• Steelhead run one for record books

    It has been an incredible past two weeks for those in southern Ontario. Temperature records have been broken across the province. Highs in the mid 20’s and bright sunshine have the turkeys gobbling and the trees in local forests starting to bloom foliage. This warm weather has also sent the steelhead populations into spring migration overdrive. While the forecasters are discussing record temperatures, another benchmark has been shattered; the returning number of spawning steelhead to the Saugeen River in Southampton has been the greatest on record, as well as one of the earliest in recent memory.

    In one of my recent articles I discussed the efforts of a two regional clubs and organizations to create a great steelhead fishery on the Saugeen River through intensive stocking programs. What I may have failed to mention was that many of these people stay involved with the fish they stock as smolts right through into their adulthood when they return to the river to spawn. Helping healthy adults to move further upriver is an ongoing support for the fishery that ensures that the populations stay strong. Let me explain.

    Members of the Ontario Steelheaders, with help from the MNR and Lake Huron Fishing Club, have committed their volunteer effort to a very large and very time consuming endeavor for nearly the last 25 years. Each spring, involved club members trap adult steelhead at Denny’s Dam on the Saugeen River in order to transport them up river to productive spawning tributaries. These transport projects ensure that a good number of spawning steelhead will make it to the pristine gravel beds which a select number of productive tributary streams provide. The journey moves fish almost a hundred kilometers upriver and helps the fish bypass a number of dams on the main Saugeen which are otherwise difficult for the fish to navigate. With a little help from the club members, these transported steelhead will spawn and add to the wild population of fish that enter the river each year.

    This project has been a focal point of Ontario Steelheader projects for a very long time. For over the past two decades an average of 200 to 300 adult trout have been transported annually. During the past few seasons, this number has increased to 1000 spring steelhead getting an extra “lift”. The past two years have seen an additional number of fish transported during the early fall when a percentage of the annual steehead run begins to migrate. This extra amount of fish has added to the composition of wild steelhead returning to the river. In addition to the fish lifts and transports, the Ontario Steelheaders and LHFC have undertaken a stocking program has seen 60,000 yearling steelhead raised and released into the Saugeen each year for the last 5 years. These fish carry adipose fin clips and make up an incredible 40+% of the annual run.

    Just over a week ago, I took part in the volunteer effort to move some of these incredible adult fish up river. The fish ladder at Denny’s Dam has been constructed to accommodate a removable trap in the top step. The trap, which effectively works like a holding pen, is lowered down with the aid of a mechanical lift into the fishway. Usually the trap is lowered overnight and lifted in the morning to collect a good number of fish. Each steelhead in the trap is removed and “sampled”; a process that includes taking measurements and sex identification, as well as performing a visual check for fin clips and lamprey scaring. Two tankers, made of steel and equipped with oxygen tanks and aerators, are filled with water and hitched to volunteers’ trucks. Each of these tankers is then carefully loaded with about 45 adult fish for the 80km journey up river. Each round trip to load and release the fish takes about 3 hours.

    I wasn’t just amazed by the volunteer dedication. As far as the fish themselves were concerned, the “lift” that took place just over a week ago was one for the record books. The trap was set overnight on a Wednesday. The following morning, volunteers were greeted by an astonishing 300+ steelhead in the trap. Between the two tankers, close to 100 fish were loaded for transport and the remaining fish in the trap were released above Denny’s Damn to continue their journey.

    The trap was promptly set back into the ladder and lifted again at 2pm. Despite an even shorter amount of time in the fishway, this second lift revealed over 500 fish in the trap. Once again the tankers were loaded with the allowable number of adults and the remaining fish were released above the damn. The following day the trap was set for just over 1 hour. In that time the trap collected over 550 adult steelhead. For those who have been volunteering their time at the ladder over two decades this was an all time high. This pattern continued for the next two days with an average of 400+ fish per 1.5 hour trap-set. The Ontario Steelheaders reached their 1000 adult steelhead transfer quota in no time.

    I was scrambling to compute the figures in my head! If you were to do the math, over the four days that the lift took place, with an average of 350 fish moving through the ladder every 1.5 hours, the run was exceeding 30,000 adult steelhead in less than a week!

    Now, for those who are interested in steelhead runs, the biology of migrating fish or fisheries across the province, this info will be of special interest to you. The steelhead run on the Saugeen River is most likely the largest in the Province of Ontario. 30,000+ fish migrating in under a week during the spring does not constitute the entire run. Water temperatures dictate steelhead migration through fish ladders. The temperatures leading up to the transports on March 8 were likely too cold for fish to use the ladder in any great numbers; however, with the sharp rise in temps recently, fish have definitely been passing the Denny’s fishway every day since! A large number of steelhead migrate during the late fall as well. Estimates based on fall fish lifts and observations at Denny’s suggest that the fall run was close to 15,000 fish. Considering temperatures and water levels in October and November were some of the best on record for an autumn season, that 15,000 estimate errs on the low side. Add the estimates of the fall migrations to the numbers volunteers witnessed passing through the trap during those four days as well as the remaining spring run and the numbers become impressive. The Saugeen has a record setting run of steelhead from Lake Huron, pushing the numbers above 45,000 fish. This is mind boggling!

    This incredible run of trout has produced the best steelhead fishing in the province over the past couple of seasons. This pattern of huge returns only suggests that the fishing will continue to be amazing in the near future. Although the fish and their tenacity definitely deserve some credit, none of this would have been a possibility without the dedicated efforts of the Ontario Steelheaders, LHFC and MNR. Through stocking and “fish lift” projects they have a very real hand in the prosperity of this fishery. Here is a huge pat on the back for those involved. Thank you specifically to those that have an added influence to this project: Karl Redin, Rod Jones and Darryl Choronzey from the Ontario Steelheaders; Al Wilkins and Grant McAlpine from the LHFC; and Shawn Carey and Jody Scheifley from the local MNR. Collectively these three groups have created the most outstanding steelhead fishery in Ontario. May this be a lesson learned, sometimes all that work actually does pay off!
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