Kootenay Lake anglers can help restore the kokanee fishery by keeping their catch, and win some attractive prizes while they’re at it.
The BC Wildlife Federation (BCWF) launched the Kootenay Lake angler incentive program Monday, June 1. Anglers are asked to harvest their catch of rainbow and bull trout, then turn in the heads to one of four depots, and be entered into a monthly draw for prizes valued at $1,000.
“The sports fishery on Kootenay Lake was once renowned for its stock of large Gerrard rainbow trout and kokanee salmon,” said West Arm Club president Gord Grunerud. “We want to get back to a robust sports fishery in our region.”
All entries will then go into the Grand Prize draw in June, 2021, for a chance to win an 18-foot Kingfisher boat equipped with a 115hp Yamaha engine from Jones Boys Boats.
Thanks to an almost $50,000 grant from the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund, the incentive program will purchase $500 gift certificates from local businesses that have been affected by the downturn in sportfishing on the lake and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We want people back on the lake, and so we have a lot of small businesses that depend on this,” explained Grunerud. “So basically if you are the winner, we’ll have a number of gift certificates of which you can pick two.”
The number of main lake kokanee spawners have historically ranged from 250,000 to 2 million. But low survival rates in the main lake have reduced spawner numbers to less than 40,000 in recent years, with about 60,000 counted in 2019.
As a result, the large Gerrard rainbow and bull trout population virtually disappeared, and with the loss of the trophy fishery, anglers stayed home.
This created a predator pit, for without angling pressure there has been no way to check the increase of immature trout, which continue to impact kokanee populations.
According to an Oct. 2019 Kokanee Recovery Update, “although current catch rates for larger Gerrard trout are very low due to the reduced abundance of kokanee, catch rates for smaller Gerrard trout (\ 2 kg) are very high: higher in the last four years than ever observed.”
For decades, anglers have been encouraged to practice “catch-and-release,” especially for the large, prime spawning Gerrards. The ‘catch and keep’ credo will be a departure for many, but is necessary given the current crisis, says Grunerud.
“There were a few management practices, we went catch and release and they reduced the limits. The fish got smaller, the rainbows and bull trout, but we still have a nice fish out there, just a four pounder not a 20 pounder. Which is okay, but people want the big fish.”
Conservationists have been trying to reverse the decline by conducting kokanee egg plants and fry release for the past five years. The province also closed the kokanee fishery, and increased the daily quota for rainbow to five per day (two over 50 cm) and bull trout to three, and also opened the bull trout fishery on the Duncan River.
“Our goal with this three-year incentive program is to restore a balance in predator-prey relationships to allow kokanee abundance to increase,” said Grunerud.
Despite a drastic decline in kokanee populations, the bull trout numbers increased by more than 100 per cent between 2015 and 2017, with approximately 3,500 bull trout spawners in 2017 alone.
Bull trout are more effective at feeding in deep water than rainbows, and that is where the kokanee fry and one-year olds go after feeding.
“Bull trout are better adapted to dark conditions, so they’re just hanging out in the deep feeding on kokanee, whereas rainbows aren’t as effective at doing that,” BC Ministry of Forests, Land, and Natural Resource biologist Matt Neufeld told the Times.
Studies indicate that about 95 per cent of kokanee fry don’t last a year, and, in the main lake, suggest that 70 per cent of a bull trout’s diet is kokanee, while rainbows are more adaptable to a diet made up of insects and small kokanee.
“You just can’t recover kokanee when that is happening,” said Neufeld. “So we’re doing a few things, we’re continuing to stock kokanee, but we’re also reducing predation pressure. That’s been done in a few ways, we changed regulations for rainbow trout and bull trout. We’re encouraging people to harvest fish, both rainbows and bull trout.”
The goal is to increase the number of anglers by at least 10 per cent, and increase rainbow and bull trout retention from 50 per cent of fish caught to 90 per cent.
The kokanee salmon are a keystone species, vital to the whole ecosystem, including the health and survival of eagles, osprey, and other birds, as well as mammals like black bears and grizzly bears, otters and other flora and fauna - not to mention the economic benefit it brings to the Kootenays through tourism and sportfishing.
Exactly how long it will take for the kokanee to rebound and trophy Gerrards return to Kootenay Lake? That’s up to local anglers.
“The kokanee population is starting possibly to climb,” added Gunerud. “If we can get a lot of people out there fishing, and if we can get back up to the normal number of predators being caught - it’s going to take a few years.”
The incentive program is supported by the West Arm Outdoors Club, Creston Valley Rod and Gun Club, BC Wildlife Federation, Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C., Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation and the Province.
Drop off depots are at Woodbury Resort, The Gill and Gift (Balfour), Crawford Bay Market, and Wynndell Foods and Outdoor Gear (Creston).
For all the incentive program rules and updates, visit: bcwf.bc.ca/kootenay-lake-angler-incentive-program.