For those people like myself who have to trudge into steel and concrete structures each week, sometimes without even the luxury of windows to at least watch the world go by, when you have a chance to go and reconnect with what makes you tick inside and recharge you take it. What that often means for people with busy work and family lives is grabbing each opportunity as they present themselves, and taking full advantage of it.
Recently I had such a window of opportunity, in between attending and cheering my step kids at busy baseball tournaments, yard work and general adult life. Lucky for me, I’m blessed to have a partner who understands my need for solitude, and the church of fly rod and reel. Having a partner that “gets it” is critical to being able to successfully balance life and work with a fly fishing addiction. Perhaps it’s the first step in the twelve step program, although in this case it only helps to propagate the affliction!
When receiving the green light to go fishing, I sometimes feel like a paratrooper, lined up at the back end of the C-130 Hercules, gear packed and ready to jump into action the minute that the drop signal is given. At the first sign of approval, one rallies the troops, packs the gear, loads up the truck and makes the jump before anyone has the chance to change their minds. Troops away..GO GO GO GO!
Having made my jump (figuratively speaking), and heading up the highway (I say up rather than down, as the first part of my journey normally involves a steep drive uphill, fueled with Tim Horton’s and high expectations), I had a plan in my mind to fish in the upper sections of the Cowichan River, due to the large number of resident trout that had been caught in recent weeks, particularly on dry flies. I had visions of quiet peaceful wading amongst drifting spinners, hooking trout after trout in solitude while deepening my already started fisherman’s tan. A few pit stops along the way to collect some water, snacks and other forgotten items (mostly due to my hasty departure!) and I was soon parked by the river, and strolling down to check out the action.
Let me pause here for a moment. Enter…the lemons.
When we as fisherman depart for our favorite river, we sometimes forget that it’s likely someone else’s favorite river too. Especially when said river is in prime shape, and even more so if that river is presently producing good fishing. And when access to that river is relatively easy to come by, the results should be fairly predictable, as per the mathematical formula below:
Excellent Water Levels + Easy Access + Abundant Fish + Good Weather = Crowded River
So, as it came to be, the above equation was heavily weighted against me so when I arrived at one of the access points on the Cowichan I was disappointed to see someone already there, and others waiting to join. So, what to do? Not being one to waste the chance to fish, and knowing that I had already leapt from the plane and parachuted in, I did what one does in such a situation. Out came the Backroads Map Book to find an alternative battlefield to run amok on.
The Cowichan River, being one of the most prolific and well known rivers on Southern Vancouver Island, often gets much attention due to its healthy population of trout, seasonal salmon runs, and of course the mighty Steelhead. But the Cowichan is only 1 of a countless number of rivers and streams that a fisherman can tackle, so I jumped back in my truck with a new plan. Given my geographic proximity to some other local hot spots, I picked one of my favorites that I haven’t fished in some time, and made the dusty run up the logging roads to my second destination. I figured that if the trout were hungry and rising in the Cowichan River, then certainly they should be doing the same elsewhere.
Having reached destination number two (I’m keeping this one to myself…sorry folks), I loaded up my 5wt rod, some small dry flies and nymphs, and bush bashed it in the general direction of the river I was targeting. I had fished this particular river a year ago, prior to it closing for the winter season, and I was keen to go back and take a look at it during the spring. Last June I had done some recon and had spotted a school of about a dozen fresh chrome Steelhead ghosts, but at that time decided to leave them alone. The fact that the water was gin clear would have made fishing for them tough anyway, as even my shadow on the water was spooking them. But fishing for Steel was not my goal today; instead I was looking for hungry trout, eager to take something small.
As I walked down the small river, I made cast after cast into the dark cool seams of water moving below the overhanging branches and banks, poking around to see if I could find trout resting in the colder and protected waters. There were some great looking spots that I made note of, but I didn’t get any fish to take hold. I wondered if the water levels were maybe too low, or perhaps resident fish just didn’t come up this high in the system? Checking out the river bed, the food supply looked minimal, until I came across more and more caddis larvae in their protective shells of leaf litter, and sand. Certainly with life on the river bed, there must be something around to eat it?
Wading through the river, and squeezing my way through groves of fresh alder, I came upon the start of a section of canyon, where the river spilled noisily into a deep pool that marked the start of a canyon runs. Harlequin ducks were milling around, telling me that there must be something of interest in the depths below, be it aquatic life, or fry. Looking at the way the shallower water spilled into the pool, I wondered if there were some trout sitting just below the white water and the drop off, waiting for food to spill down over into the cool, oxygenated flow. Tying on a small nymph pattern, I dropped the line upstream, and allowed the current to bring it down over the drop off, and let it sink into the bowl of the pool.
