Articles

In mudholes like this... they catch trout like this

In sloughs and cattle wallows Albertans are catching creels full of these choice fish once thought to exist only in clear running water. Evervbody’s doing it...even grandma from her rocking chair

ROBERT COLLINS May 25 1957
Articles

In mudholes like this... they catch trout like this

In sloughs and cattle wallows Albertans are catching creels full of these choice fish once thought to exist only in clear running water. Evervbody’s doing it...even grandma from her rocking chair

ROBERT COLLINS May 25 1957

In mudholes like this... they catch trout like this

THIS IS ACTUAL SIZE OF TROUT THEY CATCH

This five-pound, eighteen-inch fish was caught in pothole Lake Chichako

near Edmonton by G. L. Gould, a director of the

Edmonton Trout Fishing Club. Nine-pound rainbows have been hooked.

In sloughs and cattle wallows Albertans are catching creels full of these choice fish once thought to exist only in clear running water. Evervbody’s doing it...even grandma from her rocking chair

ROBERT COLLINS

Ever since man began fishing with a line instead of a spear, anglers have prized that aristocrat of game fish—the elusive, graceful, toothsome trout.

During most of that time trout have been known only in fast cold streams or clear lakes, which meant that until recently a day’s trout fishing for prairie people was just about unheard of.

Trout fishermen in Drumhcllcr, Alberta, for example, stumbled out of bed at three or four a.m., drove west a hundred miles or more into the Rocky Mountain foothills, scrambled through bush and rock all day to reach their favorite streams and returned late, bearded, blearv-eyed and sometimes empty-handed.

Other prairie anglers trekked even farther for their “fun.” Occasionally they vowed they'd throw away their rods and take up Scrabble but never did they dream of planting trout in their own warm sluggish creeks or murky sloughs. Raise trout on the prairie? It was about as preposterous as suggesting you could raise gophers in the Toronto subway.

But those were the Dark Ages before “pothole” fishing.

Last Aug. 10, 11 and 12 about six hundred Drumheller and district anglers, their families and friends from as far away as Calgary, eightyfive miles southwest, stood elbow to elbow beside two irrigation ponds on Andrew Anderson's farm, seven miles west of town, and caught upward of twelve hundred fat speckled rosy-striped rainbow trout.

Anderson’s potholes are only ten and five acres respectively, a mere twenty-five feet to

bottom at deepest point, undrained and fed only by spring thaw and summer rain. But hatcheryplanted trout have lived there since 1952. The winter of 1955-56 killed almost all of them but on May 22. 1956, the Alberta government fish and game branch replenished the holes with eight thousand 314-inch fingerlings. By August many of them weighed nearly a pound. Obviously. trout like it fine at Anderson’s.

The only remarkable thing about this situation is that it's commonplace. Today any southern Albertan can catch a creelful of trout simply by driving or strolling to the nearest government-planted pothole, a term loosely used on the prairie to embrace, in this case, any small landlocked lake, or dam. “Dam,” in prairie usage, refers both to the retaining wall of a dam and the waters within it, and covers everything from true irrigation dams, which, though fed periodically with fresh water, become very warm in summer, to stock-watering dugouts in farmers’ fields. In short, the so-called temperamental trout has played an enormous practical joke on anglers all these centuries. Trout don’t need fresh cold water.

Since 1951 the Alberta government — at a present cost of about thirty thousand dollars a year—has planted four million fish in seventyfive potholes ranging in size from five-hundredacre Grassy Lake, an irrigation reservoir cast of Lethbridge, to Bull's dam. a one-acre pool west of Calgary. There's at least one within easy reach of every community from Edmonton south.

There are no total-catch statistics, so you can only judge the success continued on page 56

continued from page 27

“Wives are in their glory fishing cheek-by-jowl with husband and kids”

of pothole fishing by the new gleam in Albertans’ eyes. Thousands have taken up the sport, from old-age pensioners to five-year-old boys. Pothole fishing is reuniting the family. Many a startled Alberta Hereford has looked up from her

Sunday ablutions to see men, women and children bearing down on her waterhole with rods and picnic baskets. Families sometimes camp by a pothole all week end. Sometimes they bring ice, dig a pit and make a temporary freezer.

