Sunday, 28 October 2018

Harvesting Salmon for Broodstock

And now for something completely different from sport fishing:

Here are some videos and images of salmon when they come home to their rivers, in this case the Nitinat. For those who don't know, the bar on the outside in the ocean can be spectacular for fishing in the summer (accessed from Port Renfrew and Bamfield, with a few hardy souls launching in the lake, zipping through, fishing and zipping back) but is someplace that you need to arrive early, fish and then leave, because the afternoon winds, particularly with an outflow from the lake against an inflow tide, create huge, ugly, dangerous seas.

The Nitinat Lake is 20 kms long, tidal and the river of the same name flows into the lake at its farthest point from open ocean. The bottom of the river is tidal and somedays adds a foot of water to the bottom end - Gary's and Sturgeon pools - which you notice as a wet line on the opposite shore once the tide has ebbed.

This video shows a school of 50, 20- to 30-pound, chinook under the Little Nitinat Bridge, near the hatchery. It is about 2pm in early September, hence why it is in clear sun, me directly above, shooting down 20 feet to the water, and the water is about 12 feet deep.

(Please excuse the camera pops, and shaky video. I was trying to learn Movie Maker at the same time as uploading these, and found it was too difficult to do both things in the time I had; hence, I uploaded the raw video).

You can blow these videos and images up to full screen size to view.

Typically, when fishing in a river, you would target a school of several thousand fish because there is only a small percentage that will bite. The fish are beyond feeding, and thus you must target them with different tactics. Larger schools of chinook are black, in ruffled water or in shade and, of course, always on the other side of the river.

This next video is harvesting chinook broodstock in Red Rock Pool. At the boat launch, the hatchery boat is launched and it tows a net in a circle, ending back at the boat launch, and thus both ends of the net are in one place, fish inside the net. Then the net is slowly pulled onto shore, shrinking the water and concentrating the fish. Once the fish are easier to grab, they are picked out, deposited in bags that are then uploaded into a truck with water tanks and oxygen. Once full of fish, the truck zips to the hatchery, a five minute drive, where the fish are unloaded into a raceway. As they have several trucks, one pulls in as another leaves, and so on, speeding up the operation at both ends.

I chose this video of the half dozen I took because of how many times the staff are given the old face wash by the fish, something that happens far too frequently to me in the fall, fishing for salmon.

                      Here are a few images of loading at Red Rock, to put the video in context.

Dumping the bag into the metal tank on the truck.

Netting piled on shore after pulling it in to cinch the knot around the fish. You'll notice that the Diet Coke were running at the same time as the Chinook.

                                                            Heave ho to the next truck.

                                                   ... and grabbing the bag full of fish.

Now some photos of loading chum at Nitinat Lake near Ditidaht. A net surrounds the fish, it is put in a structure, and the net is slowly made smaller. At the top end, a screw of six feet in diameter slowly turns. There are fins in the screw and all the way up the 3.5 foot diameter pipe. At the top, the fish plop into a conveyor belt that moves them down to where they plop into a tank on the back of a truck.

The covered structure, showing the conveyor belt on the left, and the top end of the screw on the  right.

Taken from the structure in the lake, with its net that is slowly made smaller by hooking it over the iron railings on the sides and end. Looking back to the screw in the water, and the pipe that takes the fish up into the structure in the first photo.

The top end of the screw where the fish plop into the conveyor belt.

A shot of the conveyor belt and the tank into which it drops the fish, in this case handsome 10- to 15-pound chum.

A bucket of fish eyes looking at the camera.

This is the context for the screw seining. The residents of Ditidaht were doing a lake net-fishery for chum, at the same time.

A couple of shots of chum, moving into the screw as the net area is made smaller. Very handsome, good sized fish in these.

Copyright DC Reid.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Chapter 3: A Man And His River

Cool water surrounds my thighs, as I cross the Nitinat River after fish I think of as my own. I walk a corridor of conifers that talk with the sky, of willow that crowd the banks when wind turns them silver, then green. They take over, only minutes it seems, after winter flood strips the land of earth.

But this is a summer day, and I slosh the calf-deep channel east of what I call Bear Island. The bear that owns this stretch of forest crosses the lesser channel and leaves wet prints among rain-softened holes of bull elk and maidens they harbour this time of year. On this day, though, the bear is not at his island, nor on the west channel where willows make quiet noise in soft morning air.

I cast into moving hands of water above Cutt Corner where a log stretches the opposite shore. In the shade of trees wide as a hand-joined couple, are Chinook salmon. They touch the surface, moving up, crossing over, then down and then again back up, all day long, in a circle. Thousands of fish each one as long as my leg. While I am early in my understanding of salmon, I already see that yellow leaves and white bubbles moving up means something very large is beneath. 

