Fly fishing for squawfish
That's right. Squawfish. Ptychocheilus. A poor man's bonefish. A destitute man's carp. Sometimes called a pike minnow. Sometimes called a coarse bottom fish or scavenger. Sometimes confused with carp. (Sometimes confused with crap.) How does it get any respect? If it isn't devouring endangered salmon in the Columbia, it is being protected from endangerment in other parts of the country. Squawfish don't even get a mention in the great coarse fish tournaments in the UK, where anglers challenge each other over such venerable fish as bream, tench, roach, crucians and golden orfes. On the other hand, you aren't risking your life fly fishing for them, as you would dangling your fingers as bait in a muddy Oklahoma pond noodling for catfish--as real men do. Squawfish have only one real attribute; they are indigenous. (Then again, some would argue, so are mosquitoes and herpes.)
--We are the people of the Gill and Gift Sqawfish derby in Balfour B.C. It is and annual event now and about 40 or 50 kids join in on Saturday of the Labour Day weekend to fish for .... you guessed it... squawfish. see our website www.gillandgift.com for upcoming info....
I remember catching squawfish with spoons as a kid. A slow creek under a train trestle held many of them. Large ones, too. Not as large as the current IGFA record of 5 pounds 8 ounces, but for a kid, they were monsters. Twelve to sixteen inches some of them, with the color and look of the warm, dirty creek they came from. I raced home with a sack of them. My mother's attitude, beyond the obligatory pat on the head, was probably disgust at the thought of cleaning and frying up a half dozen peculiar-looking fish. At the time, I don't recall if I thought the fish were trout or not, and I probably wouldn't have cared.
In my search across the internet, I have yet to come across anyone who fly fishes for squawfish. So I'm wading in new currents here, and risking my already frail reputation as an honorable fisher of flies.
But there I was, at a cabin on a north Idaho lake, enjoying my family's first yearly vacation week among the white pine and tamarack. I was hoping to enjoy some cutthroat fishing, which this lake was famous for at one time. Or maybe I would stick a few dollies, or some remnants of land-locked sockeye salmon (silvers) planted decades early, or anything resembling a trout and interested in pouncing upon my delicate Cahil.
Toward dusk, at the edge of the cabin's dock, after all the waves died down from the afternoon winds and skiers, I struck instinctively to the tiniest sipping motion. Squawfish. Then on the next cast, another squawfish. After the tenth of so squawfish, I was beginning to get upset. I had no idea where they were coming from. I mean, yes, they come from the water. But where are all the other fish, the cutts, the dollies, the silvers, the . . . well, anything else but a bunch of lousy fish from the dirty creeks of my childhood?
Trying to find something positive out of the situation, I figured I could at least interest my daughter in some fishing. I went back to the cabin and rigged up her fly rod, and we both started catching squawfish. She, of course, hasn't yet acquired the delicate sensitivity of a seasoned fly fisher like myself who demands trout, char, bass, or, barring those, anything else as long as you can find it between the covers of a recent fly-fishing rag. She, of course, was delighted to be catching any fish. So for the next five days, we caught exactly what I deserved-- squawfish. She, however, was delighted with catching these different looking olive gold fish, which she proudly named "gold trout".
The following year, I changed my tactics. I proceeded to try nearly every fly in my many boxes looking for trout. Small Adams, deliciously brown callibaetis, superior looking creamy olive emergers and dries, orange/chocolate nymphs, parachute anything, all manner of beautiful and fanciful flies, my best fly-tying creations directed toward my highest aspirations of a great fisher of great fish. Again, only squawfish at the end of the dock. Now, this lake isn't the kind of lake that makes you think, Squawfish. I mean, it isn't dirty, algal, warm or have a ton of spiny rays. It is cold, clear and beautiful. And I desperately wanted to have an archetypal end-of-the-day, end-of-the-dock glowing sunset experience, sticking pretty fish and then offering them back to the lake gods.
After two more years of squawfish, I began to accept the situation. I suppose I started to let the fish influence my expectations, rather than the other way around. Usually our attitude (or ego, or predilections, inclinations, or what have you), paint the scene before us and set up our expectations of what is good and useful and interesting and worthy. But this kind of thinking often gets in the way of learning something new, and sometimes leads to the worse sin of all--boredom. I mean, I've been catching rainbow trout all my life to the point where I've gotten a little bored with a fish that behaves like a psychotic caged creature in the little zoo fisheries we stuff them in. Sorry. Bear with me here.
