Photo Credit - Todd Martin

Exploring the Shuswap Watershed - A thriving fishery in the heart of BC

Todd Martin explains one of BC's most overlooked fisheries, the Shuswap Watershed!

Story & Photos by: Todd Martin

 

You close your eyes and visualize Shuswap Lake. I’ll bet summer vacations, house boating, and long, lazy summer days come to mind well before fishing does. This is not unusual. It’s another example of B.C. anglers not utilizing one of the best fisheries in the entire province, hiding right in front of their noses. Shuswap Lake and its surrounding watershed is a robust and diverse fishery, and its most remarkable attribute is that it’s best in the shoulder seasons, spring and fall, when other freshwater fisheries are still iced up or are wrapping for the year.

The Shuswap watershed, or locally known as ‘The Shu’, is massive network of over 500 fish producing lakes and rivers. The Shuswap’s main components include Shuswap Lake itself, along with Little Shuswap, Mara, Mabel, Sugar and Adams Lakes. Connecting these are the South Thompson, Shuswap, Eagle and Salmon Rivers, along with the revered Adams River. Shuswap Lake itself is shaped like the letter ‘H’ and is divided into four components, or arms. Seymour Arm, Anstey Arm, Salmon Arm and the Main Arm of Shuswap Lake make up this massive body of water.

With its geographical center being the towns of Salmon Arm and Sicamous, the Shuswap also bonds the towns of Kamloops, Chase, Sorrento, Enderby, Armstrong, and Falkland together. Along with this geography lesson is the fact that there is a thriving and easily accessible fishery here. This watershed can be better described as a salmon highway. Every summer and autumn season, millions of sockeye and chinook salmon make their way to their interior spawning grounds. Their spawned out carcasses feed this watershed with rich nutrients throughout the winter. The resulting spring fry and smolt migrations to salt water create a never ending buffet for the trout and char that depend on them for food. Along with the Salmon, this watershed is home to several permanent residents like Rainbow Trout, lake trout (Char), bull trout, kokanee and whitefish. Most of these fish in the Shuswap system are wild and native. No supplemental stocking is required.

 

  • Rod Henning holding a healthy Lake Char from Shuswap Lake!

 

Sockeye Salmon are the engine that drives the Shuswap machine. They are crucial to the ongoing health of the entire watershed. Simply put, more returning adult sockeye means more nutrients back in the water, and more migrating salmon fry in the spring. This also means better fishing for bigger and healthier trout that depend on the salmon fry for sustenance. Sockeye and chinook fry and smolts are the primary food source for the trout and char in the entire interconnected Shuswap system, and due to the strong return of Sockeye in 2014, it bodes well for great fishing in 2015 and 2016. In years of low sockeye returns, the amount of nutrients and food available is diminished, the fishing action is slower and the trout and char are smaller in size. Good numbers of Chinook migrate through the Shuswap system, but high numbers of returning Sockeye really allow the trout and char to strap on the feed bag and bulk up in subsequent years.

Now that we have discussed the scope and workings of this system, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Where are the best spots to fish? I am constantly amazed at how good the fishing is in the main body of Shuswap Lake! After all, it’s better known for summer house boating than fishing. But this lake is the primary fish producing factory of the entire system. There are tremendous populations of wild rainbow trout along with lake trout and bull trout in Shuswap Lake. It also has good numbers kokanee and whitefish. The trout and char are easily accessed by trolling in this large lake, which in turn allows you to cover a lot of water and different depths. Fly casting at strategic river mouths is also tremendously effective. When the salmon fry emerge and start their meandering migration to salt water in early April, the native trout and char get charged up for the annual feeding frenzy. 

The mouth of the Adams, Eagle, and Anstey Rivers are good examples of these river mouth hot-spots, but there are many more. Trout and Char will stage at these river mouths in late March. From April through July, anything that resembles a silvery sockeye fry is inhaled with reckless abandon. Another good river fishing locale is the end of Little Shuswap Lake where it drains into the South Thompson River. Some trophy sized rainbows and bull trout are taken at Shuswap river mouths every year. The Cinnemousun Narrows on Shuswap Lake is a year round trolling hot zone. This is where all four arms of the lake meet. These narrows act like a funnel that draws all feed and predators to it like a moth to a flame. If you want to troll from a boat, this is where you need to start. You can also re-visit the previously mentioned river mouth destinations when the spawning salmon return in the fall and fish egg patterns with good success. Again, the trout and char know there will be salmon eggs entering the lake with the river currents and key in on these areas for an easy meal. A good whitefish opportunity occurs every year at Murdoch’s Point near Sicamous. Every April, local anglers will descend upon this area and indicator fish with chironomids for these overlooked sport fish. The summer months bring better weather and warmer water temperatures. Thus, you need to start plying the depths of Shuswap Lake to encourage the bite, and this is when the lake trout fishing gets good. Shuswap Lake has a strong population of this hard fighting, deep diving char that average four to eight pounds. They feed on the salmon fry, small rainbow trout and even decent sized kokanee. Deep trolling with plugs on a downrigger is an effective technique to take these lurkers.

 

  • Todd Martin with a healthy Lake Trout from Shuswap Lake!

 

One of my favorite parts of the Shuswap watershed to enjoy a day’s fishing is Mabel Lake. It’s an overlooked gem in the North Okanagan near Enderby. This lake is visually stunning with its deep green waters and lushly forested shorelines. It’s a large body of water that has depths in excess of 400 feet and is 35 kilometers long. The best areas to fish Mabel Lake are its northern half. Near the small town of Kingfisher, the Shuswap River drains Mabel Lake westward to Mara Lake. This is the same route a hearty run of migrating Chinook salmon will take to the various Mabel Lake creek mouths where they can be found mid-July through September. The Chinook present an inland fishery for salmon that average 15 to 25 pounds. Mid-August usually brings the peak of the Chinook migration and a large group of regulars descend upon Mabel Lake to enjoy this annual event.

