Winter fish

A cold winter day brings up fond memories for columnist Rob Brown

The wind herds the dry snow, whipping it across the road. It shakes the truck. None of it sticks to the highway. The pavement is bare. The eyes of big trucks approach, burn brighter, then vanish. Everything goes white, then the road reappears. There is a frayed impression of a bridge in the distance. I signal right.

The scene flickering between my wind shield wipers, as cold as it is, warms me. It gives me comfort. It might be a harbinger of one of those hard, cold, winters we used to regard as normal. A winter with bite. Not one of those useless, toothless miserable excuses for winter we’ve had so often lately, but a real snow-filled three and a half months of demanding weather that rewards every challenge well met.

Those seasons had predictability: the snow covered the mountain tops in October; by November the flanks were white; in December the snow was falling heavily in the lowest of the low lying areas.

Mike and I fished through those winters, seldom missing a weekend or a holiday, unless it was Christmas, and then only Christmas Day. We fished the monochrome corridors of the Kitsumkalum River. We chased steelhead, hunted them with an energy I crave but no longer possess. They were exceedingly bright, those Kalum steelhead. They were winter fish, pointed at both ends, fat in the middle, their radiance made more intense in the flat light of winter.

We chased them with the traditional tackle of B.C. – a direct drive reel, a 10-foot rod, a float, split shot and some form of salmon eggs, adorned with a tuft of yarn, latex in my case, the real thing in Mike’s.

The warmest place to be on the coldest of those cold days was the water, Mike said, and he was correct. To stay warm, we wore latex waders whose stocking feet we’d cut off and replaced with the brand of gum boots Mr. Trigo had assured us were the most durable he carried. Under those we wore wool pants and long johns.

To protect our upper bodies we both wore wool shirts of Kiwi manufacture that we’d found in Bert Goulay’s North West Sportsman. Over those fine shirts, we wore PinTails, the traditional vest of this province’s steel headers, and over our vests, thick green, non-breathing raincoats built by Helly Hansen, which came from Norway in those non-globalized days.

The coats were life savers. Bullet proof vests against the hail of bullets that were the outflow winds hurtling down the valley toward the Skeena. The wind was our foe. We sought out sheltered runs and greased our guides and our lines with Vaseline to thwart freeze up. We guarded our reels from any exposure to water – but even so, on a couple of occasions I inadvertently dipped my Silex and spent the next half hour prying it apart and scraping off the rime with a pocket knife while Mike fished for the next steelhead.

Dipping a reel was annoying. Taking a dip meant the very real possibility of hypothermia. We were strong waders then and for the most part we waded with great care. I say, for the most part, because on two occasions, I watched Mike make crossings I would only have made in a boat. They were feats I remain amazed at and in awe of to this day and ones that would have put him in the Wading Hall of Fame if such an institution existed.

The fish we caught in those days were high up on the scale of difficulty. Catching one was immensely satisfying. We caught a lot, taking scale samples for what was then known as the Fish and Wildlife Branch of the Ministry of the Environment, as proof of our fortitude.

There is no talk on the radio, but I call anyway, just in case and make my way up and over the hill then down the incline, past Cody Skog’s place to Baxter’s. The transmission line is crackling. I assemble my rod. It hums in harmony to the electric field as Oona and I make our way to the tail of the run. The flow is low. The riffle has gone from a rattle to a hiss. I wade in, feeling smug to be warm in the cold, clear water. I make two long throws and notice that ice has plugged my guides making more of this approach impossible. The gauntlet is thrown. If I can’t swing my fly through this lie, I won’t find fish. I move down to the next beat, a narrower piece of water. I tie on a heavy chartreuse fly, throw it upstream, a nod to my float fishing days, and hook a Dolly Varden Char immediately. A few cold minutes later the rod bows deeply. I have a steelhead. I release it with cold, wet hands.

Then I stop for moment. A minute’s silence. An homage to winter. Bring it on! I say, as the dog looks surprised, I’m back.