July cutthroat

Columnist Rob Brown remembers his friend Ed while fishing for trout on the lower Lakelse

Ed and his wife had separated. She’d stayed at the farm. He’d rented a basement suite on the south side, a really small place with barely enough room to store his fishing tackle.

Ed was hard to read, a man of few words at the best of times, stoic, a little distant. After the breakup he seemed taciturn and morose. I sensed he was grappling with depression and thought it might be a good idea to keep him talking so I made a point of dropping in on him once a day. I’d smoke a cigar. He’d smoke cigarettes, stubbing each one out in a big black ashtray that was always full and we’d drink instant coffee made tolerable with a couple of heaping spoonfuls of white sugar.

We’d talk of fish and fishing. Ed was a pioneer. He’d fished with Ted Rawlins when Ted and Fred Hall and Ed were the sum total of all the fly fishery in Terrace. He’d fished summer runs in the Copper when the road didn’t run past the first canyon. He’d fished fall steelhead on the upper Kalum and in the Nass when the first haul roads were being built there. Ed loved to fish and he was damn good at it.

Been out? I asked him one muggy day late in July. It was about two years before he had a heart attack in the back of a taxi cab that put him in Kitimat General where he clung on for over an agonizing two months then died.

Went out two days ago, he said. Found some nice cutthroat in the lower Lakelse. Big ones. There’s something went wrong with the rear end of the truck so I couldn’t go back.

I suspected that Ed had enough money to pay the rent and buy groceries. Gas money for his little Japanese pick up truck depended on the sale of flies he was dressing for Dave Elkins at Fish Tales Tackle. Repairs to his differential would have to wait on what he could save from a few pension cheques.

Sea-run Cutthroat Trout are elusive creatures in the summer months between the fry hatches of Spring and spawning salmon of Fall. July and August are the months when they cruise the estuaries. This was really early for them to be in rivers a hundred kilometres from the sea. I was intrigued.

My truck’s still working, I told Ed. What are you doing tomorrow?

Ed took a sip of his coffee. I don’t recall ever seeing him smile, but his eyes lit up just a little at the suggestion.

Pick you up around nine?

I’ll be ready.

We were bouncing over the Whitebottom Main by nine-thirty.

Turn into the campsite, Ed ordered.

We parked in the site farthest from the road then made our way back along the road then through the brush to river. It had been a wet summer, a typical Terrace summer in those days, and the river had enough water to make crossing it anywhere a dangerous proposition. Ed’s heart was still strong then. He moved vigorously. I followed behind. We wove through a grove of cottonwoods then Ed took a side channel to the main river, our boots sinking in half a foot of silt, the dark water up to our waists.

From the time we climbed out of the pickup we could hear the prop beat of one of those military grade helicopters and the whine of distant chain saws. When we emerged from under the canopy we saw the giant machine descending to a landing at the base of the mountain behind the large sprawling swamp that fed the feeder streams spilling into the river on the far bank. Dangling from it’s belly was a very long cable attached to a log that was an old growth spruce or cedar a short time before. The long swayed as if trying to escape. The whole thing, chopper and log and cable seemed to be under so much tension that everything looked as if it would fly apart at any moment.

Ed and I watched the great machine make another pass, then another.

They weren’t here the other day, said Ed.

There were pinks in the river. The first of the year. The advanced guard. Accompanied by the roar of helicopter logging, we fished. Ed hooked the first two fish. They were brilliant trout. Thick beautiful fish. I had what he was using, tied one on, and soon was catching trout too. It went like that all day: we caught more than a dozen fish each, some of them quite large, all of them fat and firm.

In the 15 years since Ed passed, I returned to the lower Lakelse River on the same date, or very close to it, a number of times. I watched the massive ugly scar left by the heli-loggers green and begin to heal up. Every time I anticipated a repeat of the fine fishing we had that day. Every time I’ve been met by newly arrived schools of pink salmon, but I haven’t hooked a single sea run cutthroat. I’m a better angler now. If they were there, I would find them, but for some vagary of water or weather, I haven’t. I won’t give up, though. One day the path of descendants of those trout Ed and I intercepted and mine will intersect and I will rejoice and think of Ed.