By Neil Cameron
Special to the Mirror
Seventy years ago on July 29, the tides at the mouth of the Campbell River met in truce at about 2:21 a.m. according to Coey Lunn, Geomatics Technician of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney.
It was the beginning of what would be a true David and Goliath battle, one of the greatest in the 93-year history of the Tyee Club of British Columbia. The club’s two-month long season started July 15 off the mouth of the Campbell River.
The ebb tide had ceased its push north. The flood tide was beginning its push south. The Campbell’s waters joined the mix, creating a calmly-turbulent triangle of currents. A school of Chinook, having travelled past Port Hardy and Sayward with the flooding tide overnight, curled into the rich mix of scents.
It wasn’t just the tide they were following, or the tide they were heading into that got their attention. It was the fresh-water scent of the Campbell that stung them. Some had not sensed that fresh water for three, four or five years. One particular salmon, a massive fish, shuddered as that water passed through his gills. He had not tasted the Campbell water for seven years when he was two inches long.
He broke the surface in a rush, slashing a great froth up and into the night air and dove back down to rest and try to make sense of things. He found a spot on the shallow gradient of the bar. Ahead of him the bottom rose and entry into the river awaited. Behind him the bottom dropped off to a safe haven he could go to on a moment’s intuition.
Other, mostly smaller Chinook followed him and hovered down behind him, creating a blanket of salmon on what is called the South Corner of the world famous Tyee Pool. The flooding tide picked up steam. The salmon held position, flicking disdainfully with their tail fins as surges tugged at them. The huge Chinook hunkered down, his pectoral fins tickling the eelgrass on the bottom. He waited for he knew not what.
Three hours later a shadow appeared on the surface. The big Chinook noticed it, sensed it, and realized it posed no immediate threat. So he, and the other salmon, held their position. The light of morning was short minutes away and the urge of the fish to rush up and into the river, or swirl back to more familiar depths, caused them to stir.
The shadow above them was the rowboat of legendary Tyee fishing guide Les McDonald who spoke a few quiet words to his angler, Ray Slocum, who had travelled across the continent from Corral Gables, Florida, for a chance of a Tyee salmon — 30 pounds or more. Slocum pulled out the required line from his reel and pointed his rod back to MacDonald, who attached a weight, and then told Slocum to let more line out.
The bamboo rod Slocum held seemed impossibly small. It weighed six ounces and was 60 inches long. The line had a breaking strength of 18 pounds, six strands of three-pound test gut. That combination of gear was used for entry in the extra-light tackle category or, as it was known, the 3/6 class of Tyee Club tournament regulations.
The beat of the spoon in the depths made the thin tip on the bamboo rod nod rhythmically. Both men were attuned to the intricate changes of the tide; both had their eyes glued to the rod tip which gave them invaluable information.
The giant Chinook saw the fluttering spoon inching toward him. Impatiently, he moved to the side, finding a better current with which to maintain his position. The spoon followed, wobbling mere feet in front of him. He moved aside again. The spoon did the same, this time even closer. The big fish ignored it, turned to safer depths and held there throughout the morning.
The fish moved up again once the intruder had passed. He held in his spot as the full light of day cast his shadow on the bottom of the pool. Other boats passed overhead, other lures passed close to him. He ignored them all.
Just after the flood tide had abated and the ebb was starting to move he was forced to change his hold. He did so irritably. And suddenly the wobbling spoon from the morning was in front of his face again. It was too much. He exploded forward and bit at it savagely.
Both MacDonald and Slocum noticed the pause in the beat of the rod tip. Instead of pulling back down in a normal cadence, the tip rose slowly as the tension of the spoon and the weight were lifted by the take of the Chinook.
Slocum struck hard. MacDonald dug deep on the oars. The tiny bamboo rod buckled over and line ran out through its guides at an astonishing speed. Both men must have sucked in their breaths when they caught a glimpse of the huge Chinook’s back as it briefly broke the surface.
Here is a calculation to put a perspective on this epic battle comparing the Chinook they caught on a six-ounce rod. If the rod were a 160-pound man or woman, the adversary he or she faced would weigh in excess of 15 tons.
David and Goliath.
And Slocum’s aggressive style of fishing put even more pressure on the tiny bamboo rod.
In his book Tyee, The Story of the Tyee Club of British Columbia, Van Egan describes McDonald’s description of Slocum during that battle.
“Slocum was a formidable fish fighter, always striving to bring the contest to as quick a finish as possible. To this end, the fish’s every effort to sound was met with counter-forces to turn its direction upward; its attempts to slow or rest met with antagonizing resistance, straining the six-thread line to its maximum and spiriting the fish to ever more enervating fights.”
McDonald must have, knowing the slight gear that was hooked to the giant, said on a couple of occasions, “Let it run!”
One half hour later the Chinook’s fight ended a half-mile south in the Tyee Pool in front of what was called the Indian Cemetery, near what is now the Argonaut Wharf. It weighed 70 and one-half pounds.
It would reign as the largest Tyee on record for 21 years, until a fish of 71 pounds was caught by Walter Shutts and guide Tom McGregor on Aug. 6, 1968. The Shutts fish holds the Tyee club record still.
But it wasn’t caught on a bamboo rod.