Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Somewhere in a Remote Coastal Inlet

Leaving the city behind

Spent yesterday with a couple of good buddies/fellow biologists. A boat ride of under an hour took us to the head of a remote coastal inlet where a smallish river (think upper NF stilly) enters saltwater. Anadromous fish can access roughly 7 miles of this stream before they reach an impassable falls, so we weren't expecting huge numbers of steelhead, but we figured with the splash of rain over the weekend and the remote setting we might be able to find something. The ride up to the river was an experience in itself and riding north up the inlet surrounded by snowcovered ridges rising straight from the waters edge. In the early morning, the water was glass, blurring the distinction between where sky and water met. After setting out a pair of crab and prawn traps, we got started and hiked up to where the canyon starts to close in, just below where the falls block fish passage. With limited information on fish populations in this particular river, we didn't know what to expect, however an old report from the Ministry of Environment indicated that the little river once supported a respectable sport fishery for steelhead and was known for producing large bodied fish. Anticipation was great, but given the poor condition of almost every stock of steelhead in the Georgia Basin our expectations were tempered by realism.


The river was in good shape. Running about a foot above the algae line but clear, the river had risen considerably with rain over the weekend and the first nudge of spring snowmelt. Hiking upriver we stopped to admire the tranquility of the valley. Only an hours boat ride from a booming megatropolis, home to more than 1.5 million people and the little river valley was like taking a step back in time. Without a sign of human's touch other the old road we walked, a dock and a few old buildings near the mouth the roughly 5 mile walk up river to the canyon was like taking a step back in time.


We found a few good runs, but as with many floodplain rivers, there was also alot of glidy, riffle water with little promise of holding fish. One pool at the junction with a large tributary seemed particularly promising. Roughly 4 feet deep in the thalweg, a bottom of large cobble, dotted with boulders ranging from 2-3 feet in diameter the run seemed to have all the characteristics of a good piece of steelhead water. Chris was fishing a small bucktail jig under a float and when he hooked a fish, I thought we'd found a quicksilver ghost. The fish thrashed violently at the surface and put a deep bend in his rod, even after seeing the fish cartwheel I thought it might have been a small steelhead but as it got closer we realized it was a resident rainbow. With long fins, a touch of purple on the flanks and a heavy spotting pattern on the back and below the lateral line, it was probably the nicest rainbow I've ever seen in a coastal system with access to anadromy. Even more interesting, the fish appeared to be a female. Granted every population of fish will have males and females, however if there was a sizable anadromous component, we would expect the sex ratio of resident fish to be strongly skewed towards males. Resident, male "rainbows" routinely spawn with anadromous females, but under historic ocean conditions, with reasonable smolt survival, females will be predominantly anadromous. The reproductive advantages of large body size and higher fecundity are just so much more pronounced for females. So while we were glad to see such a beautiful fish, it raises some interesting questions about the life history distribution of O.mykiss in this particular river. Could it be an indication that the anadromous life history is no longer viable? Future expeditions will most certainly include snorkel gear.

Resident female?

Towards the end of the day, walking back to the river we stopped at one final spot, a pool just at the top end of tidal influence. Just above the estuary the river becomes fairly confined between cobble banks and large conifers hold the river in place creating a nice run, heavy in the head scouring down the middle and gradually softening as it slides over large, jagged boulders, characteristic of the young landscape of the region. For me fishing steelhead rivers at tide water is a treat. So many of the rivers in our region are heavily impacted by urbanization, diking, and agriculture that for the most part fishing isn't even worthwhile in the lower river. Here however, was a perfect steelhead run 100 yards from a tidal estuary and centuries away from the day to day. Near the bottom of the run the scenery opened, offering a view of the broad tidal estuary where the deep green conifers and newly budding alders gave way to spring flowers and marsh grasses. If ever there was a place to catch a steelhead this was it.

Back at the boat I asked Brendan about his experiences with that particular run. While he isn't particularly experienced fishing for steelhead he fishes the river regularly for chum and pink salmon and has found that the fish don't hold in that run but rather push through on high tide and by the time the tide ebbs, they've made their way above the tidal reach, leaving the seemingly perfect run devoid of fish. Like I said, my experience fishing tidal reaches of rivers for steelhead is almost nothing, but I couldn't help but wonder whether the steelhead would do the same? Then I remembered a chapter from Steve Raymond's book, Steelhead Country where he discusses fishing for steelhead in the tide water. It seems to me, if I remember correctly that his observation was that steelhead were much more inclined to linger in tidal reaches of the river after the tide has fallen. Can anyone confirm this observation? I'd love to hear more from the readers on your experiences and observations of fishing steelhead at tide. People catch steelhead in tide water on the Dean right?

Grandeur in a coastal fjord

The day would've been perfect if some shithead hadn't robbed us for two prawn traps and more than a $100 worth of leadline. We just missed the bastard too, the bouys were floating perfectly equidistant apart, about 100 meters up the inlet from where we'd set our traps and the tide had been ebbing almost all day, meaning that the traps had been stolen within an hour or so since the tide slacked and started flooding. Nothing like loosing 300 dollars worth of borrowed prawning gear to put a sour taste in the mouth.


  1. Thanks for a great post. Bummer about the prawn traps.

    I have had limited success flyfishing for spring chinook and summer steelhead in the lowest reaches of our coastal rivers. The last several years I've ventured further and further into the estuaries. Our summers are hatchery fish, so they may not be the best case-study for you, but hopefully my observations are of interest.

    Our chinook seem to be much more likely to hold in tidewater in spring and summer than our summer steelhead. Over 100s of days, I've only found one group of daisey-chaining steelies in tidewater, while I've seen them several times in pools about 1/2 mile above reach-of-tide. More typically, I find kings holding in the deeper pools, especially those with cover, while steelies tend to keep moving gradually up the river. Most days I will intercept a group of tide-fish (steel), from a couple of solitary movers to a dozen or more fish travelling together. I rarely find these fish holding in classic swinging water. They are most likely to be poking along the edges, dipping in and out of shady little buckets. They seem to want to get out of the flood plain and into the canyon. A percentage of kings will do the same, but many more will congregate in deep pools. Again, most are of hatchery origin, which may have a major influence on their migratory behavior.

    Another case-study I can share: one of our coastal rivers has a popular public fishing zone way down in the estuary. Locals beat up spring chinook in there (mostly on spinners or eggs) but almost never catch summer steelhead. I'm relatively new to this area, having only fly-fished there regularly for two summers. I have never seen or heard of a summer steelhead caught in that estuary, but the river just above reach-of-tide can be thick with super-chrome steelhead. Again, these fish seem to be always creeping their way upriver until they get out of the lower flood plain, and almost always hugging the bank or available cover/structure. Kings, on the other hand, will sink into the deeper pools, if only for a short time. Once they are in a holding spot, they are vulnerable. But steelhead on the move, quietly slinking up through the shallows and along the edges, are incredibly hard to fish to. They are wary and fast. If you can sneak up on them and present a fly, they will usually eat anything you offer.

    Best of luck, and keep up the great posts!

  2. will, glad to see you are getting out and doing some exploring up there. Looks like a beautiful stream. How long was the rainbow? hard to tell from the photo. Also did you see and redds?