By Ken Marsh
“One may love a river as soon as one sets eyes upon it; it may have certain features that fit instantly with one’s conception of beauty, or it may recall the qualities of some other river, well known and deeply loved.”
– Roderick Haig-Brown, A River Never Sleeps
The sphagnum at our feet was soft and green as jade, punctuated by yellow wood violets and the crisp, lily-like petals of white trillium. Beyond that verdant margin a big stream flowed, hissing and sliding fast through forests of spruce and cedar, cool, off green and translucent. Smooth as molten glass.
This was the Cowichan River – “the Cow’” in local parlance – a Vancouver Island beauty located a couple hundred clicks south of Roderick Haig-Brown’s beloved Campbell. Fed by 25-mile-long Lake Cowichan, the water is rich in phytoplankton, a basic piscine food element that combines with a moderate climate to grow rainbow and cutthroat trout to six pounds and browns to 10 pounds or better. The Cowichan also hosts spring steelhead and, in the fall, Pacific salmon – Chinook, coho, pink and chum.
For many, though, the river is best known for its resident salmonids. The humble Cowichan may very well be Vancouver Island’s premiere trout stream.
Vancouver Island is a sultry beauty, fickle and moody, a blend of shadow and light, of moss and fern. She’s at her best on winter days when Pacific mists settle in her treetops, the air moist and cool. And she is kind enough on summer days when the sun glows hot upon your back. But she is never easy. She keeps her secrets to herself, and unless you step out and search, you’ll never really know her.
More than 20 years ago I considered making the place my permanent home. I spent nine months exploring the island, its 300-mile-long by 60-mile-wide span and abundant water. The variety amazed me. There were cutthroats and rainbows hooked on Royal Coachman dries in the emerald Taylor River; steelhead in the Stamp (my first taken near the famous pool where Haig-Brown once caught them with his friend, General Noel Money); chrome-bright coho salmon, 4- and 5-pound “feeders” caught on streamers cast from my float tube in saltwater bays; and – get this – smallmouth bass attacking deer hair poppers in Saint Mary’s Lake, Prospect, and Kemp. Too, there were red-bellied brook trout taken from a couple of mountain lakes, and salmon – dog-toothed chums along with a few pinks and cohos – wrenched from a handful of rivers.
The mission this particular day was to study new water and to pursue something exotic. I’m referring to the brown trout. And the Cowichan holds some amber-paunched pigs.
Browns were introduced into the Cowichan sometime in the 1930s and have since prospered. Like brown trout everywhere, Cowichan River fish are opportunists, growing big and mean on protein-rich diets of salmon eggs, young salmon, steelhead, sculpins, crayfish and insects like stoneflies, caddis, and mayflies.
The upper 10 miles of river, from Lake Cowichan to Skutz Falls, provide the best fly fishing. The river there is narrower and swift, comprised of easily fished riffles and pools. The top five miles are reserved for fly fishing only, and browns I caught in that section typically averaged 15 to 17 inches in length and 1 1/2 – 3 pounds. Larger fish were not uncommon, however, and trout to 10 pounds were reportedly caught and released each year.
The take was strong and quick, a flash of energy telegraphed through a weight-forward floating line. I’ve said it elsewhere and believe it, truly: Every trout, no matter where it is caught or how big it may be, is a jewel. Some may battle better than others, or come from places where the atmosphere seems more pleasing, but the value of each fish is never diminished and the last one caught is always as good as the first.
For their part, though, Cowichan River browns have earned their own distinctions. At least, in my opinion. They fight like bulldogs, setting their deep, heavy shoulders against the swift current, shaking their heads and using gravity as their ally.
I gained knowledge with every visit to the Cowichan, considering it for a time my own home water. Indeed, those days have ingrained themselves as life treasures forever framed by cool, damp mornings and dark conifer forests, the water slipping swiftly and pleasantly along, the sun breaking around lunchtime to gild the river and warm the air.
Haig-Brown, of course, was right. One may without question love a river as soon as one sets eyes upon it. Certainly, I’ve since loved many in Alaska where my home waters purl; I returned for good more than 20 years ago. Still, I think often of the Cowichan and Vancouver Island overall, its fishing and the many good people with whom I became friends. Those memories are the kind that warm a man in his winter years, taking him to a place in his heart where the waters and those fierce browns surge on, bright and free.