There are no rocks to snag stockings or trees to snag lines, so wives are in their glory, fishing check-by-jowl with husbands. All husbands do not consider this an advantage, but they’re stuck with it. Pothole fishing’s good for invalids,

too: Hildred Edmundson, wife of a

grain-elevator agent at Hesketh. near Drumheller, has bronchitis and a heart condition but catches trout from a camp chair. Even kids can do it. Once at Anderson’s Drumheller potholes, a small girl caught eight rainbows with a string, hook, worms and lath. Yet this doesn’t mean that pothole trout are tame.

“Generally they put on as good a show as trout in clear fast waters,’’ says Gordon Gould, member of an Edmonton trout-fishing club.

Fred Turnbull, another Edmonton angler, has fished from Alaska to Florida in North America and in the best salmon and trout streams of the British Isles. “The fishing around here has become something terrific, and what’s more it is getting better all the time,’’ he says. On one day on Chichako Lake, near Edmonton. Turnbull caught seven rainbows weighing from four to six and a half pounds each. When he goes fishing now in Alberta he takes a plastic sack instead of an ordinary creel. A creel, he boasts, is no good at the lakes around Edmonton because it's not big enough to hold more than two Alberta-sized fish. In Hasse Lake, which, like Chichako. is in the Edmonton area, Turnbull says trout have been landed that weighed up to nine pounds, with larger ones waiting to be hooked.

Alberta fish and game commissioner E. S. Huestis calls pothole fishing “probably the most spectacular program we have ever presented to anglers.’’ Saskatchewan has two successful trout potholes in the Rosetown-Biggar area; others have been stocked but the results aren't yet known. But pothole fishing shatters so many former theories of trout management that most provinces haven't accepted it.

The trout insist on privacy

Generations of anglers have assumed that if trout don't survive it’s because the water is too warm (anything over sixtyfive degrees Fahrenheit), there’s not enough oxygen in the water, or the trout have been starved to death or been eaten by other fish. But Alberta pothole fishing and related experiments prove that trout often thrive in warm ponds but not in streams—solely because of competition for living space.

Dr. Richard B. Miller, head of the University of Alberta zoology department and consultant to the government fish and game branch, found that trout must have a private niche in a pool or stream. If fish—even other trout—^monopolize the resting space, the struggle for a niche frequently exhausts and kills newcomers. That’s why hatchery plantings often fail in a stream.

But if they’re free from competition, trout don’t have to have fresh cold water. They survive at pothole temperatures as high as eighty degrees Fahrenheit at the surface. They need oxygen but it doesn't have to be supplied by running water; frequent winds churn enough oxygen into the lower depths. Trout need food, but this grows abundantly where water lies on fertile prairie soil.

Nor is that all. Pothole fishing and its associated experiments have revolutionized Alberta fishing regulations. Alberta now considers size limits and closed seasons impracticable. I he new thinking on closed seasons is directly related to the “competition" theory: trout that escape the hook for a year or so become too crafty to catch. They also hog all the resting space from subsequent plantings; the latter die in great numbers. Soon anglers can’t catch fish. The solu-

tion is to catch larger numbers before the trout grow old and wily. It’s like farming: if you harvest this year’s crop next year’s will have more space to grow.

The validity of this theory is most apparent in landlocked potholes where it’s easy to keep tabs on a fish population. But Alberta's Dr. Miller thinks constant fishing on all fresh waters is good management when coupled with a replanting scheme.

“Algonquin Park in Ontario experimented with alternate open and closed seasons and found they made no practical difference.'' Miller points out. “I know of no proven instance where declining yields in a sport fishery could be attributed to angling pressure alone."

Miller says many so-called “fishedout" streams in Canada and the United States have, when treated with electricshock or poison, turned up astonishing numbers of trout of various sizes, all too crafty to go for a fish hook.

“I can only conclude that a ‘fishedout’ stream usually means a stream where anglers can't catch fish," he says.

Miller found closed seasons impracticable on other counts, too. Closure was intended to give fish a chance to spawn but the spawning period varies from fish to fish and year to year. To observe it strictly on the Bow River around Calgary. for example, you'd have open season for only about four weeks in August. The rainbow-cutthroat group spawns from spring through July and, some years, early August. The eastern brookbrown trout group begins in early September and goes into winter. And in Alberta it's illegal to fish for trout in a stream through the ice.

Furthermore, says Miller, trout are not readily catchable when spawning anyway. Also, killing a female daring spawning destroys no more eggs than killing it prior to spawning.

