This year in Skeena country will be one to remember. The infamous Tyee test fishery results published by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been bandied about relentlessly. Early results prompted talk of a record run. Bookings were made and plans set. Then, as the season was upon us and unprecedented numbers of anglers began flogging the water, the real story emerged. Fish were not there in anywhere near the numbers anticipated. It didn’t help that the best month of the year was pockmarked with successive bouts of brown water.
A retrospective glance at the test fishery confirms what I suspected and stated two months ago. Beware those numbers. The water conditions through at least the first half of the steelhead return, extremely low but highly turbid, were rare to say the least. That combination of flow and color is just what every gill netter dreams about. Net efficiency is maximized. An unusually high proportion of the fish passing the Skeena test net zone were caught and the estimate of the number of steelhead passing inflated accordinly.
Insiders tell me the sockeye run was overestimated by 30-40%. It isn’t unreasonable to assume the co-migrating front half of the steelhead run was similarly overestimated. Getting DFO to admit that formally is mission impossible but it really doesn’t take a corps of scientists to figure it out. Remember, this is DFO, the organization that consistently refused to acknowledge their test fishery could ever do anything but underestimate the strength of the steelhead return. One of the oft touted excuses was the test net was saturated with sockeye and, later in the season, pinks, which caused the steelhead to avoid the net. I wonder if any of those who used to throw that in my face remember those days. Do you suppose they would ever acknowledge the flip side of that was the case this year?
Anyone who wants to dig deeper into the 2016 test fishery will recognize it was only that front half of the steelhead return that appeared to be unusually strong. The back half came after more normal flow conditions prevailed in the lower Skeena. The steelhead numbers were average at best over that period.
Test fishery accuracy aside, there is no doubt the inflated test fishery numbers were a large part of the reason for the invasion of anglers, mostly from afar. Therein lies the issue. How many is too many, regardless of where they came from? How many boats is too many? It wasn’t that long ago there were more bank anglers than boat anglers and there was no such thing as triple digit horsepower outboards on the rivers. Now we have the first of the 200 HP inboards on the Bulkley. The Skeena has been there for years.
What about the pressure exerted by guides? They’ll argue strenuously their effort hasn’t increased in recent times because their rod days are capped in regulation. I’ll suggest that isn’t entirely true. Yes, the rod days are prescribed but their distribution and overall use is greater today than I have witnessed over 26 years of those prescriptions. There are ever more innovative ways of sub-contracting or brokering rod days to ensure none go unused. Those days are now spread over virtually every piece of productive fishing water from one end of the September/October classified water season to the other and even beyond. There can be no argument the guides are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the total steelhead catch. After all, they’ve become very good at what they do.
More of all of us with better information streamed instantaneously and tremendously enhanced equipment and technology leaves no quiet times or places for steelhead. They’ll only produce so much catching when nary a fish gets a chance for a breather. All the best, reasonably accessible, classified rivers in the Skeena watershed are now experiencing that scenario. The so called quality fishing the Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations purports to be providing is long gone according to the benchmarks established at the outset. The fisheries management people now hidden away under that FLNRO umbrella appear to be oblivious to trends every veteran of the waters sees so clearly. Does anyone see any prospect for turning the clock back to restore a piece of “the commons”? What are we prepared to sacrifice even if we can wake the sleeping government dog?
Bulkley River, September 14/16. Is it time to do something?!?