Don’s First Fish – A Slightly Tongue in Cheek Tale of Tyee Fishing
As told by Brian Isfeld

In early spring 1992 I was in Tyee Marine looking for some “worms”, whence I first met Ted Milbrandt, “The Professor, as he is fondly known to some. One thing led to another and he became the owner of my old 1956 Elto outboard, a little 2 cylinder 5 hp motor with which Ted was to ferry himself and his anglers to and from the Tyee Pool in the quest for fish which they would then register and pile up in their memory pools.

Part of the deal was two trips in this “Tyee Pool”, which I had no inkling existed until it was explained by Ted just what it was that went on there from 15 July till 15 Sept every year. I heard stories of giant fish escaping, of anglers trying for years and years to land the elusive big Chinook weighing at least 30 lbs, and hopefully much more. I was intrigued.

To make a long story short, in the early part of August 1992 Ted made me get up out of my comfortable bed in Courtenay, at the unholy hour of 3AM, and drive to Campbell River where we go out to “The Spit” and fumble around in the dark for about fifteen minutes, getting into this tiny little narrow craft he called a boat, and we were off for my first attempt at the famous Tyee of Campbell River.

Minutes after putting this weird looking little plug, that Ted said was his best “Skinny Wallace”, into the water near Frenchman’s Pool, a fish interrupted my reverie and after suitable time of fighting the same, we landed it. We both had a look at it and said, “Oh, about 25 lbs”, so he unceremoniously dumped it on the floor of his boat between his feet and we angled on.

About two hours later I was in great need of relieving myself of all the morning coffee I had consumed, so we stopped in at Painters Lodge wharf, and as an afterthought stuck the fish on their scale, which registered 31 lbs. Ted got the little craft he called a boat “on the step” rowing back over to the Clubhouse and after duly weighing the fish in officially at 31 lbs, and signing all the proper documentation, I was a member of the Tyee Club.

Hell, nothing to this fishing. Just go out early and catch one. They should change the name to “Catching”. Ten minutes in the pool, put one in the boat, then row it around for another two hours and take it to the clubhouse to get your pin, and that’s all it takes. I like this, I think I will get me a boat and go catching. So I did, and over the years found out the name was proper, it was not “catching”, it was fishing, and fishing of the sort that only one who experiences it could really understand a little bit of the mystique surrounding it.

Fast forward to August 11, 2000

In the subsequent years from my first fish I have made many acquaintances around the fire at the clubhouse and out on the water and at either Tim Hortons or the “Quinny” for a gut wrenching breakfast.

One of these friends is one Don McPhee, an individual who, in concert with me, could give true meaning to “The Odd Couple”: He would be Felix, the impeccable dresser, the kind of guy who automatically repels catsup stains and dirt. The kind of guy who arrives to go fishing with creases in his trousers. Perfect creases right down the middle of the leg, and only one solid crease, not two where the iron slipped. The kind of guy who if the wind blows, his hair automatically combs itself back to perfection. The kind of guy who likes Islander reels and Sage rods. The kind of guy who likes good scotch (of which I’m here to tell you does not exist, there is no such thing as good scotch.), and expensive Cuban cigars. (He doesn’t get many, but he likes them.)

I, on the other hand, am just a wee bit like “Oscar”. I am the type of guy that can make a suit that cost 3000 dollars, and by the simple act of donning it, make it look like a cast off from a back at the local dump, newly found. Tailors hate me. They even cringe at the “Goodwill Store” when I go there looking for something to wear.

And to top it off, Don has been out on the water 54 times fishing for the elusive 30 pounder to make him a member and has yet to have a fish of such gargantuan proportions in the boat.

The two of us arrive at the Tyee club, on the 11th Aug 2000 to maybe do a bit of fishing. We are sitting at the bench by the fire pit when Norm Lee comes up the walkway from the beach on his way to get some lunch. He jokingly says on his way through, “There’s the boat guys, can’t catch fish on shore you know.” “Make sure the tide doesn’t get it and take it away”. “I’ll be back around six thirty, I have a couple to take out tonight.”

Troy Winslow from California is there, and Mike Rippingale, famous fishing guide and weigh master at the Tyee Club, who is a great friend of Don’s and for that matter, of everyone who ever meets him.

We sit around and smoke a couple of cigarettes, talk a lot about nothing, and about five PM I say to Don, “Well there’s Norm’s boat and our gear is in the car and what the heck, let’s go out for a half hour or so”. Don is not hard to talk into going out in a boat to chase the elusive big chief. I secretly believe he has this horrible deep seated fear that he is going to have to remain an “Outsider” as far as membership in the club is concerned, for the rest of his life. After all, 54 times in a boat and not catching a fish??

