The Cowichan – A Gift to Anglers



Of all Vancouver Island streams, the Cowichan is a river for fish and fishers. Of course its much more than that as its legions of other recreational users will attest, but on the basis of fish alone, the Cowichan stands as  a world class river and has done so for decades.

Prior to the 1930’s when Cowichan trout and salmon populations were truly phenomenal, news of the river’s fishing was available in places like London, New York and San Francisco. Catches of rainbow and cutthroat trout were so great that cooks at the Riverside Hotel in Lake Cowichan had to bury large numbers of fish caught by visiting anglers. According to Cowichan elders, runs of chinook, coho and chum salmon were so strong in the early days that it was difficult to sleep at night as untold thousands of fish thrashed through the shallow riffles of the lower river. Steelhead were also very abundant. In 1984, Herman Mayea, a pioneer Cowichan River steelheader recalled that one year he and his fishing
partner caught and released more than1000 steelhead. And that was in the 1950’s.

The Cowichan is a river designed for fish production. Cowichan Lake, Vancouver Island’s second largest, is the most important factor defining the river’s capability. The lake catches winter runoff from the steepest and wettest parts of the basin and detains it somewhat before it reaches the river. In the process, sediment from turbid mountain streams settles out providing clear water for the river. Nine large tributaries enter the lake. They become galloping torrents of sediment laden runoff in periods of heavy rain or rapid snowmelt. If even one entered the river directly
instead of the lake, the Cowichan would be a very different river in terms of flow and bedload stability and winter clarity and its ability to support fish and aquatic life would be much reduced.

The lake also provides storage for summer flow release particularly since B.C. Forest Products   (which has morphed into Fletcher Challenge, Norske and is now Catalyst) constructed a weir at the outlet in 1956 to provide enough low flow period water for its Crofton pulp mill and the Cowichan River below the mill intake 9 kilometres above the estuary. The weir stores one metre of water in the lake. It is gradually released over the summer to maintain a flow of seven cubic metres per second (CMS) in the river above the intake and 4.2 CMS below it. Prior to the weir, the Cowichan dropped as low as .42 CMS and almost always fell well below seven CMS. Cowichan Lake also warms the river somewhat in winter and helps it warm faster in the spring. In the summer, the river sometimes becomes dangerously warm due to the lake but numerous springs and small groundwater creeks and sidechannels provide cooling. There are 165 sidechannels along the Cowichan River and these are another very important element of the river’s productivity. Besides providing summer cooling, they provide winter refuge for juvenile trout and salmon and additional spawning and summer rearing habitat. Many of the channels are enhanceable and some, like Rotary Park – Fish Gut Alley, John
Charlie’s  and Art Watson’s, have been improved.

Only five creeks of any size enter the Cowichan between the lake and Duncan. They are not large enough to change the character of the river. The rest of the runoff in this part of the basin is distributed through more than 300 little streams many of which only flow during heavy rain.

So, unlike many Island streams, the Cowichan is a rather gentle river, even pastoral in places  like in the placid pools between the weir and the outlet of the Big Pool in the Town of Lake Cowichan and again as it nears Cowichan Bay. In between, the river is generally of rather low gradient except for the area around Skutz Falls which features the falls and a short, low walled canyon. This is followed by the Horseshoe Bend then Marie Canyon, a 2.5 kilometre stretch of high walled canyon with some cascades and small falls at low water.

Aside from a few areas where private residences are present, most of the Cowichan is accessible by foot via a number of roads and trails including the Cowichan Footpath. It is also driftable for its entire length with the exceptions of Skutz Falls and , at low water, parts of Marie Canyon. However, aside from advanced kayakers, canoeists and rafters, most boaters avoid the Skutz Falls – Marie Canyon area and stick to safer drifts like those between Lake Cowichan and Skutz Falls and the Stoltz to Vimy Road section. Only very experienced boaters should use car top aluminium boats anywhere in the river except the portion in Lake Cowichan.

Like most B.C. rivers of today, the Cowichan is nothing like it was at it’s peak of productivity. Most of the watershed was logged rather rapidly and heavy commercial fishing along with the huge Georgia Strait sport fishery has long been a factor. Urbanization is invading the basin at an ever increasing rate. A new factor, ocean warming with an increase in predatory fishes like mackerel and hake, may prove to be the most difficult of all for salmonids to cope with.

