The fine art of filleting on the west coast of Vancouver Island
I USED to go to the western edge of the southern part of Vancouver Island because of the remote West Coast Trail.
The trail was built during the last days of sail early in the 20th century by the government to help shipwrecked mariners who had come to grief attempting to enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca after crossing the Pacific.
One of the world’s most dangerous coasts, that stretch was known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, and many square-rigged ships, as well as some steamdriven craft, were driven on to its lee shore. There were more than 100 wrecks.
The government cut a walking trail through the great forest running south along the top of the cliffs towards Victoria, and built a shelter cabin about every 30km. They also rigged a crude telephone line attached to the giant trees, and in each cabin there was a box where one wound a handle in order to generate enough current to ring the coastguard to the south.
Cables were strung across the numerous rivers, some with metal passenger baskets so survivors could follow the wire to meet rescuers. After the advent of radar in the early 40s there were far fewer wrecks and by the 60s the trail had been abandoned for years.
I reached it at Tsusiat Falls by paddling my canoe part of the way down Nitinat Lake, then up the Hobiton River into Hobiton Lake, from where I shouldered the canoe and cut a portage to Tsusiat Lake. I paddled across that and then down the Tsusiat River until I reached the falls, getting out quickly before they poured over the cliff into the sea. There I left the canoe and walked north along the beach. I then had access to many unfished rivers where I caught salmon and steelhead.
In an effort to save this empty area of wild country from complete destruction by the logging companies, I wrote articles describing its virtues and calling it first the Nitinat Triangle and at other times Vancouver Island’s Own Lake District.
I began writing about the beauties of this wilderness and the magnificence of the West Coast Trail in order to encourage people to go there. The Sierra Club in California became interested and asked me for photographs, notes and sketch maps of the area, which they turned into a guidebook.
During the next few years people from all over the world started coming to walk the trail and it is now perhaps the most popular wild trail in North America. The popularity of the trail and the crowded bays and new campsites wrecked the place for me as well as for the area’s few native people
However, I believe that the number of hikers is now limited, and one good thing did come out of it: the forest on the west coast was partially saved and the trail is now part of the wilderness Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
The natives of the west coast are quite different from the eastcoast Salish at the mouth of the Cowichan River. One of their villages, Clo-oose, was just south of the Nitinat Gap, where at one time all the waters of this southern part of Vancouver Island had emptied into the sea.
Perhaps I related to them well because, although they had been hit by many of the white man’s diseases, they seemed completely independent in their thought and uncorrupted by the white man’s culture. They were isolated because there was no road.
I once asked the people who lived at Clo-oose and who netted the mouth of the Hobiton River for its sockeye salmon if they ever went further up the river into the two upper lakes, but all they said was, ‘‘Why?’’
It was an old lady from Clo-oose who taught me how to fillet a fish. I met her one day when the sockeye were running and she had caught probably over 100 in her net. Sockeye return from the ocean in July and spend less time in rivers than any other salmon. They only spawn in river systems that run out of lakes with sandy beaches. They bury their eggs on the beach and die almost immediately.
Sockeye are the best salmon to eat. When I asked the old lady how she knew when to set her nets, she told me she could always tell by looking at the moon. She said the salmon did it too and that they always began their run halfway through the seventh moon. She had little English but while we talked she filleted dozens of fish at lightning speed. She went so fast I begged her to slow down so I could see what she was doing but, laughing merrily, she went even faster. Then towards the end she relented and showed me how to do it.
She worked on a piece of cedar sloping at 45 degrees towards the water. In one smooth movement she gutted the fish and pierced a hole near the tail, slipping her finger through while holding the knife horizontally. She then pulled the fish upwards against the knife edge and a perfect fillet fell on to the pile. Then she flipped it over and did the other side. She tossed the head and the skin into the water and rinsed her hands.
Because of that lesson, most anglers these days think I am very skilful with my fish knife but I will never be as good as the old lady, the fastest fish filleter I ever saw.
Now, years later, I realise she must have thought it odd that a man would be interested in small things like salmon, for the men she knew didn’t bother with fish. They hunted whales. This is an edited extract from Fishing the River of Time by Tony Taylor (Text Publishing, $29.95).
Wheels for Hope recipients on a day out
Sockeye spend less time in the river than any other salmon