KARLIE ROLAND’S HANDS ARE BLEEDING.
We’re about halfway through our first day fishing southwestern BC’s Squamish River. It’s mid-November and we’re targeting the run of Chum Salmon. Yos Gladstone, owner of Chromer Sport Fishing, is our guide. Austin Heffelfinger is along to shoot photos. Karlie is a guide at Emerald Water Anglers in Seattle, WA. She brought her black lab Griz. This is her first time fishing the Squamish and her first time fishing for Chum. After a slow morning, we start getting into them after lunch. Before long blood is spilled.
Karlie is dipping her hand, rod handle and reel in the river to rinse the blood away while Griz is inspecting a rotting Chum carcass on the bank. It’s a surprisingly-gory scene. Karlie’s wound is a result of a few different Chum pulling hard enough to catch Karlie off-guard. With line zipping out of her reel she attempted to slow the fish, only to get her thumb nail ripped in half by the spinning spool. Between expletives, Karlie admits that she didn’t expect Chum fishing to be so challenging.
“Honestly, I’ve just never thought to target them,” she says.
Chum get a bad rap. A friend of mine describes them as, “The Rodney Dangerfield of Salmon.” And while, I’m not exactly sure how to interpret the analogy, I’m pretty sure I know what he means. Remember Rodney’s catchphrase, “I get no respect.” That could sum it up. Chum aren’t exactly easy on the eyes, especially in their last days of life. Spend any amount of time on the rivers of the Pacific Northwest in the fall and you’re bound to trip over a rotten Chum. The banks are literally littered with dead fish. The rivers in this part of the world are a veritable Bald Eagle buffet during the Chum runs. Ornithologists take note: Want to see some Baldies? Follow these fish. And while they may not get much respect in the fly fishing world, Chum are essential.
“Chum salmon are super important to the whole river system,” says Yos. “So, yeah, we’re more than appreciative of having a good Chum run here.”
Salmon are vital to the health of rivers here in the Northwest and across the North Pacific. These fish are the source of nutrients for the ecosystem. Living organisms of all manner need Nitrogen and these Salmon provide just that.
Yos has been guiding on the Squamish and the surrounding rivers and ocean for more than 20 years. He got his start tying flies at Ruddick’s Fly Shop in Vancouver and then guiding for Brian Niska at Whistler Fly Fishing. Eventually he went on to start Chromer Sport Fishing, which hosts visiting anglers from all over the world. He’s based in North Vancouver and fishes the Pacific and the rivers that flow into it around Whistler and Squamish.
Standing in the middle of the Squamish with countless Chum racing by your legs, dozens of Bald Eagles circling overhead and even a couple fresh Grizzly Bear tracks on shore, it’s easy to forget that Vancouver is just under an hour’s drive away. And that’s certainly one of the biggest draws about British Columbia: it’s remarkably easy to get to some truly wild locales.
That’s why Yos loves this place. That’s why he’s built a business here. And why he’ll raise his daughter on these rivers. He’s a big dude, but being out here, he feels small.
“It’s certainly humbling,” he says.
Karlie agrees, though maybe for different reasons.
Her thumbs are wrapped in bandages now. The bleeding has stopped, but she’s got a few bruises.
“I look like I was in a bar fight,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t think it was supposed to be this hard.”
She’s a good sport about it. She knows fishing is about more than just catching and leaving blood on the banks always makes for a good story. Plus, like Yos, Karlie recognizes the value of being put in your place by Mother Nature. More often than not, it’s the fish we don’t catch that keep us coming back.
“These fish are definitely underrated,” says Karlie. “And they’re a lot bigger than Washington fish, that’s for sure.”
Karlie walks a little further down the run and swings another big bug out there. She’s determined. Yos is smiling. He knows the struggle is real, even when fishing for Chum.
“There’s nothing easy about this,” says Yos. “There’s no consistency to it. The only consistency is inconsistency.”
As a guide it’s his job to put people on fish, but secretly (or actually, not-so-secretly) he’s rooting for the fish. In two decades of guiding he’s seen a lot of changes on the coast. He’s seen fish stocks decline. It’s obvious that weighs on him. He talks openly about the fine line he walks as a guide. It could be argued that the interests of an outfitter are in direct conflict with those of the fish. But, Yos doesn’t see it that way. In fact, he considers education a big part of his job. As he sees it, he’s the front line. It’s his responsibility to teach his guests and the public everything he’s learned, ethics included.
“If you’re in the guiding business and you don’t consider yourself a steward, then you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing,” says Yos.
Even with a river full of Chum, we’re releasing everything we catch. Advocacy is an essential part of the job for Yos, and, for that matter, a lot of the other guides that work these rivers. Here in the Sea-to-Sky corridor he’s surrounded by natural beauty, but he’s also surrounded by a community of like-minded individuals.
“All of us out here are increasingly aware that we have to do the right thing when it comes to promoting our business and our fisheries,” says Yos. “We’re trying to find that sweet spot of maintaining a business, but also recognizing that these fisheries are fragile. I won’t claim to have figured it out yet, but I know it’s important for all of us to consider it. I have a little girl and I want her to be able to enjoy this someday. And I think anyone who loves to fish and has kids is thinking the exact same thing as I am.”