The magic of the Cowichan River

Peter McMullan has been writing about fly-fishing for almost 60 years. Trained as a newspaper reporter and later as a sports and fishing journalist, he came to Canada from Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1971, with his wife Daphne and two young sons, to edit a daily paper. He later moved into corporate and then professional-sports communications.

Peter has been passionate about fishing all his life, contributing to magazines and newspapers in Ireland, England, Scotland, Finland and Canada. Along the way, his fly rods have been tested by Atlantic and Pacific salmon, steelhead, brown and rainbow trout and from time to time by other species, as well. It was the big-fish reputation of the Babine River in British Columbia and its long-standing sport fishing traditions that in 2010 led Peter to conceive and co-author the book Babine: A 50-Year Celebration of a World-Famous Steelhead and Trout River (Frank Amato Publications). He lives in Nanaimo. The following excerpt is from his most recent book, Casting Back: Sixty Years of Fishing and Writing.

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The Cowichan: A special river

There’s not another river like it, anywhere. Not on Vancouver Island, not in British Columbia and certainly not in any of the other nine Canadian provinces and three territories barred from access to the Pacific Ocean by the mass of the Rocky Mountains.

With viable stocks of the three Cs of the Pacific salmon family, chinook, chum and coho, along with steelhead and the closely related rainbow trout, as well as cutthroat trout and brown trout, the Cowichan has always been a very special river. And for many, it’s the resident brown trout, along with its proximity to two major cities, that distinguishes it from all the other B.C. rivers.

On the historical side, the Fisheries Research Board of Canada (1946) wrote: “The brown trout was introduced into British Columbia in 1932, 1933 and 1934 from Wisconsin and Montana as eggs purchased by the Dominion Department of Fisheries. The eggs were placed in hatcheries at Cowichan Lake and Qualicum Beach and later the young were liberated as fry, fingerlings and yearlings into the Cowichan and Little Qualicum Rivers on Vancouver Island in an attempt to provide a fish for summer angling.”

Earlier, back in 1935, A. Bryan Williams wrote in Fish and Game in British Columbia (Sun Directories Ltd., Vancouver) that 308,000 brown trout eggs were received in 1932.

“The distribution that year totalled as follows: Little Qualicum River 50,000, Cowichan River 176,000.” In the following two years the Cowichan received 13,543 and 2,817 eggs and the Little Qualicum 74,868 and 14,511 respectively. The so-precise egg count speaks to an amazing attention to detail more than 80 years ago. Williams served as B.C.’s first provincial game and forest warden from 1905 until he retired in 1934.

The Cowichan browns have since become a well-established stock, but brown trout are only very occasionally encountered in the Little Qualicum River, although very large specimens can still be found in Cameron Lake, that river’s source. There are also some browns in one other Vancouver Island river, the Adam, to the north of the town of Campbell River.

The Canadian real estate industry, always anxious to boost house sales, preaches the doctrine of location, location, location, and the Cowichan River meets that test most convincingly. Nanaimo, my hometown, is a comfortable hour’s drive to the north, while Victoria, the provincial capital, is a similar distance to the south. That makes for an easy day trip in either direction, so the river can be busy at weekends, but seldom if ever during the week, which suits my retired generation.

Along the way, linked by a much-improved highway that extends almost 500 kilometres, or some 300 miles, north from Victoria to Port Hardy, lie the smaller communities of Ladysmith and Duncan. The river itself is equally friendly when it comes to access. Well-established forest trails and, in places, an abandoned pioneer logging industry rail track, lead to mile after mile of most attractive pools and runs. There can be few more pleasant places to be on an early summer day with the trout rising to a hatch of March Browns, mayflies or perhaps even tempting black ants.

My own experience of this amazing river dates back to the early 1950s, my teenage college-student days, when snow, ice and treacherous roads a long, long way from today’s modern highway standards did not inhibit weekend steelhead expeditions from Victoria. One of my cherished old diaries shows fish landed on Dec. 29, 1953, and Jan. 23, 1954, both around eight pounds and taken on spinning gear with upward of three feet of snow on the ground in the New Year.

