The Air Canada commuter banked into the sun and slid out of the sky to touch down at Massett Field in the south of the Queen Charlotte Islands. They off-loaded our bags and pole cases right out of the plane, and we piled into the rented beater we had reserved – a twelve-year-old GMC Suburban. Jokes and kidding laced our comments to each other. Our excitement about this adventure was palpable.
“You’re early, eh,” said the bushy-browed man behind the counter of the local hardware store that sold Canadian fishing licenses. “You’re here, but the ‘steelies” . . they haven’t come in yet, eh.”
Bunkie, my fishing partner and I looked at each other dejectedly. The air had gone out of our trip before it began. And, we had two other guys with us, my partner’s older brother, Walt, and another fellow, Dennis. They’d never fished for steelhead before and the looks on their faces was all disappointment, in the trip and in Bunkie and me. After all, we had planned it.
“But don’t be so down in the mouth, eh? There’s a run of silvers, lads. Give me your ID’s and we’ll fix you right up.”
Silver Salmon! Our spirits lifted. We’d come a long way just to get ‘skunked’ before we started. Bunkie and I had fished for steelies for many years on the mainland and the big rivers in Northern B.C. We’d left tracks on the Skeena, the Babine, the Sustut, the Kispiox and the Damdochax, among them. It was all good, but like every fisherman, there was always new water to try. Fishing permits in hand, anticipation restored, the four of us got back in the ‘Jimmy’ and headed out of town. Our destination, the Tlell River, was on the east side of Graham Island. Harvey, hardware store guy, had given us a map and put a mark on it to say that was a good stretch for wading and casting.
Before we left, Walt, the oldest of us had asked Harv, “We won’t be trespassing, will we?” The man grinned broadly before answering, “Not likely, but you might not be alone, eh…” – leaving out the part that would make this trip even more memorable than we imagined it would be.
I drove while Bunkie, an amateur historian, read off some facts about the Queen Charlottes off the coast of British Columbia, and how they were the home of the Haida, a singular group of northwest Native Peoples. The Haida were anglers like us, only more so. They hunted whales in the open sea. Dennis joked he doubted our nine weight rods were big enough for that.
After driving for over an hour on gravel roads through areas that had been logged, we arrived at the hillside spot marked on the map. I pulled the car over so we could all get out to look down at the river Tlell. It was at least two hundred feet below us and thick brush in between. While we all were wondering how this was going to work, Walt took a leak by the car while I strolled down the road to do the same thing. Bunkie hollered he’d found a crude trail that looked like it led downhill to the river.
The old SUV had a liftgate that accommodated two of us at the same time to pull off trousers and put on waders and boots. I stood by and rigged up my Fisher 9 weight, attaching an old Scientific Anglers System Two 8/9 reel. The ‘SA’ is an ugly bugger, with a black, solid spool – not like the newer jobs, all bright-colored and lacy-looking – but I like it because it has a disc drag that could stop a bus. I double-and triple-checked the pockets in my fishing vest, while I anxiously waited for my turn to sit down and suit up. Anticipation almost crystalized the air. A final cup of hot coffee was passed around, the vehicle locked, the key left under the back bumper where we all knew about it, and then we set off. Bunkie led the way.
The trail was rough going, tight with brush that reached over our heads, vision was limited. I kept thinking this would be a helluva place to encounter a bear. Then the group stopped abruptly. I was third one back as we all bunched up. Bunkie said, “You’re not going to believe this.” And he turned and we walked together into a semi-clearing where only low brush grew. In the middle of the area was a huge red cedar trunk, gray with age. It had been felled a long time ago and work had begun to shape it into an enormous canoe at least forty feet long. But the work on the boat had ceased, the hull shape obvious but unfinished. We were all momentarily stunned into silence at the size of the endeavor. This craft was going to be a whale hunter.
All of us were commenting on what studs these boatbuilders must have been and considering the progress made, Walt wondered out loud what had stopped them?
Anxious to fish, I said, “Maybe they just wanted to go fishing.” Nobody laughed, and Dennis gave me the finger.
Already starting to hike on, I shouted back, “C’mon. The silvers are waiting.” The brush gave way at the foot of the trail when we reached the water. The river flowed smoothly around a curve above us and straightened out for almost a half of a mile, with wide banks of river rock on either side. Harvey had done us right – good wading and easy casting, ‘eh.’
