TYLEE TALES – Lee Gerhard
A GUIDE NAMED PETER
Peter Winter is a big ruddy man, sound, strong, with an easy-going manner born of years in the classroom with unruly kids and teachers, and a thick shock of white hair. He guides fishermen out of Campbell River, B. C., where silver (Coho), and king (chinook, spring) salmon usually abound. Occasionally he can be found in a motor boat, but usually he’s behind a set of oars in a delicate cockleshell rowboat, rowing for tyee in the Tyee Pool or in Frenchmen’s Pool. If you were living back on the frontier, Peter is a man you would want on your side.
We’ve had several guides over the years we have fished around Campbell River. All have been good people, but a guide is more than a good person who takes you fishing for a fee. All are friendly, all are competent in their own way. But once in awhile you get lucky and find a guide who can be a social friend, perhaps more, is exceedingly good at his trade, and whose view of life and sport mirrors your own. When rowing for Tyee you spend hours in a small rowboat together, not moving much, tending closely to the line, rod tip, and reel. Ten or more hours into the day, without a strike, for the umpteenth day, and you know whether you and your guide have anything in common. You’ve discussed the weather, the town, the fishing, and your kids. His gentle persuasion keeps his anglers attention, keeps them working, even in the rain and gloom.
Peter and I got together when our previous regular guide had to cancel the rowing part of our fishing trip. We used to fish for Tyee from motorboats over on the Pacific side of the island in more remote waters, seeking smaller crowds and bigger fish runs. Some people get hooked on the western side fishing and never come back, but Darcy and I have become addicted to rowing, even though she has caught only a undersized twenty-five pounder that she released, and I have not gotten a strike in four years of rowing. So, we were introduced to Peter by telephone, neither of us knowing anything about the other. “You’ll like Peter”, our former guide told us, “He’s a good fisherman.”
We’re relatively easy to please, but harder to enthrall. We like to keep only enough fish to feed ourselves, and we release the rest. Not all guides appreciate this attitude, since the salmon are going to die anyway. But why not let them spawn? We need more big fish, and the only way I know to get big fish is grow them from small fish. The more that spawn, particularly the bigger fish, the better the runs will be four or five years from now. The obvious spinoff from this is that success for us is not measured in how many fish we catch, but in the fun of fishing and the thrill of matching up with the Tyee when we find them. Light tackle, careful playing, and expert boat handling go together. First , your guide needs to know how to find the fish, then how to tell you how to catch them. Easy to say, hard to do.
Peter? Let me tell you about Peter. We met at the dock the first morning at 5:00. He was easy to identify as he motored the small rowboat in; he looked like his voice. Each of us was exceedingly courteous as we waltzed the dance of newly-met sportsmen. Darcy and I stayed out Peter’s way as best we could in tiny boat, obeying every suggestion, and never, never arguing his advice. Peter was gentle, never ordering, merely suggesting. Darcy, you might want to check your line for weeds. Lee, the beat on your plug doesn’t seem right; better do a weed check.
After several hours of cold and damp inactivity, we came in for breakfast, meeting our friends who fish the same water. By this time we knew a lot more about each other and had established each others “pedigree.” Seems as though we have a common thread of being teachers and public servants, with a back-thread of entrepreneurial interests. I had explained that we were now on our third year of rowing without any success for me. No strikes, even.
Sometime during that first day my line jumped, I struck and was fast to a rock cod. The adrenaline really flows when the rod dips, and every other boat in the pool is staring, trying to see what size salmon you have hooked. It’s a little embarrassing, but not much. At least it is action.
Peter knows almost every other rower in the pool. They greet each other as each boat in turn slides down the outside of the bar, rows back the head of the pool, and slides down again. Peter points out the historical figures behind the oars, the sons and daughters of the famous founders of the club, the modern success stories. We talk of the river, and the bars, the storms and earthquakes that have changed the water and the fishing. The perfect line of rowboats working the bar is beautiful to see. There are about fifteen boats at any one time during the day, a few more in the early morning and as many as thirty in the early evening. Sometimes we are out there by ourselves.
Frenchmen’s Pool, north of the river, had always produced many Tyee until an earthquake hit the island. The area off the river mouth now called the “earthquake hole” apparently slumped into Discovery Channel, and since a dam now controls the flow of the river, no new sediment comes downstream to fill the hole. Another earthquake could destroy the Tyee Pool as well, as it is floored by unconsolidated sand and gravel. Frenchmen’s Pool no longer produces many fish, its bottom topography probably not as conducive to holding the big fish as it had been.
Darcy had a strike the second day, but was dozing and missed it. Peter’s face was rueful, but the inflection of his voice never changed. On the third day, we worked even harder. Peter wanted us to catch a Tyee, that was clear. He worked carefully, explaining how the water and bottom varied, what the rowing marks were, and how to read the tide. A scientist, I was full of questions that he patiently answered, about oysters, fish, schools, life in the winter, his teaching and the problems of being a school administrator.
Bam, a strike. Or something like one, the first in three years of trying. When we boated the fish, it’s a large flounder. We joke about it, and end up eating it, after some photographs of the “trophy”. No membership in The Tyee Club of British Columbia with this one. As darkness set in, I faced my third season without a bona fide strike, without a fish in the pool, and without membership in the Tyee Club. But I can’t be glum, Peter is more crestfallen than we are. But we had a great time – we are fortunate indeed to score success by effort, not by harvest , and to appreciate our time on the water, in the outdoors, and in the company of true sportsmen like Peter.
