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Hook & Barrel
A Lifestyle Magazine for Modern Outdoorsmen


For Insight on a Pacific Northwest Salmon Run, Get Ready to Go for a Swim

Under an old logging bridge, I waded into the frigid and fast-moving Campbell River. Before I even put my head underwater, a fisherman to my right hooked a small pink salmon. On the opposite bank, a mama bear and her three cubs participated in the same pastime, the rod and reel replaced with hefty paws and sharp claws. When I ducked below the chilly green surface of the water, the rapid barrage of fish, fish carcasses, and other random debris caught me off guard. It felt like driving in a blizzard, but instead of ferocious flakes speeding at my windshield, flecks of fish guts and river detritus beelined at my goggles. 

fly fishing for salmon

Swimming Like a Salmon 

This past fall, Vancouver Island’s salmon run hit its highest numbers in years, and the town buzzed with estimates of 600,000 to 800,000, even 1 million, getting anglers amped to throw a line in for the little pinks or giant Tyees as they made their way upstream. But while fishermen gathered on the shoreline, I checked out the view from the other end of the line: by joining the fish in the river.  

From a strip mall in the town of Campbell River, Roger McConnell’s OceanFix.Ca Dive Centre rents out snorkel gear for making the journey over a mile down the river. I squeezed into a wetsuit, strapped on fins, and fixed the mask to my face. McConnell offered few tips, leading me to believe I would gently float along, admiring the shimmering fish as they muscled upriver. 

Instead, I rode a roller-coaster of swift water through a bobsled course of rocky terrain, past hungry bears and excited fishermen. Thrilling and exhilarating, the experience left me with a new respect for the journey salmon make, and with new insight on what happens underwater. 

school of salmon

As disordered as the underwater melee appeared, the salmon seemed entirely calm and in control. As I bounced about like a human pinball, the fish steered smartly around me, curving around the awkward obstacle of this strange creature hovering a few inches off the riverbed. I struggled to make sense of the aquatic chaos, following the churn of the river as it nudged me toward one side. I tumbled like a sock caught in the spin cycle, while the salmon seamlessly parted in front of me, flowing over, under and around me. I barely managed to avoid getting stuck on shallow ground, and, even holding my hands in front of me to push off boulders, I ended up beached on a high rock like Ariel from The Little Mermaid.  

At one point, I realized I was about to pass just in front of a fisherman’s cast. I dug my heels into the pebble ground in an attempt to backpedal; my flailing fight against the current succeeded only in slowing me down just enough that he could adjust slightly and avoid snagging me. The salmon slid by, far smoother in their evasion of the hook. 

Survival Mode 

I spent far less time observing the actions of individual salmon than I expected on my snorkel trip (and far more time on self-preservation). But a few things became clear in the crowded, murky waters of the Campbell River. Namely, that the salmon choose their path. I knew salmon were strong swimmers. But watching as they deftly maneuvered, despite the space crowded with fish and my unpredictable whirling, I saw how obviously they know where they are going. They are not ever going to accidentally bump into a fishhook. 

Similarly, whatever is on that hook—at least in a river like this—better be awfully tempting to stand out. I kept my lips firmly closed around my snorkel throughout the swim because every inch of water not occupied by salmon seemed packed with pieces of plants, decaying fish carcasses and lost bits of fishing line or bait. I tried not to think about what might be lodging itself in my hair, and instead focused on wondering what, exactly, might catch a fish’s attention under there. 

Final Run 

Then, suddenly, space opened up. The bottom of the river dropped, the density of the fish plunged and the pebbles were replaced by a thick, bright green grass, like the fake version lining an Easter basket. I surfaced and spotted the brown lattice fence marking where I was to exit the river. With no salmon tail to flick, I struggled to the side and lumbered out of the water. 

The whole swim took less than half an hour, barely a blip of the time salmon spend in the river, but more than enough for a person—and plenty of time to contemplate what, exactly, happens at the far end of a fishing line every time it sinks below the surface.  

Kimi Werner: Speargun Hunter
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