Steelhead trout struggle to emerge during spawning season

Steelhead trout have met their match in the Coquihalla River as they battle to reach the place they started out as fry.

Steelhead trout are putting on a show for visitors at the Coquihalla Quintette Tunnels. The fish have to make it up a seemingly-impassable 3-metre rise to gain access to spawning grounds above the falls.

“Luctor et emergo” or “struggle and emerge” could certainly be the motto for the spawning steelhead trout in the Coquihalla River this month. Nature has given them a burning desire to reach the section of the river where they first appeared as fry — despite a huge obstacle that lies in their path.

The river may be lower than usual for this time of year but the waterfalls below the upstream bridge at the Quintette Tunnels are still a formidable challenge.

Monday, the pool below the falls had 30 to 50 steelhead — the sea-going version of rainbow trout — waiting in the slow water, perhaps restoring their strength and reviewing their failed attempts.

In one leap, they have to make it up about a three-metre rise. If they are lucky or skillful enough to do it, they still have to swim hard in the small pool above the falls, to avoid being swept back down. Once out of that pool, they’ll have relatively easy swimming and access to about 50 km of the upper river, as well as its tributaries.

The worst of the falls is a section that seems to have the full flow of the river merging through a space the diameter of a semi-truck’s tire. It seems impossible, yet the determined fish somehow find a way.

Hope resident Marla Rosenberg says her grandson Ben Gladue has seen some steelhead this year in the Schoolhouse Rocks pool, a few kilometres upstream of the falls.

Time after time on Monday, they were knocked back down — some smacking their “steel” heads against the smooth granite walls of the canyon. Though they still failed to emerge at the top of the falls, the best efforts were from the leapers that avoided the water and tried to flap their way up the face of the north-side rocks.

One good-sized fish made it more than two thirds of the way with this approach, before falling back.

I have to think they learn by trial and error, as they do eventually make it through — even in years when the water flow is higher… just not when I’m watching.

These are good-looking, healthy specimens, with none of the fungus and rotting flesh that can set in on their salmon cousins. Unlike Pacific salmon, the steelhead can potentially survive the spawning session and return to the ocean for further cycles.

Photographing the leapers is a challenge for a number of reasons — one being the random timing of their leaps. You’ve only got a second or two to react, once you see a fish appear. Before that, you’d best have your focus locked on the spot that you think the fish will jump at. Sometimes you get lucky and the fish cooperate.

Focusing on white, moving water may cause your camera to stall. If it can’t lock focus, aim at the rocks beside the falls and half-press the shutter to lock focus. You may also have the option of a manual focus mode.

Using a tighter f-stop, such as F/4 or F/5.6 will give you a better depth-of-field and more chance of getting your fish in focus. Unfortunately, this will slow your shutter down — and you can’t have a slow shutter with fast-moving fish. I’d recommend going into manual control mode and selecting F/4 and a minimum of 1/1000th of a second shutter. You’ll need to up your ISO or “film speed” until the camera’s meter is happy with the exposure. You can also use “auto ISO” if you have that option.

Almost done with the settings: your camera may not believe the brightness of the water and want to automatically darken your photos. Counteract that with manual settings or use “exposure compensation” of +1 or +2 to correct the brightness.

If you’ve got a motor-drive, crank it up to the maximum speed and fire a burst of three or four shots when the fish appear.

If you’re agile and a little brave, you can carefully climb down below the falls on the north side to get a better angle for shooting. If not, do your best from the bridge.

Remember your video mode as well. Take 10 to 15-second clips and hope that a fish appears. If not, stop and start again. I took about 10 of these recordings before a leaper appeared near the end of a clip.

I threw out the useless clips and was left with a short one that won’t need editing.

To get to the tunnels, you can drive past Kawkawa Lake to the tunnels parking lot at Othello — or you can go in the back way by walking or cycling 4.5 km along the Kettle Valley Trail, which begins at the south end of Kettle Valley Road.