So I got used to the squawfish's delicate little sipping action they produce at my delicate CDC olive quill callibaetis or Adams--my preferred dry flies on this lake. Any fish that will come up and take my dry fly is OK by me, I began to realize. In fact, their food is largely the same food as any predatory fish: insect nymphs when young, crayfish, larger insects, and small fish when older.
They aren't a strong fighting fish. The biggest one I've caught, 23 inches, fooled me into thinking it was a decent trout, but after a few interesting minutes of tearing at my line, it decided its time was up. They are not a robust fish. If you hold them up by their soft delicate bellies, they nearly fold in half. Half a life ago, I would have thought this disgusting. But now, I feel a little sympathy for the soft-bellied fish out there who don't have muscle like their more macho psycho trout cousins.
Even a conservationist might complain at my releasing these fish, and tell me to toss them on shore for all the damage they can do to a fishery. But there is no way a single flyfisher can do damage to a population of squawfish. Besides, when you grab a squawfish to release the hook, they make a pathetic gasping sound that sometimes leaves me a little disturbed with intimations of What the hell am I doing here in the first place. Maybe all fish make a little noise like this, and I've just refused to notice.
For me, getting used to them is like getting used to certain odd plants that are generally looked down upon, like the cottonwood. No one likes a cottonwood unless maybe you're a fisher. Even then, they're overlooked--unless you depend upon them. If you have ever tried lighting fires with sticks, this is one of the first trees you try, as native Americans knew. Their inner bark is sweet and edible. (No, I haven't made a meal of a tree.) And in the fall, their leaves become a delicate light olive which, when they fall in force during a windstorm, light up a dark forest as if someone turned on soft lights among the trees. Learning to appreciate these trees when others see them as tall weeds about to fall on their house is an acquired taste.
During the following years, I went out to the dock in pursuit of my squawfish--almost delighted to meet them again. One year, I caught only one squawfish the entire two weeks. It didn't occur to me that maybe this was a sign that the fishery is recovering. I just kept on casting wondering, even worrying, about my squawfish. I felt like the parent of an ugly child or the owner of a miserable dog that only an owner could love. I mean, If I'm not concerned, absolutely no one else on the planet will be. At this point, if I actually caught a trout I would be more confused than excited. And if I started catching lots of trout and no more squawfish, then I suppose the fisheries people and the local tourist businesses would be happy, but I would be left with even bigger questions and some concern.
So I started swimming with a snorkel, trying to unravel the mystery of the disappearing bottom fish. I saw a few swimming about, but no answers. The fish weren't talking. The following year, however, they returned in force, and I caught dozens.
One year, a neighbor came down to the dock to see what I was catching. The stories around the surrounding cabins is that usually no one catches fish on this particular dock. The water is very thin, and there isn't much weed growth nearby. I've often wondered how the roving mergansers find food in this area of the lake.
"You seem to be catching a lot out here," the neighbor asked a little too cagily, I felt.
I remember pausing, not sure exactly how to answer. We flyfishers often think twice before giving an entirely honest answer to any question relating to the fishing.
"Just a bunch of squawfish. No rainbows out here at all." An honest answer this time, but one that didn't betray my hard-earned squawfishing proclivities.
I found myself in a confused state, sorting through unacceptable scenarios. Perhaps the man would misremember what I said. A "Big 18-inch squawfish" would become "A big fish," which becomes "A big trout" to any kid that is listening, which then means I'll soon be sharing the dock with 12 kids, which means that all these kids will be catching my squawfish, bopping them on the head, and taking them home--leaving me staring at little piles of squawfish guts.
Another possible scenario is that I become a source of humorous anecdotes around the cabins:
"There is this guy who loves to catch those damn squawfish out on the dock. Maybe he thinks they are trout or bass. And he's one of those fly fishermen. Go figure."
Best to perpetuate the myth of the despicable fish.
Or maybe the man joining me on the dock will start fishing on the dock with me. If I'm fishing for them and talking about them, then maybe there is something to these fish. Maybe the man hasn't heard of squawfish before and is open-minded enough to try. Or maybe he'll have his son or daughter try fishing for them too--and then we are back to the first scenario of lots of kids and fish guts.
Best to stay mum and keep my bizarre, little
fishing habits to myself.
I can at least say that these fish are . . . well . . . fishable, and worth a fly or two. More than a single article written about them is probably too much publicity. At times, I have even imaged pictures of squawfish on the covers of fly fishing magazines, new books published about the secrets ways of the fish, new flies tied, tales told of the funny sounds they make, guiding trips booked and maybe squawfish targeted in the Columbia to help out the poor returning salmon. Maybe, too, we'll have to start complaining about the mean bruiser salmon eating up all the poor squawfish. Well, maybe not real soon.
--Toney J. Sisk
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