First Looks – The Bulkley River Valley
In October of 2015, following in my traditional pattern of booking some sort of exploration fishing trip in the Fall every year, I was tossing around ideas with a buddy of mine about where to go this year. For those of you who have read my previous post about my experiences last year in October (see Surviving a Harrowing Night on the West Coast) I was feeling a little less inclined to explore more of Northern Vancouver Island this time. Not to say it’s off my list, but I figured I would give it a pass this season, for karma’s sake.
For a number of years now I have been trying to convince the regular trip goers I fish with to think further out than Vancouver Island, and starting investigating heading to some of the more spectacular rivers on the mainland like the Skeena and Bulkley river systems. Not being very successful at trying to pry the boys off the island, I turned to my buddy Steve Ford, who about a year ago did a week long drift down the Dean River in Northern BC, so I figured he’d be up for it. Sure enough, we were both on board with the idea and decided that our destination would be the Bulkley River Valley, with Smithers BC as our base.
We made our plans, set dates, and Steve went ahead and booked transportation and accommodations. Steve happens to work in Alberta’s oil sands, so with slightly overlapping time off we staggered our arrival times with Steve rolling in first and having two days alone to start exploring and nailing down places to go. Steve had visited the area once before, having fished the Maurice River nearby some time ago, but hadn’t had much time on the Bulkley itself. So with all plans in motion, the count down was on and we were both stoked to get on the river!
Luckily for us, time passed quickly and it was soon time for Steve to make his way from Northern Alberta to Smithers ahead of me. Those two days of him being their fishing without me were painful!! As I sat at my desk at work, all I could think of was the huge fish he was undoubtedly catching and all the fun he was having while I stared out my window in between meetings and emails. With patchy reports coming in via text from him, I didn’t receive any photos or texts that would make me go crazy with envy, but I wasn’t sure if maybe Steve was just sparing me the heartache. Either way, the time came for me to pack and go, and I was a happy boy heading to the airport in Victoria BC, gear loaded, and rod tubes in hand.
On board the small Dash 8 aircraft, I realized that I was truly heading into a sportsmans paradise. As I watched the passengers coming on board, more than fifty percent of them were fly fishermen, who like me were toting their prized fly rod tubes in hand while getting on board. I could hear stories being told as we were waiting for the engines to fire up of fish reports from the fly in camps, and of record numbers being reported from prior years trips. I was in good company. Flying into Smithers was uneventful and unfortunately in the pitch dark, so I wouldn’t be able to get a birds eye view of the rivers as we came into town.
Steve had arranged to pick me up at the Smithers airport, and as I was waiting for my bags to come off the plane for pickup I was getting more and more excited, regardless of the darkness and drizzle. As the luggage carousel spun around, fishing gear bags from Patagonia and Simms were more common than suitcases. In the lobby there was an enormous taxidermy Grizzly bear display, and a showcase with a massive 30+ pound Steelhead. Holy shit. This was going to be fun! When my bag arrived, Steve had just rolled up to the door in our rental and we were off to our hotel.
That night we headed to a local restaurant called the Alpenhorn, where we talked, we laughed, we ate, and we drank beer. The thing about Steve and I is that we always laugh hard when we are out together, mostly because we are big kids in adult bodies I think. I’ve known Steve for about 15 years or so, having met him when he and his soon to be wife moved in next door to me. When I saw him roll into his new driveway with his drift boat in tow, I just knew we would be friends. And so it was. Since then we’ve fished a lot together, I’ve seen them get married and become parents, and grow personally and professionally. He’s seen me through a divorce, losing my house, making some mistakes and finally ending up with someone who fits me just right. So I suppose we’ve grown up as adults together. Through it all, we’ve laughed, in fact I think there’s nobody who makes me laugh harder. And I am grateful for that, and his friendship.
As we ended our night, Steve told me that he had not yet caught a fish in the Bulkley, which really surprised me. Steve is an excellent fisherman, and hits the river with purpose. No repeated flogging of the same spot over and over. He works the river and covers lots of terrain, knows the waters and how to read them, and is a very determined fisherman. So if he hadn’t caught one yet, that was troubling. But we went to sleep with lots of high hopes for the next week, and were stoked for morning.
At 5 AM we were both awake and gearing up. The weather report was very favorable for us during our trip, with no rains in the forecast. With a clear sky above us, the temperatures when we set out in the dark to the car were below zero, but we had prepared for it and weren’t concerned about being cold. We headed out to the Bulkley River to fish a spot that Steve had heard about from another friend Kyle, who had been in the area a few weeks prior. With the frost thick on the grass as we made our way across a pasture to the rivers edge, my heart was pounding with excitement!
For the next three hours, Steve and I worked our way up and down the river, making cast after cast into the perfectly paced water. Fishing this river was much different than what I am used to on the island, as there really isn’t any visible structure or river bends that I am normally targeting for those nice slicks that Steelhead like to sit in. Steve explained to me that with these types of wide and mostly shallow rives, the trick is to find “buckets” in the gravel and rocks where the fish will rest. Find these areas hidden under the emerald waters, and you’ll find fish. But with no fish being hooked after three hours of prospecting, we decided to move locations.
