Fishing wisdom, or: ‘Would it be possible to get a little crisp bacon and Drambuie on my oatmeal porridge?’
By AL WIGGAN
For those who have been introduced to this breakfast delight, it wouldn’t seem out of place asking such a question of a waiter in a five-star hotel in Cape Town or Edinburgh, but it did open the bleary eyes of my 6 a.m. companions at Peregrine Fishing Lodge in one of the more remote spots in Canada, Naden Harbour in Haida Gwaii.
The pretty young waitress responded — in the same tone as she would when asking ‘How would you like your eggs?’ — “ Would you like the Drambuie in a shot glass sir?” Each morning thereafter when I arrived for breakfast a shot glass of the Scottish nectar was waiting to grace my oatmeal porridge.
I had begun this testing of service excellence very innocently weeks earlier when answering the lodge’s personal information form. In the blank following the question “Dietary Requirements?” that I supposed was reserved for vegetarians or those with some other similar affliction, I had written, a little hopefully, ”Gooey cinnamon buns.”
At 6 a.m., standing at the serving table laden with almost every imaginable breakfast indulgence, staffed by the ridiculously cheerful chef, I didn’t see cinnamon buns.
“ Excuse me, would there be any, ah, cinnamon buns?”
“Ah ha!” was the delighted reply, “You must be the gentleman who asked for gooey cinnamon buns! Why they’re just over here.”
He ushered me around the corner of the serving station and there they were, somewhat hidden, I believe to winkle out he who had made the request.
I began to realize this was something significantly more than a fishing lodge; it was my vision of the perfect retirement home.
This service excellence nonsense continued on the water. Of course they had fine boats, excellent guides, first-class gear and lots of huge salmon but they also had this lunch announcement over the radio on the second day:
Crackle. Crackle. Crackle. “Attention all Peregrine boats …. Wayne’s Burger joint is now open for lunch. You’ll see my boat in the bay behind Klashwun Point; pull alongside and place your order. Today we’re offering sirloin, chicken or salmon burgers cooked to your specifications on my back deck barbecue.”
Not only did Wayne cook an awfully good burger, he had a washroom on his boat for the ladies and could refill empty coffee jugs or beer coolers.
But wait, it gets better.
The weather was next to perfect which means a cold drizzle and low, grey overcast but no wind. Well not a real wind, just a bone chilling breeze. So when we got back to the docks in the evening we were cold. The waitress with the Drambuie was on the dock to greet us with a warm smile and a warmer mug of hot chocolate fortified with Peppermint Schnapps. And a golf cart to transport our weary bones back along the dock to our rooms.
Without even talking about the fishing, this was the fishing trip of a lifetime (did I mention the chartered turbo prop and helicopter?) and a true find for anyone interested in an extraordinary West Coast fishing experience.
And there were fish! We caught all the five species of salmon on the West Coast — springs, coho, sockeye, chum and pinks. With a few Halibut thrown in for good measure.
Pinks, the smallest of the salmon at between five and eight pounds were annoyingly plentiful, given that we were fishing for springs. The chap I was with seemed to be a pink magnet, catching and releasing more than 20 in two days, at which point, out of kindness, we stopped counting. We’re not sure how the bartender heard about his prowess but one evening as he sat down for dinner he was greeted by a martini glass containing a Pink Lady. The guffaws were taken in good humour.
Springs are at the top of the salmon sport fishing hierarchy. They are gorgeous, streamlined, powerful awe-inspiring fish. Where the tail of a 20 lb Spring meets the body, it is bigger around than a man’s ankle and the tail itself will span 12 to 16 inches providing power to fight for 30 exhilarating minutes leaving the fisherman exhausted, with bruises where the rod butt has been rammed into the belly for leverage.
Underpinning it all is the guide. Ours handled a 28-foot boat, four rods, and two downriggers with the ease that comes from expertise. And he handled the two fishermen with grace, humour and patience, providing instruction, guidance and at just the right time, motivation: “Reel! Reel! Reel like a son of a gun!! ” or words to that effect.
We fished with a frozen herring cut by the guide to resemble a wounded fish rolling slowly in the water. It was trolled at a walking speed about 30 feet deep.
The first indication of a spring in the vicinity of the bait is a sharp tap of the rod tip as the fish swings past and swipes the herring with its tail to stun it. The fish then turns back and leisurely starts to take the bait.
Thirty feet above on the boat the fishermen’s reactions are set to hair-trigger, the guide is instructing “Wait, wait, wait till he takes it!” and then, to the fish in a hoarse whisper “Take it! Take it.” The first test for the spring fisherman is of patience as the tap, tap, tapping continues until there is the feel of a steady pull as the fish starts to turn away with the herring. All hell is about to break loose.
At the feel of a steady pull, the rod is raised in a sharp smooth arc and the barbless hooks are set. Now the second test. Lift the rod too soon or too quickly or forget to raise the rod and just begin to reel and the fish will be gone. Then it happens.
The reel begins to scream as the fish runs peeling off hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of turns of line in a few seconds. It is an unstoppable force. Any attempt to grab the reel can result in broken fingers and will result in a lost fish. There is art in playing a fish, knowing when a run is about to end so that reeling can begin in order to keep a tight line on the barbless hooks and when a new run begins knowing how and when to bow to the fish to gradually transfer the sudden tension in the line into the rod. The connection to the raw, wild power at the end of the line is visceral. And so it goes: running, reeling, bowing, the rod tip high with a taut line, sometimes for more than 30 minutes until the fish is along side the boat and into the net.
I don’t know anyone who has caught one of these magnificent fish who doesn’t speak of them with a sense of awe.
For this long-time fisherman, one of the finest aspects of the Peregrine Lodge program is their celebration of catch and release. At Peregrine, unlike virtually every other lodge I’ve been to, the daily-catch board that totes up the number of fish caught also prominently displays the number and weight* of spring salmon released. I’m proud to say that our group of four, all having reached the age of wisdom, released more fish than the other 38 guests combined.
It seems to me that, regardless of age, you’ve reached a respectable level of fishing wisdom when you realize that you don’t go fishing just to catch fish. Why would you when you can get Drambuie on your oatmeal porridge?
*For those who wonder how to calculate the weight of a salmon in pounds without putting the fish on a scale: Measure, the length [L] and girth [G] in inches, then apply the formula L x G x G divided by 750. Weird but it works.
Al Wiggan is a sometime contributor to Wisdom Fishing who remembers catching his first fish, a pike, at the age of 4. He’s been fishing ever since. He recently returned from a fishing trip to Haida Gwaii with Bob McCaskill, Bill Cottick and Barney [Pink Lady] Colvey.