In the beginning, glaciers covered the land. These were enormous rivers of ice, 1000 metres deep, that surged implacably southward through the Clearwater Valley and its tributaries. When the glaciers finally receded, about 10,000 years ago, they left behind gouges in the valley floor, some more than 300 m deep. Today those depressions are filled with water. We call them lakes.

It is a minor miracle of Wells Gray’s lakes that fish managed to colonize some of them prior to the arrival of European man. Clearwater Lake, for example, has apparently always provided excellent trout fishing. The question is, how did the Rainbow Trout ever manage to wend its way past the triple barrier of Bailey’s Chute, Marcus Falls and Myanth Falls?

Perhaps the first Trout were air-lifted to Clearwater Lake by a fish-hungry Eagle or Osprey that inadvertently dropped its quarry. Or maybe it was the native peoples who did the honours, wishing to ensure a dependable food supply for their summer camps on Clearwater and Azure Lakes. Nobody knows.

Most of the park’s other lakes contained no fish until stocking programmes were initiated by various government agencies beginning in the 1920s. Murtle Lake, for instance, entertained its first Rainbow Trout in 1928 when the Canadian Department of Fisheries planted some 30,000 Trout eggs there. In 1940, the B.C. Game Commission planted 100,000 Kokanee (land-locked Sockeye Salmon) in the same lake.

Prior to these transplants, Bald Eagles and Osprey likely did not nest on the shores of Murtle. Nor, except possibly in small numbers, did the Common Loon. Visitors to Murtle Lake can therefore thank the Canadian Department of Fisheries for thehaunting call which has now become one of Murtle’s wilderness" trademarks.

Virtually all the smaller lakes (Placid, Alice, Shadow, etc) are now also stocked – again with Rainbow Trout. Interestingly, Kostal Lake remained “barren” until September of 1987, when the B.C. Ministry of Environment in its infinite wisdom dumped 30,000 native Rainbow fry into it. Will any of the park’s water bodies be left in their original, fish-free condition? It seems unlikely.

But surely Wells Gray’s biggest fish story involves the thousands of Chinook Salmon that enter the Clearwater River in late summer, having wrestled their way 550 km upstream from the Pacific Ocean. In due course, most of them find their way to the Horseshoe; here they dig their gravelly nests, spawn, and then die.

A few of the salmon, however, continue upriver until their passage is blocked by the churning waters of Bailey’s Chute. In late August and September, these enormous fish – averaging 85 cm in length – can be seen leaping out of the river in valiant and (presumably) doomed attempts to overshoot the Chute. Some 200 Sockeye Salmon and 500 Coho also spawn in the Clearwater River, their numbers peaking in August and late October, respectively. To date a few spawning grounds have been identified in the lower portions of the river, but doubtless others will eventually be discovered upstream. The base of Whitehorse Bluff is one likely location.

During the rest of the year, the easiest way to see fish is, of course, to go fishing. Failing that, the best places to fish-watch are in sheltered bays, particularly when the sun is behind you; at Clearwater Lake, try the wharf at the end of the park road. And then, to identify what you’ve seen, check the identification tables in your copy of B.C.’s Freshwater Fishing Regulations (available at the Wells Gray Visitor Centre).

Fishes of Wells Gray Park
LEGEND: 1 = Mahood Lake; 2 = Clearwater Lake and Azure Lakes;
3 = Clearwater River; 4 = Murtle Lake; 5 = Hobson Lake
Species Location: 1 2 3 4 5 Scientific Name
Burbot +         Lota lota
Kokanee +   + +   Oncorhynchus nerka
Chinook Salmon     +     Oncorhynchus tshawytscha
Coho Salmon     +     Oncorhynchus kisutch
Sockeye Salmon     +     Oncorhynchus nerka
Redside Shiner +? +     + Richardsonius balteatus
Northern Squafish +?   +     Ptychocheilus oregonense
Largescale Sucker +? + +   + Catastomus macrocheilus
Longnose Sucker +         Catastomus catastomus
Peamouth Chub +?         Mylocheilus caurinus
Lake Trout +         Salvelinus namaycush
Rainbow Trout + + + +   Salmo gairdneri
Bull Trout   +? +     Salvelinus malma
Mountain White Fish + + +     Prosopium williamsoni

Text extracted, with partial updates, from the 2nd edition of Nature Wells Gray: A Visitors’ Guide to the Park, by Trevor Goward & Cathie Hickson © 1995, for several years out of print, and now awaiting sponsorship toward a third, much improved edition.