Fall on Menzies Creek.

Following the US federal election result I did briefly consider writing a column about it, however reason prevailed. Such an exercise would have been more for my benefit than anyone else anyhow, and there’s enough in print on this exercise in democracy as it is. I will observe that there’s some weird and unsettling irony about Trump winning and the death a few days later of Leonard Cohen – “homicidal bitchin’ “ indeed.

And I will also note there could well be consequences for some BC salmon stocks like Campbell/Quinsam chinook stemming from the Trump presidency, improbable as that might sound. Excepting the Fraser sockeye chapter the Canada/US salmon treaty has to be re-negotiated before the end of 2018 and the chinook chapter, as always, will be a big ticket item, negotiations for which might well run headlong into an early flush of the promised “America first” mindset. Let’s hope reason prevails on this topic also.

Of all the twelve months in a year November is the one that sees the least sport fishing activity, at least in my area and amongst the broadest description of those who might be described as in my fishing community. There are good reasons for this, not least of which is the frequently inclement weather lowering effort out on the saltchuck and, possibly most important of all to many, the competing attraction of hunting season. Most of those I know who head into the woods in search of a big buck are every bit as consumed by the season as the deer themselves! I understand the passion and any excuse to get out into the countryside is a good one.

There is almost certainly some trout fishing that occurs, weather and water conditions permitting, and at least historically the earliest of winter steelheading would have been underway by mid-November in times past – now, not so much. Me being me, my own outdoor pursuit at this time of year is hiking around smaller streams in search of adult salmon, doing volunteer assessment. DFO has barely enough resources to conduct assessment programs on the major river systems and so the efforts of the broad stream stewardship community in BC to keep an eye on what is happening in their own neighborhood stream is of real importance.

The focus of my efforts, subject to an overlapping combination of available time and reasonable water conditions, is Menzies Creek, a fairly small steep slope stream that enters the sea just up coast from the town of Campbell River. It has been a real education to witness the changes to habitat and the ups and downs of the salmon populations over the past two-dozen years and now I feel the pull of this creek each fall much as the homing salmon do.

Each year is different, bringing various reasons to feel concern or satisfaction over what it is I’ve been able to observe, or not as the case may be. The big picture assessment of Menzies Creek is that despite what appears to be good habitat, salmon – coho, pink and chum in particular – are less abundant than they should or could be, having a more precarious existence there than the environment of this stream would suggest.

The pink salmon population appears well established, with annual returns each year – no on/off cycle with these two-year old salmon as with so many watersheds they are present in – varying between less than a hundred and several thousand. I was particularly concerned this year about the pink return because of the destructive effects of the December 2014 extreme high water event, which blew out long established logjams and scoured to bedrock several previously productive spawning areas. I honestly wasn’t certain how many pink eggs would have survived that blast of water. As it turns out there was a reasonable return in 2016, especially of the later fish, with fresh pinks showing up well into late October and barring another major high water event this winter the future of this cycle-year appears assured for another generation.

As with so many rivers large and small around the inner southern BC coast this fall the return of chum salmon to Menzies Creek has been large by recent standards. With 100 or more chums seen on one day recently this is a comparative statement – a tiny number for many rivers but considering that in the dominant broodyear (2012) a dozen chums was the peak count on an individual visit and I didn’t see any chums at all over several visits in 2008 then a hundred is a large number and gives hope for the future – roll on 2020!

The 2016 coho return has been a bit disappointing, especially in the very upper section upstream of the culvert under the north island highway. Each fall Quinsam hatchery provides several thousand fry which are transplanted into Little Lake, a headwater lake to a main tributary, and which then rear on as essentially wild fish before smolting out the following spring. Overall this program has been successful in sustaining coho in the upper section of the creek, with several dozen adult coho observed pretty much as far upstream as they can go in several recent years. But not this fall, I’ve only seen one individual fish in each of three separate visits there. Possibly the same fish but I doubt it as the locations were all quite separate and several weeks apart, even so the numbers seen is disappointing.

I see a few chinook salmon each fall in Menzies Creek but I rather doubt this is a self-sustaining population, more likely these are strays from the Campbell/Quinsam watershed. The one coded wire tag retrieved from an adipose fin-clipped fish found (as a carcass) some years ago revealed it was from one of the net-pen projects and perhaps those fish are more prone to straying. Now that all hatchery production chinooks are otolith marked, with an individual thermal brand according to program (river release, net-pen or in-river incubator) it will be possible to tease out these differences. I’ve found and retrieved otoliths from two fish this fall and look forward to finding out what the analysis reveals.

Soon the time for looking for spawning salmon in rivers will be over and not long after the winter season to chase chinook salmon in saltwater will begin. I’ve come to think of that as the salmon fisherman’s new year even though it begins before the calendar year has ended – I can’t wait!