Fall defined
Roderick Haig-Brown
From Fisherman’s Fall
  Fall comes quite gradually on the Pacific Coast of Canada, so gradually that one scarcely knows when or whether it has arrived. Sometimes a storm blows up from the south early in August, with a cold, wet rain that brings a subtle change. Yet it is certain the sun and the hot days will come again and perhaps hold on through most of September. If they do, there will be early frosts to turn the leaves and insist that fall is here. More often a storm around Labor Day brings the change. Again, the dry hot days may return after it, perhaps bringing woods’ closure and forest fires; but the change will be clear; fogs will force in from the ocean and the morning dew will be everywhere. With or without frost, the leaves will turn and begin to fall.
  Fall is also in the return of the salmon to t
heir rivers – not, of course, in the early king salmon runs that come to a few rivers in May or the early running races of sockeye, but in the typical pink salmon runs that come in towards the end of July. With their coming the great fall movement to the coastal rivers begins. The big kings follow quickly, in August and September. A few cutthroat trout may have begun their movement even a little before the humpbacks. The cohos come in with the rains of September and October, the chum salmon are close behind them, and often with them, in October and November. Well before the last of the salmon is dead, it is December and unquestionably winter.
  Fall fishing is a revival after the quieter times of summer. Cooler nights and the melt of early snowfall in the mountains bring falling water temperatures and rains freshen the streams. Shadows are longer, shielding the pools. The fish are more active and there is a touch of urgency about it all, a feeling that it cannot last very long so one had better get out and be doing. After all, there have been falls when the heavy rains came early and suddenly, the streams flooded and everything was over before it had started. Occasionally such memories trick me into going out and searching for runs before they have come in, using up fishing time that might have been better spent a week or two later. But I am not at all sure this is ever a matter for real regret, because there is always something around in the fall and one can come upon surprises – a few migrant fish running ahead of their time, an unexpected hatch that brings resident fish on the feed or even some phase of movement wholly unsuspected in other years. Few movements of wild creatures run to an exact timetable, year in, year out, and few are without their aberrant individuals; and few of us know our own familiar waters quite so well as we think we do.
  Fall is almost everywhere a prime fishing time. In early fall the arctic grayling reaches his peak of fatness and condition and the lake trout move towards shallower water and their spawning. Brown trout and eastern brook trout are fall spawners, the cutthroat is chiefly a winter spawner; all three take on a special beauty of coloration as maturity approaches, echoing the reds and golds of the falling leaves. One may look for the bright and silvery immature fish among these and even prefer him, but his beauty is less vivid and he is not set apart as a sign of the season.
There is much pleasure in fall fishing, especially on streams where salmon run. But one does not have to fish to make the most of it. Of all times of the year on the Pacific watershed, fall is the most exciting. Spring is the most beautiful time, summer perhaps the most delightful, winter the most testing, at least physically; but fall is the time of movement. Anyone who passes along the streams may see it and feel it. Even when I am hunting ruffed grouse or Wilson’s snipe, I find myself pushing out to the stream edges, following them where I can, looking down into the fall-dark water to search for the salmon’s movements among the drifting leaves. Traveling fish roll up in the heavy water, spawners splash and work and struggle on the shallows, exhausted fish shelter in the eddies. Bear trails are worn and muddy along the banks, prints of coon and mink show up on sand bars and other soft places. Mallards, mergansers and goldeneyes start up from the quieter reaches where they have been feeding on salmon already dead. Being a fisherman, one looks for trout among the salmon or checks the brightness of the cohos to see if any are still worth taking, one studies the pools and runs and, when they are unfamiliar, promises oneself to come back some other time to test them. But none of this is necessary. It is enough to be on hand at this solemn, untidy time when the woods are wet and quiet and the salmon are completing their cycle.
  To some people, the thought that the salmon, all Pacific salmon of all species, die very soon after spawning is a depressing one. They see in it only decay and waste, a sort of pathetic frustration of life. This is a natural view, but it does not question deeply enough; the end of the salmon is not death and corruption, but only fall, the autumn of their cycle. They come to the spawning gravels in all their brilliant colors – reds, browns, greens, gray and black and golden. Like the autumn leaves above them, they have their time of fierce glory. Then the frosts and the rains and the winds come. The leaves become torn and sodden and dulled and in their time they fall, covering the ground, drifting with the stream currents, piling against the rocks and shallows. But within the trees life is still strong and self- renewing.
  As the winds stir and drift the dying leaves, so the waters drift and stir the dying salmon against the gray-brown gravels of the stream beds. But under those gravels life is strong and secret and protected in the buried eggs, the real life of the race. Fungus grows on the emptied bodies, as it grows among the fallen leaves; they collect in the eddies and strand on the gravel bars and the bacteria of change work in them to make a new fertility. In spring life will burst from the gravel as it bursts again from the trees, into the massive yield of the new cycle. Death is seldom more fleeting or more fertile
than this.
  The salmon runs are not the whole story of fall on the Pacific Coast streams, but no one can fish there and not be aware of them and no fisherman can fail to be curious about them and concerned for them. A great commercial fishery depends on them. Tens of thousands of anglers go out each year to catch them in the salt water and every angler who fishes a migratory stream sees them and finds his sport, directly or indirectly, through them, for the power of the runs persists through the year and affects all other fish.
  But the salmon runs are more than this. They are a last true sample of the immense natural abundances of the North American continent. They have been damaged and reduced in many places, it is true, and in some places, especially the Columbia River, the damage is great and permanent. But they remain a massive abundance, complex and wonderful, throughout most of their range, and throughout much of it their potential of natural abundance is as great as ever, while new understanding of their ways and needs suggests that increase over the natural abundance may well be possible through man-made assistance.
  I feel this as a special challenge to mankind in general and to North Americans in particular. Is there one wild thing on the face of the earth that we can use and live within reasonable harmony, preserving and even enhancing its natural magnificence? The record to date suggests there is not, that our own demanding and untidy living habits must always destroy, if not the creature itself, then certainly the living space it depends upon. Yet for the salmon it would seem there is some hope. It is a valuable creature, fundamentally and irreplaceably valuable as a source of food in a hungry world. Much of its living space is the sea, an area of the globe that we have not so far found it possible or necessary to change or damage very greatly. The rest is in the streams, which our own interests demand that we keep as clean and pure as possible. Unhappily, we often consider it convenient to obstruct, divert or otherwise abuse them, but there is at least a possibility that we may develop beyond these primitive practices in time to save a good deal for the salmon.
  This, I admit, is a rather special viewpoint in an age of relentless change and destruction. It reflects intangible values and instinctive, even primitive, sympathies that are not much in favor today. But when I come to write of a fisherman’s autumn I am bound to think first of the salmon and then, remembering the sense of wonder they have stirred in me through nearly forty seasons, I am bound to plead their case and tell what little I know of them. I hope they will long be here, in the waters of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, to stir fresh wonder in the hearts and minds of later human generations.

Roderick Haig Brown was a self taught magistrate in Campbell River BC. He wrote 27 books about fishing and outdoors. Haig Brown died in 1976.

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