The 2013 Haig-Brown Award Winner

The latest recipient of The Totem Fly Fishers of British Columbia’s prestigious Roderick Haig-Brown Award, Washington State resident Bill McMillan, is a highly-regarded and dedicated—perhaps obsessive—angler, researcher and advocate for wild steelhead and their habitat. McMillan received the award at a Friday May 24 evening meet-and-greet reception in the General Noel Money Library at the Crown Mansion in Qualicum Beach. The reception was sponsored by the British Columbia Federation of Fly Fishers. The BCFFF’s Annual General Meeting and Dinner Banquet was scheduled for the next day in Parkville.

Totem founding member Jim Kilburn presented the Roderick Haig-Brown Award to Bill McMillan with Peter Broomhall looking on.

(The late Karl Haufler, also from Washington State, is the only other out-of-province individual to win the Totem’s Haig-Brown Award. He did so in 1985.)
Twenty-eight individuals or groups have received the honour since B.C.’s oldest fly-fishing club first awarded it in 1978. Jim Kilburn, last of the four members who founded the club in 1968 and now living in Qualicum Beach, presented the award to McMillan.
Several B.C. winners originated outside the province, as did Haig-Brown. The Campbell River author, judge, naturalist, prophet and angler is legendary among writers, anglers, conservationists and environmentalists the world over. He lived most of his life alongside the Campbell River, but was born and raised in England, and lived and worked briefly in Washington State (where he met his wife-to-be, Ann). Haig-Brown arrived in Washington State in December 1926. After his six-month U.S. visa expired, he moved to British Columbia and, after visiting England for most of 1931, returning to B.C., and marrying Ann in 1934, he and Ann settled permanently in Campbell River. He died at his Campbell Riverside home, Above Tide, in October 1976.

Bill’s first book published in 1987 is a steelhead classic
Like Haig-Brown, McMillan has always lived beside rivers, presently the Skagit, in the township of Concrete—a notable irony for one so aware that dams have done and still are doing irreparable damage to sea-going salmonids the world over. McMillan was eight when his father introduced him to steelhead fishing. Like so many others, he began with a fixed-spool spinning reel, lures, and bait. His angling reputation escalated after he switched to the more challenging method of fly fishing. Taking winter-run steelhead on waked dry flies ranks as a dazzling fly-fishing accomplishment.
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McMillan’s research achievements are numerous and noteworthy. He’s dedicated his life to learning about, gathering, collating, recording and sharing information, concerns and ideas about wild steelhead and their habitat. He’s found spawning redds in tiny headwater tributaries previously not known to harbor steelhead. He’s identified a race of “super-athlete” steelhead—the only one of four wild Washougal River stocks able to ascend an upper-watershed waterfall. He’s demonstrated that hatchery steelhead are anathema to wild stocks, that the immense costs of hatchery and mitigation programs are often hidden from public view, and that government agencies are often complicit in the mismanagement of once-abundant but now-declining or already-remnant runs of wild steelhead.

Two of McMillan’s recent written contributions were published in 2012—a notable portion of The Skagit Report and, with co-author biologist son John, May the Rivers Never Sleep. The latter, a well-stocked-with-photographs book, is an unabashed tribute to Haig-Brown’s A River Never Sleeps, published in 1946. The former, a data-, graph- and analysis-packed contribution, is a major baseline-establishing achievement. By establishing the immensity of historic runs of Pacific Northwest steelhead, The Skagit Report warns how costly intractable greed, ignorance and indifference really are. Here are some specifics, mainly about how ruinous hatchery programs have proven to be:
 A habitat-based analysis suggests the historical average annual aggregate run to the Skagit, Baker and Sauk rivers was 78,000 wild-steelhead. A
commercial catch-based analysis suggests historic runs were 10-12 times greater than 1980-2004 estimates. Present-day escapement goals are four to eight percent of historic runs.

 Hatchery stocking data was often conflicting, missing or non-existent.
 “[Increased] stocking of hatchery steelhead resulted in a relatively continuous decline in winter-run steelhead harvests . . . .”

 Wild steelhead return rates declined less than did hatchery return rates.
 Wild smolt interactions with hatchery “conspecifics” and changes in the marine environment might have reduced the basin’s capacity to produce or support previous numbers of juvenile steelhead. Puget
Sound’s marine smolt-to-adult hatchery survival rates were significantly depressed between 1985 and ‘91.

Continued squandering of rich but fragile resources demonstrates that we humans are unlikely to save the planet, or ourselves, from ourselves.
In addition to Bill McMillan the 2013 Haig-Brown Award recipient, there were three previous recipients at Friday evening reception: Peter Caverhill (1980), Pete Broomhall (1988) and Bob Hooton 1998.

A few sentences from the last book Haig-Brown wrote, but didn’t live long enough to see published, provide a fitting conclusion. Bright Waters, Bright Fish: An Examination of Angling in Canada was published posthumously, in 1980. That makes it more than a generation old now. But the book is universal and timeless in its reach, and bright as ever in its significance. Fortuitously, these sentences also speak to and about Bill McMillan:

“Angling, if it is to persist, can only do so as a sport of high principles, strong ethics and intelligent recognition of the true nature of the resource. Such principles, like the ordinary concrete regulations that bind him under the law, are not a burden upon the angler but positive enhancement of his chosen pursuit. To be fit to make proper use of the fishery, he has to bring something more with him than a rod, a line, a hook and a desire to kill a fish.”

Pete Broomhall, May, 2013