Gordon River – Summer Steelhead Country





It was a blistering hot July day in 1971. Nanaimo steelheader Earl Colp and I were sweating rivers as we crashed through chest high salal near Port Renfrew cursing ourselves for chasing steelhead rumours. Until earlier that year, I had been barely aware of the Gordon River. I’d seen the logging ravaged upper reaches which didn’t appear very healthy and two people had told me steelhead were sometimes caught around Gordon River Camp, well up in the basin. Duncan Conservation Officer Jack Fox mentioned hunters bringing out a few in October and a one time camp cook spoke of occasionally catching the odd one at Christmas for the men that stayed in camp over the break. But nobody I knew thought the Gordon was much of a steelhead stream. That was soon to change.

A conversation with the engineer at B.C. Forest Products Port Renfrew Camp was the turning point. “The crew was looking for bridge sites in the Gordon River canyon last week and they saw steelhead, lots of them. The boys were feeding them their lunches “he said as I tried to appear only casually interested. That conversation was the reason Earl and I were tangled in the salal wishing I’d kept my ears shut. “We’ll be lucky to get out of here alive let alone catch a steelhead” he said – he was wrong on both counts.

After about ten minutes of struggle, we were in cool timber cruising easily along the old trail to the abandoned Black Prince Mine on Bugaboo Creek, a tributary of the Gordon.  Before too long we found a place where we could scramble down to the river. It was crystal green and perfect.
Much larger than where I’d seen it in the upper basin. There were three fishable places: a long lower run, a middle piece of racy water with some
holding pockets and a deep canyon pool at the top. Earl took the lower run and I headed for the middle race. We were using roe with split shot sinkers. On my first cast, I hooked a wild steelhead that flashed upstream through the fast water with such force that the sinkers were pushed up the line. They jammed in the rod tip as I tried to reel in. The huge fish leaped high in the upper pool as I threw the rod down on bowling ball boulders and tried to pull the weights back down the line. He turned and raced back downstream as I struggled wrapping the line around a boulder at the top of the riffle in the process. I looked the fish in the eye as he torpedoed by me and broke off. I moved up to the canyon
pool and caught a lovely 5 kg. female before Earl and I called it a day. He also hooked a good fish that broke him off. We were very satisfied with ourselves because we’d discovered a grand river with a strong run of summer steelhead.

Of course we were by no means the first fishermen to discover the river. The Pacheedaht people of Port Renfrew and long time local anglers like Frank Elliot had known of the river and its steelhead for a very long time. On subsequent trips to Renfrew, Frank told me that as many as a thousand summer steelhead would occasionally be backed up in lower river pools waiting for rain to raise the river so they could move up into the canyons. Many Cowichan Lake area anglers and loggers that worked at Gordon River Camp also knew the river, especially the upper reaches. Unfortunately, many were meat fishermen who did most of their angling with treble hooks in the pools below Loup Creek Falls. However it wasn’t until the mid-seventies and beyond that the Gordon began to be known as a great stream among steelheaders of Southern Vancouver Island.
Even now, twenty-five years after Earl and I had our great day, not many people fish the river and very few know it well.

The Gordon has its origins high in the hills south of the West Basin of Cowichan Lake. It’s very steep for the first kilometre then levels off for about twelve kilometres where it flows through an area logged mainly in the 1930’s. I call this the Rounds Reach after an old camp that was located there. Only small rainbows and Dolly Varden live in Rounds Reach. After Rounds, the Gordon whips through Little Canyon then plunges over Cable Car Falls which is the upper limit of summer steelhead passage. Gentle areas are few for the next twenty three kilometres as the river races past Gordon River Camp which has been operating since the 1940’s and picks up dozens of small and large tributaries like the East and West Forks, McBain, Lookout, and Loup. For most of this distance, the Gordon is a galloping torrent between tight canyon walls. Major waterfalls are present below Loup and above Bugaboo Creeks and there are numerous smaller falls and cascades. Below Bugaboo Falls, canyon country persists for another five kilometres before the river finally starts to level out. Bugaboo Falls is the upper limit of salmon and winter steelhead migration although it’s possible that a few of both make it over the falls once in awhile. The lower five kilometres are relatively gentle as the river slides by the old Deacon and Beauchene Farm and into its estuary depositing its burden of gravel and sediment ripped off the mountainsides by hundreds of tributaries many of which collect logging induced landslides. This part of the river is highly unstable.

Steep, West Slope Basins like the Gordon often do not fare well from extensive and rapid logging. The precipitous slopes are hard pressed to process the torrential rain and quick snowmelt in their natural state. When large clearcuts and numerous roads are imposed, the slopes often fail at their weak points. And there are many in the Gordon – over 500 slope failures have occurred and 93 percent happened in logged areas. Seventy percent were related to roads. Salmon and steelhead populations have suffered.

However, things should get better. Logging is much more carefully planned now and mid-slope roads are likely to be much less common in the future. Many kilometres of roads at risk are being put to bed. A recreational fishing corridor that should protect the mainstem and its angling qualities has been delineated between the estuary and Cable Car Falls. Loup Creek Falls has been worked on since 1985 and is no longer significantly restricting summer steelhead access into the Upper Gordon and Loup Creek and Forest Renewal BC has funded several studies of the river and its fisheries improvement needs and opportunities.

It’s gratifying to see this lovely river finally getting the attention it has long deserved.




Victoria Times – Colonist

November 1, 1998

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