Tackle science

Surprise fish are the best fish, says columnist Rob Brown

When the last aromatic drop of tea is finished, I screw the cup that doubles as a cap on the thermos and slide the dented aluminum bottle back into the dry bag that is also a back pack.

I know nothing about this little river in the middle of the flood plain of a much larger one save for the fact that it may hold some fish. The obvious choice of fly, in this case, is one that resembles many of the things fish feed upon and has proven attractive to a lot of species of fish.

Muddler Minnows of all sizes fill the first felt leaf of my fly wallet. Because they resemble stoneflies when fished near the top of the water column, look like sculpins when fished near the bottom, and are ringers for baitfish when pulled through water between those extremes, Muddlers are a good choice, but instead I pluck one of the streamers fastened on to the next leaf of the wallet because the pattern is my own, because steelhead, char, cutthroat trout, and a few salmon have taken it since its maiden drift, and because I want to continue the trials that will confirm its excellence.

The inspiration for the contraption came from the time Doug Webb and I visited the counting fence at Kitwancool when the sockeye smolts were leaving Kitwancool Lake. The undulating grey and silver smolts were a lot longer than we’d expected. They were the size of small cutthroat trout.

That night I made an articulated hook by fastening a small shrimp hook to the end of shank of a large up eyed salmon hook. To that frame I tied the soft grey feathers from a road killed owl and enclosed them in long broad and grizzled rooster hackles extending far beyond the trailing hook to approximate the length of the sockeye smolts we’d seen earlier. At the core of the fly I tied six strands of pearlescent mylar to make the faux smolt wink intermittently in the way I assumed the natural would. Before finishing the head of the pattern, I added tufts of soft red hackle in the place where gills should be.

I tie on my smolt and toss it out a short distance to soak it. As I’m watching it quiver in the current below the rod tip there is a blur of white and silver, a splash and it is gone. The fish that grabbed it rushes urgently into the deeper water. It’s a strong determined fish. I take a while to steady myself after the unexpected grab and concentrate on bringing the fish to the beach so that I may see what it is. Oona is in the water to greet my quarry. The fish gets sight of her and makes one last run burning off some more energy and enabling me to more easily slide it into the shallows. I have the catch and release tool, a pair of forceps with a sleeve welded to their barrel a few centimetres above their point, in my hand by the time the creature is close enough to slide the sleeve down the line to quickly disgorge the hook, but before I do this, I stop to examine the fish.

It’s a Dolly Varden as long as my forearm. It’s a thick fish with a belly white as snow and silvered sides punctuated with pink dots. Dolly Varden are the most beautiful of char to my eye, more nicely proportioned than Bull Trout, which have larger heads, longer, thinner bodies, and vermiculations, all of which make them seem reptilian.

Tall dark clouds obscure the sun. I fish on expecting some rain. Knowing that Dolly Varden tend to school up and that they’re piscivorous make it hard for them to resist moving targets, I mend downstream to increase the speed of my smolt and strip it toward me in short sharp pulls. Another fish grabs my fly so vigorously my tippet snaps, at least that is what I think until I reel in the line and discover the sinking tip has snapped in the middle, something that has never happened before since these sinking sections have a 40 pound breaking strength according to their manufacturers. When fish are this ravenous, a tip isn’t necessary. I take off the remainder of the head, loop on a leader tapering to 3x, tie on another smolt imitation, then fish on. Over the next two hours I hook six more Dolly Varden some slightly larger and some just a little smaller than the first fish. At a place where the channel widens and the water slows, a foot long cutthroat trout jumps on the fly then takes to the air.

Surprise fish are the best fish. Dolly Varden are unpredictable surprising fish. Little is known of their wanderings. Were those sea run fish? Do they spend all their time in the Skeena or are they bound for another river? I think about this as I walk back over logs, meadow, and sand, all thoughts of Chinook Salmon forgotten.