Great catches of the 2015 (fossil) fishing season

Charles Helm


Like many good fisherfolk, we spend our winters dreaming of summertime fishing trips, fantasizing about catches of the day when next we ply the coast of Pangea. And at the end of the fishing season our memories of what we have netted sustain us for another winter. We understand our ancient coastlines well enough that we plan our trips to take in the finest fossil fishing holes or, to mix metaphors, to hit the motherlode. Fortunately the summer of 2015 was punctuated by a bunch of memorable motherlode moments, with sizeable catches successfully hauled in to the friendly shores of the Tumbler Ridge Museum.

In some ways it was the Year of the Coelacanth. Three successive trips into our alpine Triassic territory each hooked a fine specimen, plus bites by a number of smaller fry. The wonderful thing about our coelacanths is that their skulls are preserved in 3D, compared with the majority of our fish and marine reptile fossils, which are flattened into 2D versions. In the first example, coelacanth snout with toothy grin stood out from a distance, and remarkably the entire forty-pound specimen was formed from the skull. It was one of those moments where the remoteness of the setting and the challenges of the return voyage had to be balanced with the scientific importance of our fish. It was a no-brainer, and Thomas Clark and Antonio Sunción were up to the challenge of helping me reel it in.

The second was found unexpectedly by Kevin Sharman in an area we thought we had previously covered well. Luckily Jared Wylie, off on a week’s break from his military training, was on the trip. For Jared hauling this 45 pounder in for half a day was just like a regular day at the office. Specimen number three weighed in at a mere 18 pounds, easy to land – and again, an entire rock was composed of skull.

As a family physician I am used to requesting CT scans when the contents and anatomy of skulls are of interest. I now dream of scanning these skulls. Maybe one day our museum will inherit a used CT scanner from our regional hospital.

These skulls are probably from the genus Whiteia, but not necessarily so. Recall that the only three examples of a whole new coelacanth sub-family have been found in the Tumbler Ridge mountains. Rebellatrix divaricerca is the name given by Dr. Andrew Wendruff to this species, which has essentially turned the global understanding of coelacanths on its head. But make that four examples… Louis Keroack and Anthony Moreau Coulson were out trawling at a new site, and amongst a bunch of lesser fish noticed the distinctive shape of a very portable Rebellatrix tail.

Then there was the marine reptile find. UBC geography student András Szeitz was working for the summer in neighbouring Alberta, and became keenly interested in our Geopark, geology, and fossils. Delighted to have such enthusiasm in the region, we invited Andreas on a fishing expedition. His patience and dedication were the stuff of which legends are made, and at one point I noted that he had stopped moving, a hundred metres below us on a talus slope we were climbing. I confess that I descended back to András planning to suggest that a slightly quicker rate of progress might be optimal. But when I saw what he was examining, such heat-induced, ill-conceived thoughts evaporated. Before us lay a virtually complete thalattosaur, probably the finest specimen ever found in North America. There was a plethora of jaws, eight in all, from one individual, and therefore an abundance of teeth. And some of these jaws displayed the characteristic recurved features that veritably shouted out “Agkistrognathus campbelli”.

To place this in context, our understanding is that this is the fifth known specimen of this marine reptile, thought to be somewhat similar to the marine iguanas on the Galapagos Islands. It appears that all the others, including the type specimen from the Fossil Fish Lake area in what is now Wapiti Provincial Park, were partial or fragmentary, often just comprising the jaws. The second was discovered near Windfall Lake by Carina Helm, the third by Richard McCrea and his team further to the north, and the fourth in what we called Cirque Z during a heli-fly-in trip in 2007. All of these had been in the Tumbler Ridge area, and now we finally had a near-complete specimen, thanks to the perspicacity of András.

The considerable weight of this specimen could not be allowed to deter us. Kudos to our valiant team, who took turns battling with this sea-monster. Knee and back injuries (and maybe a hernia or two) notwithstanding, this precious specimen was tenderly coaxed from its marine-sediment mountain haunts.

On the laborious trip back we crossed from Triassic into Mississippian beds. We are so used to the abundance of corals in these rocks that we scarcely glance at them. But Laura Sharman picked one up and showed us an attractive shell: our first example of Turritella – although common elsewhere on the continent, it was a nice addition to our collections.

Finally, to cap a fine season of exploring ancient sea-floors, a patient brought in a wonderful trilobite. (Useful hint: if you want to get an appointment with me in a hurry, just tell the front desk staff that you have found an interesting fossil site or have a cool rock that you want to show me.) A glance at a geological map and a knowledgeable opinion on the trilobite led to the same conclusion: Devonian, an age of rock which we know is in our mountains, but which we have scarcely unexplored. A trip to the site yielded a magnificent Devonian reef, complete with bryozoans, mollusks and superb corals.

Are there tales of the ones that got away? Yes, some new catches were too big to haul in, and they await better tackle and an appropriate net (at the end of a long-line attached to a chopper). And dozens of specimens were of the catch-and-release variety. But we never got skunked and there were few if any snags. It seems that fish stocks remain healthy, and there appears so far to be no danger of over-fishing. Memories of these great catches will nurture us through another winter. Dreams of new shorelines sustain us, until we again are ready to put up our Gone fishin’ signs.

As with most obsessed fishers, perhaps we are the ones that are hooked.