Early West Arm



We left Ainsworth in 1949 and were far away in California for awhile before heading to Nelson on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake. It was there that I was to best know the lake and what it was to become. We lived on the lake then too, at least in the summers and I gradually became a fisherman. My grandparents had a boat house moored in fairly deep water in a small bay near Burns Point. Here I could watch fish and experiment with different ways of catching them. I caught Mountain Whitefish at first then trout. Not the giant trout of the Main Lake but good rainbows up to eight pounds although most were much smaller.

The boathouse and bay were exciting fishing country. Beginning late on summer afternoons when the sun went down behind the mass of granite we called Elephant Mountain and shadows began stretching out from the shore, big trout moved in from deep water to feed on the shoals of
young suckers, chub and shiners that stayed near the beach. The big rainbows would charge into the schools of fry stunning a number of them then picking them off before cruising back to deeper water. They were beautifully coloured fish that weighed up to ten pounds. Neither I nor anyone else ever caught one but we tried often. One afternoon I floated a grasshopper near the wharf where my cousin Peggy and I were swimming. A big rainbow grabbed it and took off when I grabbed the rod which was the often repaired  same old telescopic rod from Ainsworth with the little reel. The leader broke. I think I could catch one now by casting a small, carefully threaded shiner into the action. It doesn’t matter though because the fish are long gone. The shoals of young suckers, chub and squawfish are still there but no trout come by to bother them – just a kingfisher now and then.

When the sun was well down, the evening rise came on. Slowly in the beginning then faster and faster until the entire bay was sometimes alive with rising rainbows. Then my father, Danny McKay and some of the other shore people rowed out and threw flies at the hundreds of circles. When I became old enough, I joined them or went on my own. We had a small fleet of excellent row boats made by the Waltons in Nelson. Once on a rich, warm evening in July, I caught fish until the fly was nothing more than bits of fuzz on the hook.

I remember the night well. The early summer freshet was subsiding but there was still good current of the little rocky point at the east end of the bay and the water was clearing after a month of turbidity and passing driftwood. Prior to Duncan and Libby Dams, the West Arm reverted to its former status as a river from late May to early July. I anchored the little boat just inside the line of current and cast out and across it. Fish took or missed on every cast and I could have filled the boat. I stopped fishing after a couple of hours and watched the moon begin its trip between the dark hills, felt warm and cool breezes on my face and listened to the fish rising well into the night as the lights of Nelson came on. But that
was then in about 1954. There hasn’t been a rise worth mentioning in the bay or any of the West Arm slack water areas since the late fifties.

In 1953, Cominco opened a fertilizer plant in Marysville near the Upper Kootenay River. Pollution control regulations were slack and large amounts of phosphorous were added to the system each year until the mid seventies. The effects on Kootenay Lake were dramatic – they were hard to believe.

By 1957, the rainbow trout population of the Lower West Arm had declined very noticeably and aquatic plants were becoming heavy in bays and other shallow and protected areas. By the 1960’s, rainbows were scarce in the slow moving areas of the Arm and only remained strong in the narrow, more stream like reaches around Balfour, Nine Mile Narrows and Grohman. The weeds were summer jungles and filamentous algae
clogged gravel and boulders in the narrows – especially Nine Mile and Grohman. Planktonic algae was so dense that it was sometimes difficult to see more than a few feet into the once clear water. Coarse fish populations boomed. Huge schools of young squawfish (now called the Northern Pike Minnow) and chub roamed the slack water areas of the Arm sometimes churning the surface like herring. They had the run of the place because there were few trout to bother them; only ospreys which increased to the point that nearly every piling and dolphin had a nest. Even power line poles had their share.

