ALONG THE FRASER: Gone fishing – a wee break from bad news

VIDEO: Fraser River’s sockeye and chinook in jeopardy of being wiped out as a result of Big Bar slide

By Jack Emberly/Special to THE NEWS

Woodlands Fishing Resort – three hours west of Williams Lake – sits on Puntzi Lake in B.C.’s Chilcotin.

It’s good kokanee – landlocked sockeye – fishing.

Hydro dams block their outward migration. Turbines chew them up.

It’s a shameful secret, an unchallenged agreement in Water Use Plans between the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (a.k.a. DFO), federal and provincial governments, and BC Hydro, says Geoff Clayton, a former president of Alouette River Management Society.

It’s late August. There’s no First Nations nets on the Fraser, and no brood stock for the Spruce City Wildlife Association’s hatchery in Prince George.

Despite DFO’s daily reports of salmon transported about the blockage, few made it upstream.

Bears and eagles will starve, First Nations lose a traditional food source.

Big Bar Slide ended spawning in 100 or so streams north of Clinton this year, and could next year.

Retired DFO biologist Matt Foy thinks the debris should be blown clear. He’s written emails to the DFO suggesting it asks the Canadian military do that, “during a safe window in January or February” when runs end.

“Without a different approach we will see the slow collapse of the Fraser River sockeye and early chinook runs like in 1914 (Hell’s Gate slide).”

Foy’s emails are unanswered.

I’ve driven to Puntzi to put such thoughts on hold.

On the first day here, I caught a three-pound kokanee.That helped. Big Buddy didn’t get any. We ate my fish for breakfast the next morning.

On day two, I caught two more bright fish. B.B. struck out again. He’s grumpy.

“No fish in this lousy lake,” he grumbles. “We drove all this way for this?”

I get another strike. He’s using the wrong lure. He lost one of my fish scrambling to take a video. “Get the net ready,” I tell him.

This is my second trip to the Chilcotin. I love the forested landscape, snow-capped mountains.

There’s an island on the far side of the lake surrounded by hundreds of white American pelicans. They breed, feeding on spawning suckers, flying south in the fall.

Puntzi area has a rich history, some tragic. In 1860, war broke out between the Tsilhoquot’in First Nation and a colonial government intent on getting rid of them.

It was ethnic cleansing. The whites spread smallpox among the natives hoping First Nations would be killed off. They were overpowered. In second act of infamy, the government jailed six chiefs. Judge Begbie hung them.

“I’ve got another strike, B.B.,” I announce. “They like my pink squid. “Change yours lure.”

“Nah,” he grumbles. “Al – the resort proprietor – said use a wedding ring.”

Back at the cabin, I put two kokanee in the freezer.

“Tomorrow, Big Buddy, you’re using my rod and lure,” I said. “I’m not listening to any more noise. Besides, you have to take one home, or nobody will believe you caught any.”

“Don’t care. Not using your rod,” grumbles Big Buddy.

The day was young. We went for a drive. Al told us about the Puntzi Mountain air base nearby, a 6,000-foot air strip built in 1951.

This was the longest airstrip in the province at that time, constructed by the American and Canadian governments for the Pine Tree Defense Line to assure a timely fighter response if Russia launched an atomic attack.

Jets flew in from Seattle and Comox. A town – Puntziville – supported 100 U.S. airmen, a school, and post office. To access supplies, the miltary paved the road to Williams Lake. It’s all in Diana French’s history of the Chilcotin Highway – The Road Runs West.

RECENT COLUMN: An all-out effort underway upstream to save Fraser salmon

Jodi Ferguson knows the story. He runs an air tanker base with helicopter pads that replaced the old base. At the Puntzi Mountain Initial Attack and Fire Station, (BC forestry), Jodi mixes the water and fire retardant.

“It’s iron oxide, fertilizer, water, and salt. I haven’t pumped a load in 2019, but it was bad in 2017,” Jodi tells us. “30 helicopters here then because Williams Lake was evacuated.”

Jodi loves the work. “I help save Mother Nature.”

She’s been in trouble in the Chilcotin. Moose are in steady decline. Habitat destroyed by fires means less to eat, and logging roads in remote areas means easier access for hunters.

Resident cariboo are disappearing too.

Penny Chipman who operates the old post office, has pictures. She says the herd hasn’t been seen since the 2017 fire.

“The RCMP told people to meet here for evacuation. I watched the sky turn red. It was bad,” she recalls.

Our last afternoon. B.B. wants to go fishing again.

“You’re using my rod,” I tell him.

“Why not,” he says. After 20 minutes he hooks into one. “Slow it up,” I tell him. “Need to get the net ready.”

It’s a beautiful fish, close to three pounds.

He holds it up for a picture.

“You know, B.B.,” I say, “that has to be the biggest one we’ve caught.”

He grins. “Right,” he says. “Biggest for sure.”

– Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist

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