By Guestblogger Jordan Pinkster

The Upper Oldman River

The Upper Oldman River

You’ve heard the stories, classic tales of anglers going toe to fin with legendary fish.  Many have a common theme;

“She was at least thirty inches long.  I reached for my net, and she spat the hook and got away!”
“It was the biggest fish I’ve ever seen.  I fought it for ten minutes and it broke me of!”

Every experienced angler has a “fish that got away” story, let me tell you mine.

My nemesis was a large westslope cutthroat trout on the upper Oldman River.  This cutty resides in the same pool behind the same rock every summer.  I had my first encounter two years ago on a balmy August afternoon…

I approached the pool carefully, deftly dropping a fly at the top of a deep run. My heart began to pound in my chest as I saw a large shadow shift beneath the water.  The shadow slowly transformed into an immense trout that swam slowly up, eventually sipping my fly off the surface.  Excitement turned into adrenaline, and I ripped the fly right out of its mouth.

After taking a few minutes to collect myself, I was ready for my second attempt.  After a few false casts and I placed my fly into the exact same spot.  The hungry fish again rushed off the bottom towards my fly with bad intentions; seek and destroy.  This time I gave myself a second or two and set the hook, fish on!

The rest happened very quickly.  The end of my line shook hard as the cutty realized it had been tricked.  Seconds later it slowly rose out of the water, made direct eye contact with me, and promptly spat the fly out.  I was devastated.

I sat and waited.  Would I be lucky a third time?  Time passed, my hopes diminished for another opportunity.  My nemesis would not be fooled again.  My shot at this legendary fish would have to wait for another day.

I’ve caught hundreds of fish on the upper Oldman River, yet my most vivid memory is of a trout that I didn’t even catch.

The fish that didn't get away ...

The fish that didn't get away ...

I often worry that these types of memories will become fewer and farther between.  The eastern slopes are transforming, and not all of it is for the better.  Our native trout species are facing considerable threats, and the future of our fisheries are at a very important crossroads.

Many Albertans are curious about what is really happening in some of Alberta’s most critical habitat.  Most cutthroat streams in Alberta are exclusively catch and release, so why are emergency measures needed to preserve the species?

There are a number of factors that might explain the plight of Alberta’s native trout species:

·         Destruction of habitat.  Loss of critical riparian vegetation and increased sediment levels in streams has contributed to a loss of viable spawning territory.  Irresponsible off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, drainage and erosion issues from roads and streams too close to streams and erosion from failed river banks have seen significant sediment deposits in critical spawning habitat.  When sediment load becomes excessive in fragile spawning grounds, eggs can become suffocated due to loss of clean gravel.  A reduction in suitable spawning habitat leads to a reduction in the fish population due to low recruitment and loss of juvenile fish.  Adult fish populations are also impacted as sediment prevents growth of suitable plant and invertebrate life, which are critical to the health of a fishery. 

·         Overharvesting and poaching.  As mentioned earlier, many of these streams in critical habitat are exclusively catch and release.  However, due to the remote nature of these areas, poachers often go undetected.  Due to limited resources and budget constraints, it is nearly impossible for Fish and Wildlife to properly enforce angling, hunting and wildlife regulations.  Simply put, there are far too many anglers, far too much territory, and far too few officers to patrol select regions.  Poachers often kill large, prime spawning aged adults out of a fishery which in turn significantly damages a fish population’s recovery rate and spawning success.

·         Competition with invasive species.  The introduction of invasive species, like brook trout and rainbow trout, has dramatically impacted our native trout species.  Brook trout out-compete native species for limited food supplies.  Brook trout also spawn at a younger age and smaller size than native trout species, so they are less susceptible to overharvest and can quickly overwhelm native trout populations. They can also hybridize with bull trout, which reduces the genetic purity of native bull trout that have evolved over thousands of years.  Much of the same holds true for rainbow trout in the Oldman River watershed, as they have an unfortunate habit of hybridizing with cutthroat trout populations.  The resulting offspring are hybridized “cutbows” that, again, significantly dilute the pure strain cutthroat trout population.

Identifying problems is generally straightforward, but finding solutions is considerably more difficult.  November 20, 2015 was a critical turning point for Alberta’s native westslope cutthroat trout populations.  The Government of Canada announced that the species would be granted additional protection and efforts would be taken to prohibit destruction of critical habitat.

Despite the promise of action from the federal government, protecting critical habitat is a very complex issue at the local level.  There are numerous stakeholders at play here encompassing both industry and recreational users. 

