Haig-Brown’s Secret

Story by Neil Cameron

The water wasn’t quite right, it never is. The wind was up and from the south, as usual. It was spring warm, though small pricks of winter reminded that March was not yet done. The Campbell River strolled regally to the ocean while unknown creatures of fin and wing-to-come clung to the underpinnings of her dress. Roderick Haig-Brown’s secret lay before me and I hesitated in its revelation.

The secret Fry Fly - Photo by Art Lingren

How much of a secret this was I wasn’t sure. I have not read one thing about it in all his writings, except perhaps in a vague sort of reference. But I knew it was his secret. His friend and neighbour, Van Egan, had told me so.

Rod used to have this place he would go for early cutthroats, Van told me one spring. I went with him once and it was the darnedest thing.

It was good fishing? I asked eagerly.

No, actually, Van replied, a quizzical look on his face. Not a fish stirred, the wind was in our face and the water? Well, I asked him about the water.

It was strange, Van continued. I certainly never was close to Rod’s abilities as a fly fisherman, but even I could look at that water and say it, well wasn’t.

Wasn’t? I asked.

It wasn’t there, Van said consternated. In fact if I could pick a part of the river that said ‘No Fish Here’ that would have been it. It had virtually no flow except a small riffle that almost, almost, seemed to set up as the tidal influence reached up river. It was shallow, with no cover.

Van’s voice trailed away and I asked him about that day and what happened. He said after a while Rod waded out to his knees and waited. He never cast, he said. Just waited and smiled back every now and then. After 20 minutes he waded back and said we were late.

The next day Haig-Brown went back and caught three cutthroats. Rod said it was a strange sort of place to fish and when it came on it would last for maybe half an hour, said Van. He figured it had to be some kind of mini-migratory corridor through which the cutthroats swam in search of fry. But he always caught fish there. Haig-Brown had found it and, for the most part, kept quiet about it. I wondered then and now, how many other spots he had had personal fisheries to which he had never put pen or handshake.

I got the time of tide from Van and the general, but pretty precise location. For two years I searched and I found a lot of dead water with no fish. I was fortunate to placate my disappointment by attending court at Van’s riverside home after every outing. He could no longer go himself, but lived it through my excursions. He would query, I would answer and query back. He would query and I would answer and query back. They were luscious conversations of past and present and Van would almost always end my stories of non-success with, Well I’ll be damned.

I was torn between giving up and continuing this search for the Holy Grail. I realized the cutthroats Haig-Brown had been fishing were fully wild and comprised of a good number of the fabled yellow bellies that went into the threes and fours of pounds. The mine leachate upriver has since wiped those out. But I knew cutthroats still prowled the Campbell in spring. Had the immense environmental work on improving the estuary unknowingly closed the door on one of the biggest secrets of the Universe? So many questions, so much doubt.

I continued to fish for cutthroats in the Campbell, but only seldom did I visit the Holy Grail. When I did it was as it was no water, shallow, no cover, wind in your face.

Van wasn’t reproachful. He understood too that things change and that the Holy Grail could be completely wiped out by the march of tide and man. But he still liked to discuss it on occasions. Despite my feelings of complete ineptitude, he liked to discuss it. It wasn’t long before I would pale and groan inwardly as Van would ask, I wonder what ever happened of that cutthroat spot? It was an effort to tune him out, because I loved him so deeply and the history, the dedication of a life to make things better for anglers who follow, and that of the children, of their children and their children.

I was thinking of that when he was again talking about going with Rod to the secret spot.

Something.

Something.

Something!

I wasn’t sure at first, but then I was or at least thought I was. My eyes widened and I interrupted him, something I rarely did. What did you say? I semi-hissed and Van seemed a little startled at the interruption. He looked at me, not disapprovingly, but almost, it seemed, hurt. He started to recount the story and again I interrupted him, edging on my seat and leaning forward.

No not that stuff , I said. What did you say about the tide? Van reiterated the time of the tide at which they went.

But you told me it was the other tide! I said, almost accusingly.

Oh, did I? he asked, a reproachful look on his face. No, I’m quite sure it was this tide.

The next day, using Van’s Fry Fly pattern, I hit three cutthroat and missed several others. It lasted for about half an hour. It has been that way every spring since, same fly, same tide, same magic, same secret.

Van passed away in July of 2010. On Saturday March 26, 2011, I ventured forth and fished the secret spot. Four cutthroats (one included here) of the past came to hand and were released into the future a tight-lipped future no doubt, but a future nonetheless. It has been so since 1996 or is that 1961?

A Cutthroat Trout poses for a picture - Photo by Emma Hume

[Neil Cameron is the Publisher and Editor of the Campbell River Courier-Islander Newspaper, on Vancouver Island, and was a great friend of the late Van Egan. Neil was the former editor of BC Outdoors magazine, is a regular contributor to Island Fisherman magazine and is a member of the Outdoor Writers of Canada. He also writes under the pseudonym of Dr. Adipose Huxley. He has changed some of the details in this article as directed by the National Department of Defence.]