Big fish in small water
The spring of 2010 has been odd… and scary. Any doubts about climate change have been erased. Water levels on Lake Superior are alarming, there were grass fires reported in March, and, as of mid-April, our typically substantial spring rains have been non-existent. As anglers, we must have great fear for the future of cold-water fish like the steelhead.
The low water levels have resulted in fish running early and spawning in the lower rivers- a scenario that can be catastrophic for the young smolts due to less desirable habitat and warmer water temperatures. Even more frightening is how vulnerable the adult fish become to predators. Otters and eagles are gorging on our trout like bears on B.C. salmon. On North Shore streams, many anglers are choosing to leave the fish alone until they have a fighting chance. Those on the water are finding that they are foul-hooking and “lining” a lot of fish. For the small group of us who are out collecting biological samples and clipping fins as part of the Co-operative Anglers Management Program, it remains business-as-usual, but the conditions are not making the fishing very enjoyable.
Luckily, our rivers have a one fish limit, and the size restrictions on the in-town streams essentially make these waters catch-and-release. Despite these conservation efforts, a small number of individuals are still mishandling fish and causing an additional stress to these migratory rainbow trout. If a fish is foul-hooked, every effort should be made to snap the leader, as dragging a fish in backwards against the current can do a lot of harm. Anglers who foul-hook multiple fish usually choose to move on. Whether a fish is fouled or caught legally, it should not be removed from the water. If you’ve caught a trophy, wait until your partner has the camera ready, then gently lift the fish for a second or two. Always support the fish with both hands and then send it back to the deepest water around. If fish are spawning or climbing a set of falls, they should be left alone as they won’t have much expendable energy to waste. When fish are visible and trapped in a pool surrounded by anglers, it is also best to leave them alone. These fish can see you as easily as you can see them and they aren’t interested in biting, especially if they’ve been foul-hooked a few times. It’s probably better to move on and find some unmolested trout that are more willing to bite.
Everything is cyclical, and things will get better. If we all do our part to conserve and protect these fish, they should be able to survive almost any circumstances nature can throw at them. Then we’ll continue to have this resource to enjoy in the future.