WINTERS END - Dave Vedder

WINTERS END - Dave Vedder

“When I’m gone, I want you to sprinkle my ashes out by the island. Wait till you have a real cold winter day with no wind. When the tide makes up just right, put out your fly and sprinkle me behind the boat. That way I will get to go bucktailing one last time.”

Fred and Gord’s friendship went back further than the span of their memories. They were the sons of mill workers in the ocean side community of Campbell River. As lads they fished bullheads from the dock and watched enviously as guides returned with limits of heavy Chinooks for guests from around the world.

Adolescence brought them mobility of bicycles, which took them as far afield as strong young legs could go. Yet their fishing was limited to casting from the beach for cutthroat trout and the occasional salmon that strayed into their range.

At age 14 Gord made and acquisition that would forever change their lives. He swapped his Schwinn for a battered fourteen-foot dory. The diminutive dory opened a universe of saltwater, limited only by this endurance on the oars.

Gord and Fred worked hard and soon became competent salmon fisherman. In the early days they measured their success only by the number and size of salmon killed. Limits were their proof of mastery. Once they had killed four salmon, their day was done. Before they reached the age of eighteen, they developed reputations as top rods. Guiding followed naturally.

Often, tourists would approach them as they cleaned their day’s catch. For $10 Gord would take them out in his dory, Fred, of course was banished to the beach on days Gord guided.



When high school graduation arrived, Fred and Gord were faced with a choice that would indelibly mark the course of their lives. In the Campbell River of the ‘50’s there were two career choices: commercial fisherman or guide. Neither young man gave any consideration to commercial fishing. Gord had saved enough money to buy a lapstrake boat he could use to fish guests in near shore waters. Fred borrowed enough money to buy a larger plywood boat with a five horse Sea King engine.

For the next forty years Fred and Gord continued the friendship that began so long before. Each became a successful guide, and each became expert at dealing with wealthy clients who often demanded limits irrespective of the season, the weather, or their own limited ability. Never did Fred or Gord regret their choice, but their favorite moments came on winter days when throngs of tourists were gone and they could fish together again just for the joy of fishing. Neither man ever found the right woman to marry. Each had lovers and occasional long-term partners, but neither could give a woman the commitment demanded of a husband. On days they guided, there was little time for anything else. On their days off, Fred and Gord fished together. There was not time for a wife or family.

As the decades marched inexorably into memory, Fred and Gord involuntarily slipped into retirement. They never planned to retire. Why would you quit a job you loved? But the salmon runs seemed smaller with each passing year. And the customers seemed to prefer the younger guides who had sleek new boats with outboards measured by the hundreds of horsepower. The younger men fished with new-fangled downriggers that blurred the line between sport fishing and commercial trawling. Fred and Gord refused to change. As their long-time clients retired and died, so too did their guiding business.

As they reached the winter of their lives, Fred and Gord learned to cherish the crisp mornings of January and February. Often there would not be another boat in sight as they crossed mirror-smooth water to reach the Chinook feeding grounds near the lighthouse.

Many winter days were too windy for fishing. But every winter brought a few dozen cold, clear days when the sea was so smooth you could see our wake for a half mile behind the boat. Days so still you could hear a whisper a hundred yards away and a gull’s cry shrieked like a siren.



Gord was the one who discovered that winter Chinook would occasionally strike a rapidly trolled bucktail fly. For years local anglers had trolled surface flies for coho, but no one ever thought to try bucktailing for Chinook. Everyone knew that coho are aggressive feeders that often cruise near the surface in search of prey. But the broad-shouldered Chinook were though to feed only in deep waters. Chinook were supposedly too wary too take a fly fished on the surface.

Gord was thrilled when he took his first winter Chinook on a bucktail. Here perhaps the perfect technique for an ancient salmon angler searching for a new challenge. Fred & Gord soon be-came mesmerized by the new sport. They searched the area for polar bear hair, and any other material they could use to tie a fly that might tempt a Chinook to the surface.

On every possible winter morning, Fred and Gord trolled their flies near the tiderips around Sitka. This was never a numbers game. A good day might bring one or two strikes. Many days their flies were ignored. That was of no concern to the old anglers. They loved the absolute stillness of the winter tides, the peace of having the entire narrows to themselves, the simplicity of fishing with nothing to save a fly and leader on the end of a fifty-foot stretch of fly line. And they especially loved the chance to reminisce about a lifetime of angling adventures.

It was early fall when Fred told Gord his awful news. The diagnosis was cancer; the remaining time was short. Fred accepted his fate calmly. He told Gord, “I’ve had a good run, and I have a few regrets. Of course you can have my tackle and what little I have saved can go to my niece outside. But I do have one request I hope you will honor.

“When I’m gone, I want you to sprinkle my ashes out by the island. Wait till you have a real cold winter day with no wind. When the tide makes up just right, put out your fly and sprinkle me behind the boat. That way I will get to go bucktailing one last time.”


The "Island."


The end came more suddenly than either of them expected. Fred died on an early December evening, and before Christmas arrived, Gord had an urn with Fred’s earthy remains sitting on his coffee table.

At first Gord told himself he was waiting for just the right type of day to keep the promise he’d made. But as winter passed and spring edged into view Gord had to admit that he was deliberately stalling. He knew that as long as he had the ashes, there was still a link to what had been. Once the ashes were gone, so too would be the sixty years they had shared.

A half-dozen perfect days came and went but none seemed to be the right one. He didn’t fish those days because it felt like he was breaking his promise to do so.

Early March brought a cold snap that exceeded any they had seen all winter. Gord knew he must act. Frost shimmered on the boat seat as he pushed his skiff into the calm waters of the bay. The island loomed large, in air as clear as winter can bring to the North Country. With Fred’s ashes carefully centered on the back seat, Gord began a steady pull on the oars. Most days they had used the motor to bucktail, but on this day Gord wanted no noise to interfere with this thoughts.




For more than an hours Gord pulled steadily at the oars. He knew this was the perfect day. No other boat was in sight, maybe because the fishing had been so poor lately, maybe because it was so damnably cold. Whatever the reason, Gord was thankful. This was a task that had to be done in solitude. Just past the Green can buoy a small rip tide was making up. Gord knew with certainty this was the place and the time. He worked the boat over to the edge of the rip and stripped out fifty pulls of line. His fly was dancing in the swirling current, Gord gave a hard pull on the oars and reached for the urn. Fred’s mortal remains merged with the sea in a this line that stretched out toward the horizon.

Suddenly Gord’s eye’s filled with tears. The tears came as a surprise... for months he had spent hours everyday thinking of what had been and was to come, but he had never split a tear. Now they came like dual waterfalls, running down his cold cheeks, dripping onto his mackinaw. The tears called up sobs that racked him with grief so intense his body shook.

Perhaps it was the tears in his eyes that kept him from seeing the rod suddenly arc down. Maybe his sobs muffled the sound of old Hardy Longstone reel ratcheting in protest. When the rod began clattering over the back seat, he snapped out of his grief. With and instinct bred of sixty years experience he grabbed the rod and swept it back in a hard hook-set. But there was nothing there. The line went slack. The rod straightened in the gnarled hands. Gord held the rod for the longest moment of his life, then slowly reeled in the fly and laid the rod along the gunnel. It was time to go home. In so very many ways it was the end of winter.





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1 comment

A fitting farewell for a life spent in the saltchuck. The survivor receives his message from the realm. A bent rod acquiesces – one has passed over to us and one remains.

Chuck Fasst

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