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Wood Lake kokanee fishery under attack and in need of help

Wood Lake
Wood Lake's kokanee fishery is the focus of our community close up.
— image credit: Doug Farrow

Driving past Wood Lake, it's easy to take the body of water for granted as just another beautiful Okanagan lake.

Waterskiers, jet skis and pleasure boats dot the surface through the warm summer months sharing the waters   with anglers. It's beautiful, warm and inviting.

However, Wood Lake is much more than just a summer recreation spot or a good fishing lake. It is home to one of the top remaining kokanee fisheries in B.C., Canada and quite possibly in the entire world.

But for two straight years the number of kokanee in Wood Lake has decreased due to a number of factors, from warm water, to problems with the main stream the kokanee use to spawn.

It's a trend that has fisheries biologists and local anglers worried and working towards finding solutions that will keep the kokanee healthy for generations to come. From work done by the Oceola Fish and Game Club to a new long term project to detail the water usage in Wood Lake, the time is now to help sustain a fishery that is one-of-a-kind and a true Okanagan treasure.

•••

Kokanee are not your normal sport fish. They are a land-locked version of sockeye salmon with a four year life cycle. At the end of their life cycle, they return to the stream where they were born, or to the lake shore to spawn and then die.

And Wood Lake is not your normal sport fishing lake. It has high nutrient levels that help produce such a great fishery and kokanee that are larger than what is normal. Fish up to two pounds are not out of the ordinary. But it is also an urban lake, situated alongside Highway 97 with easy access to boaters, residents, businesses and polluters.

"Kokanee numbers have always been unstable in Wood Lake," explains fisheries biologist Paul Askey. "The lake is a under a variety of stresses. What makes it such a high use fishery and such a great fishery is the fact that it is an urban lake. It's got easy access. It has a lot of development around it so we have a lot of pressure on the water from different sources. There is a lot of pollution and those kinds of things that go with an urban environment that can impact the lake."

Last year lake conditions were too warm for the kokanee. High levels of algae sank to the bottom and used up much of the oxygen that the kokanee needed, resulting in significant fish kill. This season lake temperatures have been more suitable, resulting in better fishing. But numbers remain down and the fishery is in a constant state of flux. And that has fisheries biologists working hard to keep the Wood Lake fishery intact and healthy.

"Wood Lake is a recreational fishery that is currently producing a lot of value for a lot of people but it is also under a lot of stress," says Askey. "I would say right now is the time we need to figure this out. We are already seeing numbers going down the last couple years and we need to turn that around. Hopefully we can get it back on track."

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Walking around Winfield, it would be easy to dismiss the creek that runs through town as just another small stream that may or may not be home to fish. It's called Middle Vernon Creek; it's seven kilometres long and connects Duck Lake with Wood Lake, winding its way through Lake Country. Each spring high waters bring debris into the creek and create impassible log jams. Each year, during the hot Okanagan summer, parts of the stream go dry.

Neither of those things are good for the kokanee because Middle Vernon Creek, along with Upper Vernon Creek and Winfield Creek are the kokanee's main spawning streams and vitally important to the success of the Wood Lake kokanee fishery.

Each year the Oceola Fish and Game Club takes it upon itself to go in and clean up the stream, removing garbage and debris and clearing a path for the kokanee to enter the stream and spawn. High water levels early this season resulted in 25 huge debris jams that took hundreds of man hours to remove.

"Between July and last weekend we had various crews out doing their best to clear debris jams and beaver dams in order to facilitate fish passage," says Rick Simpson, spokesperson for the Oceola Club. This is all in aid of sustaining the Wood Lake kokanee population. If the kokanee are prevented from getting to their spawning grounds we are in trouble."

While Middle Vernon Creek suffers from low water levels each year, the work being done by the Oceola club has certainly paid off for the kokanee. Back in 1983, a fish count done on Middle Vernon Creek saw just nine kokanee in the spawning grounds. Last year was considered a low year and there were 8,000 kokanee counted in Middle Vernon Creek. Still there are many people in the area that appear clueless as to how important the stream is for the kokanee.

"The creek has suffered abuses for a very long time," says Simpson. "We've found truck tires with rims still on, we found a truck canopy, shopping carts, grass clippings, all kinds of stuff that has just been thrown over the banks, sort of like out of sight, out of mind. It's like death by a thousand cuts. Over time there is a cumulative effect of those cuts and eventually what happens is it dies a very slow, painful death."

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A slow, painful death of the kokanee fishery in Wood Lake is exactly what the Oceola club and fisheries biologist Paul Askey are trying to avoid. The lake and its fish bearing streams has become one of the highest priority fisheries projects for the B.C. government which is hoping desperately to avoid a kokanee crash that has affected lakes like Okanagan Lake and Kootenay Lake, which used to have excellent kokanee fisheries but are now struggling to come back from the brink of collapse.

Multiple projects are underway, all of them funded through the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund which comes from the surcharges anglers pay when purchasing a fishing license. A five year project looking at the daily catch limits for kokanee is nearing its end and Askey says early indications are that over-harvesting of kokanee is a lower priority problem meaning that the two-fish-per-day limit will likely stay in place.

That points to the conditions in the lake and in the spawning streams that feed the lake as the top priority. A new long term project has just started looking into the lake's water, how much is coming in, where it's going and how much is being used for things like irrigation.

"We need to measure the quality of the fish habitat and come up with a plan of where to get water," says Askey. "It has to be a collaborative plan between the district of Lake Country, the province, local irrigators and local First Nations so that we can come up with a way to keep the fish healthy."

It's likely music to the ears of many in the Oceola club, who since 1983 have been slogging into Middle Vernon Creek with an army of volunteers trying to help the kokanee in its efforts to reproduce.

Club member Rick Simpson says everyone can help if they just took the time to realize what a fantastic, unique and one-of-a-kind fishery exists right on the doorstep of Okanagan residents.

"The Wood Lake kokanee fishery deserves a lot more respect and it needs to be revered and valued a lot more than it is," says Simpson. "You can't be driving trucks through (Middle Vernon Creek), you can't be cutting down all the trees up to the creek, you can't be putting in another wharf on top of spawning habitat. If the fishery is going to continue to be healthy we have to put some effort into it. Our club has been doing its bit since the early 1980s and now I guess we'd like to reach out and make folks more aware of these things."

"When you see something everyday and grow up with it, you tend to take it for granted," adds Askey. "I think you would be very hard pressed to find many more kokanee lakes that can produce the bio-mass of kokanee anywhere in the world than Wood Lake does. But we need to turn things around. And right now is the time."

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