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The ultimate Whistler fish story

Father's Day Fishing celebration casts historical activity into the future

It isn't one of the big three today in Whistler but back in 1914 it was the big one. Fishing was the tourist draw when Alex and Myrtle Philip opened Rainbow Lodge and set Whistler on its tourism path.

While the big draws now are skiing and snowboarding, mountain bike riding and golf, Whistler's original recreational pursuit is still big business. At least 14 guides are currently offering their services to visitors searching for a fishing adventure in or near Whistler.

And every Father's Day Whistler is reminded of its fishing roots as Dads and kids take to the waters of Alta Lake for the annual fishing celebration.

Back in 1914 anglers looking for a great new fishing adventure gave Whistler its start as a destination resort.

This fish story begins on the deck of the Rainbow Lodge on the quiet shore of Summit Lake, or Alta Lake, as we know it now.

In the legendary angling days of the early 1900s a resident named J. Bailiff was monitoring the fish stocks in Whistler. He wrote an article entitled "History of Alta Lake" on June 1, 1956 and in it he describes the local topography, climate, trails, wildlife and more.

On the topic of fish in the local lakes in the early 1900s Bailiff wrote: "The lakes were all full of Cutthroat trout when the white man came and I've seen the lake rippling all over in the evening with the fish feeding on the insects that were dropping from the trees. One a pound in weight was a good size one then, although I've seen Char or Dolly Varden run up to five and six pounds. You could catch all you wanted in a few minutes and I've seen them grab a bare hook. I've seen a man catch fifty in an hour and take them home and smoke them."

Eric Crowe, a Whistler resident who came here to live in 1981 with a collection of Ontario fish stories, is passionate about the history of fish. He is known locally as the fish detective.

Crowe fishes less now than he did when he first came to live in Whistler but he still loves the story of fishing in the valley and Bailiff's musings are of great interest to him.

By sifting through historical documents, reviewing fishing literature, conversing with scholars, reading research papers and just plain taking an interest in fish ecology, Crowe has educated himself about the fish species in the lakes of Whistler.

When Alex and Myrtle Philip and Texan John Millar, the trapper who introduced Alex to Summit Lake, fished the local lakes in the early 1900s Crowe believes they were mainly catching Cutthroat.

According to Bailiff, the local lakes were stocked in the years after the Rainbow Lodge became a popular destination.

"Kamloops trout were introduced about 1930 with the result they are a little larger but not as numerous," wrote Bailiff. "The Kokanee were also planted about the same time."

Kamloops trout is another name for Rainbow trout. Crowe is convinced Rainbow didn't exist in the Whistler water systems before the arrival of European settlers.

Crowe describes the Rainbow as an invasive fish species threatening the survival of indigenous fish like the Cutthroat. National Geographic supports his argument that the Rainbow is a pest species in areas where humans have introduced Rainbow.

But, are visitors to Whistler who want to get on the water to catch some fish concerned about the origins of the fish they're trying to hook? For the most part they aren't, they just want to experience the thrill of landing a fish, or two, or more.

The Rainbow trout is adaptive and a feisty species that happens to be tasty when cooked up for eating.

The local guides are looking to offer an experience that includes catching something, so the guides take their clients to places that make the most sense at the time and offer the best chance at getting a fish on the line. Most of the people casting for trout with success in Whistler are catching Rainbow.

According to Kevin Kish of Whistler Fishing Guides, it is difficult to say on Friday where he will take his clients on Monday.

He explains that in early June on warm dry days black ants hatch.

"The fishing gets red hot around the local lakes for maybe a three, four or five day period when this happens," he says. "So, it could be Pemberton, it could be Whistler but wherever the weather is the best and it is the warmest and it is nice and dry and clear we'll pick a spot and hopefully get a black ant hatch."

The annual black ant hatch happened this season for most areas between about June 3 and 7.

Mike Orlowski of Whistler Flyfishing shares fish stories while working at the local fishing shop on Main Street. He is well informed about what people are catching and where they are having success and he is hearing it is pretty good so far this fishing season. Anglers are catching Cutthroats up to 70 centimetres (27 inches) right off the dock.

Alta Lake was recently stocked with Cutthroat and, according to Orlowski, few people know about the current abundance of Cutthroat in Alta Lake.

"If people knew how big the Cutthroat were in that lake they'd be coming from all over to grab them," he says.

While Alta Lake is currently home to some large Cutthroat, Orlowski says the Bull trout, another native species, are doing well in Green Lake.

