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Joe Saysell, a now-retired local fishing guide, stands along the banks of the Cowichan River near Lake Cowichan.

Deddeda Stemler/The Globe and Mail

Between them, the group of veteran anglers have more than 200 years of experience fishing the Cowichan River – and they think that gives them the right to tell the government how the river on southern Vancouver Island should be managed.

It's hard to argue otherwise because the group, which gathered for a formative meeting on the banks of the Cowichan last week, represents an astonishing collection of wisdom.

David Anderson was there, a former federal fisheries minister. For many years he was the environmental conscience of the government led by the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

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So was Bob Hooton, who was perhaps British Columbia's most eminent (and certainly most outspoken) steelhead biologist when he retired in 2008, after 37 years of exemplary government service.

Another member of the group was retired conservation officer, Gary Horncastle. He once tried to save an elk that was tangled in barbed wire by giving it CPR. The elk died, but the fact that Mr. Horncastle tried to revive a seven-point bull, weighing more than 350 kilograms, tells you something about his character. He's no quitter, that's for sure.

And neither is Joe Saysell, the retired fishing guide who has spent his entire life on the Cowichan, and who convened the group at his home because he felt his beloved river was in dire need of help.

"I've been watching the fish stocks on this river go down for a decade. It's time we did something about this," he said.

Mr. Saysell, with 60 years of experience on the river, knows the Cowichan better than anyone and has spent much of his adult life fighting to protect it. His efforts are largely responsible for the green corridor that lines both banks of the upper river.

"I wanted to get a small, influential, knowledgeable group together. A group that would put fish first, and wouldn't be afraid to speak out," he said. "We've got to get away from that old concept of managing [the resource] for the fishermen. If we manage for the fish, in the end, both the fishermen and the fish are looked after. But if we manage for the fishermen, in the end, the fish lose."

The group is calling itself, Friends of the Cowichan. But given their collective age and experience, perhaps River Elders might have been a better name.

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Sports anglers in B.C. number more than 300,000 and they have no shortage of groups that speak out on their behalf.

But Mr. Saysell said most angler organizations are concerned primarily with providing "more fishing opportunities," and that means lobbying for fewer gear restrictions and longer fishing seasons.

The Friends of the Cowichan want the opposite.

"We have protected the habitat on this river with the green corridor. Now, the only way left to protect fish is through more stringent fishing regulations," said Mr. Saysell. "We want to make it harder, not easier, to catch fish."

That will put him up against groups like the B.C. Wildlife Federation and the B.C. Federation of DriftFishers.

"I never thought that I'd be fighting fishermen, but then I always thought fishermen would put fish first. Sadly, things have changed," said Mr. Saysell. "Now a lot of fishermen only think about how many fish they can catch. The sport to them is about putting up big numbers, so they can brag to their buddies. And they don't care how or where they fish."

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Mr. Saysell said he regularly sees anglers fishing over spawning grounds, using eggs for bait, which fish can't resist. Or he sees anglers using a technique known as "flossing," in which a long line is drifted through a school of salmon, until it slips into the open mouth of a breathing fish. Then the angler yanks the hook home, snagging the fish on the outside of its mouth.

"There are times and places to fish. The spawning grounds isn't one of those places," said Mr. Saysell. "And snagging shouldn't happen anywhere, ever."

He said his group hopes to start talking to government officials this week.

It is going to be hard to ignore the Cowichan's new voice of reason.

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