SI Vault
Roderick Haig-Brown
October 19, 1964
A renowned angler who thought he knew something about catching trout and salmon goes beneath the surface to spy on his favorite game fish. There among them he is astonished to learn that fish behave in ways he never dreamed of when he was simply casting flies
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October 19, 1964

My Quarry Eye To Eye

A renowned angler who thought he knew something about catching trout and salmon goes beneath the surface to spy on his favorite game fish. There among them he is astonished to learn that fish behave in ways he never dreamed of when he was simply casting flies

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The day after this estimate I swam the Line Fence Pool, which is between the rapids at the tail of the Sandy Pool and the shallows opposite my house. It is a difficult place to hold, but there was no need to hold. There were bright humpbacks through the whole length and width of it, clear shapes scattering from directly under me, shadowy shapes on either side and beyond them still others, dimly seen through the water, and beyond these still more, seen only as white flashes as the current swung them. They were fresh in from the sea, the main body of a massive run that I could not begin to count or even estimate, though I passed through the pool several times. Yet from above the surface I could see neither break nor shadow nor jumping fish to show they were there. That, I thought, should give any angler pause.

Throughout the time of the runs nothing in the river was for two days the same. A fair number of humpbacks passed on up the Campbell, spreading all along its short length, while others turned into its small tributary, the Quinsam, and others massed in dense thousands just above and below the mouth of the tributary, waiting for higher water.

We watched the Long Pool at the lower end of the canyon quite closely through late August and early September, because baffled sport fishermen were complaining that the king salmon had apparently all moved up into the river earlier than usual. Yet we found no kings during our first search. We even probed the deepest part of the Long Pool by diving repeatedly as far down as we could. It was gray and gloomy in the depths and one's ears hurt from the rapid change of pressure, but usually we could see bottom before turning upward again to the light. Finally, one day Stan signaled he had found something. I had to dive three more times then suddenly I was right on top of them, almost among them, 15 or 20 huge shadowy king salmon that disappeared into deeper darkness at the very moment of discovery. We found no more until several weeks later, and it is certain that only an insignificant proportion of the several thousand kings that make up the spawning run had moved into the river ahead of time. Once again, the fishermen had been wrong.

As fall drew near and the runs continued, experience built on experience. In the second week of September, before the rains began, I saw the first adult coho, a jack, working slowly upstream past the point of the wing dam. In the next week I saw a few moreā€”one big fish, his neb scarred and his tail badly torn by some deep-sea battle with troller's hook and line. Alder leaves were beginning to collect in the eddies, and occasional broad leaves of maple, magnified to startling proportions, now drifted in mid-water.

When the cohos first come into the river they are noble, steel-gray fish with unspotted, slightly iridescent tails. A few among them are just beginning to show a glow of spawning red. After the humpbacks they all seem very strong and large and active. They take possession of the river as though they were used to it, exploring every part, swimming freely in mid-water, pushing into the strongest currents, moving calmly through eddies and even into still backwaters. They do not mass in schools like the humpbacks: they are much less nervous than the king salmon and far more varied in their behavior. Of all the Pacific salmons, I thought, the coho least appears committed to death after spawning, if only because it takes to the river so naturally and completely.

But the cohos also seem to bring a sense of urgency to the river. Time is closing in fast. By late September the plunging water at the foot of the rapids is grayer, and along the edges of the river, golden maple and scarlet dogwood leaves drift in gentle procession.

The sudden arrival of the main body of the cohos is no less hidden and surprising than the massive arrival of the humpback run. but it is even harder to observe. Toward the end of September I was seeing cohos all through the river, now a glimmer of gold and red among the duller, white-bellied shapes of the humpbacks, now a sharpness of clean silver-gray cruising or holding in mid-water.

It was in the Lower Island Pool on a day in late October that I finally found numbers of king salmon. Twice I had drifted carefully down in the easy flow along the edge of the heavy current, but all I found were a few humpbacks and two or three cohos. I worked up along the edge of the pool again and as far out as I could under the break of the rapid, then swam two or three strokes to get into the main rush of the current. It was a swift passage. In the main body of the pool, under the white waves, I could see a few cohos. Then, suddenly, I was over king salmon, great, powerful, bronze fish of 30 and 40 and 50 pounds, scattering in every direction from my drift. I was still among them when I swung over to avoid being carried down into the next rapid, but I knew I had seen 80 or 100 in the few short seconds of drifting above them. The total number in the pool must have been several times that, all concentrated near the bottom in the line of the heaviest current flow.

It now occurred to me that the holding and resting habits of migratory fish may play a much more important part in determining whether or not they strike than any simple inclination or disinclination to feed. No fisherman would really expect to move a heavy fish up to a fly through such water as the kings were in, nor could he have any serious hope of being able to work the fly down near the bottom. He might expect to do better with lure or bait, but in proportion to the numbers of fish available his results would still be unimpressive. Only when the big fish move out to easier, shallower water is there likely to be any major change in their responsiveness.

Cohos respond a good deal more readily to fly or lure or bait than king salmon do, though still not well in proportion to their numbers. The explanation of this may be in the much greater mobility and restlessness that I observed. At any given time they may be found in good numbers lying in much the same type of water as the kings, but there are always a few wanderers, and it seems likely that these are the ones that fishermen catch.

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