The Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association Then and Now

by Jack Osadzuk

The Early Years - 

      This year 2021, the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association (SSA) celebrates 74 years of conservation (1947-2021).  The original roots of this great conservation organization; and for that matter perhaps even a part of the origin of fish and wildlife conservation in Ontario began in North-Grey more than 160 years ago.

      Many believe that the first Fish and Game Protective Association in the Province of Ontario was formed prior the year 1857 and that this association was located in North-Grey County.                                                    

       Like most organizations, its initial start occurred in a very small way when a local lawyer and his angling and hunting associates became alarmed over certain depletions of fish and game. They felt these depletions were attributed to over-harvesting and the un-sportsman-like harvesting methods employed by some individuals.

       The formation of a Fish and Game Protective Association stemmed from the recognition of the need to create a united voice to lobby for legislation and regulations, to help in the prevention of these depletions; particularly at a time when market hunting and fishing was a common practice.

         An April 3, 1867 notice in the Owen Sound Comet announced that the Owen Sound Game & Fish Protection Society was holding their Annual Meeting and Election of Officers and transaction of general business on Monday, April 18, 1867.

        Another article in an 1894 edition of the Owen Sound Times stated “The Pottawatomie [sic] Angler’s Club was prosecuting trespassers”.

         It is believed that from out of this club another Pottawatomi River based angler’s organization emerged. Founded in 1914 and incorporated in 1916, the Rockcliff Angler’s Club was likely one of the earlier outdoors clubs to culture and stock trout. The group raised Brook trout in concrete rearing ponds on Maxwell’s Creek, a tributary of the Pottawatomi River.

        In 1925, surviving members from these earlier groups along with other local groups – such as the Sydenham Fishing Club – together with some three-hundred North-Grey & Bruce Counties’ representative residents, organized further to form an association with the motto “Conservation is Our Aim”. This larger group of sportsmen and their affiliated clubs became known as The Grey and Bruce Counties Fish and Game Protective Association; a title that is still engraved on some of the present Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association’s fishing trophies. In the early 1930’s members of the Protective Association successfully lobbied the province of Ontario to have a proposed new provincial fish hatchery built on the headwaters of the Sydenham River southwest of Chatsworth. The Chatsworth Fish Culture Station was built in 1935. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters presented the Grey & Bruce Counties Fish & Game Protective Association with the prestigious Mary Pickford Conservation Award as the outstanding conservation club in Ontario for the year 1940.

        In 1946, the reorganization was about to take place once again. According to a short history prepared by Wm. Ingles which indicated to this point in time – with the exception of interruptions to normal life caused by two world wars – fish and game conservation in North-Grey had been well served for over ninety years by the succession of these groups of conservation-minded sportsmen.

        Because the strong conservation movement led by outdoors sportsmen had led to the creation of many such conservation groups throughout Grey and Bruce Counties, it was decided locally that a reorganization and name change should be made to better identify the local group.

         At the annual general meeting of the Grey and Bruce Counties Fish and Game Protective Association held at the Royal Canadian Legion in Owen Sound in 1947, the membership made a decision and voted to change the name of the organization to the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association. The original purposes and objectives of the former association were retained as well as the motto “Conservation is Our Aim”.

          John W. Allen was elected to serve as the first president of the newly christened association. Best known as Johnny Allen, he was for the most part of three decades” Mr. Sydenham Sportsman”.

          From their very beginnings, local fish and game protective associations were the voice of the angler, hunter, trapper, conservationist and naturalist and their membership represented every element of society. 

         Down through the years, the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association has in all its projects and resolutions, worked with conservation as its prime objective. Other purposes of the association are to provide recreational opportunities, establish and maintain sportsman-landowner relationships, promote, protect and enhance our heritage activities, educate and inform the public, and most importantly, foster a love and respect for wildlife and natural resources in young people.

          For six decades since the 1940’s the association had both leased and been granted access to approximately six miles of the upper Sydenham River by very generous landowners, in an effort to keep these waters open for public angling. Through this arrangement, a solid sportsman-landowner relationship developed which allowed the association to carry on a very active and extensive stream enhancement program. The fact that the public was allowed to access the river for fishing opportunities made it easier to lobby government for fish stocking and permission to do steam rehabilitation work.

        Stream rehabilitation and improvement work done by the SSA on the Sydenham River, the Pottawatomi River, the Spey River, Bothwell Creek, Keefer Creek, Maxwell Creek and some Big Head River tributaries, has been much more than the grooming or creation of areas for spawning and creating nursery areas for juvenile trout. In some cases, it also included the installing of baffle and deflector logs and boulders to increase the river current flow in certain areas, riverbank stabilization and fencing to protect both riverbanks and small feeder springs by limiting livestock access to specific and safer water locations.

