A Major Source of Pride

Small Lake Management – A Major Source of Pride


British Columbians have two things they can be very, very proud of: the small lake management program of the Fish and Wildlife Branch and the BC Forest Service Recreational Site Program. The two in concert have resulted in the best fishing and camping opportunities on the planet. Dare I say that there is not a vehicle accessible lake in the southern half of the province that is capable of supporting fish that doesn’t provide the chance of catching some nice trout and a good place to camp with a camper, tent or even a small motor home? I certainly can’t think of very many. There are around 800 lakes that are stocked with some seven million mainly wild native trout of various strains and there some 1300 recreation sites.

These two crown jewels have resulted from two convergent decisions made decades ago:

  1. The decision to employ professional biologists to manage sport fishing
  2. The decision to retain the provinces’ resource lands as public domain (Crown Land)


Despite the fact that the relationship between the government and its biologists has not always been a smooth one and there have been many calls by the forest industry to privatize public forests US style, the province has held firm on a course that has resulted in the present wonderful condition for BC’s vast army of anglers and outdoor recreationists.

Some will argue that there still could have been decent fishing without biologists and that the forest industry and other commercial users of the land could have provided camping areas and parks. There may be a grain of truth in the fishing part because some lakes have had self sustaining natural populations of trout for millennia but, as I can attest from years of living in the only substantial area of private forest land in the province (the E&N land grant area on Southeast Vancouver Island), public access and outdoor recreation are not high forest company priorities – far from it. Most of the private forest land on The Island is choked off by gates.

Its true that great fishing was present before biologists came on the scene beginning in a small way in the 1930’s but that was more by luck than design. In some places, fish were always present, in others; early people moved them around with sometimes good success. Some of the early plantings were quite spectacular because lakes had lain fallow since the last ice age and they contained teeming populations of fish food organisms. There are stories of trout fry or even spawning adults being moved great distances over rough country then being released into virgin waters. A few years after, reports of giant rainbows began to trickle out of the Interior. Knouff Lake was one such place. Three years after stocking, fish from 15 to 17 pounds were reported from this rich lake which still produces fine fishing although there are few trout near that size.  But there weren’t many places like that and it took some years of careful management to bring the situation to the level it is today where about 50 percent of the catch is taken from some 800 stocked lakes which only represent some 4 per cent of the total number of lakes in BC.

In the main, the great fishing in the small lakes is the product of management strategies worked out by fish biologists and the skills of the technical staff of the hatcheries which are now managed by the Freshwater Fisheries Society. The vast majority
of the fish are native rainbow trout selected from several brood lakes. Wild fish provide most of the progeny and eggs and sperm are gathered every spring.

Pennask Lake provides perhaps the most important strain of wild rainbows. They are amazing fish. These probable descendants of Thompson River steelhead are spectacular performers when hooked. Powerful runs and acrobatic leaps are the norm for these beautiful, lightly spotted rainbows that can  be mistaken for kokanee because they are sometimes silver bright. Pennask rainbows are primarily insect feeders and do very well in lakes they have to themselves. Because I spent most of my life in the West Kootenay and Vancouver Island where Pennask rainbows are seldom stocked, I didn’t come to know these fish until later in life which is a pity.

I first encountered them in numbers at Murray Lake, a narrow mountain lake just east of the Coquihalla Summit. Murray is a lake that is likely ignored by Interior anglers because its rainbows seldom top 15 inches but it is highly patronized by Lower Mainland fishers because it is the Interior lake closest to the coast.  On summer weekends, it sometimes gets hoards of anglers from Vancouver and environs. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful lake and supports a largely self sustaining population of hard fighting Pennask rainbows. The first one I caught jumped over my little inflatable boat twice and peeled off a good deal of line in several runs before jumping several more times. I came to understand why the Kamloops trout is so highly regarded around the world. It is the Pennask rainbows that are the classic Kamloops trout of lore.