When the home bay lost its wonderful rainbows, I turned my attention to Grohman some two kilometres downstream. The Nelson old timers often spoke of it in reverent terms and I had been told that an early BC angling writer had described it as the best fishing place in the province. I sometimes rowed down to a bay just above the entrance to the narrows trolling a fly or a flatfish. I saw some great rises of big trout in the narrows but was afraid to enter because of the strong current. My father often told me about the good boat he lost there in the 1920’s before Grohman was dredged and Corra Linn dam was built some twenty kilometers downstream. There were fearsome rapids there then. They were still pretty formidable in high water before Duncan and Libby Dams tamed runoff in the late sixties and early seventies.

Clare Palmer was my fishing pal in the fifties and beyond. He came over from Nelson to fish off the boathouse from time to time in his little boat with a small outboard of two or three horsepower. Before long, we got up enough nerve to journey to Grohman.  We rowed or motored down to a boathouse in the bay just above Grohman then hiked the little way across the Lodgepole Pine, huckleberry and wild rose flat to the creek mouth. We started fishing in early July when the water was dropping and you could wade the creek. We almost always caught more fish than we should have. We used caddis larvae (we called them periwinkles) through most of July then grasshoppers and flies. The trout were seldom big – a three pounder was a prize. But they were beautiful fish – slim, silvery and hard fighting. Few people fished at Grohman then. Most outboards were still not capable of making it back upstream and I don’t think many people made the hike. Why should they – fishing in front of Nelson was still great.

By the mid – sixties, many people were fishing at Grohman. Powerful outboard motors skimmed them down from Nelson in minutes. On warm summer evenings there were a dozen or more boats. Most were anchored near the entrance to the narrows underneath a power line dunking
grasshoppers. The fish had changed too. They were larger, rounder and more coloured but less energetic when hooked. It seemed like the big bay rainbows that used to hang around the boathouses chasing shiners had retreated to the narrows as conditions became less hospitable in the slack water areas of the Lower Arm. The smaller, hard fighting river rainbows were becoming very rare. Every so often, a grasshopper dunker would hook one and the anchor would come up for a wild chase. I think the small, slim river rainbows were less able to reproduce in the increasingly algae and sediment choked gravel at Grohman and died back or became genetically mixed with the lake type rainbows as spawning conditions deteriorated and favoured the larger fish which were more able to excavate spawning redds in the tough gravel. Some Nelson anglers thought the
big, lethargic rainbows were hatchery fish . They weren’t. I’m pretty sure they were the bay cruisers that had vacated the Lower Arm when water quality began to drop. Many of these fish resided just above the narrows prior to enrichment and the entire Lower Arm rainbow population likely spawned at Grohman so a population shift is not incomprehensible. Strangely enough, the big bay rainbows were strong fighters in their home
waters prior to enrichment.

Although some anglers bemoaned the loss of the resident rainbows form the slack water areas of the Arm, most Nelsonites were very pleased with the new fishing at Grohman. Some spectacular catches occurred between 1961 and the early seventies and many anglers greatly exceeded
the limits. That didn’t seem to matter, there appeared to be no end of the fish.

One August afternoon in 1961, Jim Trinca and I anchored my small cedar boat at the mouth of Grohman Creek. Jimmy drifted grasshoppers in the creek outwash while I cooled a hand I’d burned lifting the outboard motor out of the water. He began catching fish right away and by the
time I got my line in the water, he had three fine rainbows between two and five pounds. The bite stopped when I started fishing and for the next two hours, there was nothing.

In a spate of boredom, I searched my tackle box for its most outlandish lure and came up with a large yellow flatfish with red dots.  I tossed it in and let the current work it a few metres behind the boat.  The largest rainbow I had ever seen grabbed the thing and raced downstream.  My reel held about 100 metres of six pound test line.  The fish took it all then leaped at the end of it.  A huge, dark trout as big as a bus sailed into the afternoon sun then fell back like a refrigerator dropped from the fifth floor. I put on some new line, another flatfish and hooked another large
rainbow.  I landed this one.  It weighed nine pounds.