In year four, we fish again, Peter rowing most of the time without any backup motor. If we should catch a fish and it takes us out into Discovery Passage, he will have to row back, or someone will have to come to our aid. Fat chance, not to worry, no fish in this length of time, not much chance now. Peter tells us of the record 125 tides rowed with one man before he got his Tyee. I mentally start to count mine. Then he tells me the man had numerous chances, but couldn’t hook fish well, and broke off several more. My heart sinks a bit lower.
I’ve rowed for four years without a strike. But there are fringe benefits to rowing for Tyee. Pleasant conversation with our guide. Quiet water, no engine smells or noise, a camaraderie of common purpose. In the fog and rain this year we heard killer whales blowing in the fog near us, then watched a pair of whales swim across the pool and river channel, hunting for salmon as we were. Graceful are the killer whales, and the Tyee are terrified of them. We watched mergansers do touch and goes, and little diving ducks, merles, I think, landing on the water skipping from wave to wave. Sometimes they miss their landing point and catch their little webbed feet in the wave crest. Then they crash and flip head first into the trough.
We fish hard for three days, and finally realize we are done again. But that is the lure of the Tyee. I learn humility, disappointment, and perseverance. Late afternoon comes and we beach the boat. We have an early dinner, Darcy and I, Peter and Lorna, Chuck and Elaine, Walter and Jeanne. We eat a specially prepared salmon that Chuck caught, including Salmon Wellington, after barbequed oysters at the Winter’s home. I had never had truly fresh oysters before, wow, what a treat!. Over dinner Peter suggests that it’s only 5:00, and there are several hours of daylight left. So, back we go to the pool.
Only this time Peter matter-of-factly states we are to catch a fish. Specifically, I’m to catch a Tyee. He’s never been so forthright and positive. Does he know something no one else knows, or is he just psyching me up again.
We fish. It’s quiet, there are few weeds, the lures beat strongly in the current as we drift the bar. My brass spoon seems alive. “Hit that thing, will you?” I silently order. We have not seen a fish boated the entire day. On the Tyee Clubhouse the “31” stands out as it did last night, noting the weight of the last Tyee registered. I am focused for some reason, but then, I’ve been focused all this trip. No dozing for me, I’ve got to have a strike sometime, and I will be…ready!
Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezzzzbbbbzzzzzzzzzzzz. In one slow motion instant, my rod tip jerks to the water, a shock goes up my arm, and I have struck with the timing and strength of a cat. The reel burns my thumb, the thumb that shouldn’t be on the reel anyway. I bury the hook rock-hard in a Chinook.
The great fish streaks and charges towards shore, scattering rowboats in its wake. They scramble to get out of the way, the code of the rowers in play. It stops, shakes its head, then with purpose gains speed directly back in my face. I reel frantically, my arm and wrist seeming to be uncoordinated as I try fruitlessly to keep up with the fish’s charge, but watch the line begin to go slack. “Row, Peter, row, ” I implore, but we cannot keep up and I helplessly reel in empty line, still reeling as fast as I can. Maybe the hook hasn’t come out, Maybe I still have a chance, maybe my four-year suffering is enough penance for Neptune.
The line draws up and there is weight, then a great shaking and another run, this time directly out into Discovery Passage. I have vision of a long night on the water, miles from home, with no engine, but that’s Peter’s problem for now. We’ll all sort it out later if we have too. Right now there’s still a fish.
Oh, oh, he’s coming at me again, and again the line goes slack, but the fish hasn’t shaken loose the hook. It dives to the bottom of the passage, and nearly strips the reel. Then comes straight to the surface, off the bow of the rowboat. This time it must be tiring, because I can keep up with its surge, and my line does not belly.
All this time Peter has been quietly advising me, but mostly letting me fight the fish as I see fit. I appreciate it very much, as it is my fish, and I want to be completely responsible in case it breaks off or otherwise is lost. It’s my play. But as the fish tires, and the sun gets low on the horizon, we see that it is indeed a Tyee, and the twenty-pound line seems like spider silk against the thirty-plus pound fish.
Now Peter moves to help me bring the fish to the boat, never touching the line, waiting until the fish is close and my rod tip up to make a quick dip. The fish threshes in the netting, and it takes both of us to drag it over the gunwale.
Fortunately the fish decided to slug it out vertically rather than across the wide passage, and it is not a big problem to row to the clubhouse, with all the other rowboats knowing that we did indeed boat a Tyee. Peter guessed the fish would weigh about thirty-five pounds, five over the minimum for Tyee Club membership. He hit it right on the nose. My Tyee was about 42 inches overall length, thirty-five pounds, and a lot of fun. I really enjoyed helping put up the new numbers, “35.” The next morning when we left Campbell River, the “35” was still up there.
I wear the bronze pin now, courtesy of Peter. Fishing salmon with a guide is one of the delights of the sporting life, and I highly recommend it. Finding the right guide is not easy, but when you do find the right guide, treasure him, and keep him booked!