Taking stock: The Yukon government’s wild fish farm free for all

It's pouring rain, the Zodiac's leaking and the first two nets have only one fish apiece, when Eric Allen says, "More and more I think I should probably stop doing this and pursue my alternative energy interests."

GOLD FISH LAKE

It’s pouring rain, the Zodiac’s leaking and the first two nets have only one fish apiece, when Eric Allen says, “More and more I think I should probably stop doing this and pursue my alternative energy interests.”

The co-owner of Wild Things natural products is fishing his secret lake, a three-kilometre-long stretch of water in a limestone-rich pothole, a good hour by ATV from the nearest road. (More details would breach the secrecy pact I made to get in there.)

Every Wednesday, Allen loads three blue-and-white coolers with $35 worth of ice -“the most expensive part of this business”- buys a bit of gas for his boat motor, and sets out on the steep, bumpy trek back to his lake.

He stocked it with Arctic char fingerlings 12 years ago when he was running a hatchery in Porter Creek, the same summer as the Little Fox Lake burn.

It was bad timing. The fire was hampering efforts to get his fingerlings to the new home in the lake.

“My son was flying then,” he says. “And he was flying through the fire and the smoke.”

Allen even managed to get an escort down the closed highway after explaining to the fire crew that his fry were going to run out of oxygen if he didn’t get them into the lake.

“There were flames leaping over the truck,” says Allen. “I see why the highway was closed, but the fingerlings lived.”

Three years later, he was hauling in his first catch, a net full of one- and two-pound char.

Allen got a permit to stock another lake too, near Faro. He did it at the same time, and was getting good results, but gave up on it after it was fished out by locals.

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The Yukon government, following up on research done during devolution, started offering aspiring entrepreneurs private permits to stock fish-free pothole lakes in the ‘90s.

“But the government didn’t do its homework,” says Kevin Neufeld, who was permitted to stock a lake near Watson Lake. “They didn’t hold any public consultations and they didn’t work it into the land claims – they just started issuing permits.”

Neufeld figures he dropped more than $130,000 stocking his lake and buying equipment. And it was starting to pay off, when Neufeld and a few others contacted a buyer in Edmonton and built up infrastructure.

But a year after his first harvest, he realized he wasn’t the only person fishing the lake.

“There were net marks on the fish,” he says. “There was evidence people were going in there and harvesting.”

Neufeld posted his lake with signs: “Closed to sport fish angling.” But it didn’t help.

“People just tore them down,” he says.

The Yukon Environment webpage lists co-ordinates of lakes “closed to angling for fish farming purposes.

“The fish in the lakes have been stocked by private individuals at their own expense, after applying for a fish farming licence and going through a rigorous approval process,” it states.

But conservation officers can’t police the lakes, says Neufeld.

“The government didn’t create any legislation to follow up its permits,” he says. “People invested a lot of money and the government did nothing.

“It’s like giving someone a permit to graze their cows, then allowing the public to hunt them – but that’s not allowed.”

Neufeld still goes into his lake a couple times each year, for “fun. But nothing is over one or two pounds now.”

There are 16 fish-farming licences issued for 23 pothole lakes in the territory, says Environment

spokesperson Dennis Senger. But only 13 of these lakes are protected under a federal variation order closing them to angling.

If someone without a permit is caught fishing these lakes, the person stocking the lake can call conservation officers to investigate, he says. But those fish farmers unlucky enough to be issued permits for the 10 lakes outside the variation order don’t have any protection at all. It’s a fishing free-for-all.

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Allen isn’t worried about poachers. “I’m open to catch and release,” he says. “Or if someone catches a fish and cooks it up on shore; I don’t mind sharing – it’s public land, after all.” And he hasn’t posted the lake with “No fishing” signs, because “that just makes people mad.”

But if people pack fish out, “that’s theft,” says Allen. It hasn’t happened, to his knowledge, but if it did he’d call the conservation officers -“It’s their job to stop them from doing it.”

However, Allen isn’t sure they could actually do anything, and he doesn’t want to talk about it.

“It’s stupid to get paranoid about something like that,” he says. Especially when Allen’s only run into three other people on his lake in the past 12 years.

Bears are a different story.

His 1973 Zodiac, christened the Arctic Hooper, is covered in red rubber patches, war wounds from wrestling bears. “Grizzlies love rubber boats,” says Allen. “Because they smell like fish, and they’re soft and fun to bite.”

Foreshadowing Allen’s future in alternative energy, a solar panel sits perched in a pine, powering an electric fence around the Hooper. Allen pumps up the boat, and tosses it into the reedy bay, then loads all the coolers, lunch and four people in the tiny craft.

Base camp is an island with a gutting table, Rubbermaid bins full of nets, and tarps, guarded by a family of hungry eagles.

“They wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t stocked this lake,” said Allen. Before he was issued a permit, he had to prove there were no fish in the lake. Now there are “enough” fish, he says, with a grin.

But those first nets come up almost empty, it’s pouring, and Allen makes the wrong decision.

He decides to reset them, before checking his last four nets.

He’s struggling with a borrowed motor, which stinks, and dreaming about using another solar panel to charge an electric motor. His old motor was stolen in July.

But his fish weren’t.

The fourth net turns out to be what Allen calls “a Christmas tree.” There are upwards of 20 char in it, many the telltale life-jacket orange they turn when they’re spawning. Allen calls them “pumpkins,” and used to feel bad about harvesting the egg-heavy females. But it quickly becomes apparent there are lots of fish to go around.

The next three nets are all Christmas trees, and by the time the leaky Zodiac makes it back to the island, the bottom of the boat is ankle-deep in fish.

Partway through the afternoon, Allen started throwing back any char that weren’t fatally damaged by the nets. Holding them by the tail, he’d swishes them back and forth in the water to re-orient them; “It’s like they’ve been knocked out,” he says. The fish lie on the surface, one tiny side fin in the air, playing dead, then after several minutes, with a flip of the tail, they’d dive back to the depths, escaping their brush with death.

All but one.

A flash of orange catches the attention of a resident eagle who’s been watching the action from a tree on the island.

It misses on its first flyby, but the second pass hits home, and the bird flaps low over the water with the stunned fish lolling in its talons.

As he guts all 240 pounds of char, tucking ice into their bellies in the coolers, Allen bemoans the size of his catch.

The fish, mostly eight to nine pounds, are too big.

At the Whitehorse farmers’ market, where he sells fresh char every Thursday, buyers want smaller fish. But Allen’s also filling bulk orders and smokes some of his catch.

It was easier when the Wharf on Fourth bought most of his fish wholesale, but selling it retail is just as lucrative, and Allen figures he’s making between $1,500 and $2,000 a week.

It’s after eight when the cleaning, washing and packing is done. The rain has stopped and there’s a rainbow at the far end of the lake. There is gold there where that rainbow ends, says Allen. A couple of old guys were in prospecting last year and found some.

I call this Gold Fish Lake, he adds.

“There’s gold here too.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com