Pools of Promise

Pools of Promise

I saw the Green Pool from the power line bluff in late January 1981. Sun was squeezing through the fir and cedar canopy lighting parts of it and I could imagine a pair of steelhead holding near the tail spill. Every so often they would cruise through the pool and be illuminated for the smallest of moments as they passed through the light shafts. A careful angler might tempt a strike by skirting the pool well back in the timber then drifting
a dry fly or an unweighted egg down from the upstream end. The hook would drift along the cliff face on the north edge of the pool then swing into the holding pocket behind a boulder…..

Cook Creek drains Vancouver Island’s Beaufort Range about 50 km south of Courtenay and is about the smallest stream capable of supporting
steelhead. It’s one of those hundreds (or is it thousands?) of those flashy little BC coast systems that originate fifteen or twenty kilometres back in
steep mountain country then tumble down to the sea through canyons, boulder riffles and a short gravel zone before spending themselves in a small estuary. Raging torrents of destruction when warm storms blast out of the southwest melting mountain snow and dropping buckets of rain or musical trickles when you don’t get your feet wet hooping across the rocks in late summer. Most steelheaders would not even consider fishing such water and this is good because the fish are few and there is little room for them to manoeuvre when hooked.

Streams of this sort and the manner that steelhead used them have long been a strong curiosity for me and in the late winter, spring a summer of 1981, I set out on a small voyage of discovery. I had long felt that steelhead entered streams like Cook Creek during the peak flows of late winter, spawned as the water dropped and cleared then drifted back to sea on the next freshet. Evidence from other runoff streams indicated otherwise however. In Haslam Creek just south of Nanaimo, most steelhead appear to wait out the violence of winter in Nanaimo River below the confluence or in pools close to the estuary further downstream. Then they hurry up Haslam between late March and early May, spawn and get out
before the creek starts to show its bones. But Haslam is much bigger than Cook and I wondered if they were  closely comparable.

In the winter of 1980-81, there were no freshets worthy of the name except a big one early in December which cleaned out the threat of an early winter in the high country. From January on, the days were mild with little rain. It was a West Coast winter one reads of in the tourist propaganda with a smile remembering the not infrequent years when arctic air howls out of the Interior and snow piles up in the woods.

It was sometime in February before I got back to Cook Creek and the water was very low and gin clear. I started from the power line bluff
and it was evident there were no steelhead in the Green Pool. It was knee deep and I could count every stone. I moved upstream dunking a piece of roe into every pocket where I couldn’t see the bottom. Under log jams, under little rushes of fast water, under big boulders in deep pools and finally under the plunge bubbles of the waterfall which stops steelhead. There were no steelhead in the creek that day. I also checked below the power line. The water was much shallower there where the creek breaks into its gravel zone. I could inspect every inch of bottom except for a few shadows under cut banks and root overhangs. I poked a hockey stick into these places to feel fish or flush them out. Steelhead are hard to move out of cover when they know the next haven is dangerously far removed but if they are well prodded they will usually flash out for quick look
then dart back and wedge themselves even tighter. I used my stick like a Philadelphia Flyer but it didn’t matter – they weren’t there. I had seen a few yearling steelhead in the upstream pools and there were about twenty in the Falls Pool but they were the only evidence that steelhead used the creek.

Over the spring months, I repeated the exercise several times with the same results and began to believe there was a very occasional dry winter and spring when steelhead were unable to spawn in streams like Cook Creek. Young steelhead spend from one to three years rearing in coastal streams and adults return at varying ages so there is a very small margin of leeway to accommodate the rare year when spawners cannot do their job.

After a cool showery spring, mid July came on hot and bright. It was time for a final look at Cook Creek. I didn’t expect to find more than the usual coho fry. They were there along with hundreds of tiny, just emerged steelhead fry. It was July 15, two to three weeks late for steelhead
emergence. Most of the little fish had the pin head shape of early fry. They darted under stones along the stream margin when I approached but when I moved very carefully, I could sometimes see small groups sampling the surface drift in a few centimetres of water.

The spawning redds where they were born were evident as pale, clean gravel amid algae coated undisturbed gravel. There was only one large redd at each possible spawning location instead of the usual two or three. They were all located in the lower part of the gravel zone below the highway bridge and some were within a few metres of tidal influence. The fish must have waited in the estuary until the last possible moment then hurried
upstream on a dark night. Perhaps there had been a little spate of melt water to draw them up or some heavy showers but I didn’t think so. The mountain snowpack was at a record low that spring and I checked the Comox rainfall every day – nothing special. Maybe there was the odd blast of rain high in the Beauforts that never reached Comox but even that was doubtful. I was fairly sure the fish entered Cook Creek sometime in May, slipped upstream as far as they could then drifted downstream spawning along the way. It probably happened over a few nights and the fish were scraping their bellies with their backs out of the water in the riffles.

Steelhead are fish that would move mountains to renew themselves. This is surely part of the reason for the admiration and respect humans have for these grand fish. These are creatures that ask for nothing, take little and make the best of what there is. Indeed.

I returned to Cook Creek three weeks later. The area where the fish spawned was bone dry but there was water upstream. I bushwhacked and waded up to the falls and steelhead fry were scattered all the way along like diamonds in the hills of Africa.

It seems evident that most winter steelhead in smaller runoff streams wait for the last probable period of high water before heading in to spawn. This maximizes survival chances for their progeny. The violent floods of winter are avoided in favour of the more stable and warming water of
spring. In lower gradient systems well buffered by lakes and wetland basins such as the Nimpkish and Cowichan, steelhead can spawn earlier because the chance of really violent bottom devouring floods is fairly minimal.

But one can never be totally sure about these things. I still believe there may be a fish or two in the Green Pool on a clear day in late January or early in February. If there is a long stretch of high water followed by a spell of dry, frosty weather, I’ll go back there again fully expecting to see my fish.

Leave a Reply