Jim and I have returned to Thomas Creek to count Chinook Salmon. It’s taken more than a week for the Zymoetz River to clean up to the point where it’s clean enough to offer any kind of fishing prospects. Though we have no way of knowing for sure, we suspect that the Clore will be in the same state, and that its tributaries will have dropped and cleared.
On our way up Haaland Ave., which Google Maps informed me is actually the gazetted name of the Copper River Haul Road that follows the left bank of the river inland, we pass lots of vehicles parked by fishermen. Every well-known access point has one. Some have more.
I’m shocked, remarks Jim. It isn’t even September yet. Remember how we didn’t even fish the upper river until after Labour Day?
And, it’s not like the water’s in great shape.
It’s marginal, says Jim. What’s it going to be like at prime time?
Yeah, especially if the river cleans up.
At the Trapper’s Run, I switch radio channels and we climb up past the Clore Canyon toward our destination, accompanied by the chatter of the men and women working on the pipeline.
At the forestry campsite, we suit up then arm ourselves with spray and bear bangers. Jim tethers his horn to his vest. To our delight, the creek has dropped and cleared.
Perfect height, notes Jim.
It’s always exhilarating to see fish, but especially thrilling to see large fish in small places. While Jim looks for redds, I push my counter four times, once for each of the large red salmon squeezed into a small pool below the much larger pool at the base of the canyon.
Do Chinook make it through the canyon?
We looked for them a few times over the years, says Jim, but we haven’t found any.
The water is a muted blue. The big red salmon with their fins coated in white fungus stand out in vivid contrast. The wade we had trouble making a week-and-a-half ago is easy today.
We should be able to avoid bush whacks, I say, relieved at the prospect of staying out of the bush in this cafeteria line for great grizzled bears.
There’s one place, says Jim.
Every place that offers a fish cover has a salmon. Many are in the 20-pound range. A few are bigger than that.
Our walk is about half done when we reach the spot Jim alluded to earlier. The creek slams into a rock wall with full force then bends sharply. There is no wade, forcing us into a thicket full of slide alder and brush surrounding and growing through an aged log jam. Even Oona has some difficulty. We bipedal creatures struggle mightily. With the exception of blackberry bushes, there’s nothing as annoying as making one’s way through slide alder. The stuff is nearly impenetrable. To make matters worse, the brush makes it impossible to see our feet as we make our way gingerly over and across the frame of the log jam. Fortunately, the portage is short. In a few minutes we are on a short shingle that has grizzly tracks and a headless salmon on it. The creek is less steep and wider. A trio of crimson fish bolt as we cross. Click. Click. Click.
There are ripened Chinook salmon in every, pool, riffle, and glide now. When we reach the confluence of creek and river I check my counter. 105.
What did you get? asks Jim.
Better than I thought. I guess it’s not such a bad year after all.
There could be fish spawning down there too, Jim points to a seam of Thomas Creek water spilling into the larger river below the confluence. We wade the creek and walk downstream. As Jim predicted there are some long shadows that turn into fish upon closer examination. The rods that we wished we had left in the truck when we had to do the short arduous slug through the bush are now welcome companions. We assemble them and begin casting over the tailout. The river is fast and too high, but it’s nice to wet a line on the Clore again.
A mystery fish tugs at my small muddled minnow as it arcs across the tail. On the next cast a steelhead juvenile is attached. I flick it free in the shallows. A few minutes later I release another.
We make our way back to the truck, change, then set out for town. We’re both at that point in our fishing career when the thrill of catching fish is pretty much on par with the excitement of counting fish. As we drive down the valley, landmarks trigger reminiscences from Jim like the day of firsts when he, Shirley, and the kids all caught steelhead or the time he and his son-in-law, Mario, wound up floating through perilous water in the dark with a Japanese client.
We reach Haaland Ave.
We have our counters. Let’s count anglers on the Copper, I suggest to Jim.