It was midmorning, the sun was dappling the river with dancing light. I took it all in. A sweet river, a clear blue Canadian sky, some color just starting to show in the larch trees, salmon porpoising in the mainstream. It was what we came for.
Dennis stepped away from us and waded out a few feet, pumping line as he went. He had a green-butted skunk on a sink-tip line. He cast, mended, and immediately hooked up. The bright fish rocketed out of the water, the spray caught in a rainbow of sunlight. He fought the silver salmon downstream, eventually bringing it to the net and then holding it up for us to see. We’d cheered and hooted and told him he’d snagged the only blind fish in the river. But it was a nice one, a silver salmon fresh from the ocean, twenty-eight inches, certainly. And we all wanted one, so we spread out thirty yards, or so, apart and were soon into fish. And so were the eagles. Perched in the tall cedars, they dove from above into the dark water and, salmon thrashing in their talons, feasted on the opposite bank.
I waded further out from shore to be able to cast into the main channel. I had tied on a variation of the standard double egg pattern, using white tinsel with a string of red in it to simulate part of the egg sack. Pump, haul, pump, haul, cast. The fly barely hit the surface when a salmon grabbed it. Unmended, I struck, instead of waiting, and lost the fish. I knew better.
Below me on the river, Bunkie had seen me blow the hook-up and yelled, “The one Dennis caught was bigger!” I acknowledged his crack with Dennis’s one finger salute.
Gathering loops of line in my left hand, I made two false casts and pumped my fly back into the current. Nothing. Just a long swing, then as I started to retrieve my fly using short pulls on the line, a strike! The silver salmon was immediately airborne. God, this was gonna be fun!
Meantime, Dennis had plodded over the river rocks and gone above the rest of us, almost to an old, wooden footbridge that crossed the river at the curve. Bunkie was hooked up, as was Walt, both working fish down toward me. It was nuts. Four guys whooping and yelling while hooking and playing fish like an assembly line!
Walt, rod bent in a full arc fighting a strong fish, shouted to us, “Maybe we ought to all take numbers!”
The fishing went on like that, almost nonstop. Cast, hook-up, play the fish downstream, with all of us spread out down the bank. Fish after fish – a silver streak.
It was early afternoon and we had been on the water for nearly four hours when the bear first appeared. A brown bear, a sow bigger than a grizzly. She came sauntering out of the brush on the opposite side of the river and walked down to the shore, sniffing, and occasionally raising her head to peer at us. I kept fishing.
Bunkie sidled up to me, pole in hand. “What do you think?” he said.
“I think if she stays over there, we’re okay, plus there’s four of us. Maybe that will be intimidating . . . ”
We both watched the animal for several seconds, lost in our private thoughts of bear stories we’d heard.
“I’d pay to see that,” he said. “A bear on its hind legs, four anglers holding it at bay with their fly rods like the four Musketeers!”
It was a funny picture, and we were both grinning about it when we heard Dennis yell, “We’ve got company!”
Bunkie and I looked his way. A new bear, bigger than the other, was crossing the footbridge. Walt whistled and pointed. He had seen it, too. Our fishing was over. The four Musketeers we were not. We didn’t want to quit. We had all caught and released over twenty fish apiece, at least. Steelheading was never like that. Usually plenty of bears, but far fewer fish hooked. This was a ‘moment.’ Now it was time to go. We all backed out of the water and collectively headed for the path leading back to the road, casting cautious glances over our shoulders.
Up the trail we came to the canoe again. As we went along, we talked about the bears and shared other bear stories from our experiences. Pausing to catch a breath, one of the guys offered the thought that maybe the bears had driven the boat builders away, like they had us. “Naw,” Bunkie said, “they honored bears.”
I had to agree with him, looking up at the half-finished prow of the canoe, I saw a large square block had been roughly hewed to start to resemble an animal, a bear. Like the eagles, we had been competing with the bear for its food. To them we were just trespassers, after all.
Back at the SUV, trying to offer a light note to the end of the day’s fishing I said, “Too bad the bears don’t understand catch and release. . . .” No one laughed, so I added “Well, you know? You never can Tlell . . . Eh?”
Just for that they made me buy the first drink back in town.