Creek Fishing – Lest We Forget

West Kootenay Creeks – Summer Fishing at its Best


I was rummaging through my bookshelves last winter when I came across a small booklet that I hadn`t seen for many years. It was titled West Kootenay Sportsman`s Guide and was published in 1955. Cost? One dime.  It was produced by the West Kootenay Rod and Gun Clubs Association and contained 44 pages. There was good information about fishing and hunting, hiking, seasonal weather, historic sites and a useful
outdoors map. Many of the business sponsors are long gone like Jack Boyce’s Sport Shop in Nelson, Kinisku Lodge at Kootenay Bay and even the Queen’s Hotel in Nelson.  But the most amazing thing about this fine little book was its information on lakes and streams. Not so much for the large waters like Kootenay Lake and the Slocan River but for its quite detailed info for the smaller, lesser known waters. And what really jumped out at me was the size some fish attained in some of the creeks.

On Cultus Creek: “there are many lovely pools a short hike back from the beach with rainbows to 2 lbs….” Yikes! This is hardly believable today when most West Kootenay stream dwelling trout are lucky to reach ten inches or perhaps half a pound and they are none too plentiful.

But it was true and not just for Cultus Creek. Prior to about the mid 1950’s, many if not most of the larger creeks supported good fish. I first started fishing the creeks as a small boy in the late 1940’s when I would go along with my father, Uncle Jack and some of my cousins to Woodbury
Creek near Ainsworth and catch West Slope Cutthroats as large as two pounds or more. Mind you, I didn’t catch any this size but Uncle Jack did. We kept almost everything in those days. Once when just my Dad and I were fishing, I caught a trout about four inches long. “Throw him back” he said but I slipped the fish into my pocket. My Mother found it three days later when she washed my pants.

We moved to Nelson a few years later and lived on Kootenay Street not far from Cottonwood Creek where I fished often and sometimes caught
rainbows as large as two pounds. About that time my Dad was working at a  sawmill at Passmore in the Slocan Valley that was operated by Gordon Burns. Gordon was an avid creek fisherman and he was just starting to log some Little Slocan River tributaries higher up in the basin – streams like Koch and Grizzly Creeks. My Dad came home with stories of fantastic catches of good fish and it wasn’t long before we got our lines in the water. Koch Creek is a rather large creek, more like a river in its lower reaches where we started fishing around Camp Ten. We worked our way up to an area where the creek was about half the size and of lower gradient where fishing was easier. The catches we made would not be believed by anglers of today. On one occasion when there were perhaps five people fishing we partly filled two gunny sacks with rainbows as large as two pounds although most were much smaller. We used nothing but attractor flies like Royal Coachman and the like. But it didn’t much matter because those fish had never seen an artificial lure and were waiting to pounce on anything that looked edible.  When you hooked a fish in most creeks you usually didn’t play it much but just flipped it out onto the bank. That wasn’t often possible at Koch Creek because the lunkers would have snapped the rod.  When we got home after that day I dumped out the sacks and counted 150 fish. I didn’t measure any of the big ones but I
would say the average size would have been near twelve inches with a fair number larger than 15 inches. Later that summer, Reg Goldsbury came by our Kootenay Street house and laid his catch out on the lawn. He had only kept six. They ranged between fourteen and twenty – one inches.

As far as I know, rainbows of that size do not exist   in West Kootenay   creeks today and haven’t for several decades – not even in Koch Creek. I moved away to California in 1958 and didn’t get back to the creek until the mid- 1960’s when Clare Palmer and I fished it. We rode up in the logging trucks and fished the same area of the 1950’s bonanza but caught nothing more than tiddlers – little rainbows less than eight inches long. We caught a fair number but I don’t think even one made ten inches. I visited Koch Creek again in 2002 and was only able to catch small fish and not that many. The same thing happened in most of the streams in the Southern Interior. Resident stream fish were almost totally fished out as logging roads started to penetrate the formerly remote valleys and anglers with little appreciation of the low productive capacity of the streams poured in. Meaningful regulations were non-existent and few people bothered to read the ones that were there. Catch limits were twelve fish per day and you were allowed to possess two days’ catch. Conservation Offices were few (as now) and courts were usually lenient with the few violators that might be brought to them. Families were larger then and often not so well off. It was more or less acceptable to stretch the limits. There seemed to be an endless supply of streams and if fish became scarce in some of them, there were sure to be others where fish were plenty.

