“Fish-on!” In the pre-dawn waters of the Campbell River, in British Columbia, Grant Rosewarne was supposed to yell a loud warning to other anglers that his unlikely fight with a giant wild King salmon had begun.
When vying to join the exclusive 94-year-old Tyee Club, tradition rules.
To qualify you must land a Tyee salmon (a King salmon weighing at least 30 pounds) from a row boat on a line with breaking strand less than 20 pounds and using a trolling lure with a single, barbless hook.
And etiquette states that when a fish is hooked, the angler should shout ‘fish-on’ so others can immediately retrieve their lines to avoid fouling and entanglement.
But Grant, New Zealand King Salmon’s CEO, was too shocked to talk. He was there to prove that NZKS’ ultra-premium Tyee, was a natural phenomenon and the possibility of actually catching one was rather remote!
“The Tyee is a rare, late maturing and very large King salmon that is part of the species’ survival mechanism.
“In the wild most fish return to spawn after three or four years. But some return up to eight years later and their role is to repopulate rivers in the event that the earlier salmon are wiped out by an event.
“But when we started selling our own Tyee, people started questioning the size of them and saying “what the heck are you doing to them?”.
“So I went to Canada to witness the Tyee Club in action and ground the fish as an indisputable natural phenomenon and prove it is not something that we’ve invented or manipulated.
“They existed in the genes that were brought here over 100 years ago – and we’ve just now rediscovered them.”
His mission was a short one. Fly out to Canada on the Tuesday (economy class, no checked baggage), go for a relaxing paddle on the river, get proof of the wild Tyee and fly home for the MFA awards on the Friday.
“It was all about having a few conversations and hopefully seeing someone land a Tyee. I didn’t think I needed a lot of time.
“In my wildest dreams, I didn’t imagine that I would actually catch one because they are incredibly rare, and the fishing methods are very strict,” he said.
So far this season, which had been running for a month, only six Tyee had been caught. His first attempt was on dusk when he paddled out with 25 other boats.
“We had an experienced guide named RD who did all the rowing. It’s a skilled task as it not only determines the position of the lure, but also the rate at which it rotates in the current,” he said.
“At this stage of their life cycle, the Tyee are coming in to spawn, they’re not feeding. The only reason they strike is if they are annoyed and they’re protecting their territory. So the goal is to get the lure in their face and annoy them.
“On the first night, we fished for about three hours and none of the boats had a single bite.”
But there was time for one more chance.
“We tried our luck again the following morning, getting underway at about 5:30am, well ahead of the sunrise,” he said.
“I only had my spoon lure out for a very short period when I had an almighty strike! Then what ensued was a 40-minute battle between this unseen fish and myself.
“I’ve never used a single action reel before – I had to let the handle go as the fish went on “runs” and charged away from the boat. Each time the fish changed direction or shook its head I needed to grab the handle and start taking up the spare line so as not to allow any slack – the motto of the Club is “tight lines”.
“The breaking strain of the line is only 20lb, for what would later prove to be a 35.5lb fish, so the fish needed to be ‘played’ very carefully and this is made more complicated because it is forbidden to use a hook with a barb.
“My fish made several long runs occasionally breaking the surface and towing the boat quite some distance down the straits.
“The fish eventually came alongside. Up to this point I’d not seen this legendary fish because I was intently looking at my bent rod tip at all times, to ensure I was keeping the tension on. RD was just about to use the landing net and the fish took off again. However, eventually we landed it”.
And as he pulled the fish into the boat, he yelled out a belated – ‘fish on’.
“I was meant to yell it at the very beginning, however I wasn’t really confident to yell it.
“I was in denial at first that it was even a fish. I thought I must have hooked another boat or something.”
Luckily, it didn’t affect the fight, as the fish towed their boat 2km down the river and well away from other anglers.
“After this we returned to the Club, as is the custom, and Bob, the resident ‘weigh master’, put the fish on the traditional Tyee scales and declared it was 35.5kg. The line had earlier been checked to ensure it broke below 20lb.
“I got to ring the bell three times to signal a Tyee had been caught and then I was eligible to join the Tyee Club.”
“I was awarded a lapel pin to signal I am now a member of this exclusive club and my name will be written in their little red book which records everyone who has caught a Tyee over the last 90 years.”
And his name will fish-on forever.