It was cold and rainy when I woke up in Revelstoke on Saturday. A little bit of dread crept into me as I was supposed to head down to Shelter Bay to spend some time out on the water for the Jim Ottenbreit Memorial Fishing Derby. I wanted to go, but part of me also wondered about the appeal of sitting in small boat in the cold rain. The people I was meeting would have laughed – they fish year-round, rain or shine, hot or freezing cold.
Fortunately, I left the rain behind on the quiet drive down Highway 23 South from Revelstoke to Shelter Bay Provincial Park.
I reached the park with about five minutes to spare. The campsite was full of RVs and the parking lots were filled with trucks and boat trailers. I walked to the boat ramp and gazed off across the grey waters, where a number of small fishing boats puttered about and the two much larger ferries plied the route from Shelter Bay to Galena Bay and back again.
Within a few minutes, my ride showed up. Peter Bernacki was at the wheel of his Norquest fishing boat and he pulled up on the beach. I jumped aboard, joining Bernacki, Randy Biggs, Mike Loukopoulos and Rob Menzies.
The boat was fully equipped. There was a satellite radio and a small wide-screen TV. A computer showed the depth of the lake, where the fish were, the boat’s speed, and the water’s temperature. The boat had an auto-pilot, so driving it was a pretty casual affair. The driver and passenger seats had cushy suspension to absorb the blows as we rushed off and bounced over the water. The Upper Arrow Lake was choppy, despite a lack of wind. The sky was overcast, with grey clouds hugging the surrounding mountains.
We zipped across the lake at about 30 miles per hour to get into a more sheltered area. “It’s too rough over there,” Bernacki yelled out over the noise of the motor.
Once we crossed the lake, the guys went about setting up their rods. I had cast a rod from the end of the dock as a kid, but I had never done any trolling like this.
There were two downriggers set to troll the water about 50 feet down. Another rod was set up to pass along the surface of the lake. Bernacki set up a planer board, which he cast off about 30 feet out from the boat. The board is specially designed to keep the lure away from the boat so the fish don’t get scared off by the engine.
“The trick is to have it far enough out, eh Randy?” Bernacki said. He looked over at Biggs, who just smiled. “Randy – he’s calm. He never gets excited.
“Rumous has it he’s the best fisherman in town,” Bernacki added later.
Bernacki showed me the different tackle they used. There were several boxes filled with lures, hooks and baits of varying shapes and sizes. There were curved ones called spoons, arced ones they called hockey sticks, stringy ones that looked like little fish when set in the water, and some that looked more like decorations than practical bait.
“If I was a betting man, I would say the plugs are the most successful on this lake,” said Bernacki, referring to a hard-bodied lure designed to look like a small fish.
“Now we sit down and wait,” he said. “We have the TV on and watch Two and a Half Men.”
As Bernacki explained to me, and I quickly discovered, fishing is a sport of patience and doing nothing much, interrupted by bursts of excitement. Most of us sat under cover and chatted, while Biggs stood a quiet watch out back, looking over the rods, waiting for a bite. Periodically, someone would get up and change their lures.
“Some people change more than others. I’m pretty loyal. I’ll go two, three hours with the same one,” Bernacki said.
Bernacki was born in Manitoba and moved to Revelstoke in 1964 to work in construction with his brothers. At some point about 35–40 years ago he took up fishing with his friend Mas Ito, who he called one of the best fisherman ever in this area. They would venture down to the Shelter Bay area and head out in Ito’s little 12-foot aluminum boat with just a couple of fishing rods – a far cry from the 21-foot, technology-laden vessel we were on today.
“When nobody else would catch fish, he would catch a fish,” said Bernacki. I asked what Bernacki learned from Ito. “Mostly patience,” he replied.
It appears he learned well. I knew Bernacki from his role as a local organizer for the BC Liberal Party, but I also figured he must know a thing or two about fishing, given the trophies he’s pulled in at the Revelstoke Rod and Gun Club banquet the last few years.
As we waited, I asked Bernacki what the biggest fish he ever caught was. That was a monster, 24-pound trout he and Biggs landed in September, 2010. At first, they weren’t having much luck that day.
“It was slow and Randy said, ‘Lets go somewhere else.’ It’s what most fisherman always say. It’s never good,” Bernacki told me. “We were just about to go around the corner when the sucker hit. It took over an hour to battle that one in in between us. And then we caught two or three more big ones and we couldn’t keep them…
“When we got it, we covered it up with a net so it wouldn’t jump out. It was a big fish. That was the most exciting, to get a fish like that in,” he continued. “We made steaks out of it. We didn’t throw it back. As nice as a guy as I am, I didn’t throw it back.
“Now that’s a fish story!”
I used the downtime to talk to my boat mates. I was curious to learn more about Jim Ottenbreit and why he had a fishing derby named after him. Ottenbreit, a born-and-raised Revelstokian, died of a heart attack while golfing in Arizona in late-March at the age of 58. He was passionate fisherman, and the picture that accompanied his obituary showed him holding up what can only be described as a massive catch.
Rob Menzies was Ottenbreit’s nephew. Menzies now lives in Williams Lake, where he works as a logger, but he would fish with Ottenbreit as a kid. Later, they would make an annual fishing trip together in the Pacific Ocean south of Bella Coola.
“He was the guy getting up at four in the morning and he would fish until dark,” said Menzies.
“He was good, he didn’t give up,” added Mike Loukopoulos. “He was that type of guy, he was dedicated.”
All of a sudden the calm was interrupted. We caught one. More specifically, a big fish decided to take a nibble on Loukopoulos lure and was stuck. He quickly reeled it in and hauled it on deck. It was a pretty big Dolly Varden trout – they estimated closed to 10 pounds, though it ended up being less than that when it was weighed in later. “This is the thing we fish for,” said Bernacki.
“It’s the element of surprise,” he said when I asked him what appealed to him about the sport. “You have a line and a hook in a big lake like this – what are the odds of catching one?”
Once that first fish was caught, we started having more luck. We pulled in a second, smaller fish not long after. Loukopoulos, who owns Zala’s Restaurant, cut the fish up. Rather disturbingly, the fish continued to flop about even as it was being sliced apart. He pulled out his range grill and a frying pan, put the fish on, added some spices and margarine and let it sizzle. Not long after, we were enjoying fresh-on-the-boat fish. I broke my four-year-long vegetarian streak to enjoy the freshly caught meal.
Throughout the day, there was chatter all over the radio. The boats out for the fishing derby would call out to each other to see who was having any luck, and for some friendly conversation and trash talk. Bernacki, who is recognizable around town for his black cowboy hat, turned on the satellite radio and put on the Man in Black – Johnny Cash.
We reeled in two more fish in the next little bit. Shortly before 3 p.m., we landed back at Shelter Bay.
“Most fishermen would say if we got a fish in a boat, it was a good day,” said Bernacki. With four fish – one each (I didn’t have a license, so I just observed the action) – I figured it must have been a pretty good day.
As for the result of the Jim Ottenbreit Memorial Fishing Derby, here they are (by boat name):
1. Low Key – 12 lb 3 oz
2. Fireball 1 – 10 lb 4 oz
3. Gilda – 10 lb
1. S&B Fishing – 4 lb 12 oz
2. Kokanee 1 – 2 lb 12 oz
3. Piece of Ship – 2 lb 10 oz
1. Track n Jack – 7 lb 4 oz dolly