A piece of silver and gold monofilament crosses the sun. A lure lands short of the other side, where fish are always found. They are never on your side of the river.

I wade cool hands of water that slip round my thighs, then deeper than a man likes to go. Water rises to my ribs and I cast into shade on the east side of morning where long spears of shadow cut across the river. I can’t see a single fish though I know there are many, keeping out of sight of whatever predators may come.

I send a high weight-to-volume spoon as far as I am able. The Illusion, Kit-A-Mat, Iron Head, heavy lures that fly because their weight cuts a hole in the air. My lure travels the morning sun, into shade of millennium old trees, big arms spread out. Some are broken from battle when winter is in their hands.

And the small bereft call of an eagle, in its tree above the blue river. Its perch the winter river will take from it. But not today. I make the bird the small king of my day. The sun is in my chest and on my arms.

Then the sound of my line – sffft – into the strike. A large fish easily clears the water, tail passing up and over its head, then craters the river. I am pulled so hard I rise on my toes to keep from falling face first into the tow of the fish. It simply moves upstream, and as though an invisible string is stuck to my sternum, I follow, dragging bottom. River bulges against my chest.

There is no word for a salmon this big, other than it is a great beast of an animal. No mere fish, no hold in the hand, blue brook trout. This is a fish so large that when its head comes clear of water, it is as big as my own. I am in its element among its holes the size of cars.

It seems to take all morning landing the largest fish of my life. It boils dust on the bottom of the glide. Its game of tick tack toe, its spider web flight, turns me in a circle, tip of rod pressing downstream, water moving me deeper than I was before. Then up, between me and my shore. Line cuts like a submarine conning tower. Its zzzt is the only sound in front of the eagle, centuries above, sun falling in pieces around its shoulders.

A long time later the great fish comes to me. I lift my rod high, right hand reaching, it seems, into the eye of Chinook. There is no other way to put it than the fish looks at me and into me. I feel its incomprehension, its fear. It shushes against my beating chest, so large it is as thick as I, with a mouth into which I can stuff both fists.

I wrap twenty-pound test mono around my right arm, drop my long rod and golden reel into the river. From my mouth, where I’ve pushed them during the fight, needle-nose pliers are pulled, and the beast eddies close, eyes on my eyes. My fist is small in its mouth as the pliers retrieve the hook of subterfuge. And this hand, as so often happens, releases ribbons of red that is my blood. The teeth are a line of pins in black jaws, meant for holding and shredding prey.

When I place my hand beneath its belly, its alien, three-chambered heart beats my palm. I point its head into current. My other hand can’t grasp the wrist of its tail, so I stuff cold silver to my chest. Bending low, chin on water, I ship mighty cool water into my armpit on a golden day.

When it is ready, it lets me know. It moves its head side to side, which is the first movement of flight: how a fish understands freedom, making its body serpentine like a scarf in wind. The curve pushes down a black and silver body and the thrust of tail sends me clear off my feet. And then it is gone, back to its shade, back to the others in the invisible country of cold blood.

There is nothing more to do. Nothing to say, other than words of appreciation. “Thank you,” I say to the forest. “Thank you,” I say to the fish. Words that make me part of the water and part of the land.

All day long, I cast into the invisible, and pull out the beautiful: fish I can only see, sipping air where no one else can see them. Small bubbles rise from mouths that angle down to stony bottom. Shade is a dark medium that cannot be deciphered, unless your eyes are open. 

All day in a cool river as deep as I dare, letting fish pull me where they will. I catch more than I thought possible: an even dozen to fifty pounds. I cast until my arms cannot withstand the hundred-yard runs, and I must quit – something I have never done before. Arms at my side, I offer up thanks, once more, to the fish still mouthing air in their shade.

My last deed is to name this non-descript run: Dennis’ Pool. It is hardly more than a glide, and in the river I will come to know, never more than simple. In a future summer, wader-less, I will walk across up to my neck to understand the water where salmon lie. Where they wait, for the river to rise, for rain to tell them it is time.

Rod over my shoulder, I walk back into the person I have become over the decades. This private person, whose private meaning is being alone with fish. In my future, the small glide will reward me with more coho and Chinook than almost any other place in the Nitinat. A place most fishermen pass by, thinking it is shade, and the gloom and coolness forbids them entrance.

I return with striding sun. Upriver through shallow water, now on the east side. From the forest ten feet above, broken turf has been made into a sandy trail. This is where elk make their crossing. If a man is found walking in sun that sweats down his back, they withhold their presence. I give in to the forest without fear of being watched – the seventh sense we have of feeling eyeballs looking at us – a strange feeling. Bear Island is left behind, and when I turn back, a line of elk – males with crowns of bone, females the size of horses with delicacy of muscle – are moving down the bank.

