Nitinat River – Fishing With the Bears


It was a cool mid-September early morning in 1997. Low cloud hung in some of the valleys around Cowichan Lake and there were puddles in the potholes on North Shore Road. It had rained hard overnight but there was the promise of sun later in the day as Rick Poole and I drove west from Lake Cowichan. We were heading to the Nitinat River to meet Muggsy Holmes, my old fishing pal from Nelson. Muggs had called a few days earlier from Port Alberni to tell me that there were lots of chinook salmon moving up the river. “Meet me at Glory Slough around first light and we’ll slay them” he said. That was enough to get Rick and I moving. Muggs and I grew up together in Nelson joyfully catching rainbow trout, kokanee, whitefish and suckers from the docks and boathouses on Nelson’s waterfront on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake. He is one of B.C.’s most dedicated and skillful anglers and when he says there are fish to be caught, people listen.

When Rick and I arrived at Glory Slough we were greeted by a delegation of two large black bears that seemed pleased to see us. I drove the truck at them with the horn blaring and they lurched into the bush but seemingly without great concern. Muggs and his friend Harry Vissia were a short distance down the river. Harry was casting from the bank and Muggs was fishing from a little car top pram that was anchored a few metres out. “We’ve got a couple of nice ones already” Muggs offered. Indeed they had, Muggs had a huge, slightly dark fish of some forty pounds while Harry had a somewhat smaller spring but it was silver bright. “What about the bears” I asked. There were piles of dung and partly eaten salmon carcasses everywhere. “Pay no attention,” said Muggs. When there are fish to be caught, Muggs is oblivious to everything else. And the fish were certainly there. The river was alive with their rises, rolls and splashes. Rick and I raced back to the truck to set up our gear. We saw our bear friends fade into the bush beside the road as we approached the truck. I got the sense that they had been standing near the edge of the road watching Muggs and Harry fishing. This time there were three of them.

We rigged up with pink and white wool set – ups that I had tied up a few days before and headed back down to the river; it was only some fifty metres distant along a faint path. The casting spot beside Harry was little alder flat about 15 m wide that fronted on a slow run about one to two metres deep. The river is fifty to sixty metres wide at this point. We weighted our line with pencil lead and cast upstream allowing the lure to
swing along the bottom which was ideal for this kind of fishing – gravel and sand with only a few cobbles and small boulders. There were no snags except along the stream margins where there was the odd log and overhanging roots and cedar branches especially on the opposite side of the river.

After about twenty casts, I hooked a good fish. I played it for about five minutes before beaching it in a tiny back eddy at the bottom end of the little flat we were fishing from. It was a keeper, a lovely bright female about twenty pounds. It joined the fish Muggs and Harry had caught earlier. We kept the fish in a moist little skunk cabbage depression at the back edge of the flat. I had temporarily forgotten about the bears.  A few minutes after I resumed fishing, a bear casually strode between Rick and I who were fishing about 20 metres apart and swam across the
river. The animal snooped around the other side for a few minutes then came back, hauled out beside us, shook like a dog and walked into the bush. I supposed it was saying, “This is my fishing spot too”. But the water was much too deep for bears to fish. A few minutes later we heard rustling in the bush behind the fish and watched a black arm reach out from the screen of salmonberry and lady fern and try to hook a fish into the bush. We all yelled and the bear drifted further back. I hooked another fish almost immediately. This one was much bigger. It ran upstream and across the river then sulked. There was no way I could budge it with my twelve-pound test line and eventually it got into the overhang on the opposite shore and snagged the line. I asked Muggs to take the pram over to see if he could free it but he hooked a fish just then and is generally not inclined to be interrupted while fishing so I continued yanking hoping to somehow get the line loose. Before too long a couple of guys in an
outboard powered pram came up from the Sturgeon Pool and freed the line.  The fish and the lure were long gone. Another bear came in for a swim and I decided I’d had enough excitement for the morning so I packed up for awhile and went on a scouting expedition upstream.

I checked out a couple of access routes on the north side of the Nitinat below the hatchery then crossed the river and drove down to the Red Pock Pool where a hatchery crew was netting chinook brood stock with considerable success. The big seine brimmed with big chinooks on every pass. The crew selected the fish they wanted and transferred them to a truck holding tank. I noticed that nearly every fish was dark and there were some very large individuals – fifty pounds or more. The fish would be taken to the hatchery, stripped of eggs and sperm and the fertilized eggs would incubate in Heath trays over the winter and early spring along with millions of chum eggs, lesser numbers of coho eggs and a few steelhead eggs. The Nitinat supports strong runs of hatchery enhanced Chinooks and chums, along with coho, winter and summer steelhead and sea-run cutthroats. A few pink and sockeye salmon also make an occasional appearance. The river has always been a reasonable chinook stream and a pretty good but sporadic chum producer. However, since the hatchery started producing in 1979, chinook returns have been as high as 50,000 and chums have often topped 1,000,000.  The river was formerly a great winter steelhead stream with some very large, robust fish but these fish are on the ropes.  Summer steelhead have fared better but are not nearly as strong as they once were. Coho are also down but the Nitinat was never a great coho stream although some of its tributaries are excellent coho habitat. The river is essentially non-buffered by lakes and wetlands
and is subject to rapid runoff response which has been influenced by a long history of hard logging especially in the steep upper basin.

I rejoined Muggs and the gang in mid – afternoon. There were a couple of more fish on the beach and the bears were becoming downright obnoxious. I fished for another half hour or so but the increasing persistence of the bears was wearing me down. I had attempted to clean my fish but the bears edged so close that I gave up and brought it up to the truck. Harry hooked a huge bright female that was very strong. He played it
for about ten minutes. The bears watched every move and were now just barely concealed a metre or so into the bush. The fish came off and I suggested we leave before the bears lost what little patience they had left. Of course, Muggs was the last to make his way up the trail and the bears were licking the tails of his fish as they dragged along it.

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