In 1984, I wrote a pair of stories for BC Outdoors on the status of resident stream trout in the Southern Interior. The BC Fish and Wildlife Branch was finally beginning to wake up to the fact that the streams had become seriously depleted. Biologists of the previous decades (professional
biologists only began to be employed in numbers BC in the 1950’s and most came from the coast where there is not a culture of stream fishing for resident trout except in the Cowichan and Skagit Rivers) reasoned that it was not possible to seriously deplete stream populations because people would stop fishing when the waters ceased to produce at the expected levels. But this didn’t happen. Anglers kept returning perhaps unable to comprehend that the rich plenty of past years had suddenly vanished – I was among them. But the fish were gone and in many streams they still are.

In the mid 1980’s,the Fish and Wildlife Branch developed a Habitat Quality Index for streams based on nutritional  quality, temperature and flow characteristics and physical structure. This allows for a reasonable idea of how many salmonids a given reach of stream can support. 1980’s snorkel surveys of popular streams revealed that, with few exceptions, the streams were supporting far fewer trout than they could.

Percentage of Capacity of Trout and Char in Some Accessible
Sections of Interior Streams

Tulameen near


Similkameen near


Similkameen near


Upper East Kettle
in Christian Valley


Mid Kettle near
Rock Creek


West Kettle around


Lower Clearwater
near Clearwater


Upper Nechacko near


Lower Sumallo Creek
(Hope – Princeton)


Skagit River


Beaver Creek near
Fruitvale at Marsh Creek Road


The most interesting feature of this data aside from the astoundingly low populations was that the only sections with reasonable numbers were those with somewhat difficult access. The Upper Nechako and potions of the Skagit were supporting about one quarter of the number of fish they could be but aside from a Beaver Creek section, the other streams were on the ropes. The Beaver Creek section was protected by a blackberry jungle otherwise it would likely have been nearly fishless since it is heavily fished due to easy access and its proximity to Trail and Fruitvale. Many more streams could have been added to this list. Some of our streams have been overfished for so long that there are few people living that can remember when fishing in them was excellent.

On the East Kettle, the swimmers encountered a Colorado angler who had come to BC for its `quality wilderness fishing“ and had caught and released one twelve inch rainbow in several miles of water. He was lucky. Aside from a similar sized brookie, it was the only fish there! He likely would have done better at home. Americans have long realized the susceptibility of stream trout to angling and have had restrictive regulations in place for decades.

Idaho biologist Craig McPhee discovered that a mile of small trout stream could be fished out of half of its catchable trout in just 32 hours of angling. It takes a few years in larger streams. The usual progression is a lack of larger, quality fish followed by small fish only then only a few
widely scattered individuals of medium size. Perhaps these are the few fish that have become hook shy. They must be good learners and few and far between because Wyoming biologists found that the average cutthroat in the famous Upper Yellowstone River fishery was caught and released seven times. Catch and release regulations were pioneered on this fishery.

Improved regulations are now being employed on BC streams as well. In the early 1980’s, a committee of biologists recommended a series of
changes that have produced benefits. Catch and release or highly reduced catch quotas, alternating closures, sectional and seasonal closures, increased size limits and bait bans were some of the regulations employed. Results have not been broadly assessed but, where they have been studied, outcomes have been positive.

The West Kettle River had one of the lowest percentages of capacity in the 1980’s snorkel surveys of Southern Interior streams. A follow up swim count in 1990 revealed that things hadn’t improved much. The swimmers only saw an average of six trout per kilometre of this fine stream in the
Okanagan -Boundary country. But things can change with improved regulations and habitat improvement. In 1996, a 2.5 kilometre stretch was selected as a study reach to assess the impacts of restrictive regulations and habitat improvement. A catch and release regulation improved trout numbers to 30 to 60 trout per kilometre by 1998. When large wood debris was strategically added at selected sites, numbers improved to 366 trout per kilometre by 2000. The wood debris created cover and helped scour out pools. A number of the rainbows were  up to 35 centimeters (14 inches).

Obviously the woody debris treatment can’t be employed very often because of cost and access but improved regulations can be applied almost
across the board.  I think they are becoming much more common. I recently checked the 2011 – 2012 regulations on a number of important Kootenay streams and found a mix of sophisticated regulations designed to protect the resource from over fishing. Low or nil catch quotas, a variety of seasonal and sectional closures, bait bans and larger size limits in instances where fish can be kept.

Hopefully, the new regulations will gradually allow trout populations to rebuild to a point where creek fishing will resume its important place in the angling culture of the Southern Interior. In my mind, there is nothing more satisfying than exploring a kilometre or two of stream with a
light fly rod wearing a pair of shorts and tennis shoes with the chance of catching a few good rainbows. Indeed.



One Response to “Creek Fishing – Lest We Forget”

  1. Jordan Russell says:

    Hey Ted
    Thank you for all your amazing stories. I live in nelson now and have been inspired by you to explore many creeks looking for the last gem. I was lucky enough to do this with my best friend nyle mulkey chose ( fishing in peace). Arguably one of nelson greatest fisherman.

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