Friends of the Cowichan River Speak Out

Commentary by Mark Hume with Photography by Nick Didlick

Between them the group of veteran anglers have more than 200 years of experience fishing the Cowichan River – and they think that gives them the right to tell the government how the fabled watershed, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, should be managed.

It’s hard to argue otherwise because the group, which gathered for a formative meeting on the banks of the Cowichan in the spring of 2012, represents an impressive collection of wisdom

David Anderson was there, a former federal fisheries minister who for many years was the environmental conscience of the government led by the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

So was Bob Hooton, who was perhaps B.C.’s most eminent (and certainly most outspoken) steelhead biologist when he retired, in 2008, after 37 years of exemplary government service.

Another member of the group was retired conservation officer, Gary Horncastle, who once tried to save an elk that was tangled in barbed wire by giving it CPR. The elk died, but the fact that Mr. Horncastel tried to revive a seven point bull, that weighed more than 350 kilograms, tells you something about his character. He’s no quitter, that’s for sure.

And neither is Joe Saysell, the retired, legendary fishing guide who has spent his entire life on the Cowichan and who convened the group at his riverbank home because he felt his beloved river was in dire need of help.

“I’ve been watching the fish stocks on this river go down for a decade. It’s time we did something about this,” he said

With 60 years of experience on the river, Joe knows the Cowichan better than anyone and has spent much of his adult life fighting to protect it. His efforts are largely responsible for the green corridor that lines both banks of the upper river.

“I wanted to get a small, influential, knowledgeable group together. A group that would put fish first, and wouldn’t be afraid to speak out,” he said. “We’ve got to get away from that old concept of managing [the resource] for the fishermen. If we manage for the fish, in the end both the fishermen and the fish are looked after. But if we manage for [the immediate gratification of]  the fishermen, in the end, the fish lose.”

What he is talking about is the use of closures and gear restrictions to reduce angling pressure on trout stocks. Many such proposed changes in the past have been shouted down by various user groups, who didn’t want to see their own “right to fish” infringed upon in any way.

The new group is calling itself, Friends of the Cowichan. But given their collective age and experience, perhaps River Elders might have been a better name.

Sports anglers in B.C. number more than 300,000 and they have no shortage of groups that speak out on their behalf.

But Joe said most angler organizations are concerned primarily with providing “more fishing opportunities” for their members, and that means lobbying for fewer grear restrictions and longer fishing seasons.

The Friends of the Cowichan want the opposite.

“We have protected the habitat on this river with the green corridor. Now the only way left to protect fish is through more stringent fishing regulations,” Joe said. “We want to make it harder, not easier, to catch fish.”

That will put him up against powerful groups like the BC Wildlife Federation and the BC Federation of Driftfishers

“I never thought I’d be fighting fishermen, but then I always thought fishermen would put fish first. Sadly, things have changed,” he said. “Now a lot of fishermen only think about how many fish they can catch. The sport to them is about putting up big numbers, so they can brag to their buddies. And they don’t care how or where they fish.”

Joe said he regularly sees anglers fishing over spawning grounds, using eggs for bait, which fish can’t resist. Or he sees anglers using a technique known as “flossing”, in which a long line is drifted through a school of salmon, until it slips into the open mouth of a breathing fish. Then the angler yanks the hook home, snagging the fish on the outside of its mouth.

“There are times and places to fish. The spawning grounds isn’t one of those places,” he said. “And snagging shouldn’t happen anywhere, ever.”

First step for Friends of the Cowichan was to ask for meetings with senior government officials, to introduce themselves and to start the conversation about managing the river for fish first, fishermen second.

It is going to be hard to ignore the Cowichan’s new voice of reason. And for the sake of the fish, and the future of this great river, we hope the government is ready to listen.