          When re-opened and protected, small feeder springs that had been trampled into the ground by cattle helped increase the river’s water levels and flow as well as raising oxygen levels and lowering water temperatures. Riverbank stabilization by the planting of trees, grasses and shrubbery not only provided bank stability but also habitat and food sources for birds and other wildlife as well as shade that helped reduce water temperature. Landowners were encouraged when ploughing their land to leave a wider buffer along the river bank. 

          Members and landowners saw the results of this type of effort in habitat restoration. The overall health and condition of the Sydenham River especially, dramatically improved as did the populations of fish and wildlife, who with their very lives depend on a healthy environment.

          The lack of an adequate and healthy environment for spawning Rainbow trout below the Mill Dam on the Sydenham River, lead the association into an early project to help move fish upstream and into the Harrison Park – Inglis Falls area of the river.

          In 1952, the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association built and installed the first fish ladder at the Owen Sound Mill Dam. The steel structure was 55 feet in length and 34 inches wide and weighing 2,600 pounds. The ladder, designed by and under the direction of SSA past-president Jack Edgar was built by fellow SSA volunteer workers in their spare time as employees at the Russel Brothers Limited, Owen Sound facility. Following the installation, SSA members maintained the ladder and monitored its success.

          The reconstruction of the Mill Dam in 1959 by the North Grey Conservation Authority and the Province of Ontario provided the opportunity to install a permanent fish ladder. This new concrete ladder was Ontario’s first Provincial Fish-way to aid migrating salmonids. This was prior to Chinook salmon stocking in the Great Lakes.  Rainbow and Brown trout were the species migrating through the fish-way at that time.  

          For the twenty-two years following the 1947 name change, the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association continued on as it had in the past – doing great work for conservation, but still holding general meetings in rented or donated locations, with executive meetings often held at the home of the present chairman. The need for a home for the association became paramount in the minds of SSA members.

        On November 25th, 1969 the association purchased fifty-five acres of land in Derby Township from Lyman John Williton at RR #3, Owen Sound. The property is bordered on the west by Concession 3 Derby and on the east by the Sydenham River. 

        Three years later in 1972, during the 25th anniversary year of the SSA, the association applied for and received its letters patent and became incorporated as a non-profit corporation. SSA members were issued a small Charter Member Certificate indicating they were a SSA member at the time of incorporation. 

        During the ten years following the 1969 purchase of their property, SSA members worked to shape the fifty-five acres into recreational and wildlife-friendly areas. It took a lot of effort to clear the property which had become over-run with scrub and undesirable growth, but eventually, roads, trap, rifle, and shotgun, as well as archery ranges, were established. Storage buildings, hydro and equipment purchases also became realities. But the ultimate decision for many members, who knew that the association needed a headquarters of its own, was made when SSA President John Ford called an emergency general meeting to be held at the club property on June 28, 1979. A total of forty-eight members attended to discuss the proposal and survey several building plan options presented by the building committee, comprised of SSA members Tom Currie, Harold Hutchinson, Gerry Hilchey, Wayne Ferrier, Bev Harron, Fred Geberdt and John Ford. The mortgage on the property had been burned and a vote by the members to build was unanimous. Debentures were sold to help finance the initial costs, members rolled up their sleeves, brought their tools, equipment and talents and construction began. The first general meeting held in the new clubhouse was on March 6, 1980.


Fish Culture and the Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular

         To answer the old question “which came first . . .” In the case of the Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular, it definitely was the egg.

        The Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association fish culture program began in 1982 with an upwelling egg box installed in Weaver’s Creek below the swimming pool in Harrison Park. The first eggs that the SSA hatched by this process were Rainbow trout. After several modifications and additions to the original process in an attempt to offset conditions of nature and reduce fry mortality, the club realized in 1984, they needed a far more effective system located elsewhere and contained in a small building with a good water supply available.

        Within a short period of time the Weaver family was contacted for permission to erect a small garage size building and also tap into the fresh water source that formed the headwaters of Weaver’s Creek on their farm property located at the base of the Creamery Hill, southwest of Owen Sound. The Weavers accepted the club’s proposal and a leasing agreement worked out. The Ministry of Natural resources approved the site and hatchery arrangement and in short order the SSA erected a small building.

        Later the same year, the Weavers allowed the club to double the size of the building to accommodate raceway tanks thus doing away with the upwelling egg box. The hatchery was now producing both Rainbow and Brown trout.

        In 1985 the Weaver family again generously allowed the construction of a second hatchery building and a year later in 1986, the SSA stocked the first Chinook salmon into Georgian Bay.

        That year, as well as raising and stocking 200,000 Chinook salmon, the SSA raised and stocked 100,000 Rainbow trout and 100,000 Brown trout.

