Published Nov 24. 2016 - 1 month ago
Updated or edited Nov 24. 2016

Salmonids in estuaries

A personal journey from a kid fly fishing off log booms to a marine ecologist and author of a book on trout, salmon and char in estuaries around the globe.

Sea run cutthroat
Sea run cutthroat
Jay Nicholas

In the 1950s fly fishing in estuaries for sea run cutthroat trout was a relatively unknown sport in the province of British Columbia (BC), on the west coast of Canada.
However my Dad was an avid fisherman and knew about the technique along with all the other methods for trout and salmon fishing in rivers, lakes and the sea.
He often took my sister and I fishing the upper reaches of the Fraser River estuary, near Vancouver BC, whenever he could get away from his job. I recall when I was a kid about 10 years old we would get up at the crack of dawn and head up the Fraser Valley and go for sea run cutthroat. In the autumn or winter the fish were on their spawning run to the gravel bars and sloughs about seventy-five km upstream from the mouth of the river. There were massive raft of logs (log booms) stored along the shoreline and we would go out of them to cast a line for the trout. It was dangerous to hop out the edge of the log booms into the main channel but no one fell in - although lots of times it was close.

Yellow string
Tobacco pouches
Tobacco pouch fly material
Global FlyFisher

The river is clearest

in the winter and the cutthroat would take a fly in this season. Most of the other times of the year the Fraser is turbid from glacial melt water and worms or roe was the preferred bait.
My Dad’s favourite fly was an improvised lure – a couple of centimeters of the yellow string from a Bull Durham tobacco pouch (Bull Durham was a famous brand of tobacco from North Carolina, USA). He wrapped a few centimetres of the yellow string around a number 6 hook. This was usually a pretty productive lure. Later on I discovered this lure may have been mimicking a gammarid crustacean or scud – a creature I researched later on in life.
We had good sport and usually a nice meal of trout after a trip. These adventures kindled an interest in fish and fisheries and no doubt played a major part in my career choice to work as a fisheries ecologist.

My journey from a kid

fishing on a log boom to a marine ecologist was long and tortuous. After graduating from high school I started science studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC). After my second year I ran out of money and decided to take a year out from my studies to work as a technician in a halibut research project in Alaska. My story about the 1962-1963 trip on the 24 m fishing boat Western Flyer, the same ship that American novelist John Steinbeck and famous marine scientist Ed Ricketts sailed on to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, can be found at

Colin Levings

After my time in Alaska

I returned to UBC for studies and in 1972 earned my doctorate in Oceanography at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. I then took a job with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Over the next thirty-four years my research topics roamed over various marine ecology topics ranging from pulp mill pollution to marsh ecology to fjord studies. A constant theme however was the estuary and salmon. Many of the studies were on young salmon in the Fraser River estuary where beach seining was the method of choice for sampling.
By 2005 I was ready to take a break from it all and decided to ask for a year on special assignment as a pre retirement task. It was decided I could work on a review of our knowledge of salmon and estuaries. Some of the first few chapters were written in Trondheim, Norway while visiting researchers there. During that time I learned a lot about members of the salmonid family (which includes trout and char as well as salmon) other than our five local favourites Pacific (chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye salmon). I decided to include all the sea running salmonid species and give a global perspective to the book. After I officially retired I kept working on the book, as an emeritus scientist –a non-paying position that provided me with an office and access to fisheries libraries.

Colin Levings

It turned out

that eighteen species were known to use estuaries so the book expanded considerably. I also included basic physical-chemical descriptions of the estuaries, habitats, smolting, health, harvesting, and a major chapter on conservation, which included habitat restoration. I also decided to have an appendix on estuaries and salmonids for the citizen scientist and this was published as an on line appendix. Of course I had to include estuaries and salmonids in the southern hemisphere, since sea run brown trout, brook trout, and other salmonids are found there now. In fact anadromous salmonids, which by definition are adapted to estuarine life, are now found on all continents except Africa and Antarctica so I had to dive into the international literature.
Librarians were a great help to me tracking down references in various languages including Russian, Spanish, Japanese, Norwegian, and French – I can’t read all of them but I took a stab at translating where I could. My home office was overflowing with references, some neatly stacked by chapter but some piled using the horizontal filing system – on the floor. As well my computer reached its storage limit as digital material flowed in from libraries. At the end of it, the 388 page book has over 1000 references.
Over the years, as the reviews came in on the various drafts of the book sometime it was discouraging but a family stubborn streak kept me going. As well I was greatly assisted by a colleague who helped me in a major rewrite. I did a lot of writing at home so many a long day and evening was spent on the project hunkered down in my home office. When I finally received word in March 2015 from the Senior Editor of UBC Press that the book was accepted for publication by their Board, it was joyful moment.

Book cover
The book
UBC Press
Jay Nicholas

I believe salmonid fly fishers

all around the world would find the book informative and perhaps give insights into why salmonids rise to flies in estuaries and why some parts of the estuary may be better spots to fish. The ecological principles involved are likely the same for sea trout in estuaries of Denmark as for sea run brook trout in New England or Patagonia and all the other estuaries and salmonids in temperate, subpolar and polar regions around the world. The book is called Ecology of Salmonids in Estuaries Around the World: Adaptations, Habitats and Conservation and it was published by University of British Columbia Press in August 2016. It is a technical book, written with idea of introducing students, beginning researchers and interested citizens to the science of estuaries and salmonids.
Over my career I met a lot of people working on salmonid conservation and ecology who were looking for estuarine information but could not find a single source that gave study guidance in a readily-digestible form. I think this book fills that gap as it is a one stop shopping source that gives a wealth of data on how estuaries function to support salmonid survival. To find out more about the book, ordering information, and endorsement please go to I am donating all author royalties to the Pacific Salmon Foundation, a local conservation group who were key sponsors for the book.

Thanks to Jay Nicholas and Oregon Fly Fishing Blog for use of the cutthroat pictures from their excellent article on the subject.

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