So, as an added bonus with potholes, Albertans have no closed season (except in certain sanctuaries); the 1956 license fee was lowered to one dollar from $2.25 and the province is literally begging people to catch more fish. They’re limited to fifteen trout totaling not more than twenty pounds per day. but some sportsmen's organizations want even this regulation relaxed.

Similarly, Alberta scrapped the regulation saying “keeper" trout had to be at least eight inches long. It was once believed that anything smaller was a stripling that hadn't grown old enough to spawn. But Miller learned many trout reach a happy old age without ever reaching eight inches. Others grow to ten inches before spawning and so were caught under the old regulations. Now Alberta has no size limit, except on pickerel and northern lake trout. Twenty American states have also abolished size limits on trout, on the basis of their own findings.

“I believe many other administrations would remove size limits were they not afraid of public opposition," Miller says. “People are reluctant to accept a biological-management system of angling.

Alberta’s new regulations grew up coincidentally with pothole fishing mainly because it is easy to recognize their value when applied to the controlled area of a pothole. But even Alberta pothole fishermen aren't catching and keeping enough fish to satisfy the experts. Through years of habit they still throw' back the small ones. However, that doesn’t temper their enjoyment of potholes. The new fishing is Alberta’s happiest discovery since oil—and it’s all the more fun because it was discovered partly by accident.

In 1940 Dr. Miller began surveying trout streams along the eastern slope of the Rockies. For years these had been systematically planted to rainbows yet they were largely populated by native cutthroat trout or a rainbow-cutthroat hybrid.

After eight years of research Miller concluded that hatchery plantings were useless. Alberta abandoned routine stream plantings, although it still plants to establish a breeding stock. But sportsmen demanded, “Why don’t rainbows survive in streams? Where can you plant

them?” Miller, with university-student crews, began studying an experimental stream for the answers.

Meanw'hile the word went around that some American states were experimenting with trout in warm still lakes. In 1949 the Pincher Creek Fish and Game Association—local branch of a provincial sportsmen's organization—persuaded government fish and game officer William Bell to plant a few rainbows in nearby Zoetman “dam.” Bell, unlike some of his superiors, believed trout could live in many hitherto untried

waters but even he could see no hope for the Zoetman pothole.

“It was a mud hole, pure and simple,” he says. “It smelled bad and was littered with refuse. Not a stick of shade around it. I thought the fish w'ould ‘cook’ and 1 never went back. But Pincher people were soon bragging about the big trout caught there.”

It could have been a fluke. But in May 1950. near the town of Rocky Mountain House, fish and game officer Joe Williams planted a few rainbows in Mitchell and Strubel lakes—small, rela-

lively warm waters, fed only by spring runoff and trickling springs, inhabited only by minnows. A year later twopound trout were breaking water.

By now the fish and game associations were clamoring for systematic plantings. Government and university experts were reluctant; scientifically, the idea still didn’t make sense. But with stream planting almost at a standstill and hatchery trout available, it was worth a try. In the next two years the fish and game branch planted several potholes, including Anderson's Drumheller dams and

Cavan Lake, a three-hundred-acre irrigation reservoir near Medicine Hat. fed only by spring runoff from the Cypress Hills. Results were better than ever. Some trout in Cavan Lake weighed four pounds within two years. Trout planted in similar lakes containing pike were a failure. Pike eat trout, of course, but Dr. Miller is now sure that competition partly accounted for the trout’s failure.

By the early Fifties Miller was proving that competition is always a key factor in trout planting. For several summers he and student crews fenced an experimental

creek into halfand three-quarter-mile sections. The crews left native trout in some sections, cleared others of all fish. In each section they placed tagged, weighed hatchery trout about six inches long.

Where native trout were present, fifty to sixty percent of the newcomers died within ten days. Since they lost no weight they didn't die of hunger. Indeed, says Miller, it sometimes takes a trout six months to starve to death.

The surviving hatchery trout lost weight steadily for fifty days, hovered listlessly in sight and could even be

caught with a hand net. Then they became acclimatized, scattered, acted like native trout and eventually regained planting weight. But they had no stamina: never more than three percent of them lived through a w'inter. while forty to sixty percent of the native fish survived. (Sixty percent is about the average annual mortality rate of native trout.)

Did too much handling weaken the hatchery trout? Evidently not. Miller submitted native fish to the same tagging, weighing and re-catching. The loss was negligible.

