Tyee Club season closes.

The ninety-second Tyee Club season came to an end with nightfall on September15. Although the official rowing season is over with the broader Campbell River terminal area fishery remains open until the end of the month, albeit usually with much reduced effort. The rowing community rarely seems to continue fishing past the close of Tyee Club season and powerboat effort always seems minimal during the ensuing two weeks.

Unlike in most recent years, during which the fish seem to quit biting in the final ten days, relative to the overall low recorded catch of tyee’s there was a modest flurry towards the end with 4 registered tyee’s in the three days leading up to the 15th, regrettably nothing on the final day. One encouraging feature of most of these fish was their bright condition, suggesting new arrivals to the rivermouth area. Included was the biggest of the year at 36.5 pounds, and congratulations to new member Drews Driessen. This is the first time in the long Tyee Club history that the largest fish of the season has weighed less than forty pounds. Declining size-at-age by chinook salmon is a phenomenon that has been observed coastwide and is not unique to the Campbell/Quinsam stock. Perhaps 36 is the new 50?

If they only looked at the Tyee Club website (www.tyeeclub.org) for information those interested in this fishery or stock of chinook salmon might conclude from the final tally of 13 registered fish that the return was poor however this source of information doesn’t tell the whole story, far from it. I’m hopeful that when the comprehensive in-stream assessment of this chinook stock is completed late this fall it will show an increased return compared to recent years.

Perhaps more than in any other year after their return from north coast waters many of the chinooks were holding well down the shoreline away from Tyee Pool where the majority of the rowboat effort takes place, all along the waterfront past downtown at least as far as Rotary Beach adjacent to the 50th parallel marker. This trend has been underway for many years, starting with the collapse of the once famously productive Frenchman’s Pool area on the northwest side of the estuary. For unknown reasons during the past 20 years the holding chinooks no longer stage there despite every indication that the environment is cleaner than ever. At the far end of Frenchman’s Orange Point wasn’t named for any random reason, as the site of the original paper mill effluent outfall the water was coloured so, and yet even I can remember back in the mid 1970’s seeing large fish rolling in the tinted water.

Exhibit A for the newer holding pattern is the tremendous season enjoyed by anglers casting off the sport fishing pier, almost certainly some kind of record for the chinook catch there, with the record board running out of space! At least 15 tyee’s were caught from the pier, with another 70 or so chinooks landed, many of which were over 20 pounds. And this is to say nothing about the numerous fish hooked and lost, either broken off in the barnacle-encrusted pilings or seized by one of the patrolling seals that haunted the place. Word of this success started to spread beyond town and a number of anglers from elsewhere down island were known to have made repeat visits.

There’s always a cluster of boats that fish close to and along the lower border of the special management zone at the Hidden Harbour breakwater, outside of which it’s a “business as usual” tackle regulatory regime, but this year there appeared to be more than ever suggesting a higher than usual presence of large chinook holding there. I don’t fish this area myself but I fielded a number of inquiries from several non-anglers who repeatedly observed large numbers of boats in this location and wondered what the cause might be.

And my own success this season in the Tyee Club fishery was reflective of this emerging trend. I rowed approximately 30 tides in Tyee Pool with nothing to show for that effort and by early September I was beginning to wonder if my own season was going to be something of a bust. However I have some friends who like to consistently fish from their rowboats downtown, rarely venturing up to the Tyee Pool area, and their stories more than caught my attention. I essentially switched locations full time and in about half the number of trips boated seven chinooks, one of which was a tyee, as well as loosing several more – it was like night and day!
A number of people have asked me whether I think the operation of netpen projects for chinook smolts at three downtown locations for the past twenty odd years has something to do with the new holding pattern by the returning chinooks. My response has been that they must have some effect – after all promoting a secondary imprint (netpen location v. the river) in the fish to create a more widespread and predictable fishing opportunity when the maturing fish return is one of the objectives of the netpen program.

That said I don’t see how the netpen fish could have so heavily skewed the holding behavior of the aggregate return. At about 700,000 smolts the netpen projects account for approximately one-sixth of the Quinsam hatchery production, and then there’s the natural production from the two rivers themselves to factor in as well. All the chinook produced by the hatchery are now otolith marked, with a discrete thermal mark for each program (netpen, river release, in-stream incubators) placed on this bony inner ear, and so far as I know analysis has not shown that the netpen fish are contributing a disproportionately large share of the overall return.

Methinks something else is going on but who knows what. Presumably the fish hold out where they are most comfortable, I just hope the southeastward trend doesn’t continue much further!