Through most of his life a fisherman is separated from the world of fish by the surface film—the insubstantial yet almost impenetrable two-sided mirror that rides on all water, moving or still. He must learn by trial and error rather than by direct vision. On familiar water he will work known and favorite spots whenever he can. On a strange stream his eye will search the surface and the conformation of pools and runs for signs that on other waters at other times have meant fish or no fish, large fish or small fish.
I long considered my own experience in these matters—some 40 years of it—quite fair and presumed that my judgments about fish and their habits were sound. But now, after one short summer and fall of observing what goes on under the surface film, of seeing clearly into the world of salmon and trout, I am convinced that the knowledge I have gathered from above the surface is remarkably incomplete and that my assumptions have often been wrong.
Using the diver's wet suit, mask, snorkel, flippers and weights, I passed under the surface film in comfort and stayed below it almost as long as I wanted, getting to know the bottom of a river, and sharing in some measure the sensations of the fish that live within it. The stream I investigated was my home river, the Campbell. Broad and powerful, it runs only three miles from the impassable drop of Elk Falls to the sea on the east coast of Vancouver Island. It runs, too, past my front porch, and I would have thought I knew it well. Yet when I dipped beneath its surface it yielded me a list of surprises so long, so humiliating and so full of pleasure that I am eternally grateful for my sudden inclination to go below and watch the fish that I had stood above and angled for over so many years.
It was in the early summer of 1963 that I finally made up my mind to try diving, and I had only the slightest idea of what to expect. I supposed I should find cold water somewhat less cold, that I should be able to poke about briefly here and there in the quieter parts of streams, an undesirable and uncomfortable intruder who occasionally might see fish better than he had seen them before. Instead, I found myself immediately transported from the world of air to the world of water—an acceptable visitor, at least as comfortable in the new world as in the old.
Once the eyes are below the surface film in a river as clear as the Campbell, it makes little difference whether one is two feet or 20 feet under—the feeling of being down there in that other world is complete. The body in its buoyant wet suit stretches out in the enclosing water; flippers have a slow, easy power that is much like walking. It is easy to rest, more completely than in a soft bed, by relaxing the muscles and accepting the water's infinitely gentle support. Even when wearing a weight belt to cancel out much of the buoyancy of his body and suit, a diver draws less than a foot of water. He can hold in shallows at the edge of a pool and need only turn his head slightly to look directly into the flowing depths where the fish lie. In three or four feet of water he can reach down to rocks or limbs and hold or propel himself against quite strong currents. In deeper water he can dive down to some favorable boulder, grip it and hold briefly while he looks about. It is a quiet pastime, much like wandering through some strange garden where the fish seem exotic creatures miraculously naturalized, ideally matched to place and setting. Nothing is altogether unexpected—everything is as it must and should be, yet it is a new experience, a wonder of seeing that never stales.
Many years ago, when my children were small and learning to swim, I built a small wing dam out into the Campbell by piling up rocks and boulders. It was a laborious process, but the result has stood firmly against the freshets of more than 20 years, and now the controlled river runs much of the time at a height that just breaks over the wing dam in three or four bubbling runs, while the main force of the current swings past the point in a formidable sweep of power.
The pool that has formed below the dam, about 120 feet long by 30 or 40 wide and varying in depth from a foot at the downstream end to four or five feet just under the dam, was a natural place to learn the simple mechanics of swimming and diving, and it was here that I first confronted salmon and trout eye-to-eye.
It was summer, and as I would edge slowly and carefully up from the tail of the pool, I would see under-yearling cohos and steelheads all about me, lively little fish not bothered at all by my strange shape and stranger movements. They would swim within inches of my outstretched hands, and sometimes between them. Occasionally one would come deliberately and curiously toward the face mask, perhaps attracted by the movement of the wondering eyes behind it.
A little farther up the pool, along the edge of the current that comes past the point of the dam, the fish were yearling steelheads, four, five and six inches long. During the early part of the summer, in the more sheltered water, there was a scattering of young, green-backed king salmon, most of them within weeks of going to sea. I could pass among them gently, looking down at the bullheads and caddis larvae on the sandy bottom. To my right the current raced unevenly over a bottom of round boulders that disappeared in the blue-green distance, and if I glanced up I could see the rippled, bouncing surface.
At the head of the pool, in the plunging bubbles of the runs and among the big boulders of the dam, there were likely to be larger fish, seven- and eight-inch rainbows (probably premigrant steelheads in their second or even third year) and two or three sizable trout between 12 and 15 inches. This is where I would hold, schooled with the fish, my hands waving occasionally like pectoral fins, flippers moving when they had to to keep me in station. The smaller fish seemed to accept me completely. The larger ones held station or continued their affairs, but they were aware of me and would move away if I reached a hand within 18 inches or a foot of them.