"It’s a lot easier to get up at 5:30 in the morning for this than it is to get up and go to work," says fly fisher Dag Meyer as he casts out into the Cheakamus River on a mist-shrouded early Friday morning.
Meyer, a Squamish commercial realtor, is up when most are still fast asleep, fishing for steelhead, one of a dozen volunteer anglers intent on collecting 20 live steelhead for brood stock as part of the Ministry of Environment’s Cheakamus River recovery efforts.
Over the past 10 days 12 volunteers have been fishing morning and evening to collect 10 pairs of male and female steelhead to be transferred to the province’s Fraser Valley Trout Hatchery, where they will be bred.
The effort has been organized in co-operation with Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Tenderfoot Creek Hatchery near Squamish, which recruited volunteer anglers to catch the prize fish on the river between the Cheekye and Bailey bridges. Steelhead were then held in eight-foot circular flow-through portable tanks until the Abbotsford hatchery staff arrived to pick them up for transfer.
Originally worried that the fish, known as supreme fighters, might injure themselves, Dale Larson, manager of the Abbotsford hatchery, said they survived the three-hour road trip remarkably well.
The 10 pairs were inspected this week for their potential as egg and sperm donors.
Steelhead will be air spawned, a procedure that involves making a small incision in anaesthetized females and filling their abdominal cavity with air to force eggs to eject. To express sperm from the males, technicians just run their fingers along the lateral line of the fish.
"It’s not anywhere near as exciting as humans," Larson said. "Maybe it is for the fish but I can’t answer for them."
Male and female steelhead pairs are released back into the river.
Sperm and eggs are then mixed in a pan and left for 10-15 days until eggs develop eyes, then raised in circular pens. In September, as a precautionary measure, half the stock will be transferred to Tenderfoot to be raised to 80 grams and half will remain at Abbotsford. Next spring the five- to six-inch smolts will be released at different areas of the Cheakamus.
Larson doesn’t think there will be any danger of the smolts imprinting on Abbotsford water, saying that other fish raised and trucked to Chilliwack River bottom for release always return to the release section. But as a precaution, the two hatcheries are considering taking the smolts back to Tenderfoot next spring for a few weeks of acclimatization.
Larson stressed the importance of the cooperation between staff of the two hatcheries.
"The guys at Tenderfoot have been absolutely outstanding," Larson said. "They jumped to the fore, organized all the brood capture and they’ve just been superstars."