As the fly spilled over the riffle and I waited for it to sink as far as my patience would allow, I suddenly felt the line go taut and felt the tug on my 5wt that immediately gave me that rush of excitement I had been craving. YES! Fish on! My little Hardy lightweight reel began to sing, just a few times, as the fish below realized that something was not quite right. Circling around in the pool right in front of me, I could tell that this was no small trout, but could it be something more substantial? Do I even dare presume? And then it happened…the fish came right to my feet near the edge of the tank and showed itself. It was a Steelhead!
My heart pounded, the endorphins rushed over me and I felt immediately pleased with myself that not only had I hooked a Steelhead, but more importantly that I had remembered to bring my net (which I hardly EVER do). This wasn’t a 15 pound chrome hen or buck, but it was a Steelhead and none the less would present some challenges to land uninjured on a 5wt rod, with no help. I played that fish very gently, applying minimal pressure to get it to come closer, until it was within reach of the net and I was able to gently scoop it up.
With the fish safely tucked away in the net, I let out a mighty whoop of success. It was a nice female steelhead, likely left over from the winter and on the mend. Not too colored up, in good shape, and kept nice and wet in the river as I took a few quick photos of her at my feet in the net. After the briefest of moments of admiration, I gently let her go back into the safety of the pool, unharmed. As I watched the fish swim away, I just sat there and reflected on what had just happened for the next 10 minutes. I had not successfully landed a Steelhead on the fly so far in 2018, and had lost one on the center pin rod in January, mostly due to crazy high water. I hadn’t expected to catch anything but trout on this day, so to have been rewarded unexpectedly with a Steelhead was icing on the cake.
For the rest of my day, I continued my hunt for trout along that river, climbing high above the canyon until finding somewhere lower down where I would re-access the river. I took home a lot of new scratches and bruises from my efforts, mostly from having to clamber over untamed west coast wilderness, but I also took home a great memory of an unexpected fish, and a surprising turn of events. From the prospect of a very busy day on the Cowichan, I ended up instead with remote isolation and a huge reward for my decision to take the road less travelled. I think you will agree that I certainly turned some lemons, into some amazing tasting lemonade.
Until the next adventure, the next tug on the line, and the next hike into both familiar and unfamiliar rivers, I’ll keep this day top of mind and can’t wait to have another one.
2017 has been a rough year, and considering it’s not even over yet it may get worse. Canada lost some pretty great people this year, most recently with Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, and CBC Radio storyteller and host of the Vinyl Cafe Stuart McLean. And in our own family, my wife lost her brother Ferlyn suddenly and unexpectedly one summer night, breaking hearts amongst all of us. I mention these people not because I knew all of them well, but because they were people I felt I knew through their stories and their larger than life personalities. People who had made a difference in our small world to many Canadians, and touched many lives , and with whom I have both belted out a badly sung tune to as well as laughed out loud. But there was someone else we lost this year who I knew well. Someone who I spent time with, laughed with, and called a friend. That someone, was Steve Milne.
I first met Steve many years ago on my first ever back country fishing trip to the Burman River, just west of the small town of Gold River on Vancouver Island, BC. It was my first foray into the wild with a bunch of strangers (save one person) and although I didn’t know it at the time, it was to be the first of many adventures with the same motley crew. The trip had been arranged by Steve’s brother Bruce, who if you’ve read any of my other posts will know is a friend of mine who I have had the pleasure of joining on more than a few adventures. As a man reaching almost 50 now, when I think back to some of the life events that have shaped who I am as a grown man today, that trip will always hold a special place for me. Some day I will write more about it, but for this tribute to my friend Steve, it’s Pretty Girl Cove that brings me back to happier days.
In May of 2006, setting forth from the small coastal tourist town of Tofino BC, myself and six other fellow fisherman including Steve and Bruce loaded up a water taxi and headed north through Maurus and then Calmus Channels, then out towards Hot Springs Cove, a popular tourist destination as a result of the natural hot springs that occur there. From Hot Springs Cove we headed further inland until we arrived in the naturally protected Pretty Girl Cove, a stunning estuary surrounded by untouched forests that have yet to hear the siren song of chainsaws and the drone of logging trucks. On a good day, the ride out can be an amazing trip, once you pass through the ocean swells of Cats Face Passage, and into the more protected waters of the many channels and inlets of Clayoquot Sound. On a bad day, you might just lose your lunch! But for this trip we had a clear sky and calm waters, making for a fantastic ride out to our destination.
