Don't look now, but something very special is happening on Ontario's Saugeen River. One of Ontario's finest trout streams is getting better. In fact, it is about to become one of the finest, if not "the" finest trout stream in eastern North America.
Nothing comes easy and rejuvenating the Saugeen has been years in the nurturing. It is still a work in progress, but the fruit of our labours is evident. A half dozen years ago a working agreement between the Ontario Steelheaders, the Lake Huron Fishing Club and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was formulated to immediately improve steelhead (rainbow trout) returns to the Saugeen.
In each of the past springs, the two clubs would collect eggs and sperm from returning adult trout. Once fertilized, the eggs were placed in the Lake Huron Fishing Club's Kincardine fish hatchery. There, the fry were hatched and the young trout cared for, for a period of 12 months.
As eight-to 10-inch smolts, the yearlings were trailered by specially designed fish tankers 50 miles back upriver near the Town of Walkerton and released back into the Saugeen in the spring of the year. This up-river release is imperative in creating a natural phenomenon referred to as "imprinting." Immediately upon tumbling out of the tanker and splashing into the Saugeen, the young fish begin to drift back downstream on the journey to the open waters of Lake Huron. As they carry out this important stage of their lives, they pick up the scent and characteristics associated with the waters in this special section of the Saugeen River. These scents become imprinted into the minds of the young fish and will draw them back to the same stocking locations later in their lives as mature adults.
It should be noted that the members of the Ontario Steelheaders, in conjunction with the Lake Huron Fishing Club are also helping to rehabilitate the steelhead runs with the transfer of mature, full grown adults to the mid stretches of the Saugeen to "specially designated" tributaries above and around the two impeding dams located at Walkerton. These annual transfers have allowed as many as 500 egg and sperm laden adults to fertilize and deposit their valuable eggs into prime spawning waters not available below the two large restrictive cement impediments downstream.
Has the annual egg, to hatch-e ry, to the Walkerton spring stocking release been working? Have the annual spring adult fish transfers been successful in improving the rainbow trout fishery? You can bet your last fishing lure it has. From the very first year of the program returning adult trout numbers to the Saugeen have been dramatically increased. On any given day in autumn, as many as 100 to 200 pugnacious silver trout are captured by sport anglers in the short stretch of the Saugeen from Denny's Dam downstream to Lake Huron. The river fishing is open as well right up to the Walkerton dam and has been spectacular in these upper stretches. This fishery is also fair game and productive throughout the winter from the ancient abutments below Denny's to the lake. Then again, come the "ceremonial" annual spring opening day the trout fishing is booming from Walkerton right back down to the lake as was the case in autumn. The members of the Ontario Steelheaders now estimate that the fish numbers passing through the Denny's Dam fishway at Southampton, as well as those being harvested in the sport fishery has risen from approximately 2,000 fish before the program began, to upwards of 20,000 trout today.
Still, there are those two cement impediments in the stretch of the Saugeen at Walkerton that have prevented the majority of the trout or if not all their numbers from reaching the proper upriver spawning grounds in the past right up to the present day . . . or shall we say there was. The Walkerton dam itself was the first issue to be tackled. For the past two decades an original fishway was suspect to it efficiency on passing fish over the first dam situated in the middle of town. In fact, some doubted if any fish were able to make their way around the structure due to the original design and the constant blockages at the entrance at its upper opening.
The volunteers again worked with the Ministry of Natural Resources on recommended changes to the original design to assist fish on their upriver travels. An engineer was brought in for a redesign. Fabricators, construction contractors and the all important fundraising began. Let's be honest, the Canadian and provincial economy is not the greatest these days and greenbacks are hard to come by. Surprisingly though, a major project like this in the past that would have either been stalled, put away somewhere in filing desk or even been rejected, was soon underway and completed in a few months of intensive and determined work. Much of the thanks has to go to Ministry of Natural Resources acting biologist Jody Scheifley and District Supervisor Shawn Carey.
Now, those that are familiar with me, realize that I'm sometimes quick to become impatient and have often been critical of how the ministry is often slow to react to improving our provincial sport fishery. In this particular circumstance, I have only praise for these two particular individuals. What they have helped to initiate and accomplish in the span of a few short months will kickstart a dramatic increase in the Saugeen steelhead population and the sport fishery itself in a few short years. They should be congratulated by all.
Both the upper and lower openings have been removed and replaced with redesigned larger entrances. Migrating adult fish should find the passages quickly and their travel through the fishway should be faster and easier. Just as important, a specially designed control box, trash collector and steel floatation berm at the upper entrance of the fishway will allow proper water fluctuation through the fishway and prevent clogging.
Remember, all this at the Walkerton fishway was accomplished in a few short months. The actual physical implementation with heavy equipment and manpower was completed in less than one day.
Again, hats off to the Owen Sound Ministry of Natural Resources and all those involved including the Ontario Steelheaders, Lake Huron Fishing Club, Jeff Graham of Genavar Consultants, Michael Hahn of Tri-Mach, Schmidt Paving, the OFAH, the Canadian Ontario Agreement (Great Lakes Water Clean-up Initiative), Grey and Bruce Stewardship Networks.
The important renovations of the Walkerton fishway, the rearing and releasing of more than 60,000 rainbow smolt annually upstream in the Saugeen and the spring adult transfers to proper spawning waters will all dramatically increase rainbow trout propagation, higher adult return rates and a greatly improved sport fishery for both local and visiting anglers. Just as important, the program will definitely assist and improve the Grey-Bruce economy. The sport of angling generates dollars -- big dollars. Yes, more fish may mean more anglers wading and tossing lures below Denny's Dam and just watch the lake troll fishery explode. But remember, the Saugeen is a very, very long river. Much of it is and will still be inaccessible to major fishing pressure. Much needed tourist dollars will flow into the region based on these improvements. The towns of Southampton, Walkerton, Port Elgin, Sauble Beach, Hanover and the Village of Paisley will all experience a tourist growth.
As in the longtime Provincial Management Plan, rainbow trout will be allowed no farther upstream than the Hanover dam. My only suggestion I have to those fishing farther upstream is to look around you. There's plenty of work that can be accomplished on the waters you fish. I'll finish by adding that approximately 20,000 yearling brown trout have been stocked annually in the Saugeen River between Hanover and Walkerton. Enjoy your fishing folks and the benefits that come with it. I just wish more would join the volunteers and local Ministry of Natural Resources to keep improving it.
Darryl Choronzey Ontario Steelhead member Owen Sound