Pennask Lake lies in the high country between Merritt and Okanagan Lake and has a long history of providing brood stock. The Fish and Wildlife Branch has maintained an egg collection station on Pennask Creek since 1928. Each spring, hatchery staff collects up to a million eggs from a spawning run that numbers more than 20,000. The egg take does not even begin until 13,000 fish have passed the fence. At least that many are required to make sure the stock continues to thrive. Most fertilized eggs are taken to the Summerland Hatchery where they are reared then released as fry, fingerlings or yearlings in the hundreds of lakes that take Pennask rainbows.

The lake also has a colourful history of human use. One interpretation of its name is ‘plenty of lake trout at all times”. James Dole of the pineapple empire visited the lake in 1928 was so taken that he founded the Pennask Lake Fishing and Game Club two years later. A number of prominent US citizens were members. The club’s purpose was to maintain good fishing for a long time to come and ‘ it is hoped that it will be kept as a fly fishing lake solely and not be dredged with tin
shops and worms” said Dole.. A lodge was built and visited by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in their Royal Visit of 1959. The club still controls some 1000 hectares of lake shore and, in 1970, a fly fishing only regulation was introduced. Ice fishing is also banned. There is still concern for the lake because of its proximity to the Okanagan Connector and a recent provincial park. Some Pennask regulars no longer fish the lake because of the crowds but it continues to produce well and there are no signs that the remarkable rainbows of Pennask Lake will not be able to continue to sustain excellent fishing in
the interior lakes for many years to come.

Other strains of rainbows are no slouches either and the Fish and Wildlife Branch has been introducing themto lakes where coarse fishes such as shiners, squawfish and chub are competing for the available food supply. In past years, these lakes were usually poisoned. The poison (usually rotenone) killed everything including the trout and much of the invertebrate life and it took several years for the lake to recover to the point where trout could be re-introduced. Shiners and their fellow travellers had usually found their way back by then. A few usually managed to survive the poison in adjacent wetlands or small streams no matter how careful the rehab was and bonehead fishermen seem to be constantly moving them to new waters. BC biologists are now stocking strains of rainbows that prey heavily on coarse fishes.

The Blackwater strain originates in the multitude of lakes and streams of the Northwest Chilcotin that find their way to the Blackwater River. They are aggressive predators of small fish and do very well when stocked in small lakes with a multi – species population of forage fish. The Blackwaters are not said to be spectacular aerial acrobats like their Pennask cousins but the larger fish are known for their spectacular runs and deep power and they do jump at times. I have encountered them out in the Chilcotin around Gillies Crossing and in Harmon Lake near Merritt. A thirteen pounder was caught in Harmon Lake and most of the big Dragon Lake brutes are Blackwater fish.

Another predatory form is the Tzenzaicut strain which also comes out of the North Cariboo/Chilcotin country. As far as | know, I have yet to catch one but they are said to be excellent fish with lots of vigour.

Of course, the kings of all of BC’s fish eating rainbows are the Gerrard Giants of Kootenay Lake. I know these fish well although I had never caught a really large one until 2011 and haven’t fished for them often because I dislike trolling with heavy gear. I don’t think Gerrards are all that suitable for the smaller lakes because they seem to do best in large waters where kokanee are abundant. They are not prone to cruising the summer shoals and weed beds to pick off shiners, chub and the like. There were other races of rainbows in Kootenay Lake, especially the West Arm, that had this mode of behaviour but they don’t seem to be around anymore. Too bad because there is no shortage of coarse fish. Like all BC rainbows however, the younger Gerrards feed mainly on insects and other invertebrates until they reach sizes of 14 – 18 inches. Many Gerrard
rainbows are caught by fly and spin anglers fishing around the Main Lake creek mouths. So Gerrards are not stocked as often as other native strains because there are few lakes they are suited for that don’t already have them.

Another form of native rainbow that is sometimes used is the Premier Lake stock. Premier is a beautiful lake at the foot of the Rocky Mountain Front Range in the East Kootenay. It once supported a very large race of rainbows that may have been
Gerrards. It was rehabbed in the late 1950`s and re- stocked with fish that are likely of Pennask Lake origin. The original trout of the Rocky Mountain trench were West Slope Cutthroats.