Upon reaching Pretty Girl Cove about an hour later, we set about launching our canoe and a zodiac to begin the arduous task of ferrying our mountain of gear to shore, as the estuary does not provide enough depth for the water taxi to get very close. Just as we began the process we spotted two bears grazing peacefully on the grassy plain of the estuary, quite oblivious of our arrival, and seeming to care very little for the human invaders. After having been on a few of these types of trips prior, we all knew our jobs and soon had everything ashore and waved goodbye to the water taxi for the next seven days. The bears being of little help, continued to graze until they caught wind of us, and soon sauntered off in the to bushes.
One thing you need to know about my friend Steve, is that he was never one to go without when on a camping trip. The man was known to bring at least four or five jackets, six rods, three coolers (one just for ice for his drinks none the less!) and was renowned for his infamous fitted Queen size bed sheets to fit over his air mattress and between himself and his down comforter. In fact, I believe that on this particular trip, there was even a side table brought, to put his radio on to listen to the Vancouver Giants hockey games, while in bed. Steve had grown up camping with his brother Bruce and their Dad Byron, so camping out was nothing new. But Steve knew two things and practised them well: how to be comfortable in the woods, and how to enjoy life.
For this particular trip, we were set upon fishing the two small rivers that feed into the estuary, which are the Ice River, and the Pretty Girl. This being my first time visiting this spot, I was keen to get on it and so spent the rest of the first afternoon rushing to set up my tent and get to the fishing as soon as possible. Unfortunately I didn’t spend enough time really looking at my surroundings and so upon completion of setting up my tent went to take a look around the area. Much to my surprise, I soon located a rather recently used day bed for bears about 30 feet from my tent! I considered moving my tent, but decided that if these bears were going to give us problems it wouldn’t matter where we camped. So I left it where it was, and hoped that the bears would give me some distance and I would do the same.
With camp set up, tarps strung, and beers already cracked, everyone set out for the first fish of the trip and after a short walk up the river everyone had fish on the line. Being a pretty small river system, and fed primary by Pretty Girl Lake at some elevation above, the water was not only very clean, but very cold. The odd thing about this little system (we all soon discovered) was that for the first few days of the trip the fishing was great, with everyone catching lots of feisty Cutthroat trout, and even one summer run Steelhead. But within about three days, the fish very quickly became hook shy and the success rate dropped rapidly.
To fend off the lack of fishing, and grumbling that would follow, the group decided that we would entertain ourselves in camp by foraging for clams and oysters, and taking some time to sit back and unwind while watching our big furry neighbours get fat on the succulent grasses. The estuary in Pretty Girl Cove gave up some fair number of huge oysters at low tide, as well as delicious Butter and Razor clams for us as well.
The Oysters were quickly dispatched by baking them over a camp fire until their shells opened, while the clams sat in a pot for the day with a mixture of salt water and oatmeal to cleanse them of the sand inside. While I am no fan of oysters, I will say that the clams were delicious and our party of seven enjoyed a bounty of shellfish delivered literally to our doorsteps. Not a bad way to spend a day, even if there were no fish on our lines.
As our week progressed, we were blessed with great weather and no rains, unusual for May in Tofino. In fact, we had some evenings that were so clear and cool that I recall waking up in my tent in the morning with completely frosted hair and wondering how on earth I was going to get warm again. But the benefit of the clear nights far outweighed the cool mornings, as I saw more stars in the night sky, untarnished by the light pollution of the cities, than I have ever seen before in my life. Sitting in a camp chair in the blackness and silence of the estuary late a night, I felt both incredibly lucky to be there with such good people, and incredibly small in the universe. More importantly, I felt privlideged to have been invited, to be part of the tribe so to speak.
Now as for Steve, the first time I met him I wasn’t sure about him to be honest. He was big, loud, a little obnoxious, a bit intimidating and definitly larger than life. I guess being someone like myself who grew up not having much confidence in myself around guys who were jocks, I felt a little twinge of that boyhood fear of being the odd man out, somehow not “cool enough” to be considered an equal. Steve and his brother Bruce had been rugby players for most of their high school years, and had the bum knees and war stories to boot. And I will admit that I wasn’t sure Steve thought too much of me, as I was the “newbie” on that particular trip to the Burman River, and certainly wasn’t a seasoned back country camper. I guess I shouldn’t have cared what he thought of me, but I did. I always do.
