Photo: A knock-down, drag-out fight with a devilfish

I am Xwu'p'a'lich, a Coast Salish woman. I am sometimes referred to as a traditional healer and medicine woman. I'm an elder, a teacher a storyteller (Credit: Saskia Wolsak)

Skookumchuck Rapids, 1943

Mom and Dad's eldest kid was Ella. She was three years older than me, and a real momma's girl who was afraid of everything. I was the son my dad wished for. I know — that doesn't make sense to you, but dad needed a son to help him along. All fathers wish for sons and all mothers wish for a couple of daughters and a bunch of sons. Ha! Well, Dad and Mom were stuck with me, and they didn't realize how fortunate they were, because I was better than any son they could have had.

Kids learned fast in those days. Our parents taught us how to do a chore, and when we became proficient at it, we were given more freedom. By the time we were five or six years old we were fishing for rock cod, perch and shiners from the float anchored out in front of the house. When we were eight years old we were allowed to fish around the immediate area.

By the time we were 10 years old, we had our own rowboat or skiff and we fished all around the Egmont area. I'm not kidding. We may have been young, but we were excellent fishermen. Dad taught us well.

Dad fashioned our fishing equipment, taught us how to care for it, and how to make new ones as required. He gave each of us a sharp knife to cut bait with, and he taught us how to handle it correctly. He said a dull knife caused more damage than a sharp one. I believe that's true because I don't recall any of us having any serious injuries from using a sharp knife.

He built a place to hold the knife that was handy when we did our fishing. He said the knife was to be used in the event we hooked a fish too big for us to land. He said not to try to do the impossible — it would be wiser to cut our line and get rid of that kind of fish before it pulled us into the sea.

I was gifted with a full-blown imagination when I was born, and I could hardly wait to hook such a fish! I could imagine Dad's buttons popping off with pride when I brought home the fish slip from that sale!

Dad taught us about tides, back eddies and the wind. He showed us how to navigate in the fog. He showed us the reefs around Egmont and helped us to memorize the marks to find them. By the time we had reached our tenth birthday, we were seasoned fishermen. Even though we fished by ourselves we had perimeter restrictions that we were not supposed to exceed. The Skookumchuck Rapids was at the top of the list. We were supposed to stay half-a-mile from it at all times. It could be a dangerous place so we obeyed, most of the time.

Back in the olden days — when I was wise beyond my years and knew everything — life seemed pretty simple to me. Periodically, parental rules got in my way, but mostly I was able to sidestep or negate them when they became too inconvenient.

I'm going to tell you about one of those times.

In those days we didn't require a fishing license. Dad made sure his little darlings always had a couple of rowboats, skiffs or canoes to use for fishing (we contributed a lot of hard cash to the cashbox they kept in their bedroom).

I liked to stalk or fish "devilfish". They held no fear for me. I wasn't alarmed when they wrapped a few of their eight tentacles around my arms, legs or torso. I'd loosen them one at a time because I liked to hear the pop they made as the twin rows of round suckers let go of my flesh or my boots. I wasn't a very girly sort of girl because, in my opinion, girls didn't have much fun. I could do anything my brothers or any other boy could do — except I could do it better.

A devilfish is what Egmonters called an octopus. I hunted them in a rowboat and caught them with a grappling hook my dad made for me. It had a huge three-pronged hook made of iron that was ideal for getting under devilfish and jerking them off the bottom of the ocean. It had about five fathoms of sturdy cod line attached to it (1 fathom = 6.2 ft). I became pretty good at snagging things off the bottom. If it wasn't too deep, I could even snag and land a lingcod that was lying on the bottom.

The devilfish I caught were usually between ten and twenty pounds. They weren't very heavy so they didn't bring in much money. In order to keep the devilfish from escaping or grabbing hold of you, they were placed into hundred pound gunny sacks with the top tied shut. The fish buyer supplied these burlap sacks free of charge. If it happened that we didn't have a gunnysack to put our devilfish into, we stuck a hand into his beak and pulled him inside out. That took all the fight out of him because he couldn't see a thing and it must have been downright terrifying for him, because he sat on the bottom of the boat and didn't move a tentacle.

One day while I was delivering my day's catch at the fish scow, my dad's older sister, Aunt Vi, came alongside and began throwing out her day's catch. She was a really good fisherman. She had nine bags of devilfish, plus a bunch of ling, bulldogs and rock cod. I watched as they weighed her devilfish. When they came to one sack, it had only one fish in it. It was a devilfish that weighed sixty-two pounds all by itself, and wasn't modified in any way. That means Aunt Vi hadn't even bothered to turn his head inside out.

