The ones that got away can dominate conversations about angling and hunting. The “coulda beens” stay with you and help motivate you to keep going back.
But, there are times when you catch lucky breaks. When something happens that is so unexpected and so against the grain of what should have gone down, you just have to shake your head in amazement.
Fishing can be horribly unforgiving, and I could fill many pages with tales of disastrous angling out- comes. Yet, there have been a couple times when the rock has rolled the other way. In 2008, my wife, Cheryl, and I made a trip to the then named Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii, in northern BC. We were there to fish for chinook and, especially, coho salmon. It was August and the big, hard fighting northern coho had arrived. These fish are lightning in a bottle, and spend as much time out of the water as in.
On our first day on the Pacific, it was unusually calm and sunny for the area, and we could see coho leaping and swirling as they chased baitfish. We were fishing cut-bait herring, and slowly trolling with mooching rods and reels. The technique is very basic and uses single-action reels similar to those used for fly fishing, long whippy rods, and banana weights. When the fish takes the cut bait, you feed a little line out and then set the hook. It works great, most of the time. However, when coho are involved, anything can happen.
As we trolled, my wife’s line started to go and as she set the hook, the coho did a sizable run directly into my gear, then somehow managed to wrap itself around the line several times. This all ended in a huge line snarl and a coho that jumped and threw the hook.
“Sorry honey,” I said to my dejected wife. “These things happen.” I reeled up the knotted lines.
“Gonna have to cut it,” I sighed. The filet knife came out and I cut my line, holding the other end in one hand. I started hand lining the herring and weight back into the boat. There was tightening and then a tug. Fish!
I’ve done some handlining in my day, but a 12-pound northern coho is a long way from pulling in a rock bass. The fish was wild, and it was all I could do to hang on to the line as it raced around and jumped. Cheryl thought this was all quite amusing but grabbed the net optimistically.
“I’m gaining,” I said, just as the coho tore off again, burning my fingers yet again. Finally, the coho began to tire, and I pulled in the fish, hand over hand, towards the boat were Cheryl scooped it.
“Good job, honey,” she said with a big smile. She likes salmon. We caught many more fish that trip, but none quite as memorable as that one.
As for hunting, I have to say the all-time most unbelievable experience took place two decades ago, near Emo, Ontario. My dad, Gordon Sr., and I were hunting out of Border Country Outfitters and mostly watching bush lines along the edges of fields. The spot I was in had been frequented by an animal nicknamed the “ghost buck” by the outfitter as it travelled right on the edge of first and last light.
I was in a homemade blind built of sticks and burlap and about 200 yards from the treeline. The blind had an opening for shooting but also an open top. I snuck into the blind at dark, and at first light took out my .30-06 semi-automatic rifle and loaded it. This gun had been a dependable one for me, yet on this day — for reasons still unclear — I threw a two-piece gun-cleaning rod into my pack. But I digress.
It was a warm November morning, and an unusually comfortable sit. At about 15 minutes after legal shooting time, the ghost buck appeared. It was running up the field, nose to the ground. The rifle slid into a hole in the blind, the scope found the deer, and the safety was slipped off. There was an opening in the fence, and this was where I was hoping to drop the hammer. The buck stopped as if on cue and looked into the field, in my direction. I put the cross hairs on it and shot.
The buck didn’t move. A total miss. Then I noticed the action open. The shell had not extracted. The cleaning rod! In seconds, the rod was retrieved, shoved down the barrel and the shell popped out. I reloaded, and this time stuck the gun over the top of the blind for a more solid hold. Several minutes had passed since I had shot. Yet the buck was still standing and looking my way, steam rolling out of its nostrils and antlers glistening in the morning sun. The whole thing was surreal. Once again, the gun was lowered, the scope found the fire box, and the trigger was squeezed. The deer disappeared into the woods. I sat down to catch my breath. My rifle was on my lap and the shell has been expelled perfectly.
About 20 minutes later, my father appeared in the field and walked to the blind. I told him the story and his jaw fell.
“Let’s go look,” I said. We walked to the opening and I could see where the deer had kicked. There was no obvious blood or hair, but the trail was torn up. About 20 steps inside the bush, I saw some white, then brown. The buck was down, its antlers stuck headfirst in the mud. It had died on its feet. The second bullet took its heart out.
All these years later, that story still sounds too good to be true. It should never have ended the way it did.
Just lucky, I guess.
Originally published in the August 2021 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.