        Over the following years, through hard work and experience by SSA volunteers, the hatcheries, raceways and tanks, as well as hatchery and stocking procedures evolved in a positive manner to become better labour and cost efficient. However, the expense of operating a fish hatchery even with volunteer labour is enormous and the Sydenham Sportsmen needed a method to finance the operation.

        During their early years of fish culture, the SSA ran three very successful annual sport-fishing symposiums and tackle trade shows. Organized by a dedicated committee, they brought in renowned speakers and experts from both Canada and the United States, to educate the angling public about the exciting new salmon fishery. Proceeds from these symposiums were used to start the SSA on its way into their hatchery operation and salmon stocking program.

       The idea of creating a salmon derby as a method of financing the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association’s fish hatchery operations was first spawned in the mid 1980’s when a group of SSA members rented accommodations at Sauble Beach to fish the Chantry Chinook Classic – one of Lake Huron’s first salmon fishing derbies. Due to some rough Lake Huron water conditions, the group spent considerable time on shore discussing the fishery and the possibility of a derby. Chinook salmon had been showing up in Georgian Bay tributaries for some time and the concept of an Owen Sound based salmon derby sounded feasible.

        A committee was struck and the dates of August 26 to September 4, 1988 were set for the first Annual Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular and as they say “the rest is history”. 

        How we got here is not only due to some great leadership and the tremendous effort of the army of more than three hundred talented and energetic volunteers who work so hard doing set-up, take-down and the hundreds of tasks during the hectic ten day event; but also a small core of dedicated individuals who put a twelve month effort into each year’s derby. Some of these members have been actively involved for every year of the event and even further back – to the time prior to “derby days” and hatchery operations – when the fundraising event was an annual fishing symposium and tackle trade show.

        Thanks to these “Salmon for the Sound” pioneers and the committee members and volunteers both past and present, we have a Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association volunteer operated fish hatchery and a tremendous local fishing event, that has evolved into one of Canada’s premier family fishing festivals.

        Salmon Spectacular sponsors have been a critical element in our success and they all deserve our thanks and support. We are extremely proud of our local sponsors and especially our friends at the Georgian Shores Marina, (formerly the Owen Sound Marina) who have for all of our spectacular years been most gracious in donating the use of a large area of their marina property as the official and ever expanding Salmon Spectacular site. They have had to put up with a lot of disruptions to their marina and operations as a result of the overwhelming vehicle traffic through their property at derby time. We can’t thank them enough for their generosity and patience.

        From its humble beginnings in 1988, to an event that attracts thousands to enter the contest or to take part in the activities and entertainment held in the big tent every day of the ten-day salmon festival, the Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular has become everything that the organizers could have ever hoped it would be.

        It is difficult to imagine in hindsight, the tremendous amount of effort and dedication put forth by the volunteer members of the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association during this period of development and operation of their fish hatcheries and the creation and operation of a major event as large as the Salmon Spectacular.

        The hatcheries are a full twelve month operation, with egg taking from wild fish in both the spring and fall of the year – Rainbow trout in the spring and Chinook salmon in the fall. Fish stocking also occurs at various times of the year and add to that a full schedule of hatchery duties and maintenance. To date, the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association has raised and stocked millions of fish, including Chinook salmon, Rainbow and Brown trout and Skamania from their volunteer run community hatchery into the Sydenham and Pottawatomi Rivers and Georgian Bay,  

         The Salmon Spectacular is also a full twelve month operation, with sponsor and entertainment contacts and planning for the upcoming year’s event taking place before the current year’s Salmon Spectacular has completed.


Staying the Course    

         While the hatchery and derby would have been a full plate for most volunteer organizations, the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association continued on as well with the other activities and projects they were known for. Their stream enhancement and restoration projects, forestry and wildlife projects all continued, earning the SSA and its members, awards and recognition for their conservation efforts.

        During the mid 1990’s The Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association with the co-operation of the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority completed two artificial Spawning channels in the mid-stretches of the Sydenham River that measure almost a mile in length; providing perfect spawning conditions for Rainbow trout, Brown trout, Brook trout and Chinook salmon. The successful planning, construction and maintenance of the spawning channels are the result of thousands of man-hours, tons of washed gravel, strategic placement of logs and boulders and dedicated volunteers. The results have been the recruitment of tens of thousands of wild trout and salmon into the fishery. 

        Even though the Sydenham Sportsmen had all this going on, they still found time to further develop and increase the size of their club property which allowed them to create a wildlife demonstration area and woodworking shop in a building included in the purchase. They also put an addition onto their clubhouse that more than tripled its size and included full kitchen facilities, washrooms and basement storage.

         The SSA has a very active Wildlife Advisory Committee and a core of volunteers that has not only been responsible for the planting of thousands of trees, but also the construction, erection, inspection,  recording and maintenance of more than 6,000 Bluebird nesting boxes, installed from Manitoulin Island to Orangeville. Wood duck nesting boxes and mallard nests, kestrel houses, bat boxes and other types of bird structures have also been built and installed by the wildlife committee.

