Gypsy Fish

Elusive is an adjective that could have been invented to describe sea run cutthroat trout.

Elusive is an adjective that could have been invented to describe sea run cutthroat trout.

All fish that are bred and born in fresh water and spend their adolescence in the sea offer an evanescent opportunity to anglers, but there is a modicum of predictability in their comings and goings.

Coho will enter the Skeena’s feeder streams in the latter part of September and be excavating gravel there by mid October. The likelihood of hooking a chinook will be good in June and better in July. Sockeye will be pushing upstream in the summer moths. Pinks will appear in August. And, steelhead will be entering the rivers throughout the summer and fall, and will slip into their natal streams in December and March with uncanny regularity, but the spotted sea going trout are not nearly as predictable.

One year the salmon will be fighting for every bit of spawning real estate  and an angler will expect to find egg sipping trout behind every one yet find few or none. A year later the salmon will be relatively scarce and the trout will be everywhere.

On the tributary streams, predicting cutthroat trout abundance is a crap shoot. On the Skeena it’s lottoesque. I give, as an example, the day when Finlay Ferguson went out hoping to catch some Dolly Varden and caught a big cutthroat. Then he caught another and another. So it went until he’d twisted his hook from the jaws of a dozen fish. At that point, Finlay thought about calling it a fine day, which it was, but he was persuaded not to leave by the nagging question of how many trout he might catch before the fish stopped biting. He stayed. The answer was fifty.

When he got home, Finlay thought about the day and trout. How many trout would he catch if he returned the next day? He could return. He did return. He caught none. Not a single trout. The experience stayed with him, not so far in the background, until his last day on the river.

Years later, Doug and I were out cruising the highway one October day, when I spotted a rise in Esker Slough. Doug pulled over. We hastily assembled our rods and cast in the vicinity of the rise and were rewarded with sea trout after sea trout. Troubled by the same questions that motivated Finlay, I returned the next day. I hooked four fish.

Knowing all this, Doug and I were back on the river recently, hunting the elusive sea run trout, understanding the challenges of the task, but armed with the experience garnered over hundreds of troutings since that grand day at Esker Slough.

The sky was a nondescript grey, an indistinct wash, undulant and unpredictable. There were gusts, harbingers of the stiff, cold wind that would surely come later in the day. I hoped for a little sun, like I had for the past four months.

The river had cut new channels and renovated old ones, adding a level of complexity to our search, but our duller eyes were driven by brains that have a much better idea of what to look for.

Doug contacted a fish at the bottom of a riffle. It was a brief encounter, fleeting, evasive. He couldn’t say what kind of fish it was. The kind of meeting it was suggested cutthroat. Our confidence increased.

A short time later, I landed a char. Doug missed fish he guessed were whitefish unable to get their small mouths around the larger hook he was using.

I spotted some dark, torpedo shapes. As I got closer I saw that they were dark crimson, coho. Were they be spawning here?  There was a tributary not far upstream. The fish were probably bound for creeks and beaver ponds at its head end.

Coho, I called back to Doug.

We fastened eggs to our tippets. If there are trout nearby, we reasoned, they won’t refuse an egg pattern.

There were and they didn’t.

In moments, we were on to fish, first I was then Doug was, then both of us were simultaneously.

A foot long sea run is a decent fish, but we caught only a few that size, most of them were 14 and 16 inches, some were a foot and a half long, and a few were close to 20 inches. I kept count. It’s my nature. I’ve a fondness for statistics. By the end of the day I’d released 35 trout. I’ve caught more than that a few times, but never so many large, fat sea runs. Doug, who doesn’t keep track, had released as many or more.

Catching that many trout is a sign that things are working as they should be. The sun makes an appearance. We return to the truck, shed our waders and drink a beer. We agree that we’ve had the sea run fishing of our lives. We won’t return though. We know that tomorrow it will be over. Tomorrow it, and they, will be gone.