For the past 20 years, Kelowna angler Travis Lowe has been heading east to try his luck on the Kettle River.
A picturesque and winding trout stream, the Kettle begins its 280 kilometre journey at Holmes Lake in the Monashee Mountains, flows though the Christian Valley to Westbridge where it is joined by the West Kettle, and ends at the Columbia River in Washington State.
The river is home to several species of fish, including wild stock (fluvial species) rainbow trout that can grow to trophy sizes in perfect conditions.
For fly-fishers who love rivers, it’s nearly as good as it gets.
“In terms of a true western trout stream fly-fishing experience in our region, the Kettle River is it,” says Lowe, a long-time CHBC cameraman and the founder of the Okanagan chapter of the conservation group Trout Unlimited (see sidebar).
“If you love to fly fish in a river for rainbow trout, it’s the only place in our region that offers the experience.”
For two decades, Lowe has fished the Kettle, tromping through the woods to access pools and riffles where fish hold.
He is passionate and obsessive about it, zeroing in on where the fish are, what they are feeding on and trying to replicate it with rod and artificial fly.
But it didn’t take long for him to notice things were changing.
“The fishing just kept getting worse,” he says.
“There were massive die-offs. It went into this cycle of drought and fish kills. As an angler that has fished there for 20 years, I’ve seen the populations dwindle.
“The thing about the Kettle is it’s in the middle of nowhere. There is no large community around it. No one is watching the place. No one seems to care.”
There are many issues on the Kettle that are affecting the rainbow trout (as well as six other species of fish that are all considered species at risk).
Water licences on the river are fully allocated as area ranchers draw from the Kettle to grow crops.
The draw from the ranchers lowers the water levels and combines with the Okanagan’s hot weather to heat the water to as high as 26 C, creating a deadly combination of low flows and high temperatures from about mid July to late August.
It puts the fish in danger, making them sluggish, easier to target and harder to revive. There is less water for them to find relief.
And the periods of intense heat and dry conditions that cause the low flow period aren’t getting any better.
“The periods of low flow on the Kettle are becoming longer in duration and it’s becoming drier and hotter so these conditions are not going away,” says Tara White, the senior fish biologist for the Okanagan region.
“We’ve spent almost 20 years on this system, evaluating the stock, looking at the productivity in the tributaries and we’ve nailed it down to an adult (fish) issue in terms of habitat constraints during low flow periods.
“There is a lack of deep water refuge for the fish.”
For the past four years, White has been working with ranchers, anglers and other stakeholders to propose new regulation changes to the Kettle River and some changes are coming for the 2015 fishing season.
She is proposing a full closure of the river from July 15 for four to six weeks, when flows are the lowest and temperatures are the highest.
Also under consideration is moving the river to a full catch-and-release river, meaning no one will be allowed to legally keep fish from the Kettle.
A third option is a mixture of catch and release, similar to the way it is today.
Anglers like Travis Lowe just hope it’s not too late. “It’s better late than never, but absolutely this should have been done ages ago,” says Lowe.
“They knew what was going on. For a long time the problems on the Kettle were ignored and from my perspective the warning signs were there.”
Two years ago, as part of her work to try and nail down the problems in the Kettle, fisheries biologist Tara White was performing a snorkel study, diving into one of the Kettle’s deep pools to count and tag fish.
She counted seven fish over 40 centimetres long in this particular pool. It was located in a 26 kilometre section of the Kettle, which had been changed to a catch-and-release regulation seven years prior.
After tagging the large fish, she returned to the same pool a few weeks later.
“I found the heads of four of those fish that we had counted and tagged in the pool,” says White.
“They were illegally killed. Sometimes it’s ignorance (of the regulations) and sometimes it’s not.”
The illegal harvesting of the biggest rainbow trout in the Kettle is a huge problem and always has been, as certain sectors of the population feel they should be allowed to keep and kill fish.
“People think it’s a food, they caught it and should be able to keep it,” says Savas Koutsantonis, owner of Kelowna’s Trout Waters Fly and Tackle, the unofficial headquarters for fly-fishing enthusiasts in the region.
“Quite a few of these guys don’t have fishing licences either and are using illegal gear. They don’t care about the fish.”
White admits the regulations as they stand are confusing.
Certain sections of the Kettle are catch and release and anglers must use landmarks to note the locations. Other areas you can keep one fish a day.
White says making the entire river catch-and-release would simplify things.
