Cottonwood Creek is plugging up with houses and a highway improvement has obliterated its canyon. Its rich alluvial
fan is now covered with industry and garbage (pardon me, sanitary landfill). It’s hard to believe this little creek once provided the youth of Nelson with fine fishing.

Beginning in the early spring when the creek first started to pick up a little run off and the West Arm was still at its lowest, we fished the mouth of Cottonwood with bait and caught whitefish, kokanee, rainbows and the odd Bull Trout (Dolly Varden). Stonefly nymphs or worms were best. We fished them with a single small split shot sinker cast into the creek outwash at the drop off which was only a couple of metres from shore at low water. The bait rolled down the slope to be picked up by a waiting fish. The whitefish and kokanee were usually small but the rainbows were fine – hard, clean fish to four pounds with lots of fight. They were very delicate takers though and we seldom caught more than three or four in a day even though the bites were quite regular. The rainbows would only take a whole worm or nymph carefully fitted on a small hook in a most natural manner. They would often steal the bait before you could hook them. We eventually learned to hook them more regularly by not trying to set the hook at every little tap. We curbed our impulses and let them swallow the whole thing. We still didn’t put that many on the beach because nothing more than four pound test monofilament line seemed to work and in those days a four pound leader could be snapped by a strong three pound fish  and those Cottonwood rainbows were wild. Muggsy Holmes was often my fishing partner at the mouth of Cottonwood along with his dog Rex.

We fished the mouth of Cottonwood until the rising water of the West Arm made the drop off inaccessible in early or mid – May. This was also the time when the creek came up so we left it alone until late June or early July when it dropped and cleared.  You could catch rainbows from about fifteen to thirty centimetres with the odd bigger one throughout the creek but we generally fished in four areas: from below the falls to Government Road Bridge, Gary’s Pool in the canyon, from the old city power plant to Clark’s Cabins and from Cottonwood Lake down to the
Munch Place. We usually fished below Cottonwood Lake in late June or early July because the fish dropped down from the lake to spawn then and the creek was black with them. Freddy Goldsbury discovered this bonanza but wouldn’t share his secret.  “I got them in ponds up
behind Mountain Station” he told everyone when they saw him coming home with the fish. There were some mysterious ponds up Evening Ridge behind South Nelson and there were said to be a few fish in them but Freddy was a great storyteller and we knew these fish were not from the mountain ponds. We finally broke him down and the boys from the Uphill and Kootenay Street neighbourhoods began hitch hiking to Upper Cottonwood the next year about 1954. We managed to fish the spawning run down to a handful in a few years. I’ve been out to the main spawning bed many times since then and seldom seen a fish. It doesn’t take much to hammer the mountain creeks down and this was a strong spawning run not just a resident population that generally lives out their lives in a pool or two. Most of the fish likely came from Cottonwood Lake.

Later in the summer, we fished closer to home. Almost every summer evening I walked the short way from our little house on Kootenay Street over to the creek and never failed to catch four or five rainbows. I released nearly all of them because I considered this part of the creek my home stretch of water and it was less than three hundred metres long.  I knew I could catch them all here. The upper part of the creek we thought of as wilderness in another world where the fish were unlimited.

One of the favourite local places was Gary’s Pool in the canyon. Gary Kilpatrick took me there the first day I moved to Nelson. The pool was close to his Grandparent’s house but it was a wild and dangerous place right on top of the falls. Spray blew over the pool and a little rainbow blessed the place when the sun penetrated the canyon. There were some good fish in the pool and we released them there too.

But perhaps the most exciting fishing in Cottonwood was below the falls in the backyards of Nelson’s Dago Town. The Nelson Fish Hatchery
was there and Ted Hunter, the hatchery man, sometimes released brood stock rainbows into the creek. These were big fish, sometimes up to six pounds or more. There were also a few Bull Trout around. Fishing was usually closed in this part of the creek but that didn’t deter the local kids. We fished there often in late summer and caught quite a few beautiful rainbows that had served their time in the hatchery. The hatchery men didn’t bother us unless we fished the brood pond in day light. Then it was wild chase across the fast and deep creek and up the mountain. We usually escaped but I was caught once. Ted Hunter kept my rod for a day then returned it. I never fished there again. The rest of the boys then limited their fishing to a few summer nights under the Government Road Bridge. Bennie Arcuri caught a six pounder on grasshopper on a hot August night around that time.

In the late sixties, the hatchery complex housed a Fisheries Research Station that was conducting a study to try and predict the impacts of
the Duncan Dam on the Kootenay Lake ecosystem. I worked there a seasonal employee for a couple of years.  Much of my time was spent working on the Lardeau and Duncan Rivers and Meadow Creek but I put in a lot of time in the old hatchery building analyzing gut samples from
big Kootenay Lake rainbows.

The canyon and Gary’s Pool are gone now along with the hatchery and even my home stretch of water above the canyon. The falls are still there but they pour out of a culvert. Highway upgrades in the 1970’s did the job. The new road even got a few houses  in my old neighbourhood on Kootenay and Latimer Streets including Tom Ramsay’s beautiful old home and a little retirement house my grandfather built. One is hard pressed to catch a rainbow of any size in Cottonwood Creek these days – anywhere. But I still return to the creek now and then because the memories are fine and cannot be erased.

2 Responses to “Cottonwood Creek”

  1. trufflz says:

    Thanks for this write up! I really enjoyed it quite a bit.

    I’m living on Perrier Road in Nelson B.C. and I’m amazed to hear that Cottonwood Creek used to be good fishing!

    Thanks again,
    Carl L.

  2. TedBurns says:

    Yes it did and it was especially good in the remote section from about Silver King ski hill to Cottonwood Lake. Even below the falls would surprise you because the hatchery sometimes released brood stock to the creek and these were
    good fish. Also, a few big dollies (Bull Trout) once spawned in the creek so some lucky angler would sometimes catch one of these sharks!

    Enjoy Nelson,

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