The fish buyer appeared to be terrified as he dumped it into the huge scales to weigh it. He jumped backwards immediately and we all smiled unkindly at the look of fear on his face.

The devilfish landed in the scale and proceeded to grab a hold of everything within its reach and that included the fish buyer who backed off like a big chicken. The poor guy was terrified. Aunt Vi allowed it to terrorize the fish buyer for awhile, but finally her conscience got the better of her. She moved quickly to retrieve the monster as it headed for the side of the fish scow and freedom in the salt chuck, with two tentacles still wrapped around the fish buyer. Aunt Vi reached into its beak shaped mouth and with her bare hand deftly turned its head inside out. Of course, it stopped fighting immediately because it couldn't see.

She could have done that when she caught him, but I figured she wanted him to have a little fun with our fish buyer. She had that famous Silvey sense of humour. Man! I admired her guts! I hoped to be as good a fisherman as her some day. I wanted to catch that kind of fish so badly that I could feel my guts scrunch together with desire. But I wasn't allowed to fish up at the Skookumchuck where all the really big devilfish hung out. Nearly every type of fish preferred to hang around the Rapids because of the fast moving water that brought in all sorts of food.

Neither of my parents would put up with any nonsense when it came to the Skookumchuck Rapids — so we steered clear of it. And I felt that was the reason I couldn't develop my skills any further. When I left the fish scow and headed for home, my brain was working overtime trying to figure out how I could give Aunt Vi a bit of competition. I really wanted to wipe that superior smile off her face. I was already as tall and strong as her. I figured I was probably smarter than she was. At least I had sense enough to wear rubber boots when it came to rough and ready work, whereas she wore a skirt, a flimsy off-the-shoulder blouse and a pair of high heel shoes when she went fishing. Not my idea of wearing apparel for that type of job.

As far as I was concerned, the only difference between her and I was our fishing equipment. She had a grappling hook that was virtually identical to Dad's. They must have learned how to make them from the same elder. I knew I could never land a 62 pound devilfish with my grappling line because my dad had purposely made it flimsy so that I couldn't take on anything too big. He counted on the line breaking or being too short to handle a huge octopus.

I wished for the hundredth time that I had a grappling line as good as Aunt Vi's and dad's because I knew that was the only thing that was stopping me from becoming a really great fisherman!

Time answers all problems. About a week later Dad packed up his fishing gear, clothes, food and stuff and headed for the Georgia Strait to troll for spring salmon. He said he'd be gone for about two weeks. My heart jumped-for-joy! He had hardly made it around Gibraltar Point, a half mile away, and I was out in the shed removing his grappling line while mom was distracted.

We were not allowed to touch dad's fishing gear or tools without his permission. Well! He wasn't home to say No!, was he? So I helped myself. Dad's line was made for a big person, so it was sturdy and well made. I put it in a gunnysack and sneaked it down to my skiff. I knew I was breaking a major rule, but I didn't care. I was finally getting my chance to hunt big octopus up at the Skookumchuck Rapids.

I told Mom I was going to fish buck cod on the reef outside the island in the middle of Silvey Bay. I knew she wouldn't be able to see me from the house because the island would be between us and soon the tide would be dropping giving me even more protection from her scrutiny. I rowed out to that reef and caught six cod between 12 and 15 pounds each. They were biting really well, but that didn't deter me. Today, I was after larger game. My mind was on catching a devilfish the same size as the one Aunt Vi had caught. As I waited for the change of tide, I could feel those devilfish calling to me and I didn't want to disappoint them.

As soon as the tide began running towards the Chuck I made a beeline for the kelp bed near Paddy Hatt's place. I knew that was one of the places Dad and every other fisherman caught those huge devilfish that I coveted. The tide was always moving in that area, bringing in feed that perch, shiners, rock cod and lingcod swarmed there to eat. They, in turn, became food for the devilfish that constantly patrolled the kelp bed.

It took me quite a long time to make it to the kelp patch because I was forced to hug the coastline at all times to keep Mom from spotting me. I hoped that she continued to believe I was fishing on the outside of the island in Silvey Bay.