But will it stop illegal poaching?
“You will still get illegal harvesting, even with full catch-and-release,” says Koutsantonis. “You will always get illegal harvest. But what (catch-and-release) will do will reduce the overall number of fish that are being taken out of the river.
“If everyone knows it’s catch-and-release it’s easier to regulate, easier for fishermen to be stewards of the river because if they see any fish caught they can say something.”
Koutsantonis will be among the stakeholders who will meet near the end of this month to hear the final proposed regulation changes for the Kettle.
Fisheries officials will meet with close to 20 stakeholders, from fishing clubs, guides and outfitters and other user groups.
They will all get a vote on the changes before a final recommendation is sent to the provincial government for a decision this fall.
Koutsantonis is hoping the river goes full catch-and-release.
“The Kettle River is the only river that is fairly close to us and it’s one that we would like to see protected,” he says. “We don’t have a selection of rivers where one could be catch-and-release and another could be one where you could keep fish.”
White is hopeful the proposed summer closure will keep the fish from being harvested when they are in danger of death due to high river temperatures.
She denies that government has taken too long to act and says they have been working the issue for 20 years, trying to figure out exactly what’s happening.
But she does say the time for action is now if the Kettle River fishery is to be saved for future generations.
“It’s been a process over the last 20 years to try and nail down the issues and the key bottle-necks in terms of the fish stock,” she says.
“We know it’s not a problem with juvenile fish. There are lots of juvenile fish coming out of the tributaries. It’s a balancing act because we have guide-outfitters who make a livelihood off recreational opportunities and we have ranchers who need water.
“It’s not an easy situation but it’s to a great benefit. These are big fish that can grow to Steelhead size. From a fly-fishers standpoint it’s like heaven. We want to ensure we have a recreational opportunity for years to come. Otherwise we could lose all of it.”
After years of watching the Kettle River fish stocks decline, Kelowna angler Travis Lowe thought he had better put his money where his mouth was.
He had gotten so much out of the river from a personal and spiritual standpoint, he could no longer stand by and watch it suffer in silence, especially with big agriculture moving in and taking water out of the river and after Big White Ski Resort got in line for any future water licences that were granted on the Kettle.
“I really live my life by one thing when it comes to conservation and that is that I have no right to be on that river unless I give back to it what I take out of it,” said Lowe.
“I’m adamant about living my life like that. It falls on other people to do the same thing. We cannot sit back and think the government is going to look after our natural resources. It’s the grassroots people who stop things.”
A year before Lowe formed the Okanagan chapter of Trout Unlimited, he had invited a handful of friends to his house to watch some fly-fishing movies, to get a taste of fishing in the winter.
It was the beginnings of what would become the annual Fly Fishing Film Festival in Kelowna, the main fundraiser for Trout Unlimited with all proceeds aimed at helping the Kettle River.
During the second year, Lowe moved the film festival to Cabana’s and one of the films struck a nerve. Instead of just scenes of fish being caught, the film was about conservation efforts by Trout Unlimited in Montana.
“People’s reaction to that film inspired me to start Trout Unlimited here,” he said.
“I saw that conservation resonated with people and I felt something needed to be done before the Kettle River was sucked completely dry.”
As the Fly Fishing film fest grew, so too did Lowe’s career as a film-maker in what he calls the micro-niche industry of fly fishing movie making.
His documentary Thai One On, about fishing in Thailand was featured in the festival last year. He is currently filming another fly-fishing documentary in Argentina about the search for a world-record Brook Trout and is regularly called to film corporate shoots for the fly-fishing industry around the world.
This year the 6th Annual Fly Fishing Film Festival has grown again and will take place in the historic Laurel Packinghouse on May 2. Lowe has again teamed with the world-renowned F3T Fly Fishing Film Tour, who will bring in the films.
The Laurel will allow for more tickets to be sold to the event, which had regularly sold out. There are many tickets left and fishermen and women are urged to come out and support Trout Unlimited, which has raised close to $30,000 for the Kettle with a goal of getting to $60,000.
“This is everything for us, it’s the number one fundraiser for the year and how we make our money,” said Lowe.
“All the money goes to habitat conservation. For me, my own ethics makes me do this. For other people I just hope they come to the film festival and they can buy a trout a clean drink of water because that’s what this is all about.”
Tickets to the film festival are at Trout Waters Fly and Tackle or at the door on May 2, beginning at 5 p.m. with the first film at 8 p.m.