Guide Pat Beahan works with Orlowski at Whistler Flyfishing and he is keeping a close eye on the Steelhead run in the Cheakamus River close to Squamish.

According to Orlowski, the Steelhead fishing starts in mid to late July and he is anticipating one of the best Steelhead years in the last 15.

"We're probably seeing some better ocean survival conditions for Steelhead in, say, the last four to five years so as a result we see more fish coming back to our rivers," says Beahan. "We just came off this winter Steelhead run and we probably saw the best run of fish since probably the mid-eighties."

Beahan attributes this improvement to a few things: colder ocean temperatures and improved river habitat for spawning.

Many fish habitat improvement programs have been conducted by a number of different agencies. The provincial government has been involved through forestry programs and environment ministry initiatives. Beahan also says the Whistler Angling Club and the Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group (WFSG) have played a role in the improvements to fish habitat in Whistler.

Tom Cole is a former Whistler Angling Club member who has been watching the local lakes and streams for almost four decades. His fish story began in the early 1970s.

"I caught my first fish in 1972 when my mother was looking at a house in White Gold that I currently reside in," said Cole.

According to Cole, the diversity of the fisheries in Whistler is superior now compared to ten years ago.

"The fishing increased as soon as we got the fisheries managers back in town looking and sampling and trying to understand some of the effects that have occurred from our urbanization," says Cole. "There's some great things that occurred."

He says Crabapple Creek is now "a huge annual producer of our fish." A number of rehabilitation projects have taken place on Crabapple Creek, including a 2007 project in Brio that the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation Environmental Fund helped finance with a grant of almost $9,500. A number of rehabilitation projects on Crabapple have been done in recent years and those works have contributed to the fish stock improvements in Whistler.

There's no doubt in Cole's mind that in our earliest efforts to make improvements, humans have done the exact opposite. Fish stocking in the early days was motivated mainly by a desire to improve the fishing experience.

"Probably since 1922 people were putting fish in and around all our waterways," says Cole. "So man was involved since the railway first got going and Alta Lake was a destination fishery. Man's been meddling with fish production and angling from day one."

The meddling goes from a grand scale like building the rail line through the wetland between Nita Lake and Alta Lake to smaller scale projects like "cleaning up the lakeshore" by pulling out downed logs then planting grass at the shore. The rail line is cutting off the flow of water between the lakes so the natural southward flow of water out of Alta Lake hasn't been happening since the early 1900s. Creating sandy beaches removes habitat the fish rely on for protection from predators and the growth of food sources.

At least now, there's a better understanding of what the human impacts are on the fish in the local waterways.

According to Beahan, the concern needs to extend into the future.

"The thing with fisheries is you always have to be vigilant and try to protect them because they are kind of fragile environments these things live in so you can't rest on today," he says. "We have to look at what might happen in the future."

The WFSG was formed in 1996 as a charitable organization. The mandate of the group is to restore the health of Whistler's watersheds to their utmost potential for people and fish. The membership is made up of representatives from the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the Whistler Rotary Club, Whistler Angling Club, Whistler Blackcomb, the Whistler Golf Course, Nick North Golf Club and the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE).

A key WFSG initiative is the restoration plan for the River of Golden Dreams. The 2003 plan involves putting large woody debris into the stream to give young fish protection from predators, places to feed and areas to rest.

The work of the WFSG is credited with causing the reappearance of Kokanee salmon to the spawning area in the River of Golden Dreams.

The municipality's fish and wildlife technicians are in the field quite a bit at this time of year and they are seeing evidence that the rehabilitation efforts are working.  Rainbow trout spawning is taking place in Jordan Creek, Crabapple Creek and the River of Golden Dreams.

According to the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the local lakes are considered healthy.

There are no consistent spawning monitoring programs or counts, but volunteers are collecting data that points to the healthy status.

The municipality is currently working with the provincial government to determine water quality guidelines for Whistler based on future monitoring and analysis.

Tip sheets are available with information on Nita Lake and Green Lake. The information was compiled and published by the B.C. Lake Stewardship Program, the ministry of the environment and the municipality.

The sheets are filled with interesting statistics. For example, Green Lake is 14 metres (46 feet) deep, while the deepest spot is 40 metres (131 feet). Only about 20 per cent of the lake is deeper than 20 metres (66 feet). Nita Lake averages a little less than 9 metres (14 feet) in depth, while the deepest spot is about 22 metres (72 feet).

The tip sheets encourage residents to take actions to promote the health of the lakes. As an example, residents are encouraged to use compost to fertilize gardens instead of commercial fertilizers. When planting new vegetation the tip sheet encourages the use of native plants at the lakeshore. Those on Green Lake with septic systems are encouraged to have annual system inspections with septic tank pumping every two to five years by a septic service company.

