Gravel Mining the Pitt River
September 21, 2012
Somewhere in the pool there is a big fish — a fish big enough to pop a 6-pound tippet with a single shake of its head. I know this now that my line is trailing limp in the current. I stand there stunned for a moment, the cold waters of the upper Pitt River swirling around me, remembering the dull glint of silver, seen far away where the current folds down into a dark green trench, remembering that solid, vicious jerk that passed for a strike.
"You gotta go heavier," advises guide Danny Gerak, who has been watching from the riverbank. He'd said as much minutes earlier, when he'd warned me to tie on a stronger leader, and now he has a wry smile on his face, which does not make this missed fish any easier to accept.
Watching the Pitt River teach anglers lessons is one of the amusements in his life, which must make his job a lot of fun. The Dolly Varden in the river, which is located just outside Vancouver, in southwestern British Columbia, average four or five pounds. They often get much, much bigger. And the bull trout, a primitive cousin, grow huge.
Bull trout is his guess, looking at the broken tippet. Maybe a Dolly Varden. Could have been 10, 15, maybe 20 pounds. "There's more than one in that pool," Gerak offers dryly, before heading upstream to guide two anglers to a deep, swift run where, as it turns out, 5-pound Dolly Varden are lying in ranks along the bottom.
As I tie on a new fly, cutting back the leader until it is short and about 12 pounds breaking strength, I gaze down the Pitt Valley and see a blue haze in the distance. With the morning light, exhaust smoke has drifted in from Vancouver, which lies just over the mountains to the southwest — less than 20 miles distant in a direct line.
The upper Pitt River, a wild flow of water surrounded by rugged mountains and paralleled by a rough logging road, seems eons apart from the lower river, where log barges and commercial fishing boats jostle for space on the water and urban traffic races on the highways nearby. Amazingly enough, this river, practically in the back pocket of Canada's largest western city, offers some of the best wild-trout, char, salmon, and steelhead fishing to be found anywhere in British Columbia. That it can be found so close to the city is a miracle.
But it is a miracle that is appreciated by few, and it may soon be ruined unless the Canadian federal government intervenes to stop a proposal by Mainland Sand and Gravel to open a gravel mine in the middle of the watershed (on land leased from the government), near the headwaters of Olson Creek, an important spawning tributary of the Pitt that sustains coho year-round.
The mine will cause siltation problems in the river, warns the Steelhead Society of B.C., and will dry up two small trout lakes in the watershed by cutting off groundwater flows to them. The mining company proposes to extract up to 200 truckloads of gravel per day from the site over a 10-year period. The estimated $100 million in gravel will be transported by truck, then by barge down Pitt Lake. The traffic alone would destroy the tranquility of the valley. The siltation would smother the Pitt's spawning beds, devastating fish stocks.
Throughout the Pacific Northwest, where so much has already been lost, there is a growing awareness of the importance of protecting fish habitat. From Alaska to California, billions of dollars are being spent by governments in a desperate attempt to restore salmon rivers that were once like the Pitt. Incredibly enough, the B.C. government seems on the verge of allowing a gravel mine that could destroy one of the West's great, unknown rivers.
Nowhere in the Pacific Northwest is there a river that offers such a rich, wild fishery, and if the Pitt is lost it may prove, as have so many other rivers before, to simply be irreplaceable.
"Saving rivers makes a lot more sense than trying to restore them after damage is done," says Dan Burns, president of the Steelhead Society of B.C., whose organization is restoring fish habitat around the province.
Craig Orr, an independent fisheries consultant, puts it another way: "There is no gravel shortage in the world, but wild rivers like this are rare. We have to protect all that are left."
Despite its proximity to the city and its remarkable fishing, the upper Pitt has been lightly fished over the years because it is difficult to reach (there is no road access), it is moody (its waters shift rapidly from crystal-clear to heavily silt), and it has had strict catch-and-release regulations for more than a decade.
The Pitt was restricted (to protect a sockeye enhancement project) before catch-and-release became popular, and the angling community focused its attentions on other waters before they had discovered how incredible the fishing there was. In a way, the Pitt was forgotten before it ever became known.
Over the past ten years, Gerak has been working to change all that. A commercial fisherman who makes his living on the Fraser River, Gerak has been trying to publicize the Pitt, not just to promote his guiding business, but because he knows that unless the river has friends, it will be destroyed by industry.
Gerak lobbied against logging in the valley, blowing the whistle when contractors spilled fuel oil in Pitt Lake and trashed spawning beds with poor waterside cutting. He successfully pressured the provincial government to create a park on the river's west side, complementing a park that already existed to the east.
Now he's fighting the proposed gravel mine that will almost certainly destroy the river's remarkable fishery. The provincial government has given tentative approval; the federal department of fisheries, only at Gerak's urgings, has begun assessing the environmental implications. The fate of the river is in the hands of the federal government, which has ordered Mainland Sand and Gravel to undertake a "detailed biophysical inventory and impact assessment." That order requires the company to spend perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars without any assurance that its plans will ultimately be approved.
Gerak says the federal ruling "buys us some time." But nobody knows how much. Mainland's lease on the proposed mine site runs out this summer, and the company gives every indication it hopes to have final approval before that happens.
