A Future for Cowichan's Trout?

Our wonderful Heritage River has always been a great place for fishing.  In years long past it was a world-class destination for fishers from all over the world.  Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination started World War I, visited the Cowichan River in the early 20th century to participate in the legendary spring rainbow trout fishery.

Imagine what it would have taken to get here from Austria 110 years ago.  You would have to cross the Atlantic by boat and then take the train all the way across Canada to Vancouver, and then another boat ride to the Island.  The fishing must have been pretty good.  

In the 1920’s and ‘30’s the Cowichan was a regular destination for wealthy anglers and celebrities from all over the world who all traveled here to fish for our rainbow trout.

Let’s look at a year in our river to see how this tremendous rainbow trout fishery evolved and why we are working so hard to protect and preserve it for future generations.

If we start our year in the summer, we find a relatively low and warm river, with few trout in it and thousands of coho, steelhead and trout fry living near the edges of the river. The river will be flowing at about 7 cubic meters per second (CMS) unless we are in drought as we are this year, running at 4.5 CMS.   Most of the trout have left the river for the cool water of the lake.  This is not a good time for trout fishing in the river because the water is too warm and the fish remaining in the river tend to seek refuge in deep pools.  They are under thermal stress and are not very active.  

In the fall, as the water cools and the rains come to raise the water levels, the salmon start entering the river to spawn.  Our rainbow trout have evolved to leave the lake then and go into the river to feast on stray eggs being released from the spawning salmon.  The Chinook salmon start things off in September followed by the chums and coho and there is a good supply of eggs and dead salmon to feast on through December.

The trout fatten up on this high-energy food and stay in the river all winter eating aquatic insects and enjoying the high water and cool temperatures.  Winter flows can be over 200 CMS during times of high water and are usually around 70-125 CMS.  In January the steelhead enter the river and they spawn starting in February, continuing until May.  There are also hundreds of hardy anglers pursuing these prize game fish all winter.  Our trout are always in close attendance during the steelhead spawning time as well, gobbling up any stray eggs.  

The rainbow trout start to visibly darken as they prepare to spawn in the river starting in February.  They have used the bountiful fall and winter food sources to create their eggs.  Spawning is usually complete by April and the trout start to return to their chrome bright colours.   Unlike salmon, trout survive spawning and they quickly put on weight feasting on the large insect hatches of the spring.

This starts the prime trout fishing time.  Spring is when the Archduke and other anglers would arrive at the Cowichan to fish for these prime trout 100 years ago.  It is still true today as most anglers understand that April to July is the best time to be here looking for trout.  The river usually runs at about 25 CMS during the spring.

With the arrival of summer the river slows and the level of the water drops.  The trout know it is now time to abandon the river and head to the cool sanctuary of the lake for the summer months.  Veteran fishing guide Joe Saysell says you can see the fish moving up into the lake the moment the flow goes below 15 CMS in the spring.  They will be in the pools one day and gone the next.

We do the best we can to manage the river flows to provide adequate water for all the fish in our river.  If there is low water, as is the case this year, we cannot provide as much water as we would like for the fish.  This is another reason why we need to increase the storage capacity of the weir so we can help our native fish thrive for future generations of anglers.