TYEE TALES – Lee Gerhard

Foghorns and Fish

Foghorns woke me this morning. Lying sleepily abed after daylight broke, the drift of fog obscured the rising sun, I remembered that I was not in Kansas anymore. But I might be fishing in a fog very soon.

Fishing in the Tyee Pool during a fog can be exciting. On the water, the fog is impenetrable, landmarks very hard to distinguish, and yet, the rower needs to place the tiny rowboat in precise position over the bar, off the bar, or on the corners. And that can only be done if the rower’s marks are visible. The tree over the V in the shed roofline, the gap in the timber where the power lines rise out of the valley directly in line with the tall tree over the campground, the mill stack against the junction of two mountains in the distance, such are the modern navigational aides of the rowers. No GPS here, no electronic gadgets to assist the humans. But in the fog, dead reckoning and years of experience and attention to detail are the backups.

I wonder how our guide so instinctively knows where we are, where we need to be, and how to fish the swirling tidal waters. Fishing in my usual lakes, ponds, and rivers does not prepare me for tidal waters. In my waters, I know where the seams lie, where the fish lie, how the water moves, and what the bottom looks like. I understand the flow, the effects of hidden rocks on surface flow, and I can read the surface to detect the hidden. On tidal waters I am lost. After many years of studying these waters two weeks at a time, I know that the bottom changes, there is a bar, its general direction, and I can imagine a small portion of the effects of the bottom topography upon the swirling currents. But not much. Tidal waters flow with minute by minute variations in intensity. Eddies and back eddies form and dissipate, and current lines swing wildly as the tide rises or falls, all at different speeds. Our guides know all of this, and predict when and where to be. They see the interaction of the river waters with the tidal currents on the ebb, and the surge of seawater over the bar on the flood. But I still can’t.

Guides know how to detect a change in the beat of a spoons, any minute variation in the incessant bobbing of the rod tip, or note the tiny skip in the gentle, almost imperceptible, action of a plug. The plugs are either new Tomics, or if your guide is serious about tradition, one of the old shovelnose Lucky Louies, a red and white wooden number with a detachable harness. If you break off a fish that has taken a modern Tomic, you lose the plug. The Lucky Louies have their hook on the end of a harness that goes through the plug. If a fish breaks off, the harness and hook may stay with the fish, but the plug body floats to the surface. Slow beating spoons tend to catch bigger fish than faster beating spoons, and I like silver or chrome better than white, brass, or anything with another color.

The lures are tied on to 20 pound monofilament, to a single action reel and up to an eight foot long rod. The hook is barbless nowadays. And the task is to catch a 30 pound Chinook in a place that the fish have ceased to eat as they prepare to go up river into fresh water. If you do catch one, and the lines tests at no more than 20 pounds and you are registered, you may join the Tyee Club of British Columbia.

The Campbell River tidal range is up to 15 feet, the currents can be both fast and complex. When the tide is slack, the dogfish, the small bottom dwelling sharks, become active and bite the spoons. Their bite is not the smash of a Chinook, but more of an interruption in the beat of the spoon, and a dip in the rod tip. It’s hard to say which is more annoying, the bite of a dogfish or the tug of weeds. I guess, weeds, because the dogfish wake up sleepy anglers.

To our west is the Tyee Spit. The spit is the geological result of the Campbell River meeting the ocean, dumping its eternal loads of sand and gravel when the current velocity drops at the tidal edge. Or better, its former eternal loads, now interrupted by a hydro power plant a couple of kilometers upstream. The tidal sweep moves gravel from the rivermouth delta to the south, and sometimes to the north. The spit is a skein of gravel and sand that was formed by post-glacial meltwater and during earlier big floods, before the river was tamed into a docile servant, constructed mostly before sea level crept up from melting ice 8000 years ago. The Tyee Pool on the south side of the estuary, east of the spit is a part of the pile of sand and gravel, and the Frenchman’s Pool, to the north in front of Painter’s Lodge, are remnants of the old delta. There is a rim of rocks and cobbles around the edge of the submerged platform flooring the pools, called “the bar.”

Water depth in the pools, depending on the tide, are shallow, usually less than 30 feet. In front of the bar, dropping off into Discovery Passage, water depths plunge suddenly to 600 feet.