Joe Foy, a director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, an environmental group fighting the mine, says the federal ruling is a major stumbling block to the mine, but says that in the end a "political decision" will determine if the project proceeds.
In other words, the mine may go ahead as early as this year, unless the government is convinced the public wants it stopped.
"It just seems to never end," Gerak says of the threats to the river that he grew up on and has fished for more than 30 years.
Anywhere else in North America, the upper Pitt would be recognized for what it is — a national treasure. In B.C., which doesn't have a sportfishing river of this caliber anywhere else in the province, the river is an afterthought. What has counted so far has been timber — and now, it would seem, gravel.
Continued - click on page link below.
How good is the Pitt?
It's simply one of the best rivers I've ever fished in 35 years of knocking about some of the wildest corners in Canada. The Pitt River offers spectacular fishing for wild rainbows, cutthroat, steelhead, Dolly Varden, bull trout, sockeye, coho, and Chinook.
Almost every month, one run or another moves up into the river above Pitt Lake, which links the upper river to the lower river, which in turn flows into the Fraser, one of the oldest and most productive salmon rivers in North America.
There are a mix of resident and sea-run cutthroat in April, steelhead in May, Chinook in June and July, sockeye in August and September, resident and sea-run Dolly Varden from August to November, coho from September to December, and steelhead again in February. Rainbows move in and out of the river and can be caught in any month.
Peter Caverill, a biologist with the provincial ministry of environment, says there are no quantitative assessments of the fish populations in the upper Pitt, a river that is largely unknown even to fisheries managers. He says that trout and char populations are apparently strong, but the numbers just aren't known. It is clear to anyone who fishes there, however, that there are lots of fish, and they are big.
Two-pound trout are routine, and 6-pounders are not uncommon. Dolly Varden and bull trout in the 8- to 10-pound range are to be expected any time — and they reach 20 pounds. Coho run to 20 pounds, but are more often in the 10-pound range. Chinook, or "springers," reach 35 pounds, but remain few in number. Sockeye, which are the only enhanced (by spawning channels and a hatchery) species in the river, are usually 5 to 10 pounds.
The river is restricted to single, barbless hooks, and all fish must be released. If that regulation didn't exist, the bull trout and Dolly Varden would have been fished out years ago, because they are such aggressive, unsophisticated fish.
When the river is low and clear, the fly fishing is superb. You wade from bank to bank, move up through a series of pools and riffles, cross gravel bars where there are bear tracks, and spook big, blacktailed deer that vault for cover.
Patterns that imitate fry are deadly for char (Dolly Varden and bull trout). The wild trout come up for a Royal Wulff, Adams, or Humpy.
The fishing often rivals that found in only the most remote areas. But, as in any coastal river, timing is everything. Arrive between runs and you will wonder what the fuss is about. To make matters trickier, the Pitt is glacial, so when the weather warms up, melt-water makes the river too murky or high to fly fish. In the fall, heavy rains can have the same effect because much of the upper valley has been heavily logged, creating siltation problems. When you hit it right, however, the Pitt offers fishing as good as anything you will find — anywhere.
If you arrive when the char are running — in the fall, they follow the salmon up from the lake — you can expect to have your rod practically yanked from your hands at some point during the day. Hooks get straightened. Leaders pop routinely until you trash the 6-pound-test tippets and gear up for what's out there. Bull trout take a fry pattern with a savage slash, typically turning into the fast current the moment they feel the hook. Sometimes they run so fast you think you've struck a wild steelhead.
Check the connection to your backing before you go, because you're probably going to see it streaking out through your guides. The salmon typically arrive in waves, riding a flood tide up the Fraser River into the lower Pitt River, and crossing the lake without stopping. When they reach the upper river, they are so fresh they sometimes have sea lice on them.
The two runs of steelhead (May and February) are small in number, with possibly only 200 fish in the river. The fish themselves aren't large, typically 8 to 10 pounds, but they will come up through breathtakingly clear water to sip a dry fly.
For those who run into poor river conditions, or who miss the runs of fish, the Pitt might be forgettable. But if you wander alone down a gravel bar, cast your fly, let it swing into the shallows, and watch a silver monster as long as your arm surge into ankle-deep water to take the fly in a swirl, you will be among the converted. And you will shake your head to think that just over the next mountain ridge, is a city of three million people.
One of the leading organizations fighting the proposed gravel mine is the Steelhead Society of B.C. (http://www.steelheadsociety.com/home.html), which is also involved in several restoration projects throughout the Pitt River watershed. Concerned anglers should write letters or send e-mails to the following contacts.
Dan Miller, Premier of B.C.
Victoria, B.C. V8V 1X4
Minister of Environment
Victoria, B.C. V8V 1X4
B.C. Minister of Fisheries
Victoria, B.C. V8V 1X4
Environment Minister of Canada
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6
Danny Gerak's Upper Pitt Lake Resort, (800) 665-6206, can be found on the web at http://www.go-fish-bc.com/
[The opinions expressed in Forum are those of the authors who appear here and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies or views of Fly Fisherman magazine. We welcome polite reader responses to the issues presented here. The Editors.]
Mark Hume is the author of three books on B.C. rivers, including River of the Angry Moon (University of Washington Press, 1998).