Fraser River Sockeye Return
Chilliwack, British Columbia
On a Saturday in the summer of 2010 I was invited out to Chilliwack to join some newfound friends from the Sto:lo Nation for a day of salmon fishing on the Fraser River. Much had been made of the year's Fraser River returns, and early estimates placed the stock at 25 million fish – a spirit-buoying figure considering the previous year's dismal return of a single million. The province was in the throes of sockeye fever, and as I drove out through the Fraser Valley in the early morning top chefs were being interviewed on national radio about preferred recipes, subtleties of flavour, and the best means of preserving the bumper crop.
That morning I witnessed three generations of Sto:lo haul nets and clean fish on the sandy banks of the Fraser. Young boys hand-lined on shore, regaling me with stories of 12-foot-100-year sturgeon while their mothers, fathers and grandparents sorted nets in nearby skiffs.
The salmon were literally everywhere – around ankles in boat-bottoms, tangled in bow nets spilling onto the sand, lying belly-up on gutting tables, flying through the air on their way to ice boxes and packed tight in the back of trucks. They were also jumping noisily in the river, their intermittent ‘smacks’ turning heads near the shore and raising every young index finger for my benefit.
“Are we almost done?”, my companion Stade asked his grandfather from his slumped position at the stern of their 18-footer, a slippery pile of sockeye gathering around his boots, “How much more net do we have to pull in?”. A mass of fish had sunk the cork line of one set-net just downstream and hauling it in had become almost tedious as slow foot by slow foot spilled sockeye onto the floor as it crossed the bow.
Stade’s grandfather Sid – a Sto:lo elder and past chief – had graciously invited me to tag along in their small boat, and graciously not thrown me overboard when my usefulness as ballast dwindled in equal and opposite proportions to the fish he caught.
Before I left I made a mental note of every expert stroke of Carrielynn’s knife as she cleaned her catch on a well-used table by the river. My own effort at home bordered on sacrilegious despite my careful attention, but the shiny memento of the day was nothing short of exquisite when served up simply on a bed of rice. My heartfelt gratitude to Elder Sid Davidson and his grandson Stead for their patience and generosity that weekend, and to my new friend Carrielynn for the kind introduction and the time it took. I wish you bountiful fishing in the coming weeks.