At really low tide, the lower beachface is large cobbles, grading upward to the upper beachface that is smaller cobbles and gravel. There are few trees, and the spit was once covered with campgrounds, trailer parks, helicopter pads, and parking lots. The high storm berm is marked by a line of old logs and driftwood emplaced during winter tides and deriving from lost timber being taken to market. Cobbles and seaweed cover the beachface below the huge logs, weeds, grass and shrubs above. The logs are still the property of the lumberjacks who lost them and not available for salvage.

Now the front of the spit is mostly park and the one structure that will remain is the Tyee Clubhouse, a small green building gazing eastward into Discovery Passage. As the fish populations shrank in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, restoration efforts of both the salmon runs and the estuary and spit began. Members of the Tyee club led the fight to clean up the estuary and to enhance the salmon runs with new spawning beds for the Chinook, Pink, and Coho salmon, replacing the gravels that has washed out to sea and not been replaced naturally because of the hydro dam in both the river and in excavated side channels. Logs, small water falls, and deep pools were reconstructed and are working. The Chinook run was down to a few hundred fish, and has grown back to nearly 10,000. It’s nice to have a success story. The Tyee Club has a membership that cannot be purchased, only earned. The small number of Tyee caught by club members in a year, usually well below 100 over a two month season, impact the local economy by about C$2.5 million per year, in lodging, meals, guide, and incidental fees multiplied by a minimal circulation factor. The net pens operated by the club in 2003 sent out nearly 270,000 chinook smolts, and club members harvested 15 fish.

Since 1997 when the Tyee Club first operated a sea pen for rearing fry, David Ewart, Watershed Enhancement Manager of the Quinsam Hatchery, notes that the club has released 1,750,000 young salmon to the ocean. Although no creel count is done at the mouth of the Campbell, he also notes that 26% of all the fish tags that are recovered come from sea pen raised smolts. It is not possible to identify where all these fish end their lives. It is clear from Mr. Ewart’s data that many are caught in Alaska, and then along the North Central Coast of Canada. But there is little argument that the increase in fish numbers caught near the Discovery Marina, April Point, and near Hidden Harbor, all located around Campbell River, reflect the fish returning to their net pen areas before migrating up the Campbell to spawn.

Peter Winter was rowing when the whales whooshed next to us in the fog. We never saw them, but their breathing punctuated the almost silent gurgle of the tide running along the gunnels of the cockleshell rowboat and small ripples in the broken mirror of slight chop echoed their proximity. A twelve foot long rowboat is no match for a 25 foot long whale if the whale rises under its keel. My heart skipped a few beats unnecessarily each time the whoosh sounded off the bow. The Killer Whales knew where we were, even if we didn’t know where they were. And they had no intent to harm us, but they wanted the same salmon we wanted. With the salmon frightened away, the fishing was over for the morning tide, but we lingered until the killer whales moved off, out of the pool.

So, what is it like to fish the Tyee Pool? Deadly dull, socially relevant, or downright mind-bending exciting, depending on the action.

Dullness occurs when you fish for 15 years and get no fish. Dullness occurs when you are bleary eyed at 5:00 in the morning and the sun is just starting to lighten the eastern sky. Dullness is when you have been on the water for hours in the sun, lacking sleep, and mesmerized by the bobbing rod tip with absolutely no action.

Socially relevant is when you realize after many other kinds of fishing, there are no engines in the pool, only rowboats under human power, no noise, no odor of unburned hydrocarbons, no crazy drivers thrusting bow waves among crowded small boats which in turn are steering crazily around each other. Serenity, and social conversation between colleagues in other rowboats and between rower and rod man characterize fishing on the Tyee Pool, a civilized and social event, especially in the evenings.

Excitement? Sometimes it is because you almost get swamped by a traversing bow wave from a large cruise ship in the open channel, as it reflects off both shores of the passage. Sometimes it is from a shout of “fish on!” from a neighboring rowboat. Sometimes it is the tug of a dogfish that sends an adrenaline rush through your system and makes your rower jam the oars to take a big bite of water, helping set the hook. And sometimes, rarely for most, it is the sharp downward arc of the rod tip when a Chinook grabs the lure. And then the game is on.