Danny McKay and I anchored above a small gravel island just northwest of the big island at Grohman on a late summer evening in 1965.  A good rise came on at dusk.  We stopped fishing well before it was over after taking thirty rainbows from 1 to 3 kg.  We kept six of the smaller ones. As we cleaned them, Dan’s rod tip was protruding behind the boat with just enough line out so the fly occasionally skipped on the water surface.  Suddenly a big rainbow surfaced and grabbed the fly.  The reel screamed for a moment and the fish was gone.  The moon came over Evening Ridge and a most outstanding phenomenon began.  A rise of incredible intensity came on like a wild summer rainstorm.  The air was full
of its sound and fury and we could see thousands of pink sides flashing in the moon track.  It was like feeding time at a hatchery and more; much more!  Danny and I were stunned.  The moment is forever etched on the scrolls of my memory and this is fortunate because ten years later, rainbows had all but disappeared from Grohman.

The warning signs that began flashing in the late fifties became much stronger as the sixties progressed. Filamentous algae was becoming thicker at Grohman and brownish gelatinous types began taking over from the greens. Large yellow mayflies we called Yellow Salleys disappeared. Caddis larva could no longer be found on the rocks in our bay and algal mats started to form on the caddis rocks. The bay weeds became too thick
to run an outboard through and their species composition changed in favour of types that inhabit shallow, enriched lakes. Dolly Varden (we now know them as Bull Trout), once numerous in late spring and early summer especially in the Upper West Arm, all but disappeared but over fishing had a lot to do with this. Even the suckers seemed repelled by the conditions in the slack waters and, by the mid sixties; there were huge congregations at Grohman.

In the blazing summer of 1967, the warnings became less subtle. An incredible bloom of blue green algae came on in August. My father came up from the boathouse one morning wondering who had dumped gallons of green paint into the water. That’s just what it looked like or maybe
pea soup garnished with some light blue ink. These kinds of algae do not prosper in cold mountain lakes unless nutrient levels are very high. The bloom subsided as clouds and cooler air moved in but that wasn’t the last algal bloom nor was it to be the worst of the many impacts the Arm was to suffer. There was much more to come. Indeed.

Fall is usually a time of glory and great fishing on Kootenay Lake. But in the autumn of 1969, an event that will be long remembered shattered the scene.  A massive die off of mountain whitefish occurred mainly in the Upper West Arm. It began in early September and, three weeks later, over a million whitefish and lesser amounts of trout and kokanee had perished.  Their bloated bodies floated thick in the driftlines and piled up in windrows on the shore. Kootenay residents were shocked. Nothing like this had ever happened.

To this day, no really satisfactory explanation has emerged although there have been no shortage of theories. The most prominent held that the fish died from respiratory causes brought on by high levels of carbon dioxide resulting from dying vegetation in Duncan Reservoir, an upstream dammed lake basin which had been flooded with minimal clearing for cosmetic purposes only two years previously. The dam plugs the Duncan
River, Kootenay Lake’s second largest tributary about 10 kilometres above itsentrance to the North Arm. The carbon dioxide was said to have found its way to the West Arm via the submerged flow of cold Duncan River water down the North Arm. Certainly there was no shortage of decaying organic matter in the once fine Duncan Lake. It was a huge aquatic graveyard at the time and other elements of the theory seemed to make sense. It was proposed by a scientist who was conducting a study designed to predict some of the impacts of the dam (which was part of the US – Canada Columbia River Treaty) on Kootenay Lake. Only trouble was, no consistent evidence could be found to support it. Another idea was that the whitefish simply overdosed on the abundance of riches brought on by eutrophication. Whitefish do best in cold, relatively barren waters where they are generally small, slim creatures less than 30 cm long and they are not often really abundant. In the Upper Arm prior to the die off, they were extremely numerous and quite large; some were even obese. A couple of months before the die off, I spent a summer afternoon watching them in a Balfour boathouse. The water was about four or five metres deep and there was just enough room for a sixteen foot boat. The fish were stacked three deep and there were seventeen in that little column of water. There was something very wrong with them. They were  lethargic and seemed to be unaware of me. I drifted bait by their noses, dropped stones and jabbed at them with a pike pole. Their reactions were very feeble.  I never saw the dead fish that September since I had  started a job in Nanaimo. But whitefish continued to perish in a smaller way for several years thereafter. Clare Palmer and I found a few dozen dead and dying fish between Balfour and Nine Mile in 1973. Live fish were holding quietly in shallow water and some had fungus infections around their pectoral and anal fins where there was also some haemorrhaging. The dead fish were so obese as to be grotesque. They had the usual small heads but their bodies were huge. There was a lot of body fat, especially around the hearts. It struck me then that the primary cause of death almost certainly was too much of the high life. I don’t believe
Mountain Whitefish are equipped to deal with rich environments. Think of the tiny heart, miniscule gill surface area and small amount of blood to service these big bodies. Then think of the chemical changes Kootenay Lake was experiencing from the dam and nutrient input. It likely wouldn’t take much to push them over I thought.