Did the hatchery trout flourish without competition? Always. When given a stream to themselves they darted into hiding immediately, were feeding their first night out and an average of only thirteen percent died each summer.

Miller concluded that the resident trout, which had already passed nature’s “survival of the fittest” test, held most of the niches in the stream bottom. The hatchery trout grew weak in the losing struggle for a hideaway (and the constant struggle against the current) and eventually died of exhaustion.

Last summer Miller’s crew took blood samples from the hearts of hundreds of native fish and hatchery plantings, with and without competition. Extreme fatigue causes a lactic-acid build-up in the blood; if a rest period doesn’t come soon enough, excess acid poisons and kills the fish. These laboratory blood-lactic-acid tests, recently completed, have proved that frustrated hatchery trout actually die from exhaustion competing for food.

As a sidelight to the experiments Miller confirmed the anglers' theory that every trout inhabits a favorite nook in the stream and will return there if caught and released.

As far as potholes were concerned, the experiments proved that, since competition is such a big factor in a trout’s survival, trout could, logically, survive in potholes but not in streams. Previous pothole successes weren't flukes. From then on pothole planting proceeded rapidly. Today, fish and game officers know a great deal more about a pothole’s requisites:

DEPTH: preferably fifteen feet or

more, although some potholes are shallower.

TEMPERATURE: preferably not above sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit because warmth makes trout sluggish. In 1955 creel-census figures for fifty-acre Chichako Lake near Edmonton showed that two hundred and fifty man-hours of fishing in May yielded two hundred anti seventy fish. The anglers used dry flies and surface lures. But in August 1,080 man-hours yielded only eighty-nine fish, even though anglers went deeper with worms and minnows.

However, temperature isn’t as important as was once believed. Some potholes are from sixty degrees at bottom to eighty degrees at surface in mid-summer and trout obviously live at least part-time in the upper areas to get sufficient oxygen, because there's less wind at (his season to churn oxygen to the bottom.

CHEMICAL CONTENT: no extremes of alkali or acid.

FOOD: no problem in Alberta. A year or so after the land is flooded, potholes raise abundant natural snails, algae, plankton and fresh-water shrimp. No food is planted.

• |'m convinced there are minerals in our soil and water that make things grow.” says Lloyd Nowlin, president of the Calgary Fish and Game Association. “Look at our grass. This short 'prairie wool' raises the best beef cattle in the world.”

"These are fertile waters, as are all

prairie waters,” agrees Dr. Miller. "But many other Canadian soils—those around the Great Lakes, for example — would raise good trout food, too.”

TOPOGRAPHY: no inlets or outlets, which might admit competitor fish or carry away trout. Also the pothole should be open to the wind so oxygen will mix into stagnant lower depths. This is particularly necessary in the fall just before freeze-up, to store oxygen for the winter, and in the spring after break-up, to replenish oxygen. When snow and ice cover a pothole, plant life decomposes, steals oxygen and causes "winter killing” of fish.

However, occasional winter kills are desirable because they help reduce competition. The fact that resident trout in a year or so monopolize a stream and crowd out newcomers has been pointed up by pothole plantings. First-planting trout grow to fourteen or sixteen ounces by their first autumn. Second plantings in the same pothole average only ten to twelve ounces in their first season. Few of the third-year plantings survive and those that do grow only to five ounces. So, when new fish die out and trout from previous years grow crafty, pothole fishing deteriorates. If left alone the old trout w'ill live six or seven years. That's why a winter kill every second or third season, followed by fresh planting, is ideal tor fishing.

Given all these physical requirements you might even raise trout in your backyard. Albertans don’t because the provincial government doesn't release fish for private plantings; there are no private hatcheries and you need a government permit to import trout. So far no one has applied for a permit.

But, with sportsmen in every community constantly suggesting new potholes, Albertans don't need private ponds. Every pothole suggestion is investigated by the provincial government. If the site meets requirements, fish and game officers must next consider the landowner. Will he donate the pothole and access road with no strings attached?

if he wants it planted for private use. as some owners do, the site is rejected. An Alberta pothole must be open to the public and most are sponsored by an organization such as a service club or sportsmen's association. Only two potholes—one at Magrath. south of Lethbridge, and one west of Calgary—are exceptions. Both are used only by children.