The game has many twists. Five years I rowed without a strike, rowing huge numbers of tides under hot sun and in rainstorms, dark and light, catching flounders, rock fish and the little sharks called dogfish. But no Chinook. Each year we had dinner with guides and family, celebrating the end of another Canadian extravaganza. And still no Tyee.

Then Peter said at dinner, “I’ve got a feeling. Let’s change back to fishing clothes and go out for the late evening tide, you don’t have to leave before tomorrow morning.”

We did. The fish struck once, hard, on a spoon, and our game was on. Thirty-four pounds and a bronze button later, I was a member of the Tyee Club.

The next year, first tide, I struck a second fish, larger than my first. We played it for several minutes, but it went under the rowboat eventually, and the hook came out. On the point of the hook was a fish scale, strongly arguing for a foul hooked fish. Wouldn’t have counted anyway, wasn’t fair caught.

Darcy rowed for 15 years in the pool without her club fish. That’s an exceptionally long time to go with catching a club fish, but there have been longer. The first time out in a rowboat, in 1989, she hooked a fish. Friends in the next boat over, with Walter as their guide, hooked one also. Walter could not imagine that two fish were hooked at the same time, and when the lines crossed, he thought Darcy’s was simply a line tangle. After the guides untangled the lines, Darcy’s fish jumped.

She held on for dear life and eventually boated the fish just before we had to leave for the airplane. It was just under weight for membership.

Then she started a long journey lasting fifteen years to gain membership in the Tyee Club. We fished for four more years before either got a fish, that one was mine. After that we caught a few fish, always undersized. Catching any Chinook in the Tyee Pool under club rules is difficult, and rare. Bu the odds of a good fish are better there than anywhere else.

She hooked and played a club fish, likely 40 pounds, a few years ago, but in the dark without a flashlight, the line snarled around the reel handles and the fish broke off. We were all disappointed, as it was nearly the last day of fishing for the year. Such a nice fish, just to be broken off by a mechanical problem. Silently we cussed the fishing gods, the Great Chief, for yet another disappointing season. Then, as we packed out bags, I read the licenses. Her license had expired the day before, and the fish would not have counted, and could have caused a major ruckus when we tried to weigh it in. sometimes fate smiles on us in strange ways.

Peter announced his retirement from active guiding one year, and encouraged us to seek out other guides to ensure that we had sufficient water time. One young guide we sought out was Randy Killoran, with whom we had spent an evening fishing in the rain some years prior. We had watched Randy row several long time fisherpeople into their first Tyees, and hoped he could do the same for Darcy.

We fished and fished, morning, afternoon, but the fish just weren’t cooperating with anyone. The rowboats scoured the pool down to the Argonaut mining wharf, but there were just not very many fish in the pool, and none were biting. We heard that Chinook were being caught down past the ferry dock, south even further past the city dock, almost to Hidden Harbour. That’s a few kilometers south of the pool, legal waters for the Tyee Club, but no one had fished there from rowboats – it was entirely populated by motor boats. But, strangely enough, it was the site of the Tyee Club net pen project, where salmon smolts are transferred from the hatchery to the salt water, carefully fed in pens for a few weeks, and then released to the wild. Those smolts had now returned as full fledged spawning adults.

Randy thinks we should go south to find fish. That means motoring the tiny rowboat several kilometers south, hugging the shoreline but missing the kelp beds, down on past the Argonaut, then past the new Indian marina, around the corner and through the ferry lane, hoping to not be there when the ferry is crossing to or from Quadra Island. It’s wake is large, and it toots a very loud horn if it thinks you are anywhere near in its way. We missed the ferry. Then we motored though heavy swell past the Discovery Marina, then on down to the city dock. Larger craft tossed us, a few waves broke over the gunwales, but we mostly stayed dry and did not have to bail the rowboat. I motored, Randy gave instructions from the bow, and Darcy huddled on the seat. There isn’t much room to change positions in those little rowboats, so it wasn’t a good option for Randy and I to change places three times – change places to motor down, then change places, again change to motor back. Randy keeps a careful eye on me. I don’t screw up too badly.

