The Conservation Angler

For the last few years I have seen steelhead referred to as “grey ghosts” – the fish of a thousand casts, etc. While that may be the case today, this description hides an ugly truth: at one point, these extraordinary fish were extremely abundant. 

Forecasting by some of the most respected steelhead biologists, estimate that steelhead annual returns to the Skagit River at one hundred and fifty thousand fish and the Thompson River was in the ten’s of thousands, if not higher. At one time, Steelhead were a prolific species with an extremely wide range from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the California/Mexico border.  

In the wonderful documentary “Rivers of the lost coast,” many of the central and northern California rivers saw runs of tens of thousands of fish, even into the post-war period. In BC you only need to turn to the writings of Roderick Haig Brown, when he was fishing on the Stamp and Campbell Rivers in the 1920s and 30s to get the sense of the abundance he encountered. So let us not fool ourselves, we are now angling for a fraction of the historic abundance.

The question is, how do we conserve and continue to fish at the same time? It is difficult to answer, but I believe by being both a conservationist and an angler, we may be able to find a path that conserves, protects and increases steelhead returns. 

In this periodic series, I hope we can discuss, contemplate and perhaps even develop an informal code of conduct for the modern day conservation angler. I’d like to start with the “Keep them wet” movement. 

While not yet embraced by the angling community at large, I suggest that it should be, because – isn’t the only hero in the “hero shot” the magnificent fish that survived to reach its natal waters?

Vancouver Island Steelhead
Winter-run steelhead caught on the fly. Photo by Michael Barr

On Vancouver Island – where I live – we are still allowed to fish on rivers whose runs have dwindled to a handful, and where the loss of even one fish will have an impact on future returns. I know of not one angler who would want to be responsible for this tragedy.

The website for the non-profit Keep Fish Wet ( is a great resource. I encourage the reader to take a look at the science section of the site. It has a great deal of information, including a number of BC studies that focus on steelhead. Awareness is a key step towards becoming a “conservation angler.” Please let us know what you think. How many more steelhead would survive to spawn if we collectively adopted a “ keep them wet” approach to catch and release? It is a tough question to answer, but something I believe that all anglers should seriously reflect on.

Scroll to Top