An Idea For The Times
An excerpt from “The Ardent Angler”

Barry M. Thornton

Steelheading was that unique angling pursuit which, during the 60s more closely followed the skills of hunting. Steelheaders, if they fished with a partner, pool-hopped rather than intruded on each other. More than not, steelheaders were loners, who fished the cold damp coastal streams in a solitary manner. If they saw another angler they would move to another section of the river, to be alone rather than compete. The theory that it took you two years to catch that first fish was not hearsay but fact, for steelheaders were reluctant to give any advice to the novice.

February 1993 marked the 24th Annual Meeting of the Steelhead Society of B.C., an organization of sportsmen which has been incredibly effective. But, for me and a number of other steelheaders, February 1993 really marked the 25th Anniversary. I can still recall sitting against a mossy fallen maple trunk eating lunch and discussing our morning’s steelheading success. It was mid morning on a clear October day. Ted Hardy, Earl Colp, Al Dzuba and I were resting on the banks of the Stamp River’s Grassy Bank Pool, that very fishy and productive piece of water immediately upriver from the mouth of the Ash River.

The previous day, we had attended a meeting of the Vancouver Wildlife Association, the Island organization of fish and game clubs. The discussions had been varied, ranging from hunting seasons to fishing regulations, but few address the ominous needs of the steelhead. The frustration we felt, that our trophy trout continued to be ignored by provincial and federal fisheries managers, was highlighted when, upon looking at a bright fish that Ted Hardy beached, we commented on the obvious net scars surrounding the girth of the fish and lamented the lack of regulations to protect this magnificent fish from the commercial salmon fishery.

During lunch we once again broached the subject of a provincial organization for the welfare of our trout, a topic we had discussed many times in the past. As provincial chairman of the B.C. Wildlife Federation’s Steelhead Committee, I had often explored this concept with Ted and other fishing companion Earl Colp and my regular steelheading partner, Al Dzuba. It was a new concept, politically difficult because of our desire not to create another provincial organization but to continue our support for the provincial fish and game association, the B.C. Wildlife Federation. But, each time we explored the idea, we realized that active steelheaders were a minority in the fish and game club movement and as such were unable to bring sufficient pressure to bear at the local club or provincial Wildlife Federation level on needed steelhead management.

It was during this trip and other discussions that the concept of a provincial club evolved, a society affiliated with the B.C. Wildlife Federation which would involve steelheaders from throughout the province dedicated to the protection of one fish species, the steelhead trout.

During the fall of 1968 issues affecting steelhead came to the forefront when the Federal government continued to ignore their responsibility for steelhead management and yet, because it was a commercial “steelhead salmon” species, they would not relinquish to the provincial government full responsibility for steelhead management. The umbrella network of the B.C.W.F. provided a vehicle for a provincial steelhead workshop, the first of its kind, to address the serious plight of these fish and of the fishery. A workshop, sponsored by the Steelhead Committee of the B.C.W.F. was organized to be held at the Nanaimo Fish and Game clubhouse on February 2, 1969.

The workshop was widely advertised and drew 81 steelheaders and guests from the lower mainland and Vancouver Island. The efforts of Jim Culp, Dave Maw, Past President of the B.C.W.F., and Geof Warden, Executive Director of the B.C.W.F. were instrumental in a strong contingent of lower mainland steelheaders attending. Attending from the provincial Fish and Wildlife Branch were; Director, Jim Hatter; Ed Vernon, Chief of Fisheries; Ron Thomas, Assistant Chief of Fisheries; Charles Lyons, V.I. Regional Fisheries Biologist.

The goal of this workshop was to address key issues affecting steelhead and prepare recommendations and resolutions for the Annual General Meeting of the B.C.W.F. This was done by having a series of speakers followed by small group sessions which brought resolutions to the main group for formal adoption.

It is enlightening to read the seventeen resolutions adopted by the group at that time. Remember, this was a quarter of a century ago. When you read the following summary, ask yourself, have times changed that much?

Steelhead Habitat

…that a strip of cover be left bordering streams and lakes adequate for protection… (carried unanimously c.u.)

That the practice of destroying primary growth cover such as alder and maple by the use of poisonous sprays be discontinued. (c.u.)

…that logging debris be removed…so that log jams…do not hinder runs of spawning fish. (c.u.)

More rigid regulations regarding; gravel removal from spawning areas; spraying of crops, log booms, etc.; irrigation and diversion of waters.; heavier fines for the dumping of refuse into streams (c.u.)

That fish be classified and referred to as valid users of water within the terms of the B.C. Water Act. (c.u.)

Silt is a known deleterious material to fish and animal life and recognition as such should be included in the Fisheries Act. (c.u.)

It is suggested that, on watersheds headed by dam impoundments, a re-evaluation be undertaken of the overall need requirements to ascertain whether the present minimal flows, resulting in low water and high summer temperatures, can be increased and so improve the productivity of the steelhead fishery. (c.u.)

