Row, row, row your boat!

25 Aug

When I was about 7 or 8, a couple of my uncles came from Ontario to visit us. I’m not sure why, but part of their visit included a stay at the world famous Painter’s Lodge. All who know me well have heard me tell stories about my Father and his addiction to salmon fishing. From the time I was old enough to hold a rod, I was my Dads fishing partner, except on a few all “boys” trips like this one.  I can’t remember what they caught, I guess at the age I was, I hardly cared, but I know Dad had a damn good time! He talked about Painter’s Lodge many times over the years and as far as he was concerned, it was the best fishing lodge on the planet!

The modern Painter's Lodge, seen from the Tyee Spit.


Sad to say one of the few regrets I have in life is Dad didn’t live to see me become one of the top, senior guides at Painter’s. It would have been so cool to take him out fishing and I know he would have bragged to anyone who would listen about his daughter, the expert, “professional” salmon guide.

One of the things I don’t know about Dad’s trip, is whether or not he went rowing.

That’s right, rowing.

Mist rising fromTyee Spit during an evening row

When we moved to Campbell River, I knew it’s reputation as an excellent area to catch fish and a dangerous place to play on the water. What I didn’t know about was the Tyee Club.

(Before I go any further, I must explain that the word Tyee comes from the  late 1700’s and is part of the Chinook Jargon that traders used to communicate with the coastal natives. It means chief, boss, or senior and has over the years come to be the name given to chinook salmon that are 30 pounds and over.)

The Tyee Club came into being in 1924. That’s not to say that Europeans weren’t catching gigantic Chinook salmon long before then. Sir Richard Musgrave caught a 70 pound chinook in 1896 and raved to all his friends back in England about the fighting abilities of these wonderful fish. A model of it still hangs in the Campbell River Museum.

Oak Bay Marine Group is the parent company for Painter's Lodge who still uphold the old traditions

The idea for the  club came about one day in the old Willows Hotel, as 3 friends sat socializing. They decided that the Tyee Salmon was just as great as the California Tuna, and deserved a club that would protect and honour it. Two of it’s guiding principles being  to increase interest in the game fishing of the Tyee and to emphasize sportsmanship.

The club officially started in 1925 with the first set of rules. One of the most important members who contributed more to the success of the club than any other was E.P. Painter.

He owned one of the first fishing camps, located on the Spit, which later grew into Painter’s Lodge. He was also the inventor and manufacturer of the Tyee boat. This wooden rowboat, and its modern fiberglass descendent, would become the boat used by Tyee fishermen. He also provided the accommodations and the boats for Tyee fishing guides and their guests.

E.P. Painter's clinker built row boat is still used today, ranging from 10 feet to 14

The Tyee Club achieved those first considerations and has gone on to become truly world renown. People from all over the world, descend on Campbell River to fish the mouth of the river from mid-July till mid-September in hopes of catching a chinook salmon under the rules of the club.  Sounds pretty easy doesn’t it? Well, it bloody well isn’t!

The basic rules are simple. First, one pays a $10.00 registration fee that is referred to as  An Intention to Row. It’s  good for the entire 2 month period.

Next, carry a current up to date fishing license.

Now, here’s where it starts to get harder, the fish must be caught in a specific area, The Tyee Pool, Earthquake Pool or Frenchman’s Pool. These are depressions on the ocean floor, just off the mouth of the Campbell River, where the fish hold before entering on their spawning journey.

The boat used must not be powered by a motor, except to get to the fishing grounds, whereupon the motor must be pulled from the water. At all times during the actual fishing the boat must be powered by oars alone. This is generally a 2 person operation with the rower acting as guide and a rod man doing the actual fishing. The rules are such, that once a fish is hooked, the rower cannot touch the rod or reel and can only offer instruction and encouragement.

Motor up, rod out.

The tackle used also has major restrictions…

The rods must be between 6 and 9 feet long, the reel must be hand operated with no clutch, making single action the reel of choice. The fishing line MUST have a breaking point of 20 pounds, with no more than 6 ounces of weight, artificial lures designed for trolling, usually a plug or spoon, and only a single barbless hook. The gear must pass muster or the fish caught will be disqualified.

Some of the gear. Proven spoons and plugs are traded for hundreds of dollars by rowing aficionados

Now, to the fish…

To become a member in good standing of the Tyee Club, one must land under all of the rules, a chinook salmon of 30 pounds or more. Pins are given to those who succeed,  bronze pin (30-40lbs), silver (40-50lbs) and gold (50lbs or bigger). The current Tyee record holder is Walter Shutts of Oregon who caught a 71 pound Tyee in 1968.

The top fish of the day and the fish leading for the season are posted for all to see.

The other consideration to take into account is these are fish waiting for the river conditions to be right for them to head up to the spawning grounds, meaning they are no longer actively feeding.  It’s extremely difficult to get a fish to strike at a lure when they no longer care for food, making it again, doubly hard to catch one.

All in all, it’s the hardest way there is to catch a trophy fish on the pacific coast! I know since I’ve been trying for over 20 years. The closest I ever came was a beautiful 29.5 pound fish. Sadly it WAS a 29.5 pound fish and accordingly  not eligible for entry into the club.

It is also the most beautiful way to catch a fish! It is quiet,(no motors, not even clickers on the reels) the setting is glorious, especially since most rowing takes place before sunup or after sunset, and there is a feeling of stepping back in time to a more genteel era, as politeness to one another is paramount.

A fairly common view.

There are still rowers who work off the Painter’s dock and others who, though they guide from motor boats, grew up with the traditions of the club. One of my best friends on the dock was one such gentleman. He grew up living beside Painter’s, worked as a fishing guide from the time he could handle a tiller and learned to row at the knees of some of the best  rowers/guides that ever dipped an oar in Discovery Passage. Every year, he and I have attempted to do the impossible and every year, I am left with the knowledge that we will have to try again next year.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t succeeded. In 2009, the day before I arrived, he headed out, on his own, to try out a couple of new lures. Well, damned if he didn’t do the “impossible”,  one of only a handful, since 1925, who have accomplished the same feat!

Rowing guide and great, good friend, ready to head out, one more time!

Now think about that for a minute….he rowed out alone, managing to handle the rowing of the boat, (no small feat) and the working of the rod. Then once he had a fish on, he moved the boat out of the pack, fought the fish on a barbless hook, got it up to the side of a 12 foot row boat and then managed to net a 30.5 pound salmon. Hell, over the years I’ve seen people who couldn’t do that with a 3 pound pink on the line.  But as guides are fond of saying, he used up all the luck on that one trip and we never even got a strike over the next three days of rowing!

Ah well, there’s always next year, and I will keep trying as long as Jeff keeps inviting me to participate in an extraordinary, beautiful fishery that exemplifies true sportsmanship!


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