         Some specific wildlife oriented projects include: Arran Lake and Isaac Lake mallard nest structures – Long Swamp deer yard enhancement – Derby Tract apple tree release cutting – Wetlands Wood duck box erection, recording and maintenance – McNabb Lake wetland beaver baffler installation – Conservation Authority forest access trails – Fencing to protect wildlife habitat against cattle and ATV’s. 

        An important sub-committee acts as a wildlife emergency response group to address fish & wildlife situations that require swift action such as emergency deer yard feeding and trail tramping when winter severity stresses become critical. With MNRF approval, the committee has rescued and released into Georgian Bay, numerous adult rainbow trout that would have perished after they became stranded in streams due to low water conditions.

         SSA members participated in the planning, funding, live-trapping and release of wild turkeys in what was a most successful reintroduction of one of Ontario’s native species. 

           Members of the SSA Shooting Sports Committee have every reason to be proud and boastful about their program and excellent outdoor shooting ranges, which were one of the first in Ontario to be approved by the Chief Provincial Firearms Office, under the authority of The Firearms Act of Canada.

         The objective of the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association shooting sports program is to promote all shooting sports as a valuable recreational activity. And to provide our members and their guests with optimum safe shooting opportunities on shooting ranges that meet and exceed all Provincial and Federal shooting range safety and operational standards. The SSA range facilities have been utilized by enforcement and security agencies as well as other groups to obtain their firearm instruction, practice and certification requirements.

        SSA shooting opportunities that exist are: trap, skeet and sporting clays, shotgun, .22 cal and high power rifle ranges, handgun range and a stationary practice and trail range for archery. There is also a Cowboy Action Shooting group within the membership; specializing in the use of older types of firearms.

         Several SSA members are certified firearms instructors and offer firearms training courses for members wishing to obtain their firearms licence. 

         Affiliation as a member club of The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), Ontario’s largest non-profit, conservation-based organization representing 100,000 members, subscribers and supporters, and 740 member clubs, is another way that the SSA has been successful in achieving many of their conservation objectives over the years. With the support of this organization with a staff of highly qualified and dedicated professionals, issues of local, provincial or national concern are often resolved with government agencies that respect and recognize the credibility of the OFAH and its affiliate clubs.

        This past year (2020) a dedicated group of SSA volunteers ran their 25th Annual SSA/OFAH Conservation Dinner & Auction; a successful and important fund raising event creating funding for important conservation work.

        Describing all the projects, activities and achievements of the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association and the contributions by many of its outstanding members in any print form less than a large history book is almost impossible. So what you have read is a sort of rambling and much less than complete account of who we are and what we do.

        The SSA is an organization comprising of over 600 members of all ages and gender, who come from all walks of life and share a common passion for nature and the outdoors. The outdoor interests of our members individually are varied, but we are united in our role as conservationists. Our motto “Conservation is our aim” . . . is both a motto and a purpose the SSA proudly inherited  from their former organization.

             The Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association extends an open invitation to non-members and guests to take in the SSA monthly meetings at the clubhouse located on Concession 3 Derby,  in the municipality of Georgian Bluffs (Fire #082535).

           Meetings are normally held on the first Thursday of each month, excluding July and August, starting at 7:30 p.m.

             The SSA monthly meetings offer an evening of fun, fellowship, a rundown on club activities, news on outdoor issues, plus some exciting door prizes usually along with an informative guest speaker.

              The welcome mat is out . . . . Please join us at one of our meetings.

During the early SSA hatchery construction phases and especially the raising of Brown trout, the late Phil Hartman, a retired former manager of the MNRF Chatsworth Fish Hatchery generously volunteered much of his time and valued advice towards the success of the early SSA hatchery operations.

Our Club Facilities

The SSA prides itself on being able to offer members and their guests a fine array of sporting facilities. In addition to the clubhouse they also include the following APPROVED shooting ranges:

Many natural features of our site also provide excellent settings for other sporting pursuits. The Sydenham River flows through the back of the SSA property and provides excellent fishing opportunities for Brown Trout in season. We also boast extensive cedar lowlands which provide excellent viewing opportunities for wildlife and many bird species.

The Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association is proud to be affiliated with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, a 100,000 member, subscriber and supporter provincial conservation organization. As a member of the SSA, you are automatically a member of this most worthwhile organization which includes $5,000,000 liability insurance and monthly communication through the Ontario Out of Doors magazine.

Please note: Due to misuse and vandalism, SSA facilities are NOT OPEN to non-members except when invited by a member who is present on the property.

Public Events

The SSA is involved in many local public events.  Please see our website Event Calendar for dates and times.

Community Outreach

Youth Expo (Involving youth in outdoor pursuits)