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Hello Again - The Cowichan River

By Bill Luscombe, 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


May brought with it a lengthy hatch of March Brown mayflies to the Cowichan River on southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I, being the ardent fly-fisherman that I am, naturally took notice of this annual event and spent some time on the water. In fact I had been awaiting the hatch for several weeks and had watched the river's level steadily drop as the weir at Cowichan Lake closed to ensure a future water supply for the local pulp mill. The water level was perfect and the sun came out, as did the mayflies, right on time.

Thursday evening I loaded up the gear and drove the family to one of my favorite spots on the river. The early evening sky was a lovely azure, highlighted by the bright colors of the slowly setting sun. The spinners were not prevalent, the majority had fallen some time earlier in the day, but the fish continued to rise to the odd mayfly that had decided to lay her eggs later than her comrades. I tied on a mayfly pattern specifically designed to match the Cowichan's hatch, slowly moved into the water, and began to gently cast the fly up and across to the closest rises. It took only a few casts to hook the first trout and, although it wasn't large, pound for pound it fought as well as any trout could. I landed it, released it, and cast to another rise.

There were numerous fish feeding within 30 feet of me in the tail out of the pool, but one fish began to rise steadily on the far side of the river, slightly downstream. It was far larger than the trout that lay between us and I decided to risk spooking the smaller ones and wade out as far as possible to try to get a shot at this large fish. Out I went until the water pressed against my lower chest and I dared not go further. I waited until the trout rose again and then laid out a long cast above it. The fly slowly drifted its way over the fish but received no apparent attention. I retrieved the fly and cast again . . . still no reaction. I repeated this process at least 10 times and then stopped to cogitate upon the matter before I put the fish down.

As far as I could tell I was doing everything correctly. The only thing that might have been happening was that I was getting micro-drag using the standard mends which I couldn't see from this distance.

I started working the fish again and sent the fly out trying to pile the leader up a bit by using a bounce cast. I managed the cast but my accuracy was off and the fish didn't take. I cast again and things looked about as good as they were going to get. If the trout didn't take it this time, I would have to change patterns or give up. I was sure it was feeding on the mayflies . . . I was doing something wrong.

I wasn´t left to ponder this very long however. As the fly passed over where I figured the fish to be the trout rose to the tiny offering in the prettiest porpoise take you've ever seen. I raised the rod tip to set the hook and the fun began in earnest.

The fish never once emerged from the water. It first made a series of short runs back towards its hole followed by several rolls that could have tangled the leader in its gills and resulted in a cut tippet. Luckily this didn't happen and when the fish realized it couldn't return to its hiding place it headed downstream hell bent for the bottom of the run and the rapids that led into the next pool. I kept the rod tip up and tried my best to follow it downstream in the chest deep water as the reel kept up its constant complaint about relinquishing line. Luckily, the river became shallower as it headed towards the rapids and I managed to stop the run as the fish pulled its way into my backing. I was now in thigh deep water and better able to move with the fish. All that line out and a far from tired fish on the other end however brought my heart rate up a notch or two to say the least. I was very concerned that the trout would turn downstream again and I would have to break it off or run out of line. I made my way steadily downstream while the fish held in the current and managed to regain my backing and some of the fly line.

When I got to within 20 feet or so of the trout it tried its downstream tactic again. This time, however, with the much shallower water and a better angle on the line, I had the upper hand. Increasing the pressure I managed to turn the fish each time it tried to head downstream. As I closed in from the side and forced it up towards me it caught sight of me and spooked again. It headed upstream towards the deeper water though and I breathed a sight of relief at not having to continue the constant downstream battle of the past few minutes. But the fish was far from done and, although the runs became shorter, I couldn't manage to tire it out much.

After a good 10 minutes of man versus trout all I had managed to do was make two trips to the top of the run and the fish had forced me into one more trip to the bottom of the run. Both my arm and the fish were getting tired when I finally maneuvered into a position slightly downstream of the trout. By now I was swearing at the darned thing (my wife wasn't impressed) and I finally decided that I was either going to force the trout to me where I could net it or would break it off in the attempt. Increasing the pressure well past where I felt safe with my 5x tippet, the fish barely moved. More pressure started the leader whining in the current like a taut guitar string, but the fish finally turned. I dipped the net in the water and the current did the rest. Before the trout could recover the current had pushed her downstream into my net and the contest was over.

I had won, barely, and I made my way to shore with this lovely 19-inch brown trout. She wasn't huge, but her size, combined with the current and her ability to use it to her advantage, had given me one of the toughest fights I have ever had from a trout.

After removing the hook from her mouth I cradled the brown trout carefully while my wife took some photos. As I held the fish I noticed that she had had an encounter with an otter or something, as she was missing a small chunk of flesh from the base of the top edge of her caudal fin. Once the photos had been taken, I moved into the slower water of the pool and spent several minutes nursing her back to health. When she was ready I released her and she moved off under her own steam heading for the bottom of the pool.