The whitefish seem to have recovered but I don’t think their numbers are what they once were. When I was a boy in the 1950’s, one of the favourite early season pastimes of Nelson youth was fishing for whitefish around the boathouses and the City Wharf. We usually were able to
catch a dozen or two in a few hours. They were often sold for a nickel each in the kitchens of China Town.

Not all the results of Kootenay Lake enrichment were that negative. In the late fall of 1949, Peter Larkin and his father, Ted Hunter and Rod McCrea brought a load of the freshwater shrimp Mysis relicta  from Waterton Lake. Three other transfers occurred between then and September 1950 for a total of 12,000. They were released at Balfour, Kaslo and Crawford Bay.  Purpose of the introduction was to provide a food item to hasten growth of Gerrard Rainbows to a size large enough for them to prey on kokanee – about 40cm.

In the first decade after the introductions, no Mysis were seen.  Then in June 1961, they were observed near the surface in the turbulent water of Nine Mile Narrows in the West Arm.  A couple of years later they were well established through much of Main Lake and West Arm and had a spectacular influence on the growth of Kokanee, particularly those residing in the Upper West Arm.  Prior to the Mysis colonization, most West Arm Kokanee were rather small, averaging about 25 centimeters (10 inches) at maturity. After the Mysis explosion the “little silvers” averaged about 35 centimeters (14 inches) with more than a few much larger individuals.  In 1963, a 2.7 kilogram (6 pound) fish was caught at Nine Mile and a 3.3 kilo (7.25 pound) spawned out redfish was found in Kokanee Creek.  Average size of main lake  kokanee did not increase much but a
few large fish were occasionally caught.  In 1966, a 4.5 kilogram (10 pound) fish was captured at the mouth of Fry Creek in the North Arm. There was even a rumour of a 6.4 kilo (14 pounds) fish being found near the mouth of Redfish Creek. Upper West Arm silvers were most affected because upwelling currents and limited depth kept the normally nocturnal, light sensitive Mysis near the surface in daylight where feeding kokanee could see them.  In the Main Lake Mysis spend most of their time in deep water during daylight, usually well below the ravenous hoards of kokanee.
Anglers were quick to take advantage of the bigger and apparently more numerous kokanee in the upper arm.  Prior to the mid-sixties, there was no large, specific kokanee fishery in the arm.  There were a few spot  fisheries at certain times and frequent incidental catches.  Total kill was
probably around a thousand or two.  That changed dramatically as the sixties progressed.  It was feared that Duncan Dam might kill the fishery before it got rolling because it cut off a huge kokanee spawning population.  But a spawning channel Meadow Creek seemed to compensate for this loss.

