It was a Saturday. It was Spring. It was about 25 years ago. Tom Protheroe was on the last leg of his career as an assessor while getting more deeply into his second career as an advocate for fish and fishermen. He was still fishing the rivers often then, mostly in partnership with Stan Doll. Tom’s skill as a fisheries politician is widely known. Those of us who knew him then know he was equally adept at angling for steelhead.
That particular spring, Tom had invited two good friends and fellow Kingfisher Rod and Gun Club members, Gordie Morgan and Bruce Gerhart of Campbell River, to the Skeena to hunt the scarce late winter steelhead more commonly called spring steelhead by the locals.
If I recall correctly, both men guided salmon in the salt chuck off Campbell River and fished the Island Rivers in the off season. Gordie was a drift fisherman who angled in the traditional manner of BC steelheaders. He wore a Pintail vest and fished a variety of lures or bait under a string of cannon ball split shot and a cork float that he cast and controlled with a 10 foot fibreglass rod and a Hardy Silex reel. The latter piece of equipment was the model its manufacturer called “The Jewel”. It was handmade, elegant in its mechanical simplicity, silver with white bone handles, and it spun so smoothly it seemed a frictionless perpetual motion machine. Gordie had bought it for a fire-sale price at Bob’s Sporting Goods, located on what was then called Vancouver Heights, when the Swedish made Ambassadeur level wind reels were seen as a great advancement in fishing technology and direct-drive centre pin reels were regarded as all but obsolete. By the time we met Gordie, the handmade Silexes, each carrying the initials of the craftsman that assembled it, were extinct, replaced by inferior reels stencilled out and cobbled together on assembly lines. I recall Mike Whelpley, who had a large collection of fishing reels, admiring Gordie’s winch and telling me that he just had to get one, which after considerable effort and expense, he did.
Bruce, a tall affable man with a booming voice, by contrast, had all but given up drift fishing in favour of the fly. Fly fishermen were a small subset of steelheaders then, but their numbers were growing. In retrospect, it was hardly surprising that Bruce should embrace the fly, since Campbell River was where the now legendary Roderick Haig-Brown fished and wrote.
Tom arranged that we should meet at the Claybanks at noon. We did. After our rendezvous, Tom and Gordie drove upstream, intending to fish back to Mink Creek with their drift rods. Bruce and I went in the opposite direction on the old Lakelse Main, which, in those days, a guy could drive until he met the Eurocan haul road, which he could then take all the way to Kitimat.
I parked in a pull-out. After suiting up, fly rods in hand, we made our way through some thinned second growth, then tramped across the spongy swamp to the river. We took the tangled bear trail that follows the left side of the river to Gledhill’s Pool and started working from the head end toward the Moose Run.
I told Bruce that, as a guest, he had to go first, which he did, after knotting a #2 General Practitioner to his tippet. Bruce read rivers as well as anybody, so I felt no need to point out the spots that had given me fish in the past. Since Bruce was using a large attractor, I put up a minnow imitation that a school of Dolly Varden hovering over the bottom at the tail of the pool couldn’t resist.
What are you catching? Bruce called upstream from the run below, after I’d released a half a dozen fish.
Just Dollies, I called back.
Just Dollies? echoed Bruce. When they’re gone, you won’t say Just Dollies, he said, an irritated edge to his voice.
I understood. I was ashamed.
We sat on a log to reflect, after fishing all the way to the Fernpicker’s Pool without either of us hooking a steelhead. I told Bruce that catching newly arrived steelhead with a fly rod on the lower Lakelse in spring was a tall order because, in the absence of rocky riffles and boulder filled tail outs of the kind he was accustomed to on his favourite Van Isle streams, the few new steelhead of the Lakelse seek shelter under log jams and in the really fast slots, both places unfriendly to flyfishers. On the other hand the ripe fish that have held in the river since the previous fall, aren’t difficult to catch, but it’s unethical to do so. This is not the case for drift fishers, as we had reconfirmed when we returned to the Mink Creek Run and met Tom and Gordie.
Tom had released a few steelhead, he told us, but Gordie had released 14. Tom was gobsmacked. He had been using a famous egg imitation called a Gooey Bob, adorned with a tuft of fluorescent yarn. Gordie had been using the same outfit as Tom but his terminal tackle was a pink rubber worm.
To be continued….