Many urban lakes in the south coastal regions are stocked with a domestic form of rainbow termed the “Fraser Valley Strain” which is a hatchery stock of uncertain origin. It is thought that most domesticated rainbows ultimately came from the
MacLeod River Hatchery of Northern California which would make them descendants of Sacramento River steelhead.  These are the “ put and take“ catchable fish found in many lakes around the Lower Mainland and Victoria. Although they are fast growing and seem to be fairly well suited to coastal lakes, they are not usually vigorous fighters and seldom jump when hooked.

The native coastal cutthroat would seem to be much better suited to the coastal lakes and indeed, they are present as natural populations in most lakes on the coast. They would likely be stocked more often if reliable brood sources could be found. But because they spawn over a very prolonged period between November and May and usually in small spurts rather than prolonged runs, it is difficult to find enough fish for an egg take in even the best spawning creeks. One of the cutthroat brood stock sources has been the Taylor River, the main inlet to Sproat Lake. This stream has produced cutthroats as large as 17.5 pounds. The Sproat Lake giants are the largest coastal cutthroats I know of although other large coastal lakes with kokanee come close. Coastal cutthroats will feed on fish as soon as they can get their mouths around them. I have seen six inch
cutthroats that choked trying to swallow sculpins half their size but they generally don’t start a mainly fish diet until they are some 14 – 16 inches.

Other salmonids are also part of the program. Eastern Brook trout are stocked in a number of lakes that are subject to winter kill or are otherwise somewhat marginal habitat for rainbows Brookies can survive in places where rainbows would be very hard pressed and, although I`m not usually in favour of planting fish outside their home range, I have to admit that the colourful brookie has been a valuable addition to the BC fish fauna. I have caught them in many locations from the Kootenays to the Northern Rockies. They are even present in two Vancouver Island lakes where they were stocked by the old Cowichan Hatchery and now sustain themselves via natural spawning.

Kokanee are also stocked in a number of lakes although most are produced naturally. I have caught silvers up to six pounds and more in Kootenay Lake but I seldom fish for them anymore. I do recognize their sporting qualities however and they are
great eating.

West Slope cutthroats were stocked in a number of mountain lakes in the Kootenays over the decades and they now provide some fine fishing in these lakes and nearby creeks. Many of these lakes are in the sub-alpine country and the fish are small because they have become too numerous for the limited food supply.

Brown trout have been introduced to a few lakes and streams on Vancouver Island. They are Cowichan fish and are the progeny of a 1930`s introduction to two small tributaries in the Village of Lake Cowichan. They have taken a tenuous hold in
at least three other watersheds on the Island and it is anticipated that there will not be significant plantings elsewhere. They have done well in the Cowichan River and a few have taken up residence in Cowichan Lake. Fish of ten pounds or more have been taken but, in my opinion, they are not a match for the native rainbows and cutthroats and are more popular with visiting anglers than they are with Cowichan locals who often view them with disdain.


BC has been applying non-reproductive technologies to fish utilized in the small lake program to produce sterile (triploid) and all female fish to improve size and longevity. This technology is currently being applied to about 50% of the lakes
in the program and has been very successful especially with Pennask strain rainbows because it has allowed these insect eating rainbows to gain another year or two of growth and achieve some remarkable sizes for rainbows that do not usually eat fish.


BC anglers should be able to continue to look forward to great fishing and excellent camping as time rolls forward. My one worry for the future is that governments seem to be more and more dominated by urban politicians who do not seem to have a good understanding of rural resource issues and values. Even politicians from the more rural areas are most often business people, lawyers and the like and don’t appear to be well versed in outdoor values. There was even a move by the Liberal government of the early 2000’s to try and sell off the Forest Service recreation sites. Evidently there were no takers but the government did manage to stick the program in a ministry of tourism, arts and culture for awhile. And there has been a steady erosion of Fish and Wildlife Branch personnel – biologists and conservation officers – over the recent years.


Hopefully there will be more awareness of the world class fishing and outdoor recreation program that our province has developed and it will continue to survive and prosper.





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