By now it had become quite dark so we packed up the gear and headed home. All the way back we talked about nothing except the beauty of that fish and the fight it had given me and we prayed the photos would turn out.

Exactly eight days later we were back at the same spot. The hatch had slowed but the fish were still onto it and although the water level had dropped another foot the fish had held their ground. Again I entered the water with the same March Brown pattern attached to the end of my leader. There was nothing big rising so I worked the small fish over for the next hour and managed to catch and release half a dozen or more eight to 12 inch rainbows.

As dusk approached more fish began to rise. The shallower water had made them warier and the larger fish had avoided exposing themselves in the bright light of day. Across the river, under some small willows, several fish were rising steadily now. I waded further out into the river not worrying about the smaller fish in the tail out; I wanted one of the trout under the willows.

Reaching a spot where I thought I could cast to the fish and still not spook them, and remembering the drag problems of the previous trip, I immediately concentrated on bounce casting the little mayfly just above the rising trout. Again it was a long drawn out affair. They seemed to have a sixth sense that the fly was not a real mayfly. I drifted the fly over the trout several times only to have a fish take a real mayfly inches ahead of or behind my pattern. I was determined however, and continued to work them over for as long as they continued to feed.

After twenty casts I stopped counting and simply relaxed and continued the siege. Finally one of the fish rose to the pattern in a slashing strike and due to my now over-relaxed state I reacted too slowly and missed it. I could have pitched the rod into the water after that. The only thing that stopped me was the price of my gear and the fact that the fish were still rising . . . I cast again.

Five casts later a fish decided that my fly was worth a try and struck. I wasn't asleep this time and I set the hook well. This trout headed right towards me and upstream and I had to hand-strip the line in to get pressure on it. After the initial run it stayed put in the current and used the pressure to keep me at bay. I couldn't move the fish, but did manage to reel in the excess line and play the trout on the reel. As I made my way upstream I increased the pressure on the trout - first to the left, then across and to the right. This did the trick and the trout turned and headed downstream towards shallower water. It stopped mid-way down the run and I stumbled my way out of the deep water and over beside the fish, albeit still 20 feet away. Again it held its ground in the current and again I had to work the rod to get the fish to move.

I was becoming concerned at this point. All this pressure in different directions was sure to be loosening the hook and with the fish simply moving from pocket to pocket it wasn't tiring very quickly. I maneuvered myself downstream again and tried the trick I had used the previous week to net the brown trout. Sure enough, as soon as I had managed to turn the fish the current caught it and pushed it right into the waiting net. She wasn't ready to be netted yet, but she was in the bag before she knew it.

"Another beautiful brown!" I exclaimed to my wife as I sloshed my way towards her to get more pictures.

I removed the hook, and as I slid her out from the confines of the net I noticed the tell tale scar on the caudal fin. That's right, it was the same fish.

I was ecstatic. This was (to my knowledge) the first time I had actually caught the same fish twice. My wife took the pictures and I showed my son the scar to prove that it was the same trout we had caught the week before. Then I carefully released her again.

I packed up my gear in the closing darkness and talked to my son about the opportunities and successes of catch and release as we made our way back to the truck and home. I explained that here, now, was living proof that you can have your cake twice, as long as you don't eat it. He was very receptive to this line of logic. He has been releasing much of his catch since I began teaching him to fish. He's was only 12 years old then. He is 23 now and still bugs my friends about killing their catch. Sometimes I have to remind him that it is their prerogative to do so where legal. I'm very proud of my son's outlook on sport fishing. I have taught him to only kill what he will eat, and since trout don't freeze that well we kill only a few fish each year. He believes, and adheres to, what I have taught him, not because he has to but because he now believes it to be right. Our beautiful brown trout was the proof in the pudding. We all could take a lesson from that experience.

Someone once said that we are simply borrowing the earth from our children. I believe this to be true. I also believe that our children must be taught so they will be ready to inherit this earth from us. My family knows that catch and release works. Give yourself and your family the opportunity to experience the same thing. Release some of your catch. Your children will thank you later.

Bill Luscombe has been hunting and fishing for most of his 42 years. He has been flyfishing for 20 years. He instructs flyfishing, and has done so for the past 12 years. He also instructs the federal FSET firearms course and the BC CORE hunter training course. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and has been writing freelance since 1987. He has been published in BC Sport Fishing Magazine, Outdoor Edge, BC Outdoors, Western Sportsman, Island Fish Finder, and the BC Hunting Guide.

Bill Luscombe was born an army brat and raised in Ladner (Delta, BC) where he was raised hunting waterfowl and pheasants. He presently resides in North Cowichan on southern Vancouver Island where he has lived and worked full time as a professional forester since 1982.

He presently works in Nanaimo for the BC Forest Service and continue to write the fly-fishing column for BC Sport Fishing Magazine as well as contributing articles freelance to various outdoor magazines in western Canada. Bill Luscombe is also a BC Director of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association.

"Catching fish is not hard. You simply need to understand what makes them tick. If you think like a fish, you will catch fish. It´s as simple as that."


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