On the Olympic Venue River

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Nick Didlick

From high on the bank we can see deep into the water and the plight of the angler wading below is clear. The dark, wavering shapes of two salmon are drifting on a different plane from the Egg Sucking Leech that Julie has cast into the pool. The line makes one transect, the salmon another.

Julie with a large Bulltrout

From where Julie stands, hip deep in the ice-cold river, the fish are invisible beneath a refracted surface. But Danny Gerak, owner of the Pitt River Lodge and the soon to be opened The Fly Fishing Lodge, points out the fish with the tip of his fly rod from above while Nick Didlick, who at the time was Photo Chief for the Vancouver Olympics, calls out wading instructions to his wife, Julie, as if he was directing a shoot. It’s all about angles.

She re-positions and casts again and again, trying to find the geometric formula that will bring the fly perfectly through the water column, to within inches of a fish. But as she moves, the salmon move too, horizontally, laterally, pushing forward and drifting back with the current.

The Camp Run on the Pitt River

They call it fishing, not catching, someone usually observes at a time like this, when the cast total mounts.

After awhile the salmon, oblivious to the complex choreography going on around them, move to the head of the pool and enter the rapids above. They have decided to continue their journey into British Columbia’s snowy Coast Range and we follow, looking for another pool, another chance.

The Pitt, so close to Vancouver I started calling it the unofficial Olympic venue river during the work up to the Games, in 2010, rises in glaciers and feeds into a tidal lake in the Fraser Valley. You can get here in a 30-minute flight from the helipad on Vancouver’s waterfront. By car it is an hour’s drive to the head of the lake, then another hour by water taxi to the battered, logging company dock where Danny for several years met you in a white truck, with Emergency stenciled on its cab in big red letters. It once rushed injured loggers out of the woods, but until it died, its job was to take the walking wounded from the city and plunge them into the soothing wilderness of the Pitt. Lately Danny has been using a battered red pick up truck for his emergency vehicle.

The Upper Pitt River boat or air access only

What we need, says Danny on this fall day, as the truck rattles down a logging road through a grove of giant, moss-draped cottonwoods, is enough rain to put a little color in the water and bring the fish on.

He says there are salmon but they are wary in the low water.

At dinner a local wanders in to the lodge, declares the river is “ginned”, meaning it is so clear it is hopeless, and then reels out again, drink in hand.

But even a bad day on a gin clear river is better than a good day in an over-excited city, so the next morning we pull on our waders and cross the pool beside the lodge.

We walk upstream over a field of boulders that, in flood, would be river bottom. There are fresh bear tracks and the scattered carcasses of salmon along the water’s edge.

After a long walk Nick, lead guide at the lodge in the summer, spots the Coho we have been looking for. They are late running fish, still bright from the sea, and can be expected to take a fly if you put one close enough.

There is a wedge of green water along a rock ledge and salmon are leaving it to roll briefly on the surface. It’s an encouraging sign and we spread out to work the water.

For the longest time there is nothing. Then I drop a small Black Doctor near the far bank and let it dead drift deep into the pool. The angle of the line points under the ledge and stops. I imagine a formula: line length, plus depth, times 1,000 casts, divided by luck equals a fish on. The rod bows at that instant and the line rips the surface as it follows the running salmon.
The fish fights far off, then makes one scything, nerve rattling run over a shallow gravel bar where its sides flash silver.

When it tires Nick tails the fish, holds it for a quick photo, then lets it dart free. In the next few minutes Julie hooks up twice, losing both, and Nick takes one. He brings a 10 lb salmon thrashing to the bank.

Then the action stops. Some rainbow trout take our flies in the runs upstream, but the salmon are sulking again, stupefied in the gin, waiting to be stirred by rain.

You’ll have to come back, says Danny, as he drops us at the dock with a knowing smile. He can tell we have that haunted look that comes from walking a river and in the clear water, seeing what might have been.

Salmon run in the Pitt from July through December. After that there are big bull trout lurking in the pools, and in March, steelhead arrive. Which means there are fish running every month in the river. You just have to find them – and then you have to catch them. Keep a drink at hand.

A late season Coho poses for a picture