This trip to Pretty Girl was my second trip with Steve, and again I felt that awkwardness again of being the skinny geek that nobody wanted on their team. Always last to be picked, never seen as the guy you want to have. But I learned something about Steve on the trip that I didn’t know. Sure he was a big burly dude with an infectious laugh and seemingly endless number of stories. But he was also intelligent. Thoughtful. Kind. Caring. Respected. You see, I came to learn that while the Steve I knew on the outside was the brash funny guy with the big laugh, the professional side of Steve revealed much more. Steve was someone who stood up for the little guy. Fought against big corporations for the benefits of those employed by them. Steve gave a powerful voice to those who didn’t have the strength or the will to speak for themselves. So in fact, Steve was more than he let on, and if anything was the guy who would have stood next to me when the chips were down. When Steve passed away suddenly this spring, some three to four hundred people came to his funeral. People who were his friends, his team mates, colleagues, and those who he had helped over the years. His passing did not go unnoticed.
This past fall, Steve’s brother Bruce hosted a memorial weekend for his brother on the Stamp River, near Port Alberni. The Stamp holds a special place for the Milne’s, as Bruce, Steve and their Dad camped there often over the years, fishing for salmon and steelhead in the Stamp and Ash Rivers. It was a fitting place to gather friends and comrades to remember Steve, to share stories and tears, and pass quiet moments grieving the death of a good man and friend amongst people who cared about and loved him. There’s that expression that you never see a grown man cry, but I can tell you there were tears shed by more than one. As one of my dear friends told me that weekend, men don’t tell their friends often enough that they love them and it’s real shame that we don’t. We’re on this planet for such a short amount of time, and we should never feel ashamed to tell our buddies, our kids, our loved ones how important they are to us. You just don’t know when they will be gone.
At the end of that weekend on the Stamp, and with his brother and friends gathered around late at night, some of Steve’s ashes were released into the river, to mingle with the memories he and his family have made there over the years. It was a fitting tribute to Steve, and I am thankful to have been a part of it. I will never forget the memories shared with Steve, the outrageous meals cooked in camp, the expensive bottles of Scotch, bear bangers and white gas, tales of rugby mayhem on road trips abroad, and the infamous camping trips that I didn’t make it to.
That trip to Pretty Girl didn’t really stand out with regards to the fishing, but what it lacked in fish it made up for in breathtaking scenery, amazing opportunities to watch bears, and most importantly the sharing of time away from the world with a fine bunch of guys. So to Steve, I say thank you for showing me that my inner voice is not always right. That I am not the person I feel everyone else thinks I am. That I was in fact, “cool enough” to be considered your friend too. I know you loved Pretty Girl, as much as we all do, and especially the bears that liked to visit.
Rest in peace my friend, you will always be with us on the river.
Update: Found some more pics in the archives!
I’m not a religious person. Far from it really. But I swear…there’s someone up there who really likes to mess with me.
Two weeks ago, after a few missed attempts over the months, I finally got a chance to accompany my fishing buddy Steve Ford in his shiny aluminum drift boat on a full days drift down the upper fly fishing only section of the Cowichan River, here on Vancouver Island. As we prepped for the trip the river was sitting at a nice level, with just the right amount of flow and colour in it to make a person dream that the possibility existed of catching a nice chrome winter steelhead on the fly.
Gear loaded, hopes high, and the lunch I had so painstakingly made the night before left in the fridge at home (not the first time) we hit the river early in the early morning and spent a full day fishing with fly rods and boxes full of magic gear that was “guaranteed to work”. Over the course of the 8 hours on the water, we saw hundreds of spawning trout pairing up in the gravels, and a few steelhead that were extremely wary of anything floating near, above, or beside them. Super nice to see so many fish, and equally super frustrating to watch them ignore fly, after fly, after fly.
Out of the three experienced fly fisherman aboard, and despite valiant efforts by all of us, only one trout was landed for the day, and another one caught for a very brief moment before spit the fly out.But a day wasted? Hell no. I made a new friend, saw some new stretches of the river, and spent some quality time with a good friend.
After that trip, I started thinking about drifting the river again….and soon. With the trout soon to finish spawning, their focus would be back to eating and replenishing their energy, and it would be a bonanza of opportunity to catch multiple fish each day. The weather is also starting to warm up, and hatches of mayfly are starting to become more frequent. So with all that in mind I committed to taking another shot at it the following weekend.
