Fishing guides are reporting a slump in the number of prized steelhead salmon biting in local rivers this year, reflecting a drop observed by scientists counting the number of fish entering the Skeena River to spawn.
According to information from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Fish and Wildlife Branch, 113.3 steelhead index points were counted at the Skeena River Tyee Test Fishery in 2015.
The Ministry uses a calculation based on that number to estimate the total number of fish entering the river annually.
This year’s estimate was 27,580, which was lower than last year’s number of 31,821, but higher than the estimate of 25,541 in 2013.
Senior fisheries biologist Mark Beere said this year’s numbers were not particularly low in the context of the fishery’s six decade history.
He said numbers in the recent past, since the late 1990s, had been high compared with the years before that, when commercial fishing was more prevalent.
“The big picture is to recognize there were … 40 worse years in the past 60 but partly that was because the commercial fishery was so active,” he said.
“Imagine in the past up to 1,200 commercial boats, each packing 1,200 feet of gillnet fishing up to six days a week or even more.
“It truly was a wall, a gauntlet.”
He said commercial fishing levels had since been scaled back due to a dive in sockeye numbers and concerns for weak stocks.
Derek Botchford owns Frontier Farwest Lodge, which offers guided steelhead fishing on the Bulkley and Morice Rivers.
He said he had noticed the fish were not biting as vigorously in 2015 compared with previous years, but he said those years were so good that visiting anglers had developed high expectations.
“There’s enough fish where everybody goes out and catches a fish or two a day but it is lower comparatively [to] the past ten years.”
Botchford said he was not alarmed by the drop, guessing it could be attributable to a flood in the region four years ago.
Another fishing guide, Denise Maxwell from Maxwell Steelhead Guides, said the steelhead had been not only fewer but smaller this season.
“There’s a few big ones around but most of them are normal or below normal size so it gets you wondering, what happened to the big fish?” said Maxwell.
“Is it ocean survival or have those fish been caught in somebody’s nets?”
She said the salmon migration passed through several commercial fisheries, including some in international waters.
Maxwell said fluctuations in steelhead numbers made it difficult for fisherman who travelled from all over the world to catch the prized trophy fish, which by law must be released back into the river.
“There is disappointment, of course, frustration because there is nothing you can do about it,” she said.