Sunlight lit the bottom through water so clear it seemed to have no depth. AG, in it up to just below his fanny, spotted what we had come there to find. A surface swirl with a flash of silver beneath. It wasn't the tailing move of a rooting Bahamian bonefish. A larger fish created it, more like the feeding roll of a big Gulf Coast redfish. If you were close enough to hear, the sound was a heavy 'thuuck.'
Gulls cried near the beach as my friend leaned back with a tightly looped, sixty foot back cast, then moved forward launching a Rajeff look-alike forward shot. With the grace casting gurus all call for, it went out - way out - fifty - sixty - seventy --- . At about ninety feet it was over the spot. There was a slight 'plunk' as the fly broke the surface and sunk quickly to within a few inches of the bottom.
A ghost like permit? A behemoth 'cuda,' off Costa Rica? No way! We were in British Columbia, on Quadra Island trying to fool big bruiser cohos; big bruiser, silver bright, coho salmon fresh in from the high seas, schooled and resting in front of a surprisingly small spawning creek. They only needed one more rain squall to raise water the extra inches needed to begin the final segment of a lifetime journey. These tightly muscled, energy charged fish averaged 10-12 pounds, yet could go to 20, and beyond.
It's Haig Brown country, just across the gut from Vancouver Island at the mouth of the Campbell River. A little weather luck and there's no more comely environs on the Planet than B.C. in October - if you can find a place out of sight of the Province's long fought war on trees. I had arrived the day before from the other side of Canada, the Miramichi River in the Maritime Province of New Brunswick. It's salmon there as well, though a whole different breed of fish, Atlantic salmon, more akin in habits and lifestyle to steelhead. They can and often do spawn more than once, always (almost always) return to their native water, and fight when hooked with every bit as much strength, speed, stamina, and high leaping thrills. But there's more to it than that.
Northeast America is unmatched for fall foliage colors. Colors? Is this a fishing article? Well, yeah it is, and I know, I know; your angling time is probably way too limited for visual poetics. Once you get to the water, after driving until 3 am to get there, or whatever, you feel an urgency to get into it, get your butt and your fly in the water, and pay attention to your fishing.
"I could miss a strike goo gooing over tree leaves!" You say!
And you could. But every now and then look around anyway. Whatever it is, in BC perhaps the awesome grandeur of mountains with snow capped peaks, or maybe wild excitement off a south Florida coast, a thousand screaming sea gulls working a mullet school that blues are madly slashing into bloody bits and pieces. I saw Tierra del Fuego, with an incredible, sunset streaked evening sky, and moving cloud banks the size of Chicago.
New Brunswick's autumn has thousands of trees so brilliantly painted in bright reds, golds, and pastels you can feel and even taste the colors. What the heck! You bought the ticket, see the whole show. And the B.C. presentation is great.
AG had a slamming take. Watching his rod tip through an F5 view finder I saw the jolt, vicious, like a ticked off bulldog. You could almost see the wide pewter toned head shaking from side to side. When my friend really laid into him he exploded into a drag roasting run that shot plumes of spray from each side of the line. His expression was stern concentration. I knew the look - in spite of it though he was a happy guy - doing the thing he likes to do most. In fact I know Eeji Umemura, at least the angler part, pretty well. One of the three or four best casters I've seen, he guided for me in Chile for three months a couple of seasons back, and amazed me more than once with a higher level of fly fishing skills than one normally finds all in one fisherman.
Fly tier superb, good instructor, boatman (there we do a lot of river drifting), guide, and always pleasant. But I'm describing a guy, young, late thirties who went to the water first in Japan on his Grandmother's back - and fished from there. He started with small frogs, tadpoles, sculpins, etc., with a stick, line and hook. Talk about getting the basics down early.
The coho sulked, resting, the angler held his tight line bend. The fish sped off again, though not as far, and jumped. It was a blow up, shattering water into a million crystal flashes. AG lowered the Hexagraph rod tip, not too much, just enough not to cause the #6 hook to yank out. When he lifted the 8 weight again for contact the salmon held hard against the rod pull.
"What do you have? That looks like a dandy fish." I asked. We were some distance now from where the fight began, but when it jumped it was larger than I expected, maybe 15 or 16 pounds.
You know what's so good about fishing flats? First, it's the ambiance. Often done in breezy, sunshine and blue sky weather, it's another world of strange critters large and small, and a good opportunity to see them up close. It might not quite measure up to the neighborhood creek where you grew up, turning over rocks for crawfish, but it's almost that good. Wading waist deep not far south of Miami, a door size ray once came within three or four feet of me. It glided by with the same eerie silence huge Arctic owls have in flight. Ever present in some form or other, crabs will amaze you with bursts of speed when spooked. I've shared space more than once with large sharks, and barracudas. On AG's Canadian salmon flats what appeared at first glance to be plate size, underwater UFOs, were small flounders. One even took a fly.
Another thing is shallow water. Once hooked, large fish can't sound. There's no sanctuary of depth, and they know it. Getting out of trouble means running, and sometimes jumping - sometimes a lot of jumping. Big Chinook are jumpers. Right? Are you kidding? Not if they have depth. Then you're lucky to get a jump or two, if at all. It's the old bent rod 30 minute stand off. Yet I've had bright and brawny 30 pounders jumping like Steelhead on shallow flats, at wide shallow river mouths in Alaska.
And the lowly pink, Humpies - hmmm! There are flats off Kodiak Island within sight of the road. At times you can drive slowly and spot huge schools of pink salmon moving over them like cloud shadows. Wade fish them, and you'll think you have discovered a new species of Pacific salmon, a run like crazy, jump a lot variety that no one else knows about - in fact there aren't many who do.