Skip ahead now to the following Sunday, 7 days after the original trip. Not having Steve around meant the aluminum drift boat was out of play, so instead I packed up the Water Master raft, and committed to a solo trip instead. It was my first time with the Water Master, having previously only drifted using my Water Skeeter River Guide pontoon which while larger, is considerable heavier and more cumbersome for one guy. With the boat set up and loaded with two rods and more variety of flies than I would ever need, I set off to duplicate the drift from the week before.
As soon as I got settled in the boat and underway, I saw the same large numbers of spawning trout flitting back and forth below me, jockeying for the best position, best mate, and most promising gravel reds. But as I headed down the first few kilometres of river, stopping at the same spots we had stopped 7 days prior, I noticed that the river had significantly more volume moving through it, and that the spots I had previously comfortably stood and cast from were now difficult for me to maintain my balance in with the increased flow and depth. Once again the fishing gods had played their games and dealt me a bum hand. God damn it! It never fails.
So what do you do when faced with this? Stomp your feet and get grumpy? Or blame Donald Trump for his lack of protection against Global Warming (fake news apparently)? I did what any fisherman does when faced with adversity. I stood back, soaked it in, and decided that the worst thing that could happen to me that day is that I had not tried. So, with a good 12 km of river left to drift before the takeout point I put on a heavy T17 sink tip, a weighted egg pattern fly, and flogged the fast moving water the best I could. I knew that it was unlikely to produce anything, but honestly I didn’t care. I was just happy being out on the river and enjoying quite time amongst the mossy trees and cool clean water.
When I had started my day, there had been two inches of fresh snow on the ground and a damp chill in the air. But as the morning became afternoon, the sun came out and took the snow away, giving rise to a crisp spring day with patches of warm sun that reinvigorated the soul, not to mention my cold and wet hands.
With the increased river height came larger rapids to deal with, with bigger and heavier standing waves to maneuver around and over. Being the first time out on the Water Master, and being used to sitting much higher above the water level in my pontoon, I’ll admit to being a bit nervous at first. But after running though some of the heavier sections of water and feeling how stable the raft felt, I quickly gained confidence in the little boat and soon felt right at home. My only complaint was that being closer to the water meant I got more water in my face than normal. Who needs Disneyland..I had my very own private Splash Mountain! But overall, I was very pleased with the raft, and I’m keen to take it on some new adventures this year.
As I came to the last few kilometres of river, I came across a slow moving section with deep green pools of water that just begged to be probed with rod and line. I fished a long stretch of the this section, quartering my way down the entire run hoping to get that tug on the leader at the end of the swing. As I cast and waded, the air was suddenly full of swallows, swooping and whirling through the air like mini fighter jets in hot pursuit of their prey. There were so many at one point that I stopped and watched, amazed at just how these tiny birds are able to not only spot mayflies and other insects on the wing and catch them mid air, but also pick them off the surface as well.
I must have stood there for a good 15 minutes, watching some of them dip into the water, and then miraculously “fly” our of it. As I observed the swallows, I heard the familiar streaking call of a Bald Eagle, and soon spotted him sitting high atop a big Maple, overlooking the whole stretch of river. With the leaves still not out on the trees, I was also able to spot his nest, just a hundred meters or so from where I was standing. It was a massive structure, having been built and reused by the Eagle year after year. How cool would it be to climb that tree and take a look inside!
Having soaked up the scene, I hopped back into my little raft and made the run the last few km to the take out point, where my friends would be waiting to pick me up and take me back to my launching point and my truck. I hadn’t caught any fish, but who cares. I had been serenaded by huge fallen trees hanging down into the river and drumming off the bottom of the river bed in a rhythmic beat. I had heard the soft whispering of a cedar tree’s fronds being brushed by rushing water as they dangled gingerly against the surface. I’d gazed dreamily at slow flying brown mayfly spinners as they made they way through the air, as if in slow motion, as their singular day of life took flight. I had watched more trout than I’ve ever seen dance amongst the boulders and the gravel, as they courted their mates and their hopes to pass on their genes to the next generation. And I had felt the warmth of the sun on my face as I lay down on a dry gravel bar to enjoy a snooze after lunch.
So my advice to you all is this. The fishing gods can be cruel and fickle and Murphy’s Law will apply more times than not. But do not despair…simply sit back, and enjoy the ride.