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By G.D. Maxwell Some witty social observer, whose name I can't remember right now but whose sentiments I share, once described golf as a perfectly good way to ruin a nice walk. Carrying that thought further, I always thought of catching fish as a good way to ruin a nice nap, enjoyed alongside a meandering stream or the bottom of a drifting canoe. And while that attitude hasn't stopped me from fishing, it has kept me from being very good at it. I'm sure if I added up all the money I've spent on gear and licences, not to mention camping trips with a fishing theme, and divided my total catch into it, those exquisite filets, cooked over an open fire, have cost me about $150 a pound. This pathetic appraisal of my skill and the rich reality of local fishing, not to mention an upcoming two-week camping trip during which I will, once again, be carrying fishing gear and high hopes into an area real fishers would kill to visit, led me to seek help. Self help having failed me thus far, I though it best to get professional help. Dave Brown, from Whistler Fishing Guides, listened to my plight with sympathy and agreed to take me out for some pointers, some trout fishing and, just maybe, an opportunity to accidentally hook a salmon. Dave was so agreeable, so nice about the whole thing, I felt terrible resorting to the story about the entire male side of both my father's and mother's families being killed in World War II as an explanation for my startling lack of knowledge of things fishing. Sorry, Dave. When the day arrived, I began to wonder if maybe fishing and I coexisted in conflicting planes of karma. After two weeks of clear, sunny weather, the morning greeted me under slugbelly grey skies and spitting rain. By the time I'd caffeinated and found a mix of clothes suitable for the extremes of local weather — fleece and tank top — blue patches began to freckle the grey. On the drive to Pemberton, Indian Summer reasserted itself; the valley warmed and sunlight highlighted the changing deciduous trees, shifting everything a bit into the yellow palette. After a cold beer's drive past Pemberton — I've been assured a more specific description would mean physical unpleasantries — we nosed into some bushes a short walk away from the Birkenhead River. Our group consisted of Dave, Ian (one of the owners of Whistler Fishing Guides, a part-time guide and full-time chef at the Rim Rock) and an assorted group of sales managers in town for a planning conference. From our conversations, it seemed they were mostly planning to have a good time and think as little as possible about work. The day's first moment of truth came when we struggled into waders. The best thing to be said for waders is they keep you warm and relatively dry. The women in our group were quick to point out their appalling lack of colour and style and were really put off by how waders made them look. "But hey, they only make us look like a bunch of slack-butted men wearing dumpy brown business suits," one quipped. Their male colleagues laughed the remark off, though at least one cast a worried glance over his shoulder. After selecting weapons of choice, fly rigs or spinning gear, we split into two groups and set out in different directions. Along the way, the guides dispensed sage advice about the area and sager advice about avoiding situations in the water where waders could fill up and become anchors. Maybe it was this latter admonition, but I noticed everybody fished from the edge of the river bank until the sun and neoprene combined to make the potential for drowning in the river preferable to drowning in our own sweat, and we moved out into the Birkenhead. That's when I finally noticed the sockeye. Once I saw one, I saw hundreds. Where sunlight dappled the water, you could see their colour, bright ochre red with fierce-looking green heads and distorted snouts. Some moved hardly at all, others darted upstream and down and from side to side, sometimes jumping in graceless, flopping arcs. Four years ago, they — and a hundred or so more for every one present — hatched in the Birkenhead's gravel, grew bigger, or got eaten trying, in Lillooet Lake, went joy riding in the Pacific for a couple of years, having adapted to salt water from fresh, and then experienced one of nature's unique mind games. The survivors, cruising thousands of miles along the moving Pacific gyres, growing bigger and more magnificent feasting on shrimp, suffered a fresh-water flashback the best fish scientists cannot adequately explain. Wherever they were, they made a quick turn and headed directly for the mouth of the Fraser River: their Birkenhead home was calling them back. Entering the Fraser, they re-adapted to fresh — well, kind of — water and got ugly. Formerly streamlined and silver, the males transformed into humpbacked, red monsters with protruding lower jaws showing extended, shark-like teeth, and hooked, inward twisting snouts. Their heads turned pea soup green and they stopped eating. Talk about your ugly sex drive. Now, those who survived the journey were spawning at my feet. I felt a bit like a voyeur and tried to disturb them as little as possible. We were there to fish for rainbow trout who follow the spawn, gorging themselves on eggs that escape the female's redd — the trench they dig to lay their eggs in — and litter the river. While you can fish the sockeye, Whistler Fishing Guides choose not to, for both sport and conservation reasons. The sockeye are weakened after their journey and even releasing caught ones disrupts the spawn unnecessarily. Besides, they are, as fishermen say, not particularly fit for the table, having survived on stored fat and muscle since re-entering fresh water. So we were after rainbows, but they were having none of it. We were using mostly egg patterns, flies that mimic errant salmon eggs. While this seemed logical, the trout being accustomed to salmon eggs by now, it wasn't working. Thinking they may be tired of a diet of eggs, I proudly displayed my ignorance by suggesting we try a pattern reminiscent of bacon or hash browns. I'm beginning to think it's true what they say about fly fishers having little sense of humour. In mid apology, one of our group hooked a sockeye. Even though they stop feeding when they head towards their spawning ground, enough aggression remains to hit a lure that keeps bonking them in the nose. Now, people who actually fish for salmon use pretty substantial tackle, salmon being pretty substantial fish. We were using #6 fly lines. Catching a 15 pound salmon on a #6 fly line is a bit like rock climbing with dental floss. As long as steady, even pressure is applied, it might hold, but give it a jerk, and it's game over. Quickly, Dave sprang into action, doing what good guides do when a sport hooks a fish: provide calm, annoying instructions. "Get the rod up. Up, up, up, up. Pump it back, wind it in, rod up, move back, move up, wind, wind, wind." The woman who'd hooked the fish was learning a valuable lesson about fly fishing: fly reels have no gears. One turn is one turn and when you've got 30 feet of line out and a fish way too big for your tackle, you're looking at a truckload of turns. Real fly fishers have one forearm that, with the addition of an anchor tattoo, would bear a striking resemblance to Popeye. After playing the fish, a male, for about 25 minutes, she finally brought it close enough to shore and wore it out enough for Dave to gently hold it while he removed the hook. He supported it in the current for a while, and when it recovered from the fight, it swam off to resume jostling with other males. A few rainbows later, all caught and released, two guys showed up exhibiting the weirdest fishing technique I'd ever seen. One came down each side of the river, close to shore. They carried six-foot poles tipped with gaff hooks, and long machetes. Spotting a spawned-out, dead salmon, they gaffed it, lifted it out of the water and thwacked it in half with the machete, returning both pieces to the river. Remembering the locals in Deliverance, and being keenly aware of their substantial armaments, I asked what they were doing. "Fish count," one said in mid-thwack. Working for the government, they counted salmon, retrieved information from any who'd been tagged and thwacked ’em so they knew they'd been counted. I'd like to read that job description. The day ended with pretty much everyone having gotten to play a fish, though few were landed. I felt a twinge of guilt for having disturbed the sockeye but immense pleasure having watched them playing their spawning roles and hopefully ensuring another returning generation four years hence. Next month, and running well into December, Dave and Ian and the other guides will start fishing the coho run in the Squamish River. The coho, not having had to swim upstream for weeks, will be fresher and provide extremely sporting fishing. Having my desire whetted just watching these guys ply their trade, I'm looking forward to joining them again and seeing if they can do anything more for my skills. Though I must admit a coho on the end of the line will sorely test my commitment to catch and release fishing.

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