As with many bonanza fisheries, it seemed too good to be true in the beginning.  On a mellow July  evening in 1967, six Nelson anglers were
seated around a beer soaked  table in the Queen’s Hotel.  Conversation degenerated with consumption of the regions’ fine ale until one of the group challenged the other to a ‘fishing contest’.  The morning sun saw two boats, each containing three lazy anglers, anchored over the hotspot at the outlet of Kootenay Lake a few hundred metres above the Proctor Lighthouse.  The foolishness began.  Four hours later, one boat had
205 kokanee, the other 165.  They also boated a dozen or so burbot and a few rainbows. All fish were caught by simply lowering a ‘Deadly Dick’ to the bottom, reeling up a few turns and dancing it up and down.  Of course these  boneheads were atypical and paid no heed to the regulations you say.  No way!  They were well within the limits BECAUSE THERE WERE NONE!  And there were many fishermen like them.  The same general group of Nelsonites decimated the late spring Upper West Arm Dolly (Bull Trout) population several years earlier when char limits were missing or very loose.
Most of the Dollies came from the North Arm.  They were chasing the kokanee that were chasing the shrimp that were chasing the smaller plankton.  Some West Kootenay anglers believe the early sixties slaughter dealt  the Dollies a critical blow.  They are not nearly as common as they once were in Kootenay Lake.  Most people think their demise was caused by Duncan Dam because it blocked many miles of spawning habitat. I believe the Upper West Arm massacre of the fifties and sixties was also a major factor.
Kokanee limits were introduced in 1968 and reduced in 1971.   Catch peaked at 110,000 plus in 1975.  In 1979, the fishery collapsed.  Despite improvements in spawning habitat, fry stocking and frequent closures since 1980, the West Arm has only recovered to a level that will sustain  a very modest fishery. Overfishing of West Arm kokanee occurred because large numbers of main lake fish were mixed with West Arm silvers resulting in great overall abundance.  Since the regulations were designed around total population, the much less numerous West Arm stocks were severely reduced.  At the time of the crash, Main Lake kokanee were also suffering because of reduced egg to fry survival at the Meadow Creek spawning channel. On top of that, reduced nutrients following Libby Dam construction hammered the fish down to crisis levels. Additional
channels at Kokanee and Redfish Creeks, better management of Meadow Creek and a fertilization program have aided the recovery such as it is.

I never bothered much with kokanee. I used to look forward to the City Wharf fishery in June when the boys of Nelson wouldline up in the fifties and catch good numbers on caddis larvae and I sometimes stopped at Seventeen Mile Rock or Fraser Narrows in the sixties to cast from
shore. I once caught a good three pounder at Fraser Narrows that fought as well as a prime rainbow. But I miss seeing them massed in the creeks with their bright red bodies contrasting with the fall colours, blue skies and fresh snow on the peaks. I hope they make it back strong and anglers never again take them for granted. I also hope fish managers begin to put more effort and resources into restoring West Arm Rainbow populations because many more people once fished for them than trolled the Main Lake for the big rainbows.

I feel sorry for the few West Arm anglers that bother fishing. I still see a few die hards trolling by Burns Point on summer mornings or evenings. I never see a fish caught and there is never a rise anymore. I wonder if any of them remember what once was one of the finest fisheries the provincew has ever seen?


3 Responses to “Early West Arm”

  1. dave turner says:

    never have i seen a more acurate story of the 50<s fisheries..i was a member of the nelson rod and gun club in the 50s and sixties and the club spent many days in deep talks with biologist hired to look at the lakes fisheries,,this was the time of algea blooms first appearing in the main lake. it was almost the death toll of the largest trout anywere ,..a lot of time was spent reworking the spawning beds at meadow creek..i left nelson in early 70,s ..this is a great write up Ted well done

  2. great story ted,brings back a lot of memories.like the fishing from your boat house our family went over by boat(your dad came and got us) for a few sunday afternoon picknicks

  3. TedBurns says:

    Thanks for your interest John, good to hear from you and make sure to say hello to Dewey for me.

    All the best,


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