Vancouver Island winters now are generally a lot kinder, or at least it seems that way to me in these later years, and the fixed-spool Mitchell spinning reel and my clumsy-looking Hudson Bay cherry bobber lure have long since given way to a double-handed fly rod, Intruder-style fly patterns and fast-sink tips. Of far more importance, the steelhead continue to return to the Cowichan each winter, seemingly in improved numbers over the past few years.

My most recent direct contact came on Feb. 13 of 2013, 60 years on from that memorable, first-ever steelhead for the long-ago teenage fisherman. The diary extract reads as follows:

“A Wednesday with Gordon Shead as my companion for his first look at the river. Fished the fly-only stretch from 8:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. and then went to check out other convenient downstream access points, Stoltz Picnic Grounds, Bible Camp and Sandy Pool. Hooked and later lost a decent fish in the Cabin Run using an unweighted Pink Intruder on a 560-grain, integrated sinking-tip line. Fish hit hard and played strongly, two jumps and then off when almost ready to beach. Saw one other smaller fish show twice at tail of the pool. Thought this was my earliest steelhead ever on the fly but wrong — same date in 2002 hooked and lost one on a Muddler in the Spring Pool. Encountered only one other fisherman. River running at 51 cubic metres/second, a nice enough flow for fishing the fly.”

In recent years there has been a steep decline in the numbers of winter-run steelhead entering rivers on the east coast of Vancouver Island. The Cowichan does appear to be holding its own, although the runs most definitely do not match up to those recorded in earlier years. It’s these steelhead, together with the trout, that sustain the continuing popularity of the river, both for the locals like myself and for anglers, fly and gear alike, from further afield who cherish the opportunity to experience one of the province’s best known, and historically important, fisheries.

Provincial government “angling effort and catch” statistics, based on anglers’ returns, show just over 10,000 Cowichan steelhead caught (9,355 released) in 1988-89, an exceptional year. In only one of the next 10 years did the recorded total fall below 3,500 with the annual average close to 4,200. Since 2000, the annual catch has only twice exceeded the 3,000 mark, in 2001-02 (3,301) and 2011-12 (3,061).

All this adds emphasis to the need to ensure the river receives the fullest possible measure of care and attention, from fishermen, from local and provincial government authorities and from a forest industry that has left an indelible and often damaging mark on the Cowichan Valley down through the years.

Where the browns, a most handsome fish, are concerned, there is apparently a school of thought — presumably a minority viewpoint — that would prefer to see all Cowichan River brown trout eliminated as an invasive or non-native species. It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine such a program being approved, let alone instigated. Yet ironically, this seems to be an opinion supported by the late Roderick Haig-Brown, the world-renowned author from Campbell River.

Writing in The Western Angler (1968, Wm. Collins Sons & Co., Toronto), he says brown trout should not be planted “in waters where he will be competing with fish that are already providing satisfactory sport. The risk is too great.”

Haig-Brown continues: “Unfortunately, the boards of trade and the individuals who persuaded the authorities to plant brown trout in British Columbia chose Vancouver Island for the experiment. These waters are already used by cutthroat, steelhead and the five Pacific salmon. That the feed in them is insufficient to support a heavy fish population is clearly shown by the migratory habits of the cutthroat trout. So it was, or should have been, sufficiently obvious that, if the brown trout were able to establish itself, it could only be at the expense of some native species. The only question was, which species?”

Much of the lower river, which extends to close on 48 km from lake to ocean, is closed to all fishing between Aug. 1 and Nov. 15, to protect incoming salmon runs. Later in the year, coho and chum in particular are a big attraction, with all intending visitors advised to check carefully regulations that can vary from year to year, and even from month to month, according to circumstances.

In 2003, the Cowichan became the third river in British Columbia to be accorded Canadian Heritage River status, and the seven-page online brochure, published by the Canadian Heritage Rivers system, is an excellent information source.

Describing the river, it says: “The Cowichan River supports an impressive balance of natural, human heritage and recreational values. The river also supports hundreds of species of fish, mammals, birds, insects and amphibians in a lush oasis just minutes from urban areas. Not only is it a pillar of economic stability in the region but it also allows for a myriad of recreational activities, from swift-water kayaking to peaceful nature walks, all taking place around a river flowing through a glaciated valley in a stunning landscape.”

Excerpted from Casting Back: Sixty Years of Fishing and Writing © Peter McMullan, 2016, Rocky Mountain Books.

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