My preferred fishery at Mabel Lake is the pursuit of the large and abundant Rainbow Trout. Again, the northern half of the lake is where I prefer to fish and locations like the Tsuius Narrows and Wap Creek mouth at the extreme northern end provide great action, April through June. Mabel Lake boasts a massive black ant hatch in mid-May that can make the trout very selective for a short period of time. Mabel Lake also has good populations of lake trout, bull trout and kokanee. Similar to Shuswap Lake, there is so much fishy water here you can easily avoid any crowds and find your own secret spot. The Shuswap Watershed is such a vast area, you could write a book on all the prime fishing grounds and species available in this area. Try some that I have recommended or spend some time searching for your own honey-hole. 

One note about the Shuswap and its large lakes, if you want to be more effective fishing these waters I highly recommend hiring a guide to shorten the learning curve. Rod Henning from Rodney’s Reel Outdoors guides in the Shuswap and Okanagan region year-round and is an invaluable resource. While fishing with him as part of researching this article, I learned more about the fishery of the Shuswap in two days than I would have in ten years on my own. He also works with various research and fisheries agencies to study Shuswap Lake and its fish populations. A lot of time has been invested into netting, tagging and studying the lake trout population of Shuswap Lake, and Rod Henning has been a big part of that effort.

 

Shuswap Lake is also the location for two popular fishing derbies each year. The spring derby is usually held during the first week of June and the fall derby is held the first week of November, with both derbies being based from the Sicamous boat launch. These two events are a traditionally based on a catch & release format where the longest fish wins. A good portion of the proceeds from these derbies supports ‘learn to fish’ programs and local fish hatcheries. Both of these derbies are a great opportunity to have fun, and learn the Shuswap Lake fishery side by side with the local ‘ringers’. 

Trolling for the large rainbows in Shuswap watershed is primarily done with two types of gear. Large brightly colored bucktail streamers are very effective. These are trolled on the surface or just a few feet below, and at faster speeds than normal. Trolling speeds of 3.5 – 4 miles per hour are common when using bucktails, except when the water temperature dips below 42F, and then you want to slow things down to traditional lake trolling speeds. There are several companies making bucktails or you can tie your own. The hand tied beauties from the Kootenay Fly Company are very popular, and new this year, Lyman Lures has come out with a line of bucktails for the interior BC market. Muddler Minnows or any silvery red fry pattern also work well. When fishing bucktails, remember to check them after every strike. The tinsel and hair tend to get wrapped around the hook causing the bucktail to spin. You want them to run perfectly straight for them to be effective.

 

  • Trolled or cast bucktail flies are very effective throughout the Shuswap system.

 

The other effective method is trolling large plugs and lures. Locals and guides will often use Lyman Lures, Tomic Plugs, Rapala J-PlugsApex Lures and Luhr-Jensen Coyote spoons. The rainbows tend to be shallow in the spring and fall, but the big lake trout often need to be enticed from the depths with the assistance of a down rigger. I’ve had great success using the vertical hunting technique for lake char on the Shuswap. With this method you are keenly watching your electronics for individual fish and then raising or lowering your trolled lures on the downrigger to present it to a specific fish. It is more work, but is also fun and very rewarding way to fish. As with all other lakes, the trout start moving back towards the surface with the cooler temperatures in October and November.

 

  • Lyman Lures are very effective for the Lake Trout in the Shuswap system!

 

The wild rainbows in Shuswap, Mabel and other lakes of this system can achieve weights to ten pounds or more. Large trout like this are wary and shy away from boat noise, wakes and the shadows they create. Bigger boats used for trolling on these lakes create a bit of a ‘dead zone’ behind them and you want to let out more line than when trolling smaller lakes. Trolling with 200 to 300 feet of line out is a common practice. Experienced locals also use planer boards to pull their lines out and away from the boat to cover more water and find those undisturbed feeders. This is a tactic that is becoming more popular here on the large lakes of the Shuswap, Okanagan and Kootenay regions of B.C. Another way to accomplish the same thing is to use outrigger poles instead of planer boards. They are easier to manage and perform similar to a planer board. All this being said, my biggest strike ever on the Shuswap came when I started letting my line out behind the boat. The fish hit and began running for Sicamous. It jumped once after tearing off 100 yards of line and was never seen again. My heart still skips a beat every time I think of that big one that got away, and it’s what keeps me coming back to the Shuswap year after year. 

Remember to give the B.C. Freshwater fishing regulations a good read before you visit the Shuswap. There are some unique regulations protecting this fishery. Shuswap Lake itself requires a special conservation stamp and you are only permitted to retain one rainbow and one char per day. Another good resource for more information on this area is the Shuswap Tourism website at www.shuswaptourism.ca. 

If you have not experienced the great fishing opportunities this area offers, you need to do yourself a favor and give the Shuswap a try. There are limitless lakes and rivers to wet a line. As noted earlier, the best time to fish anywhere in this system is early and late in the year when other more heavily pressured fisheries are closed. Remember this the next time you think of the Shuswap. It’s not just for house boating and beach parties, it’s also home to great fishing.

 

 

 

Author - Todd Martin
Author Bio: Todd Martin is a well known outdoor writer and angler who lives and writes about the wild splendor of British Columbia, Canada. Todd resides in Maple Ridge and specializes salt water and fresh water fishing for Salmon, Trout, Char and Kokanee. Visit him at www.martinoutdoors.ca

 

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