Finally, I arrived at my destination. My heart raced in anticipation, but my hands were just as steady as Dad's when he fished devilfish. I gazed around, familiarizing myself with what was happening around me. There were six inches of white foam gathering in the kelp patch. The heads of the kelps were leaning towards the Skookumchuck Rapids, indicating that the tide was running at a goodly clip in that direction. Good! I could hear the Rapids beginning to set up a roar. I moved around the kelp patch, scrutinizing the bottom. I knew exactly what I was searching for and it didn't take me long to find it.

Devilfish can take on the colour of whatever they want to. They are able to change the colour and texture of their skin at will. If they're lying on a patch of gravel they look like an extension of the gravel. But they didn't fool me — I knew all their tricks.

My heart skipped a beat. At last! I spotted a huge devilfish resting beside a large rock. He was larger than any devilfish I'd ever caught in the past. He was the same colour as the rock, but he didn't fool me. I noted his eyeballs following my every move, even though he was keeping them sort of hooded. He was probably hoping that I'd fall into the water to become lunch.

I paddled to the eastern side of the huge kelp patch, selected six or seven heads and pulled them upwards so that I could tie my bowline around them. Piece of cake! In no time flat my skiff was anchored to the kelp with my boat leaning towards the Chuck. I peered over the side of the boat. I was right where I wanted to be. My nose, my glasses and my hair were all being washed by the tide as the boat rocked up and down, dipping a portion of my head in the sea with each movement.

There were about three or four fathoms of water between me and my prey. I scanned the area, checking every little nook and cranny to make certain that there was no one around to rat me out to my parents. Old guys were the enemy today. I was committing a major breach of the trust my parents placed in me. My conscience tweaked feebly but I chose to ignore it. I wanted the monster that was lying on the rock below, watching me with hooded eyes. He knew I was there sizing him up but that didn't worry him at all. His eyeballs followed every move I made.

I had a drink of water and sent him a thought message. I didn't know if he could hear, but I told him to get ready to inspect the bottom of my gunny sack, because that's where his future lay. "I don't mean you any harm but I have to catch you. If I'm gonna grow into a top notch fisherman I gotta learn how to do this right. So, please, come aboard with just a little fight".

I didn't believe, for a minute, that he would just come quietly. But there was no harm in hoping. I figured there was going to be a test of wills between us, so I checked to see if my sack was ready to put him in. I placed my knife in the knife-holder Dad had built into the side of the boat. I knew my gaff hook and fish club would serve no purpose because they didn't work on devilfish. Their use would only serve to infuriate him and make him fight all the harder.

I knelt on the side of my boat, got my grappling hook ready, spotted the devilfish and began lowering the line. He didn't move. He figured I couldn't see him because he was so well disguised, but I could see the whites of his eyes following my hook. Good! My aim was true, and it landed just below his beak exactly where I wanted it, but maybe it startled him because he released a squirt of ink. Blackness surrounded him for a few seconds but the tide quickly took the dye away and he was, again, in plain sight.

Just as I jerked my hook upwards with all my might he moved and wrapped his arms around my hook. I had him! But my elation was short-lived because he was fighting mad and squirting ink like kids having a fight with water pistols. His legs were reaching in eight varying directions attempting to grab hold of something to squeeze. I knew he was reaching for whomever or whatever was causing him pain. I realized he was hooked in the wrong place for easy landing, but I was game. I'd give it a try. If I'd hooked him properly, he would've been pulled to the surface head first, with his tentacles following behind him. He would have been just about harmless.

As it was — he was hurting and he was mad as a hornet, shooting a steady stream of black dye; he was intelligent enough to know that some human had sunk their hooks into him, and he wasn't giving up without a knock-down-drag-out fight. Well, I admired him for that because I, too, was ready for a knock-down-drag-out fight. He came over the side of the boat like an invading army reaching for me or anything else he could wrap his arms around.

He was huge! Each of his eight tentacles were about eight or ten feet long and was equipped with twin rows of sucking disks that took a hold of you and didn't slip or let go without a fight. His beak looked formidable, it was as sharp as a parrot's, but I didn't allow him intimidate me. I looked him right in the eye like my granny said to do when you dealt with animals, and I tried to get my hand into his mouth but he kept moving it away. It was like he knew or sensed my intentions. A tentacle made a grab for me and I backed up. The thwart—or seat—came against the back of my legs and caused me to crash to the floor of the boat.

I quickly regained my footing, but he wasted no time in wrapping three tentacles tightly around me. He jerked me towards him. One tentacle was holding my right boot so tightly that I couldn't remove it, the second was wrapped around my waist and the third one was coiled around my left wrist so tight that it was cutting off my circulation. I could feel my fingers beginning to tingle like they were going to sleep. He was pulling my body in two directions. I felt like a wishbone.

