A little history on Exploits salmon

Construction of hydroelectric dam helped foster species' growth

Published on August 11, 2012

Salmon season is winding down now. Just a few weeks left before most of our scheduled rivers close for another season. A few will stay open through September for hook and release fall fishing.

I'm planning this autumn to cast a few flies over the Lower Humber and the Exploits. The Gander is open as well, but there's always so much fishing and so little time.

I can only do so much and besides, moose season is just around the corner. I have to start scouting my hunting grounds for those heavy antlered bulls.

The Exploits is likely the safest bet for fall salmon angling. Its run of fish has grown to massive proportions. Some years it exceeds 50,000 fish and it's still growing.

The evolution of the Exploits from meager beginnings to a world-class salmon river is an amazing story.

The original native run of salmon in the Exploits were small in number, less than 2,000, because they only had access to 10 per cent of the Exploit's vast watershed, the 15 kilometres of river below Bishops Falls. Salmon, despite their aerobatic capabilities, could not leap Bishops Falls.

In 1957, Newfoundland Power built a hydroelectric dam on Rattling Brook, a smaller river that meets the sea adjacent to the Exploits, near the town of Norris Arm. Rattling Brook had a significant run of salmon, about 75 per cent of which were larger fish.

To offset the loss of salmon habitat, adult fish were trapped at the river mouth and transported to Great Rattling Brook, a tributary, which ran into the Exploits above Bishop's Falls. This necessitated the construction of two fish ladders, one on Great Rattling Brook and another on Bishops Falls. Now another full 12 km of river, between Bishops and Grand Falls, was open for fish and fishing in addition to Great Rattling Brook itself. A lucky break for salmon and local salmon anglers, and the population of both grew.

In 1983, the Environment Resources Management Association (ERMA) was formed. This not-for-profit organization had a grand plan: to open up the whole shebang, the entire 12,000-square-kilometre drainage area of the Exploits - every pond, creek and brook. This stands alone as one of the most ambitious salmon enhancement projects ever undertaken - pushed forward by a community-based board of directors, all volunteers, giving up their free time in the name of conservation and subsequent economic development. It's very impressive.

The first order of business was providing salmon easy access to the entire watershed. A fishway was built on Grand Falls in 1992; actually two fishways, one around the falls and another to bypass the power plant. Since the 1970s, some fish were collected each year and trucked around the falls, hardly efficient.

An interpretation centre, including a state of the art underwater observation unit, was also constructed. This allowed fish to swim another 75 km, all the way to Red Indian Lake, but not actually into the lake. The dam at the outflow of the Red Indian Lake presented yet another obstacle.

A unique fish elevator was designed and put in place in 1988. Now fish had access to all the rivers and streams flowing into Red Indian Lake, some reaching as far westward as the Long Range Mountains.

The potential for salmon proliferation was enormous, in the order of 200,000 fish.

To catalyze the establishment of fish into all this new spawning territory, ERMA promoted a long-term stocking program. A DFO egg incubation facility at Noel Paul Brook was upgraded and refurbished to produce 8-million salmon eggs a year. ERMA also took full advantage of millions in government money available to create long-term employment in a chronically economically depressed region.

ERMA used funds to support volunteer efforts by hiring dozens of workers to transport salmon fry and parr, often by helicopter, to streams all over the Exploits vast watershed. Toil and diligence bore fruit, mushrooming the population of salmon to 35,000 by 2008.

But generator turbines were chewing increased numbers of kelts and smolts up as they descended swollen rivers in spring. Enter the original company that reaped profit from the Exploits watershed. Yes, the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company, now called AbitibiBowater; it was time for them to give back, and through ERMA they did.

Diversion system

In 2000, a high-tech diversion system was built to steer fish away from the turbine intakes at both Bishops and Grand Falls, keeping them in the river on a safe course to the sea.

The system is flawless for smolts, but kelts still end up in turbines despite advanced engineering's best effort. Workers from DFO, ERMA and Abitibi pitch in each year with seines to capture kelts and transport them safely past the turbines. Fred Parsons of ERMA thinks turbine diversion is a key factor in the recent explosion of salmon numbers on the Exploits.

In February 2009, the AbitibiBowater paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor filled its last order, shutting down production for the final time in the company's century-long history in central Newfoundland. Workers walked away with lunch cans in hand towards an uncertain future.

The salmon, however, continue to swim, and in higher numbers. Because ERMA invested money and sweat equity in their river to promote tourism and angling through conservation and enhancement, an industrial river has been reclaimed.

More and more anglers wet their waders in the Exploits. Hotels are filled while the salmon swim. Summer 2011 saw more than 50,000 fish pass through the counter at Bishops Falls.

I say congratulations to all who played a role over the years, and for sure and certain, money was well spent.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard's Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.