So what are our options?  What opportunities do we have to protect our vulnerable native trout populations?  What follows are suggestions for action that can be taken to address diverse and often competing interests of recreational users.  Each of us – to a varying degree – has contributed to the problem, and each of us will have to contribute to finding a solution.

·         OHV Trail Program.  Throughout critical habitat there are numerous OHV trails that often run adjacent to or down steep slopes leading to streams and rivers.  Due to a lack of clarity on what constitutes a legal trail, further land disturbances take place as new trails are carved into the landscape.  Run-off from these trails often carries sediment loads into the streams and rivers.
OHV trails should be treated like other pieces of transportation infrastructure.  The Government of Alberta is able to pay for parts of our roadways through a provincial gas tax.  This tax ensures that those that use the roadways are the ones actually paying for them.
Something similar could be done for OHVs.  The province could create an environmental impact fee required for all OHV registration.  Revenues from these registrations could be specifically earmarked into a program that would build and maintain better OHV trails adjacent to critical riparian habitat.  Bridges should be constructed to allow safe crossing over streams, and some of the uncertainty around what constitutes an actual trail could be clarified through properly worded legislation.  The OHV community should be positively and proactively engaged throughout this process.

·         Tougher Penalties for Poaching.  In June of 2015 a group of poachers were caught with 29 illegally harvested trout from the upper Oldman River.  In October of that same year, a group of anglers attended the court proceedings.  The penalties for these poachers were woefully inadequate as each individual received a $1,000 fine and a suspension of their fishing licences for the balance of the year. 

Fish seized by Fish and Wildlife on June 24, 2015

Fish seized by Fish and Wildlife on June 24, 2015

With the introduction of greater federal protection for our native trout species, I remain hopeful that we will see tougher penalties for poaching in the future.  By making a strong example of poachers, we may be able to dissuade others from committing similar crimes.  The angling community should collectively exert pressure on government to increase fines to a level that would appropriately deter poaching behaviour.

·         Enhanced Fish and Wildlife Presence in critical habitat.  In an ideal world our conservation officers would be able to respond to every reported incident.  However, these folks are stretched way too thin.  With enhanced presence in critical habitat enforcement could respond to OHVs driving through sensitive habitat, poaching events and numerous other calls that contribute to the degradation of habitat.
Enhanced enforcement presence in places like Rocky Mountain House has made a real difference.  An encouraging development has seen support and cooperation from the local RCMP branches and record fines have been issued.  Similar efforts could be taken along the upper Oldman.  In order to accomplish this, the provincial government would need to be engaged, encouraged and pressured by the recreational community to increase the budget for the relevant departments to allow for more officers to patrol designated areas with more frequency.
With increased enforcement resources, we could see more boots on the ground.  An increased presence from other enforcement bodies, like the RCMP, could also play a critical role.  Eyes on the water can go a long way to make sure that habitat is protected and that user groups are playing by the rules.

·         Stewardship Projects.  Pilot projects have been launched in streams and rivers in Alberta to cull non-native brook and rainbow trout populations in native trout waters.  These programs require a significant degree of training on fish identification and handling, and are showing some positive results.
One such program is the Quirk Creek Brook Trout Suppression Project.  Subsequent to initiation of this project in 1998, participating anglers have harvested almost 10,000 brook trout from Quirk Creek.  The proportion of brook trout in the angler catch has declined from 72% in 1998 to 3% in 2014.  Cutthroat trout have increased to 97% of the catch and the proportion of large cutthroat trout in the angler catch has also increased substantially.  Similar projects have been initiated in other waters, including eight in the Oldman watershed (e.g., Willow Creek).  The angling community should lobby the provincial government to expand this opportunity to other watersheds to help preserve native trout populations, and reduce the potential for illegal harvest of protected native species due to misidentification.

It is a critical time for our native trout species.  Increased federal protection for westslope cutthroat trout is a positive beginning, and we may see more resources invested into critical habitat.  A very real opportunity to make a difference in Alberta’s headwaters exists, but without buy in from all stakeholder groups, it is unlikely that a recovery plan will be successful.  Thousands of Albertans enjoy the outdoors every summer, and increased pressure and stress on sensitive habitat means that common ground must be found.

This is a call for collaboration.  This is no longer an issue that we can pretend doesn’t exist.  We can no longer afford the divisive short-sightedness that has marked past attempts at change.  Stakeholders need to come together and identify collaborative measures that can be taken.

Only then, by coming together, can we ensure that our next generations have a “fish that got away” story of their very own.