The time has all but run out for this year, but there are still plenty of fishermen (anglers!) who perhaps haven't yet encountered the feisty big chinook salmon of more than 30 pounds that this on-line publication is so rightly named after.
The club season is restricted to two months a year, July 15 through Sept 15, and there are plenty of rules for everyone to obey to qualify for membership. That's designed to increase the sportsmanship by would-be club and active members, and it also has the effect of making it a bit tougher than most fraternities to get into. They include: a rod of six to nine feet, line with breaking strength of not more than 20 pounds, an artificial lure with one single, barbless hook trolled (not jigged) from a boat or craft powered by hand.
The best part of all that is that, except while going out to the fishing area or coming back in from a few hours' fishing, or when you've caught your fish and are bringing it in for weighing, you're not allowed to use a motor. So it's delightfully quiet out there, rocking gently in the swell or perhaps being hit a little more forcefully from a stronger chop. You're at one with nature and the ocean, ready and waiting and willing for a fight of your life, in an area that has been cherished for this fishery for close than 80 years, the Tyee Pool off Campbell River's historic Tyee Spit.
Peace and alarms
The result is an amazingly peaceful and tranquil little fishery where even comments and remarks are usually passed in fairly hushed tones between the packed fleet of clinker-built rowboats specially designed for these waters.
Boats ply up and down no more than a few hundred metres from shore, between the end of the spit opposite the world-famous Painter's Lodge and the motor boat boundary at the spit's public boat ramp, starting before first light and ending close to last light, usually just covering the two tide channels, in the morning and in the evening. Gentle inquiries and bits of information are muttered across the waves, fisher to guide or vice versa, or fisher to fish.
Until the alarm goes off.
That's what a screaming reel sounds like across quite long distances of water in the Tyee Pool on a summer's evening or morning. The traditional courtesy has grown that you take your clicker off when letting out line or just bringing it in to check for "weed" on the weight or lure. It is put back on only when you're ready and waiting for a hit, so when a fish finally takes the lure and you hit it and the running fish takes line, the sound gets pretty much everyone's attention.
Happened to me a few nights ago. I don't have a boat, so a friend of mine who rows just about every tide he can through the last three-quarters of the season had called to offer me a spot as one of two rodmen. He remembered, as I did, that he had rowed me to a nice big qualifier in the low 30s on the first anniversary of 9/11 in 2002. I'd had a couple before that, but not for 20 years.
So there I am being lulled by the cradle-rocking of the boat and the nod of the rod tip, with a nice wooden plug of the end of the line, and suddenly the rod-tip goes down. That can be a good sign, or, that close in shore, it could be touching bottom or kelp. But your first reaction - almost instinct - has to be to "hit" or "strike" the fish. Just haul back hard and fast on that rod in your hands (nobody uses a rod-holder in the club) and nail that fish right now, hopefully right in the mouth. Because chinook have quite tough jaws, and they will spit the hook out if given a chance. (And by the way, if your fish is 'snagged" or foul-hooked - or disabled by one of the many seals in the area - it's disqualified under club rules even if it is big enough!)
In this case, the fish responded by hauling right back, running and running and taking huge amounts of line right off the single-action reel, while I tried desperately to slow his run and not give him any slack.
The proper etiquette
My guide turned the rowboat to try to steer out of the pool and fleet of boats, to take the fish into the middle of the channel between Campbell River and Quadra Island. The roar coming from the reel was just incredible. And of course we called the usual "Fish on!" just in case other boats round us hadn't realized - as we soon discovered at least one hadn't.
The usual club MO (method of operating, to the uninformed) is that the other boats will immediately pull aside, to open a passage to the deeper water; and those closest, which may be affected by the fish's initial runs, also pull in their lines until the lucky boat is well clear and the fish is obviously out of immediate danger of tangling with other people's lines. Heads swivel briefly and check out which way the fish is running, and anglers and guides alike give their fortunate compatriots room to play the fish. After all, there are club trophies and tales of triumph at stake here - not to mention some very effective, highly-prized and fairly costly equipment, should disaster strike.
Sad to say, my tale is not one of triumph. I had the fish well hooked and I literally wore my thumb-nail down slowing the rate at which the big lunker was able to pull line from the wheel on rod. The reel still spun at an incredible speed as the fish peeled more and more line. I thought I had died and gone to Fishers' Heaven - you know the place, the one where the sole prayer is: "O God grant me a fish so big that even I, when telling of it afterwards, will never need to lie!"
But despite my well-experienced guide's efforts, we weren't able to gain much line on that fish. Or to drag him reluctantly out of the pool and the small cluster of boats to the north of us, towards the end of the spit.
As I hauled and reeled, reeled and hauled, the fish came up close to the surface close to 200 metres away. I could see my weight far away against the setting sun on the water, still up the line but suspended above the water.
My rower was screaming to one of the boats that the line was right under them, and we started to come back towards each other. But I didn't dare give the fish any slack which might have allowed him to pop the hook from his mouth.
That's partly what kept him from going down again, away from the other boat and the lines it still had in the water. All any of us could do at that moment was to offer another prayer or two. Situations like this are not entirely unknown in the club and it will frequently end in tragedy if the non-catching boat's occupants don't take suitable action, such as clipping their lines after they become tangled with the one with the running fish on it.
The end came suddenly and quietly - without even too much fuss. The line must have touched a rough spot on the other rowboat's keel or perhaps even the blade of the propeller on its tilted outboard motor. My line instantly broke and went slack, and the fish was gone, taking the hook with it but leaving the wooden plug to float free of the line, to the surface.
I of course can't tell you how big that fish was. I never even saw it. But I think it would have got me out of the 30s at last. My realtor guide agreed it was undoubtedly a really good-sized fish, unquestionably a registrable tyee. It took me quite a while to reel the remaining line in and I lost count of the number of turns of the reel after more than 250.
But it showed just how feisty those big chinook called Tyee (aboriginal for Big Chief or Big Fish) really can be.
The club season is over again for the year and I thought the readers of The Tyee should know what a really perfect fish and an unparalleled fishery are really like. Nothing beats the thrill of battling Big Bill from a rowboat, in the still grey of the morning or the warm pink of a summer's evening.
The best Tyee Club fishing - oh, and you have to pay and register intent to fish under club rules before going out the first time - is always in the morning or close to last light. That usually means crawling out of bed well before 5 a.m. It's about the only reason I'm prepared to do that! For another chance at an always-new experience and feeling of wonder and awe. You just can't beat that. I challenge others to come up with a finer fishery.
Quentin Dodd is a Campbell River journalist who contributes frequently to The Tyee.