That the Fish & Game Dept. budget funds and, together with game clubs, personally devote efforts towards the enhancement of stretches of certain steelhead rivers by the depositing of a sizable rock base to create additional holding water for steelhead fishing. (carried (c.))

Steelhead Regulations

Certain areas of rivers…be set aside for fly fishing only on an experimental basis. (c.)

…that upstream closures would be beneficial for certain streams… (c.)

That the energies and interests of steelhead fishermen…become more active in making their views heard… (c.)

That the B.C. Wildlife Federation and it’s member clubs support a province-wide movement to urge the Provincial government to empower the Fish & Game branch to embark on a steelhead artificial propagation program with assistance from the Federal government;

a.) This program is to be used for the enhancement of runs in rivers that have nearly depleted stocks, and to establish steelhead in rivers that have no present runs. This covers both summer and winter steelhead.

b) The Lower Mainland should be one of the first to be considered for artificial propagation.

c) This program must not be operated at the expense of the present fishery management. (c.)

That consideration be given to applying 12” size limits to those particular streams receiving good runs of steelhead as well as heavy fishing pressure (c.)

That the non-resident angler total catch limit be reduced to 10 steelhead per year. (c.)

That it become mandatory that the steelhead punch card be returned upon purchasing a new card (c.)

That the steelhead punch card fee be increased from 25 cents to $2…monies directed towards steelhead management. (c.)

That a further workshop for steelhead be held…next year. (c.u.)

The final resolution provided the impetus for the formation of the Steelhead Society. Interest was high following the 1969 Nanaimo workshop. Steelheaders throughout the province were alerted to the concept of a provincial organization realizing that only with this form of organization would the needed attention be focused on their trophy trout.

Port Coquitlam and District Fishing and Hunting Club clubhouse was to be the host for the steelheader’s gathering scheduled for February 1, 1970. Once again the plan was for an “action” workshop format but this time a rallying cry was heard, “Let us not accept the obvious fact that the steelhead is the FORGOTTEN FISH!”

Active steelheaders throughout the province made the trip to Port Coquitlam and ferry pickups were made for the strong contingent from Vancouver Island. By the opening of the conference over 150 steelheaders and guests were in attendance.

In my Vancouver Island weekly outdoor column, OUTDOOR SCENE, February 4th and 11th, 1970, I reported on this meeting as follows;

“STEELHEADERS, we now have a voice! At the Second Annual Steelhead Workshop held in Port Coquitlam on Sunday, 150 Vancouver Island and Lower Mainland steelheaders voted unanimously to form the B.C. Steelhead Society. The major objective of the newly formed BCSS will be the preservation and management of the steelhead fishery in B.C.

Steelheaders attending the meeting represented most major V.I. centres with good representation from all Lower Mainland areas. President of the newly formed BCSS is Dave Maw of Vancouver, a past president of the B.C. Wildlife Federation and currently a director of the BCWF. He is well known to V.I. anglers and is recognized as some of the foremost authorities on the management and sport of steelhead in B.C. Also elected to the newly formed directorate of the BCSS were; Jim Culp, Vice-President representing the Lower Mainland; Barry Thornton, Vice-President representing Vancouver Island; Directors, Ted Peck, Ted Hardy, Reg Ahearne, Ron Rose, Denny Boulton, George Nash, Vic Faulkes; Secretary-Treasurer, Cal Woods.

Featured speakers at the full day session were Ed Vernon, Chief of Fisheries for the B.C. Fish and Wildlife Branch and Cliff Millenbach, Chief of Fisheries for Washington State.

In comparing the two speeches one must, in all fairness, look at the comparative budgets, the available facilities and the angling pressure of the two political areas. However, even then, the efforts of our neighbours below the line were glaringly superior to the efforts and programs for steelhead in B.C. To show just one example; hatchery and pond-rearing production of steelhead in Washington State constitutes 40-50 percent of the total angling catch of 300,000 steelhead annually. It is also responsible for the introduction of summer and winter steelhead in previous non-productive streams and, for doubling of the current runs in existing streams.

B.C. on the other hand has no hatchery or rearing-pond steelhead program and there is no indication that we will ever have this kind of program. To quote Ed Vernon, “Our fish culture function currently does not include the propagation of steelhead because with our present modest means and very limited facilities, the costs of such a program are not warranted.”

Discussing fisheries management generally for B.C., Ed Vernon elaborated on what his Department considered their five major areas of responsibility;

“Firstly, by a relatively simple system of bag limits, size limits and closures we regulate angling with the aims of protecting fish populations, spreading the catch over as many anglers as possible and enhancing the sport by prohibiting unpopular methods of catching fish.

A second function is to conduct research into our fishes and their environment to gain better understanding of their needs and potentials.

A third function of fisheries management is the propagation of fish in hatcheries and the stocking of lakes. Because our financial resources are small and hatcheries are expensive, we are very careful to use our hatchery output to maximum advantage. For this reason we plant mostly small fish in small productive lakes where they will grow rapidly to catchable sizes and where a large proportion of the planted fish will end up in the angler’s creel. We stock no large lakes nor do we stock streams, because in these situations growth and survival are low and returns to the anglers are poor.

