Riders of the Purple Straits

Riders of the Purple Straits

Riders of the Purple Straits


CAMPBELL RIVER, B.C. – When Zane Grey came here 94 years ago he had a wrong to right and a reputation to rescue.

Not a woman or a city or even a conception, but as fish.

“I am not prepared to defend some species of Pacific salmon,” said the famous western novel writer, whose wildly successful Riders of the Purple Sage had provided him the cash flow to pursue his other passion, angling.

“But I do not believe justice has been done them,” Grey challenged in his 1919 compilation of angling yarns, Tales of Freshwater Fishing.

If there ever were fish that need a little justice, it’s West Coast salmon.

Campbell River in Grey’s day was not the city of 40,000 it is now.

“A few French Canadians and Indians, a tavern and some weather-beaten houses,” was the picture he painted.

“I did not know how it would look in sunlight,” he added. “This day it was bleak and dreary.”

But there are some things that never change.

There’s still the “magnificent mountain range that shows under a curtain of cloud.”

And the “broad, swift river, sliding out of a dark forest.”

While the tormented tides of Discovery Passage remain like a “green river” under “masses of purple cloud.”

Cape Mudge Lighthouse

Cape Mudge Lighthouse

On the drive up Vancouver Island Grey encountered an unnamed river stuffed with salmon where “dark purple patches showed where the fish were massed.”

A cosmic run of pink salmon, which were considered “good for nothing” back then. Now the whole town shows up when the pinks are up the Campbell in early August.

It was another Pacific salmon species that had persuaded Grey to foresake his swordfishing haunts on Catalina Island and venture into the rainforest of the big West Coast island..

The “splash and surge of the beautiful green-backed tyee”, was the main attraction

The largest of all salmons doesn’t get that name and a place in Painter’s Lodge’s famous Tyee Club – with all the movie star memorabilia on the clubroom walls – until it reaches 30 pounds.

Before that it’s known as a chinook. Or sometimes a spring or king.

They still sound a horn at the Painter’s dock whenever a Tyee is landed and, as Grey wrote, “the best virtue of fishermen is their hopefulness.”

In Reg’s Boston Whaler the power of positive thinking is as wide open as the 80-horse Yamaha’s throttle.

He’d been out on the first tide and his anglers had limited out. This was going to be easy.

We pass the red-rose roofs of the CapeMudge lighthouse and the Painter’s guide points his skiff at a gap between Marina and Cortes islands over a sea of violet glass.

Green Can Flotilla

Green Can Flotilla

When we reach the Green Can, which marks where the ocean floor rises up to 100 feet and holds the bait, there’s an eclectic fleet of salmon fishers already on the morning hot spot.

Some jig, others troll, but none appear to be catching.

Tides and tyee aren’t always easy to foresee.

Reg rigs the mooching rods with Blue Meanie hoochies behind dodgers then lowers the squid imitations on downriggers to the salmon zone.

Now downrigger fishing and fly casting are not exactly on the same page. There’s a lead cannonball weighing several pounds that separates reality from fiction for starters.

But if you let your imagination roam to the far corners of the logic pasture it’s not that much different than chironomid fishing. Is it?

And what’s a mooching rod anyway? Just a flyrod that you don’t cast.

Like Hemingway, I make my separate peace with Reg’s technology and settle into the fishing seat.

One by one the others pick up their gear and move. After an hour and only one small coho to show, Reg decides to cut and run too.

The wind has picked up by the time we make the Hump where another flotilla is working – trolling with the flood tide down to the lighthouse, then riding the purple strait back to the top end to repeat the exercise.

Painter's Lodge Dock

Painter’s Lodge Dock

The Painter’s radio channel crackles now, fish are being caught. But so far not in Reg’s boat.

We troll to the tip of QuadraIsland without a strike then plow back through three-foot swells. It’s rough and getting rougher.

When Grey first headed out on this “swift, dark channel” he wrote how his “courage began to ooze.”

Coming on a century later and I’m channeling Zane Grey.

We’re beyond the lighthouse now when a rod dips.

The fight is on. The salmon comes straight back to the boat with the tide. There’s a lot of line out and I think I’ve lost it. But when I get the slack on the reel it’s still there.

It runs, I reel, it runs again.

Then it surfaces and the chinook’s fight is finished.

It weighs 12 pounds on the Painter’s scale.

Out here on the purple straits of Zane Grey’s reminiscences, justice is seen to be done.


This column originally appeared in the Edmonton Sun.

Campbell River Chinook Salmon

Campbell River Chinook Salmon

2 responses to “Riders of the Purple Straits

  1. Pingback: Tippets: Purple Straights, Watch Water Temps, Leverage Grips | MidCurrent·

  2. Pingback: Tippets: Purple Straights, Watch Water Temps, Leverage Grips - Skiff Life - Flats and Back Bay Fishing·

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