I felt him tightening his grip on my boot, but he'd have to do better than that if he expected to take me into custody.

We struggled for control. He was powerful! He wouldn't let me marshall my body functions, so I grabbed my knife and jabbed at the tentacle that was gripping the side of the boat. Blood squirted all over the place. I smelled the difference in him immediately, and I knew I had hurt him. It must have been his adrenalin. He was beginning to be just a little bit afraid of me. I could see him pulling himself into a tighter fighting position.

I figured he could smell my determination and he wasn't about to give up. He squirted dye that fell harmlessly onto the bottom of my skiff. I had him rattled but he had me in a position where I couldn't command my body to do my bidding; with my left arm and right leg spread apart I couldn't marshal the strength I required to man-handle him. I could feel my body weakening and I was getting downright mad at him, so I stabbed his legs a number of times. I tried to stab his head but he pulled me further away from it.

His body became tense as he bunched up his muscles, attempting to thwart my attack. He began to retreat but he didn't let go of me. He made some sort of sound that made me believe he thought he was going to win. I felt him twisting my body towards the water. I knew I didn't want to be dragged into the water with him hanging on to me because I'd be unable to breathe under water, plus the tide was running very fast towards the Skookumchuck. I had to make him let go of me or I was dead meat.

Even when he had me in such an unwinnable position I didn't have enough smarts to be afraid of him. I was still gripping my knife, so I quickly cut my line—giving him the opportunity to flee and he took it. He let go of me, dived into the water and shot away, black dye and vivid red blood trailing behind him. He looked like a torpedo he was moving so fast, and he still had my dad's grappling hook sunk into the thick portion of one of his legs. I checked to see if there were any adults in the area, but there wasn't a soul around me. I was relieved. I was tired. I was pumped full of adrenalin.

I paddled ashore, pulled my boat out of the water and stretched out on the beach. There were kelps and seaweed clinging to the small rocks. It wasn't a comfortable place to lie but it allowed me to release the tension that I hadn't even acknowledged during my battle with that damn devilfish. I rested for about 30 minutes, got back into my boat and returned to the kelp patch to see if I could spot that Dinkasaurus. I had to get that grappling hook back or I would be in real big trouble. For an hour I scanned the bottom but he was nowhere to be seen. I moved along all the kelp patches in the area with the same results. He was nowhere to be seen, the big coward.

I returned home with a black cloud hanging over me, wondering how I was going to explain the loss of Dad's grappling line. For the next few days you couldn't have found a better kid than me anywhere on this planet. I anticipated Mom's needs and fulfilled them even before she asked. She gave me a few quizzical looks wondering what was ailing me. I offered no explanation.

For the next four or five days I stuck to fishing lingcod and rock cod. I was really teed off at the entire race of Devilfish People. They had severely wounded my pride by beating me in our first real confrontation. Then, without realizing she was doing it, Mom forced me to face my problem. The only grocery store in Egmont was located across the water. It was right next door to the Fish Scow where we sold our fish. Mom needed groceries and sent me to collect them. There was no choice. I had to go.

I'd been fishing every day but kept my catch alive in the live tanks Dad had made for that purpose. I figured that since I had to cross over the channel I might as well sell my fish at the same time. I arrived at the Fish Scow and sold my week's catch. Then, lo' and behold, there stood my Aunt Vi signalling to me with the index finger of her right hand. I tried to look away but she was insistent, so I sauntered over.

"Come with me," she said, and lead me behind the buildings on the float for a private chat. Uh oh. I wonder what this is all about. It doesn't look good. Probably uptight about my cuffing her kid around, but he deserved it. I suppose the big sissy ran home and cried to his mama.

I followed her. She picked up a gunnysack that had something heavy in it. She didn't tell me what it was. There were a stack of fish boxes lying around; she said, "Sit!" It sounded like she meant it so I figured I'd best not display any reluctance. I sat. She stood in front of me and did a perfect imitation of my dad.

"Carmen, what shall I do with you? Do you think you're above obeying rules?" I refocused my eyes so that I could look right through her, and her words washed harmlessly off of me. When she realized that I wasn't going to react in any way, she reached into the gunnysack she was holding and pulled out my dad's grappling line.