The heavy kill river sport fishery of the early days decimated river resident rainbows and cutthroats to the point where their recovery will be very difficult. The majority of today’s Cowichan rainbows are lake based fish that drop down in the fall to feed on salmon eggs then stay over to spawn and mend until the river drops and warms the following spring. These fish range between forty and forty-five centimetres and provide excellent
fishing in the spring months as they rapidly mend in the warming water. They are usually back in the lake by June. If you hit these fish right, the action can be tremendous. In mid- May of 1985 ,I hiked down to the Spring Pool in the midst of  a black ant hatch and a huge hatch of mayflies. The fish ripped my ant fly to shreds. I hooked more than a dozen sparkling rainbows full of the vigour of spring. These fish also provide great fishing in the fall months as well and some people catch them all winter long. Sadly, the lake based rianbows are now said to be falling off.

Coho and chinook salmon are down also. Even in years of high escapement by today’s standards, coho runs are well below historical averages.The Cowichan might just be the world’s most productive coho system because the fish make extensive use of the lake for rearing. A high
percentage of the coho fry born in  eighty tributaries and tributaries of tributaries of the lake migrate down to the lake to spend their freshwater lives living along the lake shore for most of the year. They favour protected, well vegetated shores like Marble Bay and Bear Lake. When the lake warms in mid to late summer they often move out into deeper and cooler water before they come back to thier protected havens. In the spring, they smolt up and move down to the estuary then out to sea.

Chinooks were down to bare survival levels in the late 1980’s. Escapement in 1986 and 1987 was only 1200, a frightening figure considering historical levels and the river’s capacity to support these grand fish. They rebounded in the nineties in reponse to a pen rearing program in the lake. The program was discontinued and the fish are back on the ropes again. By 2006, they were being counted in the hundreds rather than the thousands. The early chinook run, some of which spawned in Cowichan Lake tributaries, may be extinct. Record keeping for the Cowichan has been poor but there are strong indications that the spring – summer run was once much stronger than the fall run. The early fish show up in the Big Pool at Lake Cowichan in the third week in June then move into the lake to hold over the summer or stay where they are in the depths of the pool. They spawn in the fall with the fall run but nobody knows just where. They used to spawn in some of the larger lake tributaries like Shaw, Sutton and Nixon Creeks and Robertson River but only occasional spawners are seen there now and no one knows if they are spring or fall fish. Some also spawn in the Upper River in places like Hatter’s Run, Little Beach and the weir where a spawning platform was constructed in 2004.

Brown trout were introduced to the Cowichan system in the 1930’s and have seemed to more or less hold their own. They are not popular among the local anglers because of their fondness for coho fry but they attract a strong clientele of fly tossers from outside the area. The browns get very large and can be a challenge to hook. I first encountered them in 1970 when fellow bologist   Bob Laidlaw and I were working on a log booming study in Cowichan Lake with Charlie Lyons, a pioneer fish biologist on Vancouver Island. In the evenings Bob and I  would drive down to the area above Skutz Falls and try our luck on the browns. There was a pool near the confluence of Bear Creek where a big brown had taken up residence under the overhanging roots of a large  cedar stump. We saw him slash out at coho fry one evening and resolved to catch him.  We tried for several days by casting coho fry imitations sidearm under the stump. We couldn’t work them right so we switched to  big bi-visible dry flies. We would cast for half an hour or so and were just about to give up when the monster would crash the fly and break the leader. This happened three times in a row on different nights before we gave up. I eventually caught a fair number of browns up to nine pounds and have even caught sea run browns while steelhead fishing in the Riverbottom Reach and I’m very glad to have them in the Cowichan. A few brown trout take up residence in Cowichan Lake and are occasionally caught by anglers.

Cowichan Lake cutthroats are still quite strong. There are two races: a smaller fish that tops out around 16 – 18 inches and a much larger fish that can weigh up to ten pounds or more.. The smaller fish are quite plentiful. They spawn in numerous lake tributaries and even drop down the river to  spawn in  three small creeks in the Town of Lake Cowichan. The larger fish are not so numerous and not much is known about them. These fish begin to prey on Cowichan Lake’s super abundant kokanee when they reach a size of about 30-40 centimeters. I have caught 25 cm cuthroat that coughed up kokanee fry. From that point on, their diet is thought to consist largely of kokanee. Scientists at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo estimate the Cowichan Lake kokanee population to be in the neighbourhood of five million so there is no shortage of prey. The kokanee mature at three years of age and average about 15-18 centimetres at spawning age. They are too small to spawn in the lake tributaries (they can’t dig redds in the large substrate) so most spawn on pea gravel beaches around the lake. The big cutthroats are analogus to Kootenay Lake rainbows in that they do not spawn until  later in life – often age five or six. Where they spawn is somewhat of a mystery. They are known to utilize the Robertson River and small schools begin moving upstream around Christmas and continue until at least April. Mid to late March is thought to be the peak. The big cutts are also thought to spawn in Sutton, Nixon and Shaw Creeks but not in large numbers.

