• Outdoors Column for Aug 13, 2013

    Why is it that every summer seems to fly by far too fast? When the vast majority of my free time is spent outdoors, it feels like I am constantly racing to accomplish so much in my dwindling days of summer. Just yesterday it seemed like I was welcoming the opening day of bass season, and now I am gearing up for Owen Sound’s largest event. You don’t even need to be an ardent angler to know that the City of Owen Sound is about to turn into salmon central as the 26th Annual Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular kicks off.

    For 26 years now this derby has been the product of determination and hard work on behalf of the host group, the Sydenham Sportsman’s Association. This year, the annual derby begins on August 23rd and runs until September 1st. Just like every year, many anglers from across the province and beyond put Owen Sound on their map as campgrounds and hotels fill, gas stations get clogged with boats on trailers and the waters of the bay become somewhat reminiscent of a scene of the Spanish Armada. Salmon will be caught, fish will be eaten, the derby tent will be jammed as usual, and someone will be leaving the big-top on the final day with a new 17ft G3 boat and 115hp Yamaha outboard package that comes rigged with Scotty Downriggers. Over $150,000 in prizes will be awarded to those who manage to boat large salmon and trout over the course of the event.

    When it comes to entertainment, the Salmon Spectacular goes above and beyond in keeping the visitors happy. Each day has a lineup that caters to all kinds of different crowds. Two fish fries are set on each of the Saturday nights and are always a favorite for many visitors. There is a Kid’s Day, Friday Fisherman’s Evening, Ladies Afternoon, Molson’s Day, Bingo, and the list goes on. Live entertainment hits the stage each night with acts ranging from a tribute to Neil Diamond, a big Elvis show and local acts like Tyler Beckett and the Geoff Stevens Band. The Salmon Spectacular has surely become a major attraction to those looking for a good time. 26 years have passed since the first time the fish-tent went up and I can remember when fishermen swapping stories over a cold beer occupied the tent. In recent years the tent has become a happening social scene for all ages. Regardless, this is an event that started based on salmon fishing, and salmon fishing carries it along today, bringing folks to Owen Sound and bringing positive attention to the work of volunteer clubs such as the SSA.

    When it comes to the fishing, the Salmon Spectacular depends on the arrival of Chinooks to the local waters of Colpoy’s and Owen Sound Bay. Since the inception of the derby, and the introduction of Chinooks, the Spectacular has endured the ups and downs of the salmon fishery in Georgian Bay. The Chinook salmon hatchery program of the SSA in the late 80’s spawned the event that we have come to know as Owen Sound’s largest annual festival. In the early years of the derby, whopping Chinooks passed the 30lb mark on fairly regular basis and annual winners pushed the scales deep into the 30lb range. Salmon often needed to be 25lb + just to make it onto the top 10 daily prize board. A baitfish crash over the past decade dropped average weights of salmon by almost 50%, and through reduction of annual fish stocking, numbers of Chinooks being pumped out of local hatcheries declined. Fortunately, this was offset by the surprising number of wild born salmon, which were found to comprise a majority of the overall salmon community in Georgian Bay. The past 3 years have seen the fish community seem to find a better balance and equilibrium as Chinooks being caught appear in much better health than when they looked starved and skinny less than 10 years ago. Chinooks returning to Owen Sound last summer and again this summer appear to have found adequate amounts of food over the past 3 and 4 years. Some still look malnourished, but the majority of salmon are far from starving. Invasive species have altered the food web and the mass amounts of high protein baitfish have yet to rebound to populations that support big salmon of yester-year, but nature seems to be figuring it out….slowly.

    The past two weeks have seen some large salmon caught in the waters of Owen Sound Bay. Just a few days ago, along with local Charter ace Tony Degasperis, I was witness to a Chinook that hit the scales at 22lbs. During visits to the cleaning station and plenty of days on the water, I have seen 3 salmon over 20lbs and a number of fish in the high teens this month. Fishing over the past week in general has been “good” in a modern sense. How many of these fish are out there, on the other hand, is another question. No doubt there are a number of Chinooks in the bay just waiting to be caught, but true reports suggest that there is far from “all kinds”.

    I was on the water with SSA President Mike Prevost during the Media/Sponsors Day last week and we discussed the differences in returns of Chinooks from year to year, the health of the fishery and other issues facing the local salmon fishing in the bays. MNR reports suggest a vast majority of Chinook salmon alive in Georgian Bay are wild born fish. That is not disputable as there are a large number of Georgian Bay tributaries scattered across the map that produce good conditions to pump out wild fish. However, not every river is a mecca for naturally born Chinooks.

    A quick look at derby statistics over the past 5 years shows that a good number (over 1/3rd) of salmon returning to Owen Sound, and eventually the Sydenham River, are salmon reared in the SSA hatchery, identified by adipose fin clips. The percentage of hatchery fish grows to almost half during observations at the annual egg collection at the Owen Sound Mill Dam in the fall. This is all evidence that local hatchery fish make up an important portion of the fish caught by anglers in Owen Sound, without them, there would only be less. This also means that the return of wild fish that comprise the other portion of the fishery are dependent on Mother Nature, good stream flows, and ideal river conditions to survive. One poor fall spawning season can result in far less returns of mature, wild salmon 3 and 4 years down the road. Add to all this a new SON netting agreement with a more active commercial fishery in the area and returns can drop quickly. Gill nets kill, they do not harvest selectively. Salmon die in nets just like a whitefish or lake trout does. A close friend of mine told me “we cannot control Mother Nature’s impact on the seasons, but we can control the impact of commercial fishing and the ways we stock fish”. He is correct, and it brings up questions about the overall management of fish stocks and the various practices which affect them.

    That is a lot of information to digest, but it sure does help to explain the “why” factor so many anglers seem to ignore. There are a host of other factors at play, and reasons for ups and downs in the populations can become very complicated and somewhat scientific, but there is a good starting point. It would also be important to note that salmon stocked by the SSA in 2011 did not carry adipose clips as funding for the clipping project was not available. This would mean none of the 3 year old hatchery fish returning to Owen Sound will be clipped, and these are the largest portion of the mature salmon in the bay right now. It should also be noted that the number of salmon stocked by the SSA annually was reduced in recent time under MNR influence. At the same time the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources continues to stock millions of Lake Trout in Huron/Georgian Bay, a species that does not support a sportfishery, a derby, or a massive money making event in the City of Owen Sound.

    As outdoorsmen, as anglers, as those who spend the most time on the water, it should be important to understand the “why”. We fishermen like to sugar coat things far too often. We lie about the size of our catch and often dismiss poor days on the water as being better than a day at work. No need to sugar coat the fact that the Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular is a top-notch event, one that brings a lot of important money into our local economy and puts smiles on a lot of faces. Thousands look forward to the salmon festival each year. Take some time to think why its here, and what drives the derby from the very first event back in 1987 to now….salmon. Our salmon fishery is a far cry from the robust population of those heydays in the early 90’s. Far too many of us seem to forget what “really good” salmon fishing is. Get involved to make it better. Ask questions, join a club, speak out against gill nets, and stand up for the sportfishery. Good luck in the 26th Annual Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular, I wish you bent rods and sore arms on the water.
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