Catching up on the Copper

This week, columnist Rob Brown takes us to the banks of the Copper River, where he comes across an acquaintance he hasn't seen in ages

Before Christmas, I skied across the Copper River Flats. With newly fallen snow covering the deep ruts inflicted on the land by vandals on recreation vehicles the landscape was still, sombre, but beautiful.

The trail across the swamp wasn’t frozen hard yet, so Oona and I took the branch that connects with the hilly roadway that parallels the highway. At several places tracks, almost obscured by the new snow, marked spots where a fox had crossed in search of the hares. We turned and followed the dike. A truck moaned in the distance. I came upon  the tracks of a small moose, possibly a young bull. I was happy to see them. Moose sign is rare in the Copper Valley these days. Fields of red osier dogwood, high but not cropped close as they used to be, had me thinking of moose just after we’d set out earlier in the day.

This guy will eat well, I thought.

As I turned west and neared the river, I noticed a shape in Channel 3. Peering through the curtain of softly falling snow was like trying to see through gauze. At first, I thought it was stump the river deposited there, but that didn’t make sense since there hadn’t been a high water event with the force to do that since last spring. Closer still, I noticed a long branch extending from the trunk of the stump. It was bent and quivering.

It’s a fisherman, Oona, I said to the dog and myself.

With my skis resting on the ice shelf bordering the river, I watched.

Oona ventured farther than I then halted, unsure about the novel feeling of a thin ice shelf under her paws. I pushed on the poles to get as close I dared.

From there, I saw that the angler had a nice sized fish, either a large Bull Trout or small steelhead. He reached down the line and deftly twisted the hook from the fish’ jaw. I empathized. Freeing a hook embedded in a fish’ jaw with mitts is nearly impossible. I knew well the shock of plunging one’s bare hand into winter water.

Have you seen those catch and release tools that let you release fish without getting your hands wet? I asked, referring to those long elegant hemostats of Pakistani manufacture that have a sleeve forged  to their barrels and a small lanyard attached to an eyelet on their handles allowing an angler to slip the tool around his wrist then slide the sleeve down the tippet and adroitly disengage the hook by applying pressure to its bend.

As his quarry escaped, the angler looked up.

Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em, he said. And, he certainly had — he’d seen more than I.

It was Phil Pretty. Phil worked in the Fish Tales Tackle Shop with Dave Elkins for years. He was as knowledgeable a clerk as any I’ve met, part of the reason for that was that Phil was, and is, a skilled angler too.

Jeez, Phil, I said, I almost never see fishermen on the river at this time of year, especially fly fishermen.

Phil had that kind of glow a fisherman gets when he’s had a particularly rewarding day.

That was my sixth fish today, he said. I love fishing this way.

I knew the feeling well. Phil had a single handed rod of nine feet. His reel was filled with floating line, and he had a small compact fly on the end of a leader as long as his rod.

I understand, I said. And I truly did.

Finlay and I made many trips to the Copper in the winter months, making short walks through deep snow then breaking through panes of ice  to reach the Copper and hunt for the few elusive silver steelhead that return to the shrunken river in the New Year. I was hungrier for steelhead than Finlay. Finlay was just as happy to contact char as steelhead. While I raced about experimenting with lines that sank at different speeds, Fin fished like Phil had been and caught as many fish, sometimes more fish, never worried about snagging the bottom, and quietly  enjoyed the delight of casting a floating line. Eventually I gave up on the technological approach and joined him.

I haven’t seen you for an age. Thought you’d moved, I said to Phil.

No. Still here. But I work in the oil patch for 6 to 8 months at a time.

How’s that?

Good money. Hard work, Phil answered. He went on to describe some facets of the giant industrial miasma in Northern Alberta. We talked until we were forced to move by the cold wind that had started to blow just after I reached the river.

I’m happy to meet you and happy you’re still in town, I said

We wished each other a Merry Christmas and parted. On my way back to Lavergne Road, I kept thinking about the massive amount of waste water that Phil told me was produced by the drilling. It obviously troubled, him, and it began to trouble me. I made a note to myself to investigate it.

To be continued…