So, the “Odd Couple”, Klutz and Klutzier “steal” Norm’s boat and off we go a-fishing.

The tide is running in a horrible way not conducive to me rowing properly. (It never is. One thing I can’t seem to master is the art of rowing properly.) I slip Norm’s boat out into the area where we will let out our line in the proscribed way, and we have a little time fishing. I am rowing intently, not watching too close where the tide is taking me and the next thing I know the tide gods have sucked me in, and we are at the South Corner, and I am rowing like stink just to keep the boat from heading down past Painters Lodge and thence on to Orange Point. Which, if that happens I will be in a heap of ca-ca ‘cause Norm’s coming back for his boat at 6:30 PM and if it’s not there I might never be able to row again with two broken arms – courtesy of Norm. (I know that he is too much of a gentleman to do that – I hope!)

I nose the boat towards the shoreline strenuously rowing, all the while Don sitting in the angler’s seat like a huge, immaculate, clean, Buddha taking in the beauty of the surroundings, while listening to me hurling epithets at the tide and grunting like a pig, turning a deep shade of purplish red, almost like a red grape. We finally make it to a point opposite the Tyee club, where we are encouraged greatly by the admonishments of Troy and Mike who have been watching me struggle with Herculean effort to get back to the club.

On arriving I look around and spot the extra set of oars that Norm has in his “Tyee Spirit” boat, and I’m looking around now for something a little heavier than a fish bonker to kill Don with, when a challenge comes from the shore. “You giving up?” this, from that dastardly infestation Campbell River gets from California each Tyee season, Troy Winslow.

I have in my box a Gibbs number 8 straight off the shelf on which I have thrown a combination of colour, experimenting with a spoon. I tie it on and row thirty feet off shore, yes, I said thirty feet, and in a calm and collected voice I say to Don the Buddha, “throw the dear thing gently over the side and give me twelve pulls please kind sir”.

Don does my bidding, and as he is counting out 6, 7, 8, oh my dear I think to myself. We seem to have made contact with bottom and we will be stuck on some weeds and I might lose my precious untested spoon. Don is still counting intently 9, 10 – wait a minute, I think to myself. The bottom does not move, and line cannot go by itself through the water, yet the line is moving away from us while all the while Don is still counting. 11 – and I’m thinking to myself, “good gracious Don, we seem to having something live on the end of your stick; I think you should lift the rod up and attempt to impale the unknown live creature so we can perhaps have a short time of unfettered fun.” Of course this is all happening within nano seconds. Don has by this time figured it out, the IS something live there and he strikes it with vigor. The fish streaks away taking the line, and of course because Don likes nice reels, I can’t hear his Islander with its silky smooth clicker, so I don’t know when the fish is running or resting. And all this time in the back of my mind is, “I gotta get this boat on shore soon.” “Norm will come back and he might get a little perturbed and say nasty things to us.” The fight goes on and Don masterfully fights the behemoth to near submission and it is coming close to the boat.

Now, I like those newfangled Metzler weight systems that slide up and down the line and are held in with a cribbage peg or toothpick or whatever piece of something you can find to keep it from continually sliding down the line. So of course, when Don reaches the weight on the line and attempts to continue reeling through the pressure of the peg, it stops like the brakes on a Mack truck, newly serviced.

He turns to me and in a gentle voice says, “Mr. Guide, I cannot get the reel to bring the line through the weight system so I can get the fish closer to the boat to enable you, the guide, to put it in a net and thus make it come in to the boat.” I say, “Oh dear sir, since I am the guide and I can release the weight legally, please let me have a closer look at it and perhaps I shall be able to release the peg thus allowing you to continue your fight to get the fish close to the boat so that I, the guide, may get a net over the creature and thus heave it in to the boat.”

Mike Rippengale, who I mentioned before, has witnessed a few minutes of the goings on out in the Tyee Spirit boat, and wisely he says to no one in particular, “I think I will go over to the boat mooring by Rush Air and check the boats”. He leaves, not wanting to be a witness to the fiasco building up in the boat with Klutz and Klutzier.

The California scourge is hurling unwanted, unwarranted and completely useless advice from his vantage point on the shore, between belly laughs.

Don dutifully points his rod tip back toward me; I stand up and grab the weight, the line by this time is slack and the peg is stuck in the tube almost like somebody put crazy glue in it. I reef it out and say to my dear angler friend, “Kind sir, there is a distinct possibility that whatever was on the end of your line has by now departed for the deep of the outer channel and you will just have to reel in and we will get this boat on shore, so when Norm comes back it will be there for him to take his guest out for a serene evening of Tyee fishing.” But that is not to be. A couple of turns of the silent Islander and the line is now taut and moving with great speed away from the boat once more, heading for points unknown.

“My goodness,” I think to myself, “It is still there.” “Perhaps my friend the Buddha will get this in to where I can net it after all.” And he does. The fish makes one pass near the boat and puts several gallons of water into the boat with his tail and then heads once again for those points unknown. But this time not so far. He comes in toward the boat again and I say to my dear friend Donald, “Well, Don, I think I shall put the oars down and get ready to net the fish this time.” “Please attempt to get him to swim alongside the boat nicely since if he goes for another run I will have to install the oars and drop the net and get set up to row again, and as you know, our time is getting short because Norm is going to show up from lunch and he will definitely want his boat.”

Don dutifully steers the fish alongside the boat and he is swimming along nicely, very quiet, and about four feet below the surface of the water. Time is running out, so I say to Don, “My dear fellow, I think I must try to get this fish in to the boat right now, despite the fact that it is four feet below the surface and it is still green, which of course you know means that the fish still has considerable life left in him and may at any time decide to strip a hundred yards off your reel, at which time we will have to cut the line and let it go because Norm is going to be here soon and I don’t want to feel any more pain over this little boating trip than I already have.”

“Yes indeed, good sir guide,” says the impeccable Scotsman, formerly of Winnipeg, Manitoba. “By all means try to get the thing into the boat and we shall then depart for the clubhouse, which is only fifty feet away anyway and we should make it in time then.”

So I plunge the net into the water, calculating the distance and compensating for parallax error, and it arrives duly directly in front of said fish. A slight movement to the rear by me to the handle, then point the handle straight up in the air and the fish is in the bag. I am, by now, almost the colour of a concord grape, breathing heavily, and beginning to think of things like, “Heart should not be going so fast.” “Why are my hands tingly?” “Why is everything going blurry?” “Why has Don got a big grin on him?” “Or is that Don I see?” “Could it be the Angel of Mercy come to put me out of my misery?”

No, it is Don and the fish is in the boat. No time for any more epithets or jolly conversation. I got to get this boat back to shore, or I am dead meat!

Back to the shore. Heave the slimy, beautiful creature over the gunwale and race up the beach. Fish on the scale. “My goodness, Donald, it is 30 and one half pounds.” “You can sit with the other members now and wear the bronze pin that denotes you have skillfully and gracefully entered into the mystic membership of the Tyee Club of British Columbia.” “And it only took you 55 tides.” “54 times in a boat with no success and once WITH success on the 55th try and look at you now!”

The only time I have ever seen a 70 plus year old man look like a 16 year old who has scored his first kiss on a date, is that day. Don is talking but all it sounds like is, “Blurba blurb ekkka immmm fisssss meeeemm Helen I dubba dubba home.”

“Ok Don,” I say, “but first I got to clean up the boat and get it ready for Norm.” Too late. Here comes Norm through the gate. He heard the bell ring denoting another Tyee registered at the club. A bewildered look on his face. “What, who…” “My boat.” “How…” He takes one look at me and my purple face, going down the beach to get the slime and weed out of his boat, and says so very graciously, “Never mind, I will clean it up. Just don’t die on me right here and now. I have to go fishing tonight and that will disrupt my fishing.”

Don is still up on the grass of the Tyee Club looking down at the fish now laying on the grass. He looks like the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square in London. Frozen in time and space, not a muscle moving, not a twitch and not a sound coming from him. If I was a pigeon that day I would have had a field day!

I have at least the energy left to take some pictures to capture the event, and believe me it was an event!

Mike takes the fish down to the beach to clean it for Don, I am getting a little of my strength back, my heart rate is down to about 180, and I have the feeling now that I might live to fish another day.

Don has regained his demeanor by now and is talking once more in English. He is of course in a hurry to get home because by now it is almost 7PM and that is martini time. If he hurries he can score twice in one day – catch his first Tyee and still make martini time ON time. And of course he wants to show his dear wife the fish he has so masterfully vanquished. And he does when he gets home and she has some comments to him, but that is another story that you will have to ask him about.

As for me, I have analized the day. I have come to conclusions. The main conclusion I have come to after careful consideration of all that unfolded during that encounter with the Tyee is this; if God deems you are going to get a fish on any given day, you will hook that fish, and you will get that fish in the boat no matter how hard you try to lose it. We are living proof of that!

Brian Isfeld