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stocking program

John Kendell opens his car door and slips on a pair of Rapala sunglasses. Since only anglers buy eyewear from a company better known for making fish hooks, it's no surprise when he opens the back hatch to reveal a car full of fishing gear. A crumpled pair of chest waders lie below half a dozen rods suspended near the ceiling by a tidy strap system.

He shows off some weightless fly rods and a new centre-pin float reel with a bearing so smooth it seems a gentle breeze could spin out some line. But these trout and salmon outfits won't get wet today. Instead, he grabs a simple spinner reel and a thermometer and walks down to where the Credit River flows underneath the Eglinton Avenue bridge in Mississauga.

The water temperature is 25 degrees. Too hot to risk catching a salmon today, says Mr. Kendell. As the president of the Credit River Anglers Association (CRAA) and head marshal for its corps of conservationist volunteers, he takes fish health seriously. The cold-loving salmon would already be under stress and might suffer from being caught and released. Of course, Mr. Kendell wouldn't actually have been targeting salmon – that's illegal right now – but you can't always dictate what fish takes the bait. While bass fishing two weeks earlier he caught two salmon in the first pool below the bridge.

That might not seem like a big deal to casual observers of the Credit. Anglers come from all over to fish for salmon in the fall. Except these salmon weren't Pacific salmon, artificially stocked for Lake Ontario's commercial fishery. These were Atlantic salmon, a species that hadn't spawned in the Credit for 150 years.

The fish Mr. Kendell caught were probably graduates of a stocking program that has seen the Ministry of Natural Resources release close to a million Atlantic salmon fry in the Credit since 2007. Then again, they may have been native. Last fall, biologists found a dark green fry nosing around a narrow tributary in the Credit's headwaters. DNA tests showed it was the offspring of one of the released fish. Atlantic salmon have returned to the Credit River.

The town nearest that fry's gravel nest is called Terra Cotta. It used to be called Salmonville, but that point of civic pride went belly up in the 19th century. Chris Robinson of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters says tens of thousands of salmon used to climb the Credit annually to spawn. Archives show contracts for local farm labourers that limited how often employers could feed their boarders the apparently too plentiful pink flesh. It was said you couldn't ride a horse through the Credit River without fear of it getting tripped up by salmon.

The bounty didn't last, however. A combination of overfishing, dam construction and deforestation left the river degraded and the salmon a figment of fishermen's tales. Now, more than a century after Atlantic salmon last migrated up the Credit, John Kendell thinks the pieces are in place for their return.

Fisheries are now studied and regulated. Up and down the watershed, dams are being decommissioned to keep water temperatures down and allow fish mobility. Though less than half of the watershed is forested, there are more trees now than there were a century ago. Forest cover is critical to a healthy river because it helps a watershed absorb rainwater into the ground where it is cooled and cleaned before entering a stream through a spring.

As a river that receives large volumes of cool and clean groundwater from the Oak Ridges Moraine and Niagara Escarpment, the MNR judged the Credit to be a good candidate for salmon reintroduction. However, a 10-year water quality study that will soon be released by the Credit Valley Conservation Authority tells its natural heritage manager Bob Morris that there are limits to its natural resiliency.

While Georgetown and Orangeville are discharging less pollution and sewage into the river, urban development continues to fill in the gaps not protected by Ontario's Greenbelt. Establishing lasting improvements is like swimming upstream.

"The subdivisions in Brampton keep marching on," says Mr. Morris. "Our job is never done."

Fortunately, that job is being tackled not just by government oversight, but also by volunteer stewardship.

Mr. Kendall says on any day of the year his organization has up to 10 members out volunteering at a field project, fish ladder or hatchery. He says they've planted more than 400,000 trees, as he points downstream into Erindale Park and describes what the view was like before being obscured by the trees that stabilize the banks and shade the water.

"Our guys put 2,000 trees in a canoe and go out where the Boy Scouts can't get to."

Since he joined CRAA in the early 1990s, the group has helped decommission 23 dams. Twenty years ago the water on Rogers Creek, where the native-born salmon was spotted last year, reached more than 30 degrees—far too warm for Atlantic salmon to survive. After CRAA helped remove two dams on the creek the average temperature dropped nine degrees.

Later this summer a fish ladder will open around a dam in Norval that is currently the river's biggest barrier. CRAA raised $130,000 for the planning of the fish ladder and engaged in years of mediation between the MNR and a landowner who has been steadfast in not allowing a portage around the dam for canoeists. As of this fall, fish will have a concrete conduit.

Mr. Kendell says the work is paying off. Fish counts have recorded more Atlantic salmon coming up through the Streetsville fish ladder to spawn every year, starting with 49 in 2008, 80 in 2009 and an estimated 200 last year. He's predicting between 500 and 800 spawners this year, and is optimistic that there might be a catch-and-release sport fishery for Credit River Atlantic salmon within five years.

If so, the Atlantic salmon season, which is perfectly offset from that of rainbow trout, will fill a summertime void, allowing for year-round salmon and trout fishing. He says the Credit fishery is already worth more than a million dollars annually to the Mississauga economy and points across the lake to Pulaski, N.Y., where he says salmon fishing supports 50 tackle shops and the same number of guides.

"You can't get a hotel room there in September or October," says Mr. Kendell.

Of course, it's not just anglers and the economy that will benefit from the salmon's return, but the Credit River itself. Mr. Kendell says as the river becomes healthier people treat it better. Twenty-five years ago they used to truck bags of garbage out of riverside parks. Today, they don't even hold annual cleanup days.

"When people see we've brought this river back to the point that it supports a species we once wiped out, they might think twice about dumping fertilizer on their lawn or salt on their driveway," says Mr. Kendell. "Maybe fish can help people care more."

There's little doubt Mr. Kendell cares, and not just about fish. "I don't even need a rod," he says. "Standing in the shade and looking at the river for an hour can be enough for me." Presumably his heart rate would quicken at least a little if he glimpsed a flash of silver heading back upstream.

Special to The Globe and Mail