First off, let me just say that I am not a fisherman. Stick a fishing rod in my hand, plunk me on the dock or in a boat, and the fish just know it’s time to head for the farthest shoreline. So this isn’t about fishing, lures, or where the best spots are.
But in three months of traversing Canada from Cape Spear and Bonavista to Courtenay on Vancouver Island – with a little hop between Toronto and Edmonton to skip the uninteresting parts – we’ve seen a lot of fish.
Our piscatorial perambulations started at Twillingate, Newfoundland. On an early-evening outing to a cliffside lighthouse we ran into a couple from New Hampshire who casually asked us if we’d seen all the millions of capelins on the shoreline a mile or so back. Nope. Never heard of capelins before, actually, but we were intrigued enough to tear ourselves away from the lighthouse and dramatic coastal views to go have a look.
We parked beside a beach and made our way the short distance through the grass to the beach. Right away we were struck by the strange, spongy feel to the sand, but thought nothing of it as we walked along the shoreline to some people with buckets and nets gathered by some rocky outcroppings at the northern end. We passed by a few dead fish the size of large sardines or small herring scattered here and there – nothing approaching millions – but by the time we reached the end the fish were piled up six inches deep in places, and with every wave more were being thrown ashore.
These were capelins, which do indeed arrive by their millions in Newfoundland every June to spawn. The females leave their eggs in the sand and the males come by to fertilise them. Then they all die. Keeps the divorce rate low, I guess. Anyway, that spongy feel underfoot all along the beach were, in fact, the eggs. They’re pin-head tiny, but there are billions of them, so they pile up thick on the shore.
Kissing that cod.
Our next fishy encounter was a few days later in Trout River, a former outport town on the western shore of Newfoundland just west of the Gros Morne National Park boundary.
Trout River wasn’t the prettiest town we visited, but in true Newfoundland fashion the people were very friendly and the more you hung around, the more you learned from them . We talked to a Fisheries and Oceans Canada fellow staying in the cabin next to us about his life and work, how he goes out on the fishing boats monitoring catches and making sure they’re keeping within pre-set guidelines. He suggested we drop by the local museum for their traditional codfish salt preserving tour, so we headed over there one rainy day and got the full face of it.
In a tour halfway up and down the shoreline boardwalk our guide described how Newfoundland life was back in the old days before TV and roads and a way out, much of it dedicated to the harvesting and preservation of fish. Salt was what they used to preserve it back in the day before refrigeration, so after letting us try our hands at splitting – what we call gutting – the cod – she let us carefully scoop a half-bucket of it over the filets we’d managed to carve out.
Then it was time to kiss the cod. This ritual is only one of about three – some say there are up to eight – hoops you have to jump through – be you a tourist or recent immigrant – if you’re ever going to be a Newfoundlander. Others involve drinking Newfie Screech, parroting back dialectical utterances to a Newfoundlander after having downed said Screech, and other stuff we won’t get into.
Up she held a fresh cod, out puckered our lips as we took turns smooching the dead-eyed creature. I can’t say it was the most enjoyable kiss I’ve ever had, but to reveal how bad back in the day some of my dates were, it wasn’t the worst.
Giving it away.
After Trout River we had plans to head north to l’Anse-aux-Meadows to the world-famous Viking archaeological site, but didn’t want to put ourselves through yet more driving, so we headed back west and pulled into Elliston, a village a few minutes down the coast from Bonavista known for a rather large colony of puffins.
The puffins were cute and fun to watch as they waddled about on the grassy rocks and dive-bombed for fish, but what I’ll always remember about that place were the cod.
Newfoundland used to be the world capital of cod fishery, but over-fishing and gross mis-management led to a collapse of stocks and a complete closure more than 20 years ago. Today the stocks are still low, but there are enough out there to allow your average joe and jane fisherperson an inland cod fishery two or three weeks at a time twice a year depending on location. One boy in another town said, “we were supposed to catch 15, but only got nine,” when asked how the day went, humourously confusing their daily limit with obligation.
Early one morning I got up to look at the puffins, then kept on walking down the path to a nearby bay just to watch the waves roll in and maybe spy one of the many whales plying the Atlantic coastline. I saw three men in a small boat heading for shore, and by the time I reached their tiny cove they were already onshore splitting their catch.
I headed down there with my camera and was immediately assaulted with the stench of old fish obviously discarded over days past. Some were crawling with maggots. Stepping over and around the carcasses I went up to the men and asked for a closer look at their catch.
“Ya just missed tha biggest one,” said an elderly gent who must have been in his late seventies. I would have liked to have seen the size of it, because the ones still in their buckets waiting to be split and thrown in coolers still looked pretty sizable.
“My wife and I were in Bonavista yesterday looking for some cod to buy on the docks,” I told them. “My wife can’t understand why there’s no place to just pick one up from a boat.”
“Can’t sell’em,” the youngest one said, “but you want some cod?”
He pulled a couple of filets out of the cooler and threw them in an empty bucket.
“Here ya go,” he said. “Ever had cod tongue? How ’bout britches?
We’d heard about cod tongue, a tender, almost jelly-like part from the underside of the head, and britches turned out to be the roe, but we’d yet to try either.
They threw in a few of those for good measure and after a few more minutes’ gab sent me on my way. Though it was barely past 10 they were finished for the day, and getting ready to pull the boat above the high-tide line for the night.
Mashed-up fish on Mashiter Creek
A month later clear across the country – it would take you 96 hours to cover the 7,402 km from Bonavista, Newfoundland to Squamish, BC according to my GPS thingy – we drove over a tonne of pink salmon without even knowing it.
They were thrashing like crazy under a bridge we’d driven across one morning to reach the Elfin Lakes trailhead 14km up a winding road through the forest, but we had no idea they were there until many hours later on the way back down when we met a man from France in a hiking shelter.
Well, we didn’t know he was from France until he oPENNed his mouse and started struggling to talk like ziss…
So we got to chatting in our sadly little-used French and he said he was amazed at how so many fish were crowded into so small a creek, you could have walked across on their backs, and it was just down the hill a few kms away.
“Is that bridge just after a golf course on your right and a bunch of industrial buildings on your left?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“Mashiter Creek,” I said. “That has to be it,” realising I was about to have another experience in this town that I’d heard about all my life growing up but never bothered to have: see the fish spawning.
Once there we got out and stood on the bridge at the spectacle below us.
“We’ve got to go get the red-haired teen and show her this before the light’s gone,” I said.
So we headed back to our place and I hauled her back to show her the fish. We didn’t just stand on the bridge and take a couple of snapshots, though. We headed through the bush on the east side of the bridge to the water’s edge, marvelling at the sight of it all. And up close, the stench.
Feeling the need to go see the fish as they turned off the Mamquam River up the Mashiter only 30 or so metres downstream, we walked through the sand and scrub to the confluence. The salmon were thrashing like mad to fight the flow of both rivers, one after the other, a seemingly endless supply of them. Along the way I stepped on a dead fish and got a footload of stench and maggoty goodness, but that only added to the fascination.
I suddenly realised that all this dead meat lying around might be a good place to see eagles and bears feeding – the former majestic, the latter potentially dangerous – but surprisingly, we didn’t see either.
Nevertheless, we didn’t linger, even if the smell in our nostrils did.