“What does a fishing guide do on his day off? He goes fishing. It’s a passion,” says lifelong angler and fishing guide, Kerry Reed.
Kerry is the owner/operator of Reel Adventure Fishing Charters, based out of Nelson, British Columbia, offering lake, river, and ocean guided fishing trips since 1998.
Kerry enjoys fishing with his two kids, aged twelve and eight, and snowmobiling and dirt biking.
Fishing is in Kerry’s blood, and he learned the sport from his parents and grandparents as a child in Cranbrook.
“I always tugged on their shirt sleeves in the morning, wanting to go fishing. Once I got the first tug on my line, I was hooked.”
He loved growing up in Cranbrook.
“Cranbrook was great. It’s a backcountry area. I got to know all the lakes and rivers. Every weekend was our camping and fishing time. It was a pretty good childhood, for sure.”
He became especially fond of fishing in the West Kootenays as a kid.
“We used to vacation every summer on Kootenay Lake. When I finally moved to Nelson, after two years living there and fishing the lakes, I found a boat and started doing my own thing.”
Photo courtesy of Reel Adventure Fishing Charters.
Through his guiding work, Kerry has noticed changes in the fish populations in Kootenay Lake.
“I’ve noticed a decline in the fishery. It all starts with kokanee, and then it’s a chain reaction. Rainbows and bull trout follow.” says Kerry. “It decreased my business by a lot. I was deflated. I thought I was going to be out of business. I know a couple of other companies that went out of business.”
In a bind, Kerry did what he knows best: he fished.
hoto courtesy of Reel Adventure Fishing Charters.
“I realized people still wanted to go fishing, so I stuck with it. I’m the only one still doing it in our area, and people still want to go. Trophy fishermen are no longer coming, but there’s way more families and tourists now wanting to get out.”
There are many factors at play that explain this situation, Kerry says.
“It’s a bunch of environmental effects. On our lakes, it’s the perfect storm. We have a predator/prey imbalance, but at the same time, the water’s warmer due to warmer weather and survival rates have decreased for certain species.”
He says it might be related to climate change, and he’s noticing the fisheries on the ocean are also affected. He diversified when things slowed down on Kootenay Lake and started running expeditions on the west coast.
In the Same Boat
Other fishing-related businesses report a similar experience. Casey McKinnon, born a Jones, is the operations manager at Jones Boys Boats on Kootenay Lake in Ainsworth. The business has been in her family for seventy years, offering sales and services of a wide range of watercraft.
Casey grew up fishing on Kootenay Lake and fondly remembers kokanee fishing in the summers and bringing home fish for dinner.
“I would catch 20, 22, 23-pound gerrard rainbow trout and dollies like 15 pounds, a lot larger. I remember going out fishing and always catching fish. Now you fish all day and maybe catch a few, and they’re all like 5 pounds. Not even close to the same type of fishing anymore.”
The changes in the fish living in Kootenay Lake upset Casey.
“We think that something happened with the lake. When I was growing up, you could fish for kokanee. They were everywhere. In the last five years, the (pikeminnow) population increased. There used to always be some, but now there are many.”
Casey says the family business has been affected by these changes.
“We’ve had long-term boaters and fishermen selling their boats because it’s not the same. Just a lot of negative stigma around fishing on Kootenay Lake. If you talked to any old anglers, you would consistently hear how bad the fishing is and how things are so messed up.”
Like Kerry, Casey had to pivot its business due to these changes.
“We used to mainly cater to the fishing customers targeting our trophy gerrard rainbow. We recently added our rental fleet to the business, attracting a new clientele,” says Casey.
Casey feels sad about these changes.
“I miss hearing the reels screaming as the line took off when the fish were larger.”
Hooking the Problem
This history of government intervention on the lake started in 1932 with the building of the Corra Linn Dam to control seasonal flooding, create agricultural land, and generate electricity. This dam, as well as the Duncan and Libby dams, have affected fish rearing habitat, reduced organisms for salmon to eat, and the reduced productivity of water organisms.
Kerry says we must rethink how we consider our lakes to understand the issues.
“We think of our lakes as natural lakes, but they’re not because humans have messed with them. There’s lots going on.”
In 1949, non-native mysid shrimp were introduced as a food source for juvenile rainbow trout but ended up competing with kokanee for food. In 1953 Comenco (Teck) started a fertilizer plant in Kimberley. Unnatural nutrients dumped into the Kootenay River caused significant declines in water quality long after the plant closed in 1977.
Due to poor regulation, there was overfishing in the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1980 the salmon fishery closed. In 1990 the lake’s southern Kokanee stocks neared extinction, and an experimental fertilizing program was started. To this day, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Program spend millions of dollars every year to fertilize the lake and increase productivity.
In 2013, a fatal virus (IHNv) was found in 80 percent of spawning kokanee, causing a massive die-off. This was a bad year, but similar outbreaks are likely to occur in the future.
Hope for a Fishing Future
When it comes to finding a solution, Kerry thinks it’s a matter of provincial government funding and allocation of resources.
“Other places have hatcheries, or they’ve got a supplement of kokanee eggs into their rivers and increase their kokanee numbers. But I have been told we don’t have the resources.”
He has shared his observations of the fish population decline with the Ministry.
“They’re aware but don’t seem to think it can be fixed that easily.”
Numerous management interventions have been undertaken to increase gerrard populations (the main fishing guide targets). The high poplulation of gerrards has caused a predator/prey imbalance, and is suggested as one of the causes of the kokanee collapse.
The Ministry began implementing Kootenay Lake recovery actions in 2015 and is reducing rainbow and bull trout populations in Kootenay Lake by netting spawning gerrard rainbow trout. And the Kootenay Lake Angler Incentive Program is underway, which aims to minimize rainbow and bull trout by offering cash incentive draws for catches.
Fisheries managers today have a very tough task, given all the changes brought on by past management actions and extensive development within the Kootenay Lake watershed, including ongoing forestry development that damages spawning streams and diking the Creston flats. Now, climate change brings a whole new level of complexity.
Kerry wishes there was a simpler fix.
“There’s a lake, and they compare them, Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint, Idaho, it had the same problem as us. They had too many predators and not enough kokanee. They did a similar program that we’ve done here as far as predator removal or rewards for people to catch bigger fish to try to save kokanee, but they spent lots of money and stocked their lakes with kokanee.”
In 2019, there were 2.5 million adult kokanee living in Idaho’s biggest lake.
“That lake is now thriving again, and ours isn’t,” says Kerry. “We’re doing half of the equation, predator removal, but we’re not aggressive in the lower end of stocking or supplementing kokanee.”
It is important to note that the BC government is taking the same remediation steps that were taken in Idaho, but Lake Pend Oreille fisheries took many years to recover.
Kerry hopes that nature will balance out the lake over time and the fish populations will stay up so he can run his company into retirement.
“As long as there are people and families that want to get out fishing and there are still fish, I’ll still be doing it.”
For now, he will continue to take his two kids out fishing.
“They like fishing in small doses. They get spoiled because I take them wherever the fishing is good at the right time of year. They can’t sit still if it’s not good fishing. It’s pretty funny.”
His kids come to mind when he thinks about the future of the area’s lakes and rivers.
“I hope they get to witness what I get to witness as far as fisheries go. I hope they still get to see fish and big fish.”