Drake Magazine Back Issue Content Fall 2016

BC Steelhead and the Tyee Test Fishery

IT STARTS AROUND THE SAME TIME every year, in late June or early July. And on a day that you should be fishing, you’re instead making furtive mouse clicks and talking in hushed tones with your buddies, always reminding yourselves that it’s still too early to say anything definitive. Then, as trout fishing ebbs into its August doldrums, you start acting more like a day trader than a fisherman, poring over graphs and projecting trends like you’re an extra in The Big Short.

This is all because of the Tyee Test Fishery, a program used since 1955 by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (AKA Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or DFO) to “evaluate the magnitude” of Skeena River salmon and steelhead returns. Like their fellow migratory-fish lovers in the Pacific Northwest, who spend summers watching daily fish-ladder counts up the Columbia River, B.C. steelheaders look to the Tyee Test Fishery.

The operation takes place at Tyee, just upstream of the Area 4 commercial sockeye fishery on the Skeena. Starting around June 10, a DFO contractor begins laying gillnets in order to get an idea of how the year’s run is shaping up. Along with commercial numbers, the test fishery provides an estimate of the year’s sockeye run, while also collecting data on the other salmonids: coho, chinook, pink, chum and, of course, steelhead. This data is then made public.

“Simplistically and generally you could say higher Tyee steelhead numbers should mean better overall fishing,” says Keith Douglas, chair of the North Coast Steelhead Alliance in Smithers. “But, as we know, steelheading isn’t so simplistic. The split of where the fish go can vary year to year, and if you’re on a smaller Skeena trib, larger overall numbers may not translate into a better fishing for your particular system.”

The gillnets—200 fathoms long and 20 feet deep—are lowered 2 to 4 times a day, according to tide depth and river flows, for an hour at a time. Hourly catches are recorded and then averaged to get a daily index. A multiplier is then used to estimate total escapement. For species other than sockeye, the multiplier is less about rigorous math than educated estimates—more than 90 percent of the Skeena’s sockeye can physically be counted as they pass the Babine River weir.

Though steelhead numbers aren’t as definitive, DFO fisheries biologist Mark Beere says the index for steelhead can still provide valuable data. “It’s a sockeye test-fishery first, and some argue that all it can really tell us about steelhead is whether it has been a bad year or an exceptional one,” Beere says. “But I would say it does more for us than that.”

When Douglas looks at numbers from Tyee, he’s most concerned about the early portion of the run. “I guide and fish on a system with early returns, but it’s also because early returning fish are our most important. They come the earliest and stay the longest, thus providing the most access to fishermen and the fishery. And they’ve been disproportionately impacted by commercial fishing over the decades.”

The number of returning steelhead on the Skeena has averaged around 25,000 since the mid 1950s, but as much as 40 percent of some stocks die every year as bycatch in commercial sockeye nets. Nevertheless, Douglas agrees with Beere that, despite its shortcomings, the Tyee Test Fishery still provides meaningful insights.

One can imagine that in years such as this—the fourth strongest steelhead return on record—these graphs are being taken seriously. And from where I sit in camp on the Skeena, I can tell you for certain: it’s looking damn good.

Josh Markle

7 Comments

  1. You will quickly learn that the Tyee isn’t really a great tool for any kind of forecasting of the steelhead fishing on the Skeena system, and interpreting it as such is misguided. It’s interesting to look at and that’s about the extent of it. Some of my best years fishing the Skeena have been poor return years that grant some degree of solitude and fish that haven’t been harassed all fall.

    This year sounds like a gong show and a lot of the folks decided to go based solely upon the Tyee index figure thinking they’d be beating the steelhead away with a stick. Reality is that most of what I’ve heard is that the catching has been average at best and more along the lines of below average and the crowds have been EPIC (to use the favorite phrase of seemingly every modern day fly angler).

  2. Agreed, first timer to the Skeena system this year and although it was a great trip, the fishing was slow according to most people we met. I was happy to get a few fish over two weeks. Steelheading has never been a numbers game for me, but I will admit I bought into the Tyee hype as everyone was talking about it before our trip. The best fish for me are the ones you are not expecting.

  3. Here’s a few things that don’t show up in the article. First, the Tyee test fishery provides an estimate of the abundance of all species, not just steelhead. An estimate is simply that. It varies around a mean……..except the agency responsible has a long history of ignoring that basic fact. That history supports my long held belief the federal government people have convinced themselves there is no such thing as overestimating steelhead abundance via the test net results. There are only underestimates.

    At this point in the year it is now abundantly clear the test fishery results significantly overestimated the sockeye abundance. I’m told by insiders it was 30-40%. You can bet steelhead followed the same pattern. That was a result of “killer” test net fishing conditions (i.e. extremely low flows and high turbidity). Under those conditions an unusually high proportion of the passing stocks is intercepted, thus producing an inflated estimate of the escapement. The real story is the federal people knew that all along but never acknowledged it. The provincial people who put out the weekly bulletins updating the steelhead run status should have known it but, if they did, they said nothing. So, the bottom line is the expectations of the sport fishing community were known to be completely unrealistic long before the peak of the fishing season in the tributaries approached.

    Those familiar with the history of the test fishery figures for steelhead might have noticed how flat the index was over the last month of test fishing. That is more confirmation of the inflation earlier on. The last month of that fishery saw flows in the Skeena much closer to normal than had prevailed in July and the front half of August. The catches and index calculations for the last month were very likely a much closer reflection of the actual abundance of steelhead. Stated simply, there weren’t very many. In fact, when all the figures are in, it turns out 2016 was in 7th or 8th place overall, not 4th as stated. Then, if you consider most of the recent years have seen the test fishery operated deeper into the late summer than it ever was historically the comparisons become apples and oranges. The 2016 figure has not been adjusted to account for that, at least not by those who want to delude themselves this year is going to be gangbusters.

    Now, compounding all of the above is the poor water conditions that have prevailed through a large part of September, the month that is normally the best of all in that regard. That forces far too many anglers to concentrate on the few areas that are less influenced by brown water. The competition in those areas has been unprecedented this year. “Epic” was used above. That is not an unfair or inaccurate description.

    Regardless of the concentration of anglers on some specific areas due to flow conditions, the number and size of jet sleds now on every piece of water big enough to handle them just keeps growing. The traditional 50 HP Mercs and 40 HP Evinrudes are long gone. In their place we see up to 200 HP inboards that can travel 50 mph in the race to be first. A fixed or diminishing supply of steelhead is never going to sustain the expectations of all these latter day boat racers. The “quality fishing” Skeena country was once famous for is going, going, gone.

  4. Bob—Thanks for the post. As always, you remain the expert on all things Skeena steelhead. You also highlight the shortcomings of running a story in a print magazine about an ever-evolving annual tally. This probably would’ve been better suited to just run online—or we at least should have interviewed you. That said, I must ask—based on your opening two sentences—did you actually read the article? Or just the headline? You wrote: “Here’s a few things that don’t show up in the article. First, the Tyee test fishery provides an estimate of the abundance of all species, not just steelhead.”
    —From the second paragraph: “the Tyee Test Fishery, a program used to evaluate the magnitude of Skeena River SALMON AND STEELHEAD returns.”
    —From the third paragraph: “the test fishery provides an estimate of the year’s sockeye run, while also collecting data on the other salmonids: coho, chinook, pink, chum and, of course, steelhead.”
    —From the sixth paragraph, Mark Beer’s quote: “It’s a sockeye test-fishery first”
    Regardless, we greatly appreciate your insight and analysis of the Tyee Test Fishery.

  5. Tom, the article was obviously a “rah, rah” article meant to highlight the supposed exceptional numbers of steelhead returning to the Skeena this year; which as the season has progressed has proven to be quite inaccurate. Salmon are an afterthought in this article, and that’s fine as that was clearly the point.

    That being said, this article could also easily have been written about “Forecasting Fish” on the Columbia system which has far more accurate steelhead counts that are showing an abysmal year that is the worst in the last 20…but that won’t get steelhead obsessed readers salivating at the thought of 10 fish days.

  6. Dear adiposer—That is simply not an accurate depiction of “forecasting” on the Skeena and Columbia. Nor is it an accurate portrayal of The Drake or of my reasons for running this article. Before I tell you why, let me first apologize—to you, to Bob Hooton, to all steelheaders who love the Skeena system, and perhaps especially to the “author,” Josh Markle, because we took some liberties with his piece that we shouldn’t have, and it wasn’t fair to him or to the people we interviewed.

    I initially asked Josh to try and get out on one of the Tyee test boats, but we were told by DFO employee Mark Potyrala that “for safety and liability reasons, we no longer allow non-DFO staff to go out on the test site.” (My plan for the story kind of went downhill from there.) Bottom line: I stand behind the IDEA of this piece, but we half-assed the execution, and some of your comments are a predictable result. We should have taken our time, talked to more people, and ran a longer, more thorough piece, even if we had to hold it for a later issue. We didn’t, and I take full responsibility for that.

    Nevertheless, your accusation that this was “obviously a ‘rah, rah’ article” could not be further from the truth. What is obvious is how unfamiliar you seem to be with the magazine. Just look at the opening story of the same section, where Geoff Mueller writes about the disappearing sardines in Baja and the resulting drop in roosterfish numbers. Or the story four pages later on the mine proposed for the Smith River. Or the story two pages after that on the overheated Deschutes and all the problems that issue is creating. Last winter we published an extensive feature on the Northern Gateway pipeline project and the threat it still presents to Skeena tribs like the Morice. Last month we reported on Trudeau’s awful decision to approve the LNG terminal on Lulu Island. Do those sound like rah, rah stories? Aren’t we allowed to run at least the occasional article in our news section that breaks from the constant steam of horrible news about our fisheries and other natural resources? (And of course “salmon are an afterthought in this article”—because salmon are an afterthought for flyfishers headed to Skeena country in the fall.)

    My reason for assigning the story had nothing to do with the numbers other to explain how the test fishery ARRIVES at those numbers, which many people—myself included—have often misunderstood over the years. If we were only interested in a promo piece then we wouldn’t have interviewed Douglas (it was me who talked to him, not Markle), and included him saying that “larger overall numbers may not translate into better fishing…” But again, we could have done better, and we will. Thank you, sincerely, for pointing that out.

    Your suggestion about running an article on “forecasting fish on the Columbia system” is a good one. Unfortunately, I already wrote that piece, and it ran in the fall 2013 issue, after sitting for a few hours on a couple different days watching and talking to the fish counters at Bonneville. You’re correct that those are far more accurate counts, but comparing that to Tyee is apples and oranges. On the Columbia they actually COUNT the fish. Tyee is just an extrapolated estimate. The only comparable “count” on the Skeena would be for the sockeye, because of the weir at Babine Lake.

    Lastly, I doubt many of our steelheader readers waste time thinking of “10 fish days.” If they do, then they probably haven’t been steelheading long and should probably look for another sport. Nevertheless, you raise an important concern regarding this year’s numbers on the Columbia, and it’s an issue we are covering. However, as you probably know, the low overall numbers are only part of the story. What intrigues me is why so many of these fish are B runs. (Something like 80 percent of the run, vs the normal 20 percent.) The low numbers of A-run fish can likely be attributed, at least in part, to shitty ocean conditions, extremely low PNW snowpack the winter of 2014-15, and of course, high water temps the past few years, especially in the Lower Snake. The high temps problem is something the Corps of Engineers says it’s hoping to address by installing its new “cooling system” at Lower Granite. (Know what else would lower river temps? Tearing down those fu**ing dams. Hopefully we can at least agree on that.)

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