Light is still good, the sun has not yet set, and there are many motorboats chugging around us, some curious, some furious. There haven’t been any rowboats down here before, and some motorboaters are unhappy that we are here instead of our normal haunts. They do not give us any slack. No matter, we put out the plugs and start to fish. Fifteen pulls then set a light two ounce weight, then a secret number of pulls to set the plugs at Randy’s desired depth. A pull is about two feet, stretching from the reel to the first guide on the rod.

We fish, checking for weeds from time to time if the rod tip stops its regular oscillations, or if Randy wants to change depths. “Look!” commands Randy, and where he points, off the starboard a few meters, are dorsal fins cutting the water. Chinook!

Randy mentally calculates where the direction of the fish will take them, and he rows to intercept them.

Everyone is quiet, waiting, waiting, waiting. Then it happens. Darcy’s rod bows down, and her reel screams. My heart leaps, for it is got to be a good fish, and maybe the 15 year journey will end. Randy rows into the fish, and Darcy holds on for dear life. The fish runs, taking line, jumps, then turns and comes back towards the boat, then runs again. Darcy is staring at the line, at the water, at where the fish might be. I’m silently praying to the Chief to let her have her club fish. When the fish jumped, we could see it was clearly a Tyee, well over thirty pounds.

Then the fish turns towards the boat, and Darcy inadvertently lets the rod tip dip, and the fish is gone. She looks like she is about to cry. I know that set jaw and squint. Randy says almost nothing, and I feel depressed. The second Tyee she has hooked in all those years, and it is gone. There might be another 15 years before another and I’m getting older. Randy says nice things to her, and I pat her on the leg, and say, “there’ll be another one this year, just you wait.”

But we all know that that was the best chance for a Tyee she may ever have. There was a hollow in the pit of my stomach, and I know she felt even worse.

Bless Randy, he just said, “Let’s get them back in the water folks, there’s still fishing time left.”

Somewhat desultorily we put the lures back in the water. Fifteen pulls, then the weight, then the secret number of pulls. We were back fishing. Behind us we heard a “YABBA DABBA DOO!” booming out across the water, and knew that Jigger Joe, a perennial fisherman in his Misty River aluminum motorboat had hooked a fish. He played it for a longtime, and finally we saw him net a large Chinook, and we all applauded.

Darcy was the soul of grace, applauding even in her personal disappointment.

I hadn’t had a strike for a very long time, so maybe it was my turn next, but likely not that night. It was getting dim, and we wouldn’t have to motor home in the dark amidst all the motorboats tearing though the passage.

While musing over the events of the evening, I was roused by Randy’s shout and the lady next to me yanking her rod up high over her head.

My God, she had another fish on!

I don’t know what Randy might have said, but I yelled “Keep the damn rod tip up!”

The fish ran and ran, making the reel scream, and the motorboats ranged away from us this time, giving her room to fight the fish. It cart wheeled behind the boat, trying hard to throw the barbless hook. It was another Tyee, her second of the night.

The fight went on forever. Every time her arms started to droop the rod, I hollered at her again and again. “Rod tip up! Rod tip up!” Randy rowed the fish, keeping the line tight when needed, giving her slack to reel when possible, keeping the fish on her side of the boat and away from the motor. I mostly prayed that she wouldn’t lose this fish.

She was grinning from ear to ear despite the strain of the fish. Her arms hurt, I could see, but she hung on and kept the rod tip up. At one point that fish slid alongside the boat, maybe not quite whipped yet, but close enough for Randy to net it.

The big Chinook flopped in the boat as Randy unhooked it. Darcy leaned over the seat to see the fish, and it slapped her in the face with its tail. Fitting, she thought.

It was almost 10:00 at night when we got back to the clubhouse, motoring in to the beach. Almost no one was left except the weigh master, Mike Rippingale. The salmon weighed in at 39.5 pounds, and was the largest salmon caught by a lady that year. That earned Darcy three strikes of the brass bell, rousing guides a long way away, and the Lillian Sparrow Trophy.

Oh, and a standing ovation from rowers and fishermen alike the next morning at the Quinnie when we went in for breakfast after the early morning row.