An Easter Blessing

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Nick Didlick

The path leads through a dark forest. Last night’s rain drips from the canopy. You can see where the floods of winter rose, flattening undergrowth and depositing the skeletons of salmon in low branches. It is a lonely, bewitching place. Ahead the surface of the river flickers with light and the eternal promise of life.

Looking for an Easter steelhead on the Tsable River. The small river, its gravel beds shifted by the torrential flood unleashed by first pass logging 60 years earlier, drains the icy mountains along Vancouver Island’s backbone, on British Columbia’s West Coast. The slopes on Forbidden Plateau are buried deep in snow, but here steady rains have given growth to a tangled second growth forest, where a few giant old trees can still be found, including thick-trunked black cottonwoods, along the banks. Moss and fern sprouts from every fold, holding water like a sponge.

I emerge from the damp woods as if resurfacing, wade knee deep into the clear water and stop to knot a Black Doctor to my line. It is an Atlantic salmon fly, tied in Scotland, scarred by the teeth of hook nosed northern coho off the beaches south of the Oyster River. No reason it should work here — except that I believe in it.

The late Bob Jones, a  fly fisher, art critic, outdoors writer and resident curmudgeonwho lived  in nearby Courtenay, had told me  the river came on late and I should find fish holding in the big pool, below the shale cliffs, above the railway trestle and below the B.C. Hydro line.

“If it hasn’t changed up there that is. And it does change a lot,” he said. (Bob died in 2008 and is missed for his sage advice and his strong voice for fish.)

The cliff presents a problem. The path goes straight up, through root tangles. I am not 18 anymore and do not follow. Instead I go across the river, chest deep on speckled stones. If one moves I’ll go under. They hold firm, locked in by current that has washed away all the weak links.

I find the deep elbow pool Bob talked of. It seems too slow to hold steelhead. I walk the Doctor through. Upstream looks better. As it always does.

I cross, re-cross, go through shallows, fish pocket water, search behind root tangles and moss covered boulders. The whole place crackles with possibility. About one mile up I wade out to pass under a downed tree, that leans at an angle across the river, and find a steelhead holding, shallow against my side. She has a tail as wide as a dinner plate, translucent, spotted, powerful. I could almost reach out and grasp her by the wrist. One, two, quick sweeps with that tail and she is gone, like a torpedo, upstream into deep green water. I feel like a fool, standing in the prime holding water that is now vacant because of my blunder. Why didn’t I climb over the tree on the bank, and cast down? The current would have drifted my fly to the fish — and she would have taken like a bolt of lightning.

I try to concentrate, but a few pools later my attention wanders again, from the trees, to the river stones, to the traveling sky. On a sandbar I find deer and wolf tracks. In the stream I pick up a salamander, brown as a dead leaf. Turn him over: the belly is florescent yellow. He is cold and hardly moves. We sit side by side on the rock while I rest. He seems happy of my company. I put him on my knee. He looks up. “You have a very nice place here,” I say.

Farther upstream (yes, I’m still going) there is a place where the river changes its mind about where to go, turning suddenly left to vanish under a log jam, leaving the old bed dry. I explore the old channel and find a jade blue pool left out there all by itself.

There are lots of big, big trees uprooted by flood and felled across the river. I do my best to fish under them all, thinking of that huge translucent tail, fanning just beyond my reach.

Above the power line I see red survey tags hanging from the branches and a wide swath cut through the forest. At first I’m afraid it is part of the new Island Highway (not an off ramp here!) but then realize it is the gas line right of way. For awhile, at least, people will still have to work to get this far up the river.

Above me now the Tsable turns against a steep hillside and by the way the mountain folds down and catches the shadows, it looks like the river is emerging from a deep  canyon. I want to go up, to explore beyond the limits of what I’ve been told, but it’s getting late. I turn back, stopping to eat a late afternoon lunch where the deer tracks lead the wolf tracks across the gravel bar.

Going down I fish the run where I spooked the steelhead, then, after 20 drifts and a couple of fly changes, wade in once again and sweep my fly rod under the deadfall. I want to at least see the fish. But she is not there, gone forever.

It has been a long hike, no fish, but a beautiful day with the sun coming out in the afternoon and now the coolness of evening coming on. The old Hardy feels good in my hands. It has seen me through many fishless days on Vancouver Island, where the once-great steelhead rivers are at a low ebb. The Black Doctor goes back into the book. I still think it’ll take a steelhead one day. I know it works for coho.

Easter tomorrow. I’ll take my daughter fishing after she finds her chocolate eggs. We’ll use a worm and bobber. Gotta start somewhere.