Circles of life

British Columbia’s coast smells different in autumn – of fleeting ripe-ness, washed in bronze and copper and flashed with the silver of spawning salmon. The clear-sky days sweep away the summer. With them comes the morning dew that coats the canvas and decks of the fishing boats. Fog drifts. Eagles whistle in the tops of Douglas firs after returning from their fishing flights. Seals splash hard in the kelp-filled coves, and the streams are full of salmon – coho, pink, chum, sockeye, steelhead and the noble Chinook.

The salmon of the Pacific have always returned. Sensing their way, they head to the selfsame pool in which they hatched. It may be a small woodsy stream like the creek that flows through Stanley Park or the Capilano River in downtown Vancouver or hundreds of kilometres up the wild Fraser River or the legendary Campbell River of Vancouver Island. It was on the banks of the Campbell that author and regional magistrate Roderick Haig-Brown lived and wrote his journals and his classic river stories.

Haig-Brown’s love for these fish caused him to write boldly. He was one of Canada’s first vocal environmentalists. In 1974 Environment Canada paper, he wrote, “If there is ever a time when the salmon no longer return, man will know he has failed again and has moved one stage nearer his own disappearance.”

And what of the salmon? Theirs is an extraordinary story right from the beginning.

In their gravelly nest, or redd, the little fry dally for a time, absorbing their egg sac and gaining strength before breaking out to gorge on a watery smorgasbord of mayfly nymphs, midge and chironomid larvae. Eventually, though, they are drawn to the ocean. Coastal bays and coves are full of these feisty smolt. They frolic in the kelp beds, becoming voracious feeders, often overshooting their surface-skimming snack to sail through the air quite by accident like so many dozen tiny, silvery missiles. They are a joy to watch.

As they mature to their sea-run stage, they begin the feeding trek that takes some species thousands of kilometres into the Pacific, finally looping back toward home when gripped by sexual maturity.

A mere three or four mating pairs of mature salmon survive from some 5,000 fertilized eggs. As they near fresh water, they pause and stop eating. All their adult energy is directed into that final upstream surge. Away from the salty ocean, they change both shape and colour. In huge scarlet schools, they power over rapids, around fallen logs, dodging bears and humans, leaping waterfalls – all in the cause of getting home in time.

The age-old lore of the salmon
For the natives of the northwest coast, the returning fish were held in such reverence they were adopted as clan crests to be emblazoned on dance robes and totems. Belief systems sprang up around the fish and its relationship to life. For 4,000 years, coastal shamans would call the salmon in from the sea to their villages by carving images of the fish themselves or their personal spirit helpers on large boulders, which still can be found from south of the Columbia River to Alaska.

Before their spawning run, one fish seemed to lead the way. Some legends say that it is a chief; others believe it to be merely a scout. It was treated with utmost respect. This forerunner was caught and became the centre of the First Salmon Ceremony, a community celebration, a time for thanksgiving and renewal.

They had been called, and the salmon came in abundance. Weirs were placed at the mouths of rivers, nets were woven, sharply pronged spears were made and there was also the simple hook and line made from cedar or kelp. Fresh salmon were often butterflied, fastened on cedar sticks and roasted beside an open fire. Or they were layered with seaweed and cooked in large communal pits or stewed in bentwood boxes using hot rocks to bring the water to a furious boil – Canada’s only indigenous cooking method. Covered smokehouses were, and in many regions still are, part of the fish camp. In drier areas, wind dehydrated the catch. The roe hung in large clumps over the smoky fire. The tails and the backbone were dried for crisp snacks.

After European contact, a massive commercial fishing industry sprang up around the canneries and packing houses that dotted the coast. It was such big business that BC 45, the B.C. Packers fishing boat of Harry Assu from Cape Mudge just opposite Campbell River, was placed on the back of Canada’s old $5 bills. This boat is currently being fastidiously restored in the Marine Heritage Centre in Campbell River.

And then there is sport fishing!

According to Hilary Stewart in her classic book Indian Fishing (Douglas & McIntyre, 1977), twins of the same sex are salmon before they are born. It only seemed appropriate when I wanted to learn to fish and to really experience the coast, I should ask one of my own twin sons, Mark, to show me. His is an old salmon soul in tune with the tides and the seasons. He has guided on the coast for 12 years. Together, we fished and explored and talked. His insights pepper this story.

The trip out onto the water of Discovery Passage and through the rip tides of Seymour Narrows was as good as it gets on the coast. Eagles soared, sea lions surfaced and dove; dolly porpoises frolicked and leapt. We landed our fish, a 33-pound Chinook being chased frantically by a seal that had also claimed it for dinner. Another hit and we’d caught a sleek pink, which was tagged to be sent to St. Jeans Smokehouse in Nanaimo to be made into a batch of fabulous Indian candy, a sweet-salty dried delicacy that is utterly addictive.

Fishing, be it sport or commercial, is not a blood sport. It is a hunt, connecting the fisher with the circle and the cycle of the salmon, absolutely in tune with and dependent upon the environment. Haig-Brown wrote, “The salmon are part of the country’s character, as are the fishermen and the fishing settlements.” But one of the most insistent challenges for the fish has been pollution and environmental degradation. Since sport fishing’s value to the B.C. economy is estimated to be between $400 and 600 million, whole communities are working hard to nurture it back to health.

River restoration and the preservation of salmon spawning habitat is critical and takes enormous investment, often far beyond the capabilities of the government. Around the Campbell River, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Weston family through the W. Garfield Weston Foundation and other corporate sponsors are partnering with the community in a massive reconstruction of the 47-acre estuary where half of the river’s salmon hatch. They are spurred on by the children and grandchildren of Haig-Brown. Tons of industry-polluted soil have been removed; new creek beds have been designed and dredged and water again flows fast and deep. Truckloads of gravel have restored the spawning beds. Salmon enhancement programs like that on the Quinsam River (a tributary of the Campbell, which releases four million Chinook annually) ensure there are enough fish to return.

With local vision supported by such extraordinary generosity, Haig-Brown’s salmon will be protected for generations of anglers to come and like him, perhaps my own grandchildren will ponder the mystery of this great fish and swim with them in his river.

A primer of salmon species
Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) Also known as spring, king and tyee. Feisty and beautiful with black mouths and spotted blue-green backs, they are the most sought after of the five Pacific salmon species.
Coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch) The second most popular among recreational fishers are sleek and when caught are five to 12 pounds. The coho fishery is mainly catch and release.
Sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka) Has the reddest flesh of all wild salmon. Well over half of the annual 24,800 tonne catch is canned.
Milder flavoured chum (Oncorhynchus keta) and pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) make up a large portion of the commercial harvest and are the game fish of autumn.
Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) The fly fisher’s dream. Unusual because they may come back to spawn two to three times.

Photo: King Pacific Lodge