The landowner receives no money. Often bad-mannered fishermen leave his gates open, molest his livestock and litter his land. But there are compensations. Andrew Anderson ol Drumheller, an elderly widower who likes people even better than he likes trout, has devoted much of the last five years to potholes.

He has four dams in trout. He answers telephone enquiries all summer, occasionally pulls carloads ol fishermen from muddy fields where they venture against his advice, lends his tackle to children and teaches them how to use it. He's spent five thousand dollars improving dams and adding trees, flower beds and shelters to his sites.

“But this fishing’s worth six thousand to me,” he says.

When the fish and game branch is fortunate enough to find suitable waters owned by a philanthropist like Anderson only the planting remains.

"Mostly we plant rainbows,” says William H. MacDonald. Calgary-based liaison officer for the fish and game branch. "We’ve tried other trout, even a few salmon, with some success in some potholes. But rainbow are easiest to rear, have name appeal and are nice on a line.

The trout come from the Calgary

Brewing and Malting Company hatchery. The brewery has maintained ornamental fish ponds for years. It built the hatchery (which it still owns) in 1938 and in 1942 made a deal whereby the provincial government operates it. supplying its own personnel and operating expenses.

Fish eggs are shipped to the hatchery from Massachusetts in iced insulated crates, and suspended in troughs of fresh water where they hatch. For a while the "fry” live on ground beef liver. Then some go to rearing stations to await later planting; others, as fingerlings, go direct-

ly to potholes in trucks and are spouted through a hose into the water.

After planting, the landowner, in agreement with the local sponsoring group, can and sometimes does close his property a few weeks to "give the trout a start.” He is. of course, honor bound to abstain from fishing himself. Technically, government experts say. closure doesn't help the fishing and legally there's no closed season. But in this case the government doesn't object if a brief closure pleases landowner and local fishermen. If the landowner keeps his waters closed

against the recommendation of the local group, the government withdraws from the project, although it takes no other action.

But generally, after a few weeks, the landowner is glad to open his potholes, if only to escape persistent telephone calls and questions. Albertans have gone trouthappy. ln Drumheller, one sporting-goods store sold 840 fishing licenses this year, compared with 25 before pothole fishing.

In Edmonton the success of the Trout Fishing Club reflects the pothole boom. T he club started in 1953 with sixty-five

members. It now has a hundred and twenty-five and isn’t accepting any more, although many are clamoring to join. In winter the club teaches novices how to tie and cast Hies. In the summer, thanks to potholes, students test their skill a mere twenty or thirty minutes’ drive from home.

Fishing-tackle sales have increased immensely. Eight years ago Drumheller dealer Frank I.osoncy sold perhaps twelve fishing flies a year. Now' he sells at least twenty-four dozen. Last August, when a red-and-gold lure called a Super Duper was tempting local trout, Losoncy sold twenty-four Super Dupcrs in a day. In Medicine Hat even pool halls and shoe-repair stores sell fishing gear.

Yet there aren’t enough anglers for the trout. On a few deeper holes like Medicine Hat’s Cavan, where trout can escape winter kill, the government permitted commercial winter fishing in 1956. But gill nets don’t catch all fish, particularly if they lie sluggishly at bottom.

“Gill-netting is a compromise between do-nothing and good management.’’ says government liaison officer Bill MacDonald. “Toxicant is the answer.”

Toxicant, under various trade names,

contains rotenone, a poison extracted from the roots of derris and cube plants. Its cost—about tw'o dollars an acre-foot —currently prohibits its use in Alberta. The public hasn’t demanded it, either, because most laymen fear it will pollute the water, killing birds and livestock.

“But it won’t,” says Dr. Miller. “Rotenone affects only invertebrates and fish. It asphyxiates fish by preventing their gill filaments from absorbing oxygen.”

Miller and others hope public pressure will provide funds through legislation for enough toxicant to clean up potholes where fish have grown too wary to catch. Probably this will happen. Albertans couldn't get along without potholes. At least one Alberta marriage couldn’t either.

“I know a retired couple who got so bored they did nothing but fight,” says a Medicine Hat fisherman. “Got so every time the husband came in the house the wife threw something at him. Then this fishing came to the district and each bought a rod and sat dow-n by a pothole."

You can guess the ending. They lived happily ever after and haven't thrown anything since. Except, of course, the odd llv, worm, minnow or Super Duper. ★