Her eyes bored into me and my stomach was instantly queasy. She had my undivided attention, but I tried to brazen it out. It was unmistakably Dad's grappling line and I wondered how she'd come by it since the last time I saw it it was speeding through the water like a torpedo. I assumed a surprised expression and flippantly asked, "Is that for me? How did you know I needed a sturdier grappling line?" Just like my dad, her eyes seemed to bore right into my skull. Uh oh, I think I've got a heap of trouble.

"You know darn well that this is Billie's grappling line." Billie was her pet name for my dad. "I took this off a devilfish up beside Paddy Hatt's place three days ago. It weighed 49 pounds and it had Billie's grappling hook attached to it. I know he would never hook an octopus and leave it in that condition. So that just leaves you. I've been waiting for you to show up on this side. That devilfish was hung up in the kelp bed; it was helpless. It would have died or fallen prey to another devilfish if I hadn't came along and caught it. You are too young to be hunting fish of that size. It could have pulled you into the water and drowned you. You're lucky it didn't get its arms wrapped around you. That would have been the end of you. I'm surprised that your granny didn't tell you that."

She stood there accusing me of hurting that octopus when in reality it was he that had wrapped three tentacles around me with the idea of dragging me into the Chuck with him. I thought, "what makes you think he didn't get his arms wrapped around me? He was stretching me like a wishbone. He had three arms around me for awhile. She'll never listen to my side of the story so what's the use of telling it?"

I didn't say a word as I listened to her lecture. Finally she became weary of ranting and said, "If you'll promise me that you won't go hunting devilfish at the Skookumchuck Rapids, I will promise not to tell your parents about what you've done. If they find out that you've been fishing the Rapids by yourself, they'll never allow you to go fishing alone again."

I was flooded with relief at her unexpected demonstration of understanding, so I just nodded my head. She showed me the repairs she had made to the grappling line. It looked as good as new. I took it and placed it in the sack. I hugged that sack to my chest just like it held the most precious jewels in the world, and said "I promise not to go hunting big devilfish up at the Skookumchuck until I'm older, and I promise that I'll leave Dad's grappling line hanging on the wall where it belongs. Thank you, Auntie Vi!"

That was the first time I accepted her words and when I swore to obey them I meant it. Usually when we spoke it was because I had boxed her eldest son's ears because he deserved it. In my opinion, he was such a panty waist always running to mummy.

My dad and mom never knew about the close call I had while they were alive, but I could hear their tongues making that tsk tsk sound as I wrote this tale and they listened from up in Heaven.

Message to Canadians: Read about my knock-down-drag-out fight with a devilfish, Skookumchuck Rapids, 1943.
Author photo

By Xwu'p'a'lich, Barb Higgins


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Dec 18, 2013
9:49 PM

Wow! What a thrilling story. A couple more stories like that and you could get a book of Fish tales printed. Regards

Dec 17, 2013
10:09 AM

Barb Great story Very well written and kept me interested to the end. Heather Smith sent it to me and I am glad she did. A few years after this took place i also fished Develfish in the rapids but never caught one near this size. You spoke of Aunt Vi, she was one of the nicest people i have ever had the pleasure to meet. Keith

Oct 04, 2013
11:17 PM

Just great! great you are. All the time I was enjoying to read your story.You describe the situation in a beautiful way, that I could imagine all the scene.Brave woman, no girl, all the time I was watching a very brave ,big guts and smart girl.Your parents proud of you.I love your personality.

Oct 02, 2013
9:47 PM

I’ve known Xwu’p’a’lich for some time, I’m happy to know her as she brings much inspiration to me regarding knowledge in Native history and culture, nature and respect. She has much courage, grace, spiritual knowledge, love and laughter. She holds the right in being the daughter of a Hereditary Chief. She brings people together Native and non Native. I truly cannot wait to hear and see other things she’s done and thing to come. Thank you Xwu’p’a’lich.

Aug 11, 2013
4:35 PM

Wow! SO much has changed. I hear comments that the new generations are smarter than past generations. I completely disagree. Thanks to the author for sharing such an exciting and wonderful tale. Transported me to another time and place.

Jul 04, 2013
12:04 PM

Great story! So lucky to have stumbled across it. I agree with the Jacqui, who said that you should write a book. I will have to check Amazon to see if you have done so. You have the knack of telling a riveting story while simultaneously injecting a good dose of “natural” humor. Thanks for a memorable tale! P.S…..I never write comments on stories etc but this one compelled me to do so.

Dec 13, 2012
10:47 PM

Fabulous story! You should write a book (if you haven’t already)

Nov 09, 2012
9:38 PM

This had me leaned fwd and the table till the very end!

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