Next up on the roster for us was the Maurice River, which feeds into the Bulkley. This was a river that Steve had fished before, so he had some knowledge of where to go and give it a go. By the time we got to the Maurice the weather was nice and we were bathed in sunshine. I hadn’t expected this and ended up getting pretty hot walking up and down the river, resulting in me ditching some of my layers on the river bank and picking them up later on my way back down.
The Maurice was….beautiful. The water was a nice color, not too green but with just the right amount. Water flow was perfect, with that nice walking pace that Steelhead prefer, and the river banks were lined with beautiful fall colors of red, yellow and orange. It was a picture perfect day, which would have been made even better if we caught a fish! But after working the river for the afternoon it was not releasing any prizes to us. But what a stellar day! Truly a beautiful setting and I could feel my love affair beginning to grow for this part of BC.
That night we drowned our sorrows with some beers and pizza, and made friends with the local fishermen at the pub. The one thing I will say about Smithers is that the people are extremely gracious and friendly. Having not been to a small northern BC town before I wasn’t sure what to expect, but to be honest the people we met were fantastic. Everyone in Smithers fishes. And they are more than happy to share stories and suggest spots to try. The town itself is built with a Swiss mountain village theme, and is actually quite a nice little place. It doesn’t hurt of course that the town has Mount Hudson Bay as it’s backdrop, and the rivers winding past vast farmlands of cattle and hay. I wasn’t expecting it to be so nice, but it was a very pleasant surprise indeed.
The next day we woke with renewed enthusiasm, and made our plan for the day. In the morning we would head back to the Maurice, to fish it early rather than later in the day. After that, and depending on how the fishing was, we would probably pick up and move again, to another section of the Bulkley. With our gear on and lunches packed, we hit the road early in the frosty cool morning.
When we got to the Maurice, the sun was just starting to peek between the trees, showering us with rays of bright sunlight that reflected off the morning mist coming off the river. These mornings are my favorite, with the rolling mists making their way across the rivers surface as the warmer waters of the river meet the cold air of the Fall mornings. It was just cold enough this morning to have ice building up in the rod guides after each cast and retrieve, but not so cold that it wasn’t manageable.
We fished pretty hard throughout the morning, each of us casting and quartering our way down the banks for the Maurice, heading in the opposite direction as we had gone the previous day. Despite our best efforts though, we still weren’t able to convince a fish to bite, despite Steve seeing a number of fish rolling. Steve was working skaters all morning, whereas I was using streamers, but nothing was taking what we were offering.
After an unproductive morning, we had a bite to eat and headed out to what is locally known as the “Bridge” hole near Telkwa, (so named after the wooden bridge that spans the river) on the Bulkley. We geared up and proceeded to walk down the railroad tracks that ran along the side of the river until we reached a spot that had rip-wrap along the one side where the bank had been built up to support the railroad. Some intel Steve had gathered before the trip pointed us in this direction, and so we started casting in earnest. When I was about three quarters of the way down the rip-wrap section of the shoreline, I heard Steve give a shout.
“Got one”! he yelled, now watching the line peel out a bit and the rod bend under the strain of a fish. After a brief struggle, the fish was close enough to see and tail, but before Steve had a chance to grab it, it was gone. It was a nice fish, about eight pounds or so, and could be best described as a “typical” sized Bulkley fish. We were both pretty excited that our efforts had paid off, and that at least one of us had gotten into a fish. Now the pressure was on me to make the play for number two.
After fishing through the run a few times each, we packed it in and decided to head towards town. It had been a great day, and both of us were tired from making cast after cast, and keeping ourselves upright on the slippery rocks. As we headed into town, we crossed the highway bridge that spans the Bulkley right before the city limits, and noticed there were a few guys fishing just below it. We parked the rental car, and decided to give it a shot, so we walked up river from the highway bridge about 300 meters, and started casting. To me, the water looked no different that the countless other stretches I had cast to during the day, but after just a few casts, I felt the unmistakable tug of a decent sized fish on the line.
“Wahoooo”! I yelled, trying to wind up my slack line onto the reel, that was now singing it’s happy song. The fish was pulling hard, and it made a few runs back and forth before I was able to get it under control and closer in. Suddenly, the fish made a hard charge up river, then right towards me, making my task of keeping any pressure on next to impossible. And then of course the inevitable happened. The fish…was gone.
It had been an incredible day on the river, with both of us hooking fish but not landing them. Steve only had one more day left before he had to leave, and then I would be flying solo for the next few days before I too had to head home. That night we laid low in the hotel, watching the tube, and strategy for the next day.
For our final day of fishing together, we headed back to the Bridge hole, fishing the same section of rip-wrap again. As it would happen, this time it was me who hooked up, and successfully landed our first fish of the trip. Again it was about an six to eight pound wild fish, very feisty, and in beautiful shape. Part of me felt bad that it hadn’t been my buddy landing it as he was leaving that day, but the other part of me, the steelhead nut, was super pumped that I had gotten it close enough to tail, and grab a quick in the water photo.
We moved around a few more times, hitting the Maurice one more time, and also visiