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No enhancement for ‘very Canadian’ steelhead

Biologist says province’s solution for Cheakamus ‘is synonymous to doing nothing’

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"It’s about connecting it all in your head," flyfishing guide Tass Gerhart says as she leans into a cast on the Cheakamus River.

Gerhart is explaining flyfishing basics and casting for steelhead, the prize angling fish that once filled the river by the hundreds but now are reduced to a few dozen due to a Canadian National Railway derailment and caustic soda spill on the Cheakamus last summer. As a consequence, the Cheakamus was rated the most endangered river by the B.C. Outdoor Recreation Council in their 14 th annual list released this week.

Retrieve the cast by keeping line over right-hand little finger, pull line in with left, use a 11:00 — 3:00 pattern, lean into the cast – it sounds like work, but it’s something Gerhart, who grew up near Campbell River, has been doing most of her life.

"It’s a very calm, quiet activity, almost Zen-like," she said. "It is an art but can be learned by anybody, yet it’s something even advanced fishermen can still learn more about."

Gerhart has been guiding in Whistler for almost 10 years. She and husband Geoff operate Trout Country Fishing Guides and take approximately 250 guests a year to Whistler-area lakes and rivers for trout, salmon, and less frequently, steelhead.

"It’s not a big part of our business," she said "but the steelhead fishermen we do get are very serious about it."

Steelhead are an elite fish, she explained, elusive, difficult to catch, but powerful fighters with beautiful colours. She laughed and said they are also polite.

"When a big pushy run of salmon comes through they just kind of move to one side and let them all rush by – very Canadian."

Gerhart is concerned the provincial government has decided not to support steelhead enhancement on the Cheakamus, but her concern isn’t for guiding revenue as much as for the fish and because it’s the right thing to do.

"If anything, what the whole thing should be about is the fish, what damage has been done and that CN should fix it ," she said. "If that means put money into a steelhead program to recover what was lost, that’s what they should do."

That option was quashed by provincial Ministry of Environment officials – who have authority over steelhead but are opposed to steelhead fish enhancement, citing genetic sustainability concerns.

At two separate meetings of the Cheakamus Ecosystem Restoration Technical and Steering Committees last week, provincial biologists were firm on their contention that fish enhancement would be better served by increasing habitat and nutrient values in the river than by increasing numbers with hatchery juveniles culled from this month’s returning steelhead run. Ignoring arguments from a majority of committee members, that included representatives from CN, Squamish Nation, federal Environment and Fisheries biologists, and District of Squamish, the province voted against enhancement.

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