A fourth function, recently developed on a modest scale, is that of making positive improvements to fish habitat by the construction of spawning channels, removal of stream obstructions and removal of undesireable species of fish.

A fifth function and, in the long term, the most important of all, is that of fish habitat protection. This function includes all our efforts to prevent loss or degradation of sports fish habitat by the diverse activities of “commercial and industrial development.”

Various resolutions pertaining to the management of steelhead and to the preservation and protection of their habitat were passed at this Second Annual Steelhead Workshop.

Of particular interest to call coastal stream fishermen was the inclusion of the Sea-run Cutthroat trout in the objectives of the society. The Sea-run Cutthroat trout is one sports fish whose life history closely parallels that of the steelhead. His plight is equal to that of the steelhead and in most cases worse.

Another asks for a seasonal limit of 10 steelhead per stream per angler on heavily fished streams near large populations in the Lower Mainland and on the east coast of Vancouver Island, the seasonal limit of 40 steelhead per angler would still be in effect. Steelheaders at the workshop recognized the need to spread the catch throughout the angling fraternity. This could be accomplished they felt, by imposing a limit on the number of fish one angler could be allowed to take from any single stream.

A further resolution passed unanimously at the workshop dealt with the recognition of fish. As ironical and idiotic as it appears, under the B.C. Water Act, fish are not recognized as users of water in B.C. Because of this, should Hydro, industry or any one of the 12 listed users of water apply for a permit for water diversion of consumption, the needs of fish are not considered. Should fish be destroyed, spawning beds be depleted or the overall environment and ecology of the stream be altered deleterious to the needs of fish, there is no recourse to legal action except under incidental sections of the Federal Fisheries Act.”

In those early years of the Society, from 1970 to 1976, three events occurred which cemented the strength of this organization.

The first was the collective action taken by steelheaders towards the protection of streams from aggressive logging. At this time most coastal flatland tree stands had been logged and logging companies were now moving into upland watershed operations. It was noted that annual cuts of timber during these times were well in excessive of their allotted 100%. Flatland logging operations like clear cuts and broadcast burning were now being applied to narrow river valleys and steep coastal mountain slopes. The results were devastating to the streams where these operations occurred. The Steelhead Society tackled this problem head on. The B.C. Forest Service, government and logging companies were attacked at all levels; in the press, at local levels, in company boardrooms, in the provincial legislature and the federal parliament. The result was a dramatic publicity campaign by the company and the government using slick brochures and T.V. ads. They admitted their actions were less than “silviculture” oriented and began establishing new guidelines, this time with public input included at the local level, a concept unheard of before this public attack including the Land Use Liaison Committee. The SSBC wrote the first guidelines defining watersheds which were adopted and became the basis for future logging operations.

A second major issue which solidified the SSBC was the atrocious pollution of Howe Sound and the leadership role played by the Society. Likely, more than any other environmental issue, this joined the forces of various environmental groups throughout the province. With the SSBC taking the lead, the public was made aware of how serious the state of ecological damage being done by insensitive companies.

While the above issues gave the Society much credibility and sympathy, the third issue, the initiation of a major Federal Government Salmonid Enhancement program, provided a forum for Society members to become directly involved in their fishery. At first provincial involvement was not considered in this salmon enhancement program. But public pressure from the Society and others resulted in a federal provincial agreement that all salmonid species would be a part of this program which was aimed at doubling the current salmon resource or bringing it back to turn of the century historic levels.

The first task in the program was the inventory of all salmonid anadromous streams in the province. Until this time many watersheds had not received an inventory and steelheaders found themselves being consulted as to which species inhabit numerous streams. This active role added strong credibility to the group, as did their stand that no watershed should receive fish that were not indigenous to that system. The strength of that stand cannot be overemphasized for it provided protection for the native races of steelhead. The support given to the provincial Fish and Wildlife Branch, now managers of the steelhead resource, was forceful enough to provide the funding and technical expertise needed to finally catalogue steelhead resources in the province. Since that beginning, SEP, DFO, MOE, and the SSBC have retained a strong liaison, each supporting the other for the needs of the various anadromous salmonid resources.

Why has the steelhead society been so successful? Likely because it tapped a human resource, the active steelheaders who wanted to be involved; wanted to share their expertise and knowledge in a manner that would protect their sacred sport; wanted, more than anything, to protect that glorious environment where they sought their fish!

Above chapter used with written permission from Publisher and Author.

Chapter found on pages 74 to 81 in “The Ardent Angler”
Edited by Neil Cameron / Compiled by Rob Bell-Irving
Published in 1994 by The Ardent Angler Group
Copyright 1994
ISBN #0-9698518-0-4

Special Thanks to Barry M. Thornton founding Chairman & three times the elected President of the SSBC, for allowing us the use of an excellent early history of the Steelhead Society ; a reminder of the proud tradition the SSBC has to continue in the fight to help the many thousands of salmonid races here in BC.