Dolly Varden are also present in the Cowichan but are much more numerous in the lake than in the river. At certain times in the late fall or early winter, they were very abunbdant in the western part of the lake around Shaw, McKay and Nixon Creeks. They are even less popular than the browns among the spoiled and picky anglers of the Upper Cowichan country. People call them bottom feeders which is somewhat true. There
are stories of Dollies hanging around the old float camps gobbling garbage scraps thrown into the lake. Art Watson, a long time Cowichan area  angler and director and sometimes president of the Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society, remembers when thousands of Dollies would follow the coho into the Robertson River in November then spawn in the river.

The Cowichan is a great steelhead river. It hosts a run of large fish as early as November followed by subsequent waves of fish right through the winter then a spring run in March and April. I have seen steelhead spawning in the Cowichan River as alte as June 25. The fish also run into river tributaries like Holt and Bear Creeks and a number of lake tributaries like Meade, Shaw, Robertson and Nixon . A few summer runs are also present but they do not use the mainstem except as a migration path. They head for Shaw Creek where they show up in May and hold in the canyon pools until the follwoing spring when they spawn. Steelhead were being overfished up until the 1980’s when catch and release regulations were instituted. A good rebound occured in the mid – eighties when fishing was again fabulous. In the nineties, a changing ocean climate started
to impact steelhead and their numbers fell back quite a bit. Numbers are now much reduced from the good years but there are occasional strong years and the river is doing its best for the fish.

In the long run, climate change is the greatest worry for the river and fish. It seems to be exerting a toll on the river’s morphology. The warm, wet Pineapple Express winters of the 1990’s and beyond have produced damaging changes in the usually stable Upper River causing it to leave its channel and cut to the south in two locations. The river now runs dirty for much of the winter below these channels which are eroding new ground.

Despite all this gloom, the Cowichan is still a very great river and there is much hope for the future. Forest practices have improved remarkably in the last decade or so and some Cowichan Valley companies are now actively involved in fish habitat improvement. Conservation measures are increasing on ocean sport and commercial fisheries and the Cowichan River sport fishery is now highly regulated. Land use planning is still a problem but there are encouraging signs that municipalities and regional districts are becoming serious about stream protection. Portions of the Cowichan Corridor have been purchased for park purposes. And not all fish species are down.  Chum salmon have been very strong in recent years with some huge returns. When I first started to become familar with the Cowichan, I was told that few chums made it above Skutz Falls. I don’t know if this was true for the early days but in the sixties and seventies, they were not too plentiful. By the nineties, they were swarming into the river and some even spawned in lake tributaries. I have since learned that they were once numerous in Robertson Sidechannel and that native elders called it Qualicum Creek because of the chums. A few years ago, over eight thousand chums spawnedin Robertson Side Channel.

The most encouraging signs of all come from local involvement in stream protection and enhancement. The Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society operates a small hatchery in Lake Cowichan that incubates coho eggs to the fry stage then stocks the fry in underutilized habitats. They also participate in an extensive fry salvage program with the Cowichan Indian Band. Fry are captured in drying tributaries and sidechannels and released in safe habitat. The society has also enhanced a number of small streams and sidechannels by cleaning gravel beds or
adding new gravel and cover and providing headwater storage to improve summer flow. The Cowichan Band also operates a hatchery on he lower river .

The Cowichan River is not what it once was and may never be again. But don’t tell that to the people who care about this still grand river. They know that there are many things that can be done to make it better and they will continue their efforts to return it to its former glory and more. Indeed.

One Response to “The Cowichan – A Gift to Anglers”

  1. Bill Gibson says:

    Also read your article on Gordon River – I can send you a few pics of people in Gordon River Camp from 1951 who were catching steelhead.
    Nov 8, 2014

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