On the fly

🕔Apr 06, 2007

The flicking thing I get: pretend to hold a beer can in your armpit and swipe your wrist between 11 o’clock and one. Get the line soaring. When it’s unfurled on the back swing, give it a flick forward and let the fly sink into the rushing waters.

It’s a beautiful motion, and standing thigh-deep in a gorgeous river near a secluded pool—yes, I can get used to fly fishing.

I’m not a natural angler. The real aficionados talk about a “fishing gene.” But no matter how many times mom or dad dragged their kids out in the early morning hours to toss a cane rod into a pond, inevitably one kid learned to love it and the other didn’t. I grew up near the trout-fishing mecca of the Bow River, but no one tried to drag my sister and me from our suburban home to brave the waters. If they had, I suspect I would have been the one that hated it.

My first fishing experience was on the west coast of Vancouver Island a few years back. I caught a 28-pound Chinook salmon (several—well, four—of the huge things, to be exact—that’s the limit). You’d think I’d be hooked.

It’s exciting to feel the silvery creature tugging your line. There’s adrenaline in this sport, it’s true. The fish runs and you reel; it runs again, you reel; finally, when it’s at the boat you net the thing, whack it, and you’ve got enough for several salmon dinners. But what with the endless trolling back and forth on bumpy seas, not to mention the need for a boat with a big motor, salmon fishing is not a pastime I plan to pursue.

Bob Crooks, on the other hand, has the fishing gene. This Tlell man has been fishing as long as he can remember. He was 13 when he got his first fly-fishing rod; that summer he went up to the Cariboo with his friends but didn’t catch a darn thing on his new rod.

He returned home to White Rock dejected, but ambled down the next weekend to the Little Campbell River where he always fished. The old guys at the river took him under their wing and showed how to cast. He landed an 11-pound coho that morning and that was it: he’s been hooked ever since.

Ontario-based writer Paul Quarrington has a theory about old guys. In his book, Fishing With My Old Guy, he talks about the need for an elder to “facilitate passages, to impart the whys and wherefores of a particular art or craft.”

“Fishing is an area that can, even in this decidedly unmagical day and age, still produce magi. I call them Old Guys,” he writes.

I think about this theory as Bob Crooks demonstrates once again the elusive rhythm for casting a fly. We’re on the Yakoun River, and the squalls are sweeping through the valley: one minute sunny, the next pouring rain. The river is too high to catch steelhead, but it’s winter on Haida Gwaii and when you make a plan two days before to meet someone at a campsite 30 kilometres up a logging road, you go.

Not many people stick with fly-fishing, Bob tells me, as I nearly hook the back of my head. “You didn’t let it unfurl enough before you tried to bring it back,” he says. The next time the line swings back too far and touches ground behind me. After a few more tries, I get the fly into the river, but without much grace.

But there’s more to it than just casting into the water. One has to read the river to know where the fish are going to be, get the fly to them, present it in such a way that they are attracted to it, and then you might be lucky enough to catch a fish.

And it’s not like they’re hungry: the winter-run steelhead on the islands don’t feed as they come up-river, but grabbing the fly is instinct, Crooks says.

I don’t have a rod of my own, so I surrender his. “I’ll just watch the master,” I say. Bob wades downstream flicking his fly; my dog and I follow along on the shore.

For reasons I am only starting to understand, fly-fishing incites a lot of passion in men (okay, women too, but men for the purpose of this story). Some will pay thousands for the chance to cast in the world-famous waters that those in the north think of as their back yards.

But this very fact—of guides and the guided flocking to local streams—is what incites a different kind of passion in some others. Noel Wotten is an artist and fly fisherman who also lives in Tlell. He’s fished most of the sought-after fly-fishing spots in the world and captured many magical moments on canvas, complete with spray and speckles on the silver sides of jumping fish. This combination has led many seekers to his door.

“But I will never guide on the streams of Haida Gwaii, no matter how much I’m offered,” he says with vehemence.

Wotten believes fishing an area is a privilege one should earn. He arrived on Haida Gwaii 30 years ago and slowly swirled his way into the fishing streams, getting to know the locals, eventually being taken to the secret, sacred pools on the Tlell and Yakoun Rivers.
But more and more he’s finding these pools aren’t so secret anymore. When he asks people how they found a place, they tell him they just hired a guide for a day.

The stupid part, he says, is that guides are showing visitors secret spots, but once that happens the next time the visitor won’t have to pay and can bring more friends. And with no shortage of new people willing to pay, spots quickly become ruined for locals. Even worse, he says, are the drift boats that fishing guides bring onto the islands’ waterways. Wotten says there is a gentlemen’s agreement among long-term locals not to use them because the rivers are so small.

“We walk to the pools,” he says, adding that etiquette requires you don’t walk in on someone who is already at a pool. If they are fishing their way downstream, you follow behind them.

What worries him about drift boats is that guides anchor them in the pools and then drop their lines straight into what is basically a holding tank for steelhead. He’s heard guides bragging about catching (and releasing) up to 20 a day.

Bob Crook says he would never guide either, but for different reasons. “It’s no fun: [when you’re guiding] you have to catch a fish,” he says.

We watch two guys standing on a sandbar down-river from us. They are layered in rain gear and their guide is mussing about on shore with a small smoky fire. They look cold and wet and unlucky.

We should know—we are cold and wet and unlucky too. But the tea-coloured river surrounds us. The dog is behaving, although she’d love to dive for each fly as it alights on the surface and slowly sinks into the waiting pool.

To Wotten this is the measure of a successful trip: it’s not how many you catch, but if you saw an eagle or an otter, the dogs got a good walk, or—pleasure of pleasures—you saw a fish rise.

Like many, I like the idea of fly-fishing. I saw the movie—A River Runs Through It. Okay, Brad Pitt was the main draw, but I got it: the time for contemplation in nature, the shared experiences, the teachable moments.

Wotten says there aren’t many real fly-fishers on the islands. Most will bring along some bait and a regular rod and reel for when they tire of not catching anything. He abhors bait-fishing for steelhead. “You hardly ever accidentally kill a fish on a fly,” says Wotten. Anglers are only allowed to keep one steelhead a month on island streams (and even that is set to change next year), so it doesn’t leave much room for error. But catch-and-release is an imperfect sport, especially after a fish has swallowed a hook set with salmon eggs. Once it bleeds, it’s dead.

Crook isn’t so against the idea of bait-fishing. He sees fishing as a progression. “You start with bait and you grow out of it after a while,” he says. Bait bans mean that kids can’t dig up worms, go down to the river and throw a line in, like he used to. “Fish whatever way you want, and if you get to fly-fishing, that’s great,” is his philosophy. Sometimes you get right past the fishing and just enjoy standing on the banks watching.

Maybe I’m already there.

Around this time the guide drives by. Bob is still casting, but we’re going to quit soon. The guide flashes the peace sign out the driver’s side window and I nod back a surprised greeting. But Bob knows the guy isn’t just being nice. “They got two,” he says.