While there is consensus that the fishing in Whistler is improved and the fish populations are in better shape now than in recent years, the same cannot be said for the immediate future of the Whistler Angling Club. The club disbanded in 2009. Beahan describes it as "an idle period."

The club traditionally organized a fishing derby every Fathers' Day. Last year, Eric Wight at Backroads Whistler saved the tradition with help from Whistler Flyfishing and a few local sponsors so dads in Whistler can continue cultivating memorable family fish stories every June.

The annual derby will return again this year on Sunday, June 19 at Lakeside Park. The event kicks off early in the morning and all the derby participants gather for lunch.

Wight provides boats and gear for those who don't have their own. About 50 people participated in the derby last year and Wight expects at least that many this year.

"It is an event to get kids out with their dad and dad's away from their cell phone and the Internet," said Wight.

While Wight and the others involved in the annual derby keep that annual tradition alive, Beahan is holding out hope that the Whistler Angling Club will fish again.

He says the club membership wasn't being refreshed with new people and that led to the club's current holding pattern.

"It wouldn't be much to get it going," says Beahan.

The Angling Club isn't the only environmental group in Whistler struggling with the future. AWARE is looking for new volunteers with fresh ideas and new energy.

Visitors will continue to come while local residents grapple with sustainability issues and local environmental accountability.

Guide Oliver Nixon and his coworkers at Trout Country Fishing Guides plan to offer what angling visitors are looking for as local environmentalists sort out the future of local conservation clubs.

Nixon came to Whistler five years ago bursting with 30 years worth of fishing stories from his days living and working in the French Alps.

"We had a trout lake across the street from our house," he explains. "We used to see the fish rise. I could see them rise from my window and I would stroll across the street with my rod in my hand."

Nixon came here for the skiing and to give ski lessons then he discovered the great fishing.

The company Nixon guides for offers many of the same guiding experiences provided by the other local guiding companies. Nixon's company, though, offers a unique experience that appeals to only a small group of the keenest anglers: ice-fishing.

The company sets up winter shop on Nita Lake or Lost Lake and take their inspiration from winter anglers who cut through the ice in many eastern Canadian lakes.

"It is a relatively short season here to do it," says Nixon. "Toward the end of December 'til mid-March the ice is thick enough. We did a few trips this year."

According to Nixon, the fish do bite in the cold winter months. His company's clients have successfully brought some Rainbow trout up through the ice holes.

Whether fishing in the summer or winter, lake or river there are a few things anglers need to be mindful of.

Fishing licenses are required to fish the lakes and rivers of British Columbia. Getting a license from the provincial government is simply done by visiting and clicking the 'Buy a License' button. After credit card information is typed in a printable license is created to permit the purchaser to fish in freshwater.

The B.C. fishing regulations are also published at the site. The local regulations for Green Lake and Alta Lake state that only single barbless hooks may be used, bait is banned and all fish caught must be released back into the lakes. Fish caught in Nita and Alpha Lake may be removed from the lake.

Much has changed in Whistler since 1914 when Alex and Myrtle Philip settled on the shore of the lake they initially knew as Summit Lake. With help from members of Myrtle's family, the Tapleys, they launched their dream of building the Rainbow Lodge on their 10-acre lakefront lot. The piece of property the young couple purchased in the northwest corner of the lake for $700 is now known as Rainbow Park.

The fishing at Rainbow Lodge was great, the hospitality even better and word of their dream lodge for anglers spread quickly.

Eventually, cabins were built around Rainbow Lodge and up to 100 people could be accommodated when the lodge reached the height of its popularity. While the Rainbow Lodge was the best-known early tourism venture in Whistler, it certainly wasn't the only one operating in those early days. The Alta Lake Hotel started operating in 1920 and a few years later Bert and Agnes Harrop built cabins and a floating tearoom on Alta Lake.

The scenery, the hospitality and the fishing all combined to create Whistler as a tourist destination.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the resort is still welcoming, the scenery is still spectacular and despite past fish population challenges people are still fishing in Whistler.

Along with the big three activities visitors can choose from cross-country skiing, zip line tours, rafting, snowmobiling and so many other options.

Fishing guide Kevin Kish sees clearly how angling currently fits into the bigger Whistler story.

"Whistler doesn't have the destination fishing market that other locations in British Columbia have," he says.

"What Whistler has is a destination market for travellers and they have fishing as an activity to go along with all the other different activities."