The snow moaned under the tires of Mike’s truck as it came to a stop. We were wearing our waders in the cab. It was too cold to change into them outside. Under those waders we wore wool in layers. On our heads we wore wool toques; on our hands, wool gloves knit by Icelandic women. Over our Cowichan wool sweaters we wore pintails, vests fashioned to fit the needs of British Columbian drift fishermen. Over the Pintails we wore raincoats, the kind that commercial fishermen wore as a shield against the wind.
The snow wouldn’t hold us. We laced on our snow shoes, Mike shouldered a Trapper Nelson that among the other things winter demanded, contained envelopes for scales, tags, and a tagging gun, to mark steelhead for the Fish and Wildlife Branch.
I carried my Fenwick armed with a Hardy Silex. Mike had one of his beloved Ambassdeur level winds affixed to a rod he’d built.
We tramped to the first fork on the old skid trail. Mike stopped. Not to wait, but to think.
We should fish the pool upstream of the canyon, he said. It’s early. We have time.
On short winter days, it’s important to watch the time. We took the upper fork. This meant a long tramp down a steep slope, a long slog back followed by another steep trek to the downstream side of the canyon and back, but endurance wasn’t a big issue back then.
We descended the switchback to the river, I licked the ice off the underside of my moustache. As we neared the valley bottom, the wind weakened. When we reached the river, we were outside its grasp. Before us was one of those wide, boulder-filled glides that Kitsumkalum River steelhead like. We’d fished there more than a few times over the winter months and had yet to see a boot track in the snow. As far as we knew it had no name.
Gene Llewellyn had told Mike of the good fishing to be had downstream of the small canyon that squeezed the river a kilometre upstream of the Kalum’s big canyon. Gene called the smaller structure the Mini Canyon, but he never mentioned the glide above the Mini Canyon we were about to fish. Only Noel Gyger drifted the river then, but he took out far upstream above the Leanto Creek confluence, so there was a good chance that we were the only sports fishers fishing that piece of water in those years.
I started in as Mike threaded a chunk of bait on his hook. He liked roe because missed fish would return to it. I didn’t like the stuff because it required changing often and I didn’t need another chore that required exposing my hands to the elements. Instead, I used a small opaque pink plastic egg cluster know as the Japanese Gooey, which had a magic attraction for steelhead. When the weather was really cold, Mike hooked more steelhead than I. When it was mild, my Gooey Bob did as well, and sometimes better, than his goo.
As good as it looked, the run had never yielded many fish. Mike brought a small male to the beach in short order. It was one of those football shaped fish with a faint greenish glow that are unique to the Kalum. Mike tossed his gloves on the snow, stuck his hands into the icy water and grabbed its tail. He reached into his Pintail and took a pair of needle nosed pliers, then plucked a few scales from the fish’s back and placed them carefully on the sleeve of his wool shirt. I was standing beside him by this time to hand him the tagging gun. He took it and adroitly punched a a spaghetti tag into the back of the fish just aft of its dorsal then pushed it into the flow. That done, he filled found a small pencil and wrote the date and the sex of the fish on the envelope.
We fished until lunch without a take. As we did, I noticed Mike kept looking at the far side as if something was there.
One more pass, he said after we’d chased our sandwiches with the last gulps of coffee.
We started in again, Mike first this time. He continued to eyeball the far shore.
There must be fish over there, he said.
Always looks better on the far side, I said perfunctorily.
There can’t be just one fish in this run, said Mike as if he hadn’t heard me and was thinking out loud.
He made a cursory cast. As I reeled in, I watched the orange top of Mike’s balsa wood float drift downstream then watched the plume as it cut through the water on the retrieve. I cast again. Mike lifted hook, line, float, and shot from the water, tore off the depleted roe and slipped his hook into the guide nearest the handle of his rod. We were only a short way through the run. I realized what my buddy was contemplating.
You’re not going to make the wade? I asked incredulously.
By the time I’d completed the sentence Mike had pushed off into the flow.
Continued next week…