Sun drips down my glasses. I trudge into my shadow like Huckleberry Finn, rod balanced on my shoulder – the gift of fishing often. My hands are in my pockets. There is no one to whom I can tell the tale, who can live it my own private way. I thank Mark Twain, too. Thanking nature is my only fishing ritual. Its gift of pleasure recognized, on a half-mile, squelching, ankle deep in a place of caddis and brown algae. I look up to endless tons of gravel and seagulls important in their whiteness. Nature and me, two fingers crossed.

Where I cross, the river is at my waist. I brace with spread legs, quarter down, river pushing me into itself. But not all the way. Not this time.

Minutes later, I am breaking down my rod at Red Rock Pool. A guide I will someday come to know has dropped his drift boat, and clients, while he runs back up for his truck. The husband is a large Scottish man with a beard. “I fought it for half an hour and never even got a chance to see it.”

This is their version of the best of fishing of their lives. “It was glorious,” his wife says and gazes into the wilderness that is Canada. To hook a chinook and never get a look, is a memory the length of a life.

“How did you do?” The man questions.

I simply shrug, for I have lost the ability to speak. In silence, I offer final thanks to the day. The beauty of the open eye.

1,615 Words

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Getting Chummy With Chum

It’s time once again to get out the old rod and head to Sooke for the annual chum run up the Sooke River. Below the bridge in town, both gear and fly are allowed. Above the bridge only fly. In Sooke Basin, the most commonly fished spot is Billing’s Spit. Whiffen Spit should also offer fish when they stage just inside it or on the corner coming into the Basin, though I have not fished it during the fall fishery.

Above the bridge, the river is tidal for a good mile, and offers many spots for casting. The most open spot is the Sooke campground. You pay a Toonie for entrance and have the use of the washrooms. The river in this location offers a very good spot to learn fly casting, because it is completely open, having no obstructions behind or in front. So those false casts that would otherwise fail on back and forward strokes, more often stay in the air, something that during learning is a good thing. I should add that this spot is fishable on all tide levels, particularly rising tides.

The campground also gives access to De Mamiel Creek, which is where most of the coho rise up to spawn, hence during a dry fall the fish can hold in front of the grounds waiting for the creek to rise with fall rains. Some of the coho rise up Sooke River as well, and thus you can take them from the river above the campground. 

Access to the river above the open area is granted either by wading across from the campground or from the access path across from Sun River estates up the road. In either case, pay attention to the tide level and check the tables for the time of tides, particularly high tides. High tides restrict your access to the river from the far, or Victoria, side of the river. You can be stuck there for several hours before the tide falls enough to allow you to wade back across the river. 

While rising tide is better fishing than falling tide, something that is typical in most estuaries, the high end sends water all the way above the Clay Bank corner, around and all the way to the pool at the end of the farm, and egress can still be a problem on higher tides to these spots. So, pay attention.

For most of the commonly fished waters on the Sooke, it is glorious water to try out your new Switch rod. Two hundred yards below the Clay Bank all the way down to the bridge the river is fairly wide and thus these two handers, which are far less effort to cast than single handers, find good use. One distinct advantage of Switch rods is that you can release a fish in the river without fear of the tip breaking. I have broken tips of both single handers and Spey rods, and the latter, being 14 feet or more, don’t allow you to get the fish close enough to release, and you either need Gunga Din with a net, or you have to drop your expensive rod in the water once you have the line in your hand, to avoid breaking the rod, and then dance around trying not to step on your rod.

Every fly guy/gal in Victoria should put the Sooke on their annual calendar. It is a good fishery, that you are bound to catch and release a fish or two, and on the right days more than a dozen, if the chum are snappy. Chum are at their most willing on a rising tide, and within a couple hours after it. I have been on the pool behind the farm when chum have been rising into it for several hours before and after the high tide.

Now, turning to flies, everyone has their own go-to fly for Sooke; thus many completely different flies can have fine days. Remember that no matter the fly’s size, if you have some silver metal or attractant like Krystal Flash in it, you can single out the coho in the waters. As they are few in number, you likely won’t see them mixed up in large chum schools, but your flashing fly will work on them. I have seen tiny Clousers (see image below) with silver dumbbell eyes do the deed on coho, and then all the way up to large multi-layered, silver-based flies for both species.

Flies that I have seen do well include: pink or white or chartreuse Woolly Buggers, pink and purple Egg-Sucking Leeches, California Neils, double-egg patterns in purple and orange, and gargantuan streamers featuring lots of purple and pink Krystal Flash or Flshabou. Note that circle hooks make lots of sense for chum as they school tightly and are the clumsiest of the salmon species. If you don’t have circle hooks, use black salmon hooks and bend the barb up toward the shank. Note the points in the image below, particularly the double sperm egg patterns on the left: one has a circle hook and the other a bent Salmon hook.

This image will give you a place to start tying. Ones that look beat up are in that condition because they work and have received many bites, and still work.