Sunday, April 1, 2012

Neurotic Coastal Weather

Spring technically and numerically  arrived a week ago, but it hasn't really done so with a whole lot of conviction.  I'm on the east coast of Vancouver Island trying to work outdoors and low snow lines and overnight frosts are continuously thwarting those efforts.  This pattern seems to have repeated itself the last few years suggesting to me that our winters are actually getting longer--cooling trend in the west perhaps.  I could pull up stats and graphs due back that but we may as well take my word for it since I've spent the last 3 springs getting shut down for work by inclimate weather. 

One of the hallmarks for the onset  of spring on the coast is the emergence of skunk cabbage in the various swamps and rich soils along streams of the Pacific Northwest.  The flower is actually a member of the arum family and is one of the largest leafed native plants to the region.  Bears forage on the roots after waking up from hibernation in order to flush the colon---one of natures great laxative.  I have yet to see a bear, they seem to want to take a bit more rest but any day now spring will beat down this ghostly winter and start pushing us toward warmer weather and some angling!!!

Holly Getting Skunky

More shit weather is in the forecast but it will afford me some time to catch up on some fishing related things.  Before I get going I just wanted to plug a link to one of the more contemporary fishing journals out there;  This Is Fly.  It's an online publication that is breaking new ground in fly angling.  It's not just about trout, steelhead and bonefish.  The magazine is bold enough to take on articles from aspiring outdoor journalsits willing to take on fly fishing 'exotics' such as carp and muskie.  It's a lifestlyle approach to the angling world and I find that refreshing.  It is not pretentious or loaded with technical advice although there is a lot of helpful information in there.  The other magazine I'm really digging on is the Fly Fish Journal.  Cool magazine with journalism in mind in both a literary and photographic sense.  Big props to both these publications, they are expanding the boundaries of traditional fly angling and inviting more thought provoking images to this wonderful hats off to y'all.

I've been trying to think of what to write about...chironimids would be a likely choice as the lakes begin to shed their ice here in BC.  I would like to talk about floating the Cowichan River but the takeout is snowed in and the river gushing....not one to fish from the bank---(I'm spoiled to have the skills and boat to row down such a gem of a coastal stream).  So hopefully I can save that one for the near future.

I decided the tail waters vs. freestones would be a good topic because I've been thinking about the tail waters a lot lately and how keen I am to get to back on some of my favourites

Brilliant Dam Sending it Down to the Kootenay River

Tail waters are amazing man made creations.  Yes they've completely changed the bio dynamics of the river they hold back, mostly by eliminating the salmon runs.  This had had huge negative impacts on our First Nations people who revered and lived off the abundance of this generous animal.  When it comes right down to it a dam is no way positive to the natural habitat of  a river.  There have been some initiatives in the state of Washington and Oregon to bring back the salmon runs by creating new fish ladders and releasing dams.  It would be bizarre to think of 40 pound springs migrating up the Elk River; but that's how it used to be.  WOW!  Can't imagine what some of those fall time cutts and bulls weighed in at in those times after gorging on the flesh and eggs.  

Once water is held back a few things happen to the water below.  It becomes more even in temperature as most of the tailwaters of any angling notoriety pull from the bottom of the above reservoir.  The dam also does another key thing that enriches the fishery below--it slows the movement of nutrients which in turn enhances bug life.  Anyone who has fished a pmd or caddis hatch on a tailwater knows the impact of this.  Freestones can puke out some great hatches but certainly not to the level of abundance of the tail waters.  Humans have a way of manipulating nature and nature will always provide it's solution or reaction.  In the case of tailwaters the lack of protein from the absence of salmon in rivers such as the Columbia has been slightly supplemented by the swarms of caddis flies.  The amount of bugs in the air during this June/July hatch on the Upper Columbia is staggering and is certainly one of the key elements to the growth of it's rainbow trout population.

On the Oldman River tail water in Alberta there were never salmon present and the trout fishery that exists below the reservoir has been enhanced by the creation of the dam.  More bug life, more regulated run off and low consistent water temperatures have created a pretty incredible little stretch of water that is highly touted by all of the guides at Freestone.   We spend a lot of days off on that river.


Oldman River Spent Dun Victim

Fish tend to relate to different structure in tail waters as they do in freestones.  A freestone river will have fish holding tight to cover, often along the bank.  The river falls after the freshet and spots can become exposed.  The same can be said for tail waters as early summer sees an abundance of water in the rivers that need to be released.  My experience angling on both has told me that the fluctuation of water by dam release provides inconsistent habitat for trout to hold to.  Tail water fish seem to relate to current seams more readily and use follow these feeding lanes as the river rises and falls.  When large amounts of water is released through the dam and seams blow out the fish seem to shut off and wait for the water to stabilize and lower before getting back at it.
Freestone stream trout act differently, have a more even dropping pattern and will hold on a good spot which brings food and provides cover as long as the water level allows it.  Tight bank cover is often the home of freestone trout although mid river seams also provide us with some excellent angling, they are many other consistent obstructions and food lanes that spread the fish out.
 The Elk River, A Classic Freestone
Freestones are more bio diverse.  Insect species are more varied and although the hatches may not be as thick, they are more versatile in that if one weather condition is not ideal for one insect type another is there to take it's place.  Tail waters are often mono-specied, with caddis and small mayflies predominating the diet.  There are certainly some sporadic hatches of other flies in the tail waters  but caddis seem to thrive in these environments.  
Having the option to fish both is a true blessing and the tail waters definitely provide the angler with a year round option whereas the freestones are often limited by weather patterns.  I love them both and there is so much to learn about these habitats but it is definitely the tail waters that provide me with the most challenge.  Much like this spring, the tailwater is a neurotic piece of water and it's hard to know what your gonna get. Following release charts certainly helps us predict fish locations and behaviour, but when a gush of water gets pumped out and blows the river to hell there's not much you can do but retreat and wait for it to settle....or head back to the trusty freestone.