Mike Webers and Mark Steer of the Esquimalt Anglers Association.

Poor Chinook returns cause cancellation of fishing derby

For Mike Webers and Mark Steer, there's nothing more thrilling than hopping on a boat and catching a bunch of salmon.

For Mike Webers and Mark Steer, there’s nothing more thrilling than hopping on a boat, heading out onto the ocean, and catching a bunch of salmon.

It’s something the life-long Esquimalt residents have been doing ever since they were old enough to hold a fishing rod. But this summer the pair have spent more time waiting for fish than catching them.

“There’s just nothing out there,” said Webers, noting fishing has been slow on the west side of the Island this summer. During the last two to three years, however, there has been historical runs along the east coast of the Island.

“There’s a lot of fish on the inside of the Island. That’s the confusing part for us — why all of a sudden something changes? Nobody seems to know what causes these ups and downs.”

The lack of salmon off Victoria’s waterfront this summer has prompted the Esquimalt Anglers Association to cancel their annual derby at the end of the month. The derby typically attracts between 50 to 60 boats, which amounts to around 120 fishermen.

“We don’t think it’s politically correct to put on a fishing derby if the stocks are that low,” said Webers, who mainly fishes the area between Race Rocks and Oak Bay Flats. At this time of the year the fish are typically anywhere from 15 to 30 pounds.

“We’re not seeing those this year. The thing that bothers us is we’re not getting the smaller springs in either.”

The annual derby is what lured Steer into fishing in the first place. Growing up on Munro Street, Steer (who’s dad is a former president of the Esquimalt Fishing Association), took part in the annual event with his father. Reeling in a big salmon was always a huge thrill.

Steer learned how to tie various knots from some of the long-time members of the association, which now has around 500 people. Since the core group consists of 65 to 70-year-olds, Steer, the president of the association, is always trying to find younger members to keep the tradition alive.

But it’s not just about the thrill of seeing a fish strike a rod or the peace and quiet of being out on the ocean. Founded in 1952, the association also plays a role with salmon enhancement, operating a counting fence on Craigflower Creek.

Members also assist with the acquisition of salmon eggs for the Goldstream Hatchery, tjat releases the fish into the Esquimalt Harbour once they reach a certain size.

In an effort to increase the salmon’s survival rate once they are released, the association is in the process of trying to re-install a 15 by 20-foot net pen. Members had one going 10 or 15 years ago by the dry dock in the ship yards, but the fish got in and caused delays so the association was asked to take it out. The trick, noted Webers, is finding the right location and support since many people confuse the pens with fish farms.

Another member is a stream keeper who’s trying to get water released from Thetis Lake to prevent Craigflower Creek from drying up.

The Island’s exceptionally low precipitation levels this year resulted in rapid deterioration of the snowpack, causing water levels in rivers and streams to be lower than normal. Officials expect this will create challenging migratory conditions for salmon in the southern region. Aside from Big Qualicum River, Puntledge River and the Quinsam/Campbell rivers, all rivers are closed to fishing until further notice.

In the meantime, Webers and Steer will continue to keep a close eye on the ocean, hoping that more salmon will return to the region sooner than later.

“I’ve lived in Esquimalt since I was five and always fished out here. It’s just the thrill of the plan coming together, picking your lure, the gear, where you are going to go,” said Webers. “You are watching the rod and when that hit happens you get that thrill. If you get the fish to the boat, that’s even better. If you get it in the boat, it’s even better yet.”