The prize of prizes, hard to fool, harder to hook, and flats runner par excellence, the elusive Permit? A great fish - on the flats. Yet a half hour of hauling your fourth or fifth one up off a deep ship wreck, bait fishing with shrimp, and your excitement factor is prone to descend. Hook a barracuda in a foot and a half of water. You will see what I'm saying. It's not always so much the fish as where you find it.
But these great shallows are mostly off Central America, in the south Pacific, kind of a Caribbean, south seas type phenomenon. Right? Not exactly! Flats are where you find them, the first I fished were on the James River below Richmond, Virginia. I was a teenager, didn't know where or what Belize was, but I waded knee deep water in the evenings casting to swirling fish, 2-4 pounders that took well and fought hard.
Yeah! They were catfish - so? Flats are flats, shallow, no way to go down, any fish hooked over them will panic, streak and leap. And these guys did all three. Eiji's coho did it all too, about as well as any Steely or Atlantic, I've caught . The camera shots felt good, and the long trip from my home in Chile, via New Brunswick, was suddenly worth every mile. We sat on a huge log washed up on the beach.
"How long each season do you have something like this to fish.?" Eiji's main living comes from guiding herring trollers through the divergent, at times prolific, salmon runs as they make their annual appearances.
"This doesn't go on much during the spring and summer, but there is some. What's happening up here now though is more and more interest from fly fishers going out on boats like mine. We troll flies, streamers mostly, until we find fish. We shut off the big motor, switch to something smaller, or just drift. Then the anglers cast from the boat. Like all fishing, sometimes it's slow, but when it's good, it's great." He smiled recalling the "when it's good, it's great" times.
I recalled a time in Chile. AG was rowing a raft for an Argentine friend of mine and myself. The day was wondrous, cloudless sky, short sleeve temperatures, and good luck casting under overhanging willows for big, sipping rainbows.
"Dear God! Don Huberto, what do you think the poor people are doing on a glorious day like this?" I quipped to my pal. Before he could answer though our guide spoke up with a grin:
"Rowing this damn boat!" Later he confessed. "I heard that somewhere. I've waited for a long time to use it."
We waded back out. There was another good salmon swirling now and again, not far from the same place. His fly of the day was his own creation. Not surprising he would design original patterns, he is also a highly touted Artist, a fish painter in the ancient Japanese style, ink impressions on paper. His hot fly that day was small, perhaps a #8 hook, lead eyes, a bit like the venerable Steelhead favorite, Boss, except with flashy red and yellow colors. Flies with heavy heads, light bodies, and wiggling feathers, are jigs whatever else they're called. There probably is nothing else in flies (or lures) for that matter, that swims with more pulsating strike incitement.
Another fish on the third cast further convinced me. Though smaller it was a salt fresh hen. Her first run was into backing. When he realized how far she had moved in such a short time, AG really leaned back, almost doubling the rod. It was one of those angling moments when nothing is better than Hexagraph. Lighter than cane, heavier than hollow tube graphite and tougher than both. Having a McNeese Bonefish model reel didn't hurt either. Together they proved unstoppable.
But she eventually stopped, this remarkable wild creature, recharging energy for a day or two before her last run. She gave her head a solid sharp twist. It worked. The rod went limp. So did AG. She was free. He didn't break down and cry, my friend who between himself and his clients, catches hundreds of fish in a year. After all, it's the very best form of catch and release. And so it went for a long and lovely day.
At noon, Masumi, Eiji's wife showed up on her bike with a back pack of rice balls and other goodies. Rice balls? About the size of a baseball, a globe of sticky compressed rice covered with a paper thin sheet of dried sea weed. Sound bland? It would be, but the sea weed is salty, and of course there was the inevitable soy sauce. The truth? They're great. For me, being with dear Japanese friends, fly fishing, and lunching on rice balls, made Iwana (char) fishing in the mountain streams of northern Honshu seem not quite so long ago, though forty years since then, of other fishing, in other exotic environs has challenged the speed of light in their passing. And I'm still going strong? Well - still going.
At sixty eight I have no complaints, at least none anyone who loves angling with flies would take seriously. There are a couple of hours from the last of the rising tide until it starts back down, when the water is too high to effectively wade. My crafty friend breaks out a float tube then, and still finds action. The fish are responsive for as long as you can reach them, though the first couple of hours of the incoming tide seemed best of all. Fresh fish coming in? Excitement at feeling rising water that might mean access up the creek? I don't know, but swirls and splashes sharply increase, and this close to fresh water, these fish have probably already stopped feeding.
For me and a growing number of others, Hexys are super, yet any good 8 weight, 9 foot rod would do the job. I can see some angler's preferring sink tips, though a 10 foot leader with an 8-10 pound tippet, on a weight forward line adds enough pleasure to casting, especially a long day's worth, to sway me. This rig will do as well as a sink tip with slower retrieves, and longer intervals of time between the end of the cast and starting the retrieve. And what about dry flies? Like dining at a 5 Star restaurant and forgetting to try the dessert, I didn't try one. We carefully planned a second day, we could see what the famous Jim's Green could do, but it wasn't to be. Late falls have their qualities though dependable weather isn't always one of them.
A squall started about 3 am the next morning. We had decided on leaving at 6 am. From wind and rain to hard blowing downpour took until 4, by 5:30 it was worse. Sleeping in for a change seemed pretty neat. After a bleary eyed look at my watch, I smiled, rolled over, turned my snore level back up to high, and immediately hooked a huge Steelhead on a #8, Jim's Green that jerked rod, and reel from my hand, and then, somehow, snatched the vest off my back. This fish was larger than me, and you could see it in his eyes, he was really angry. I plunged out of the water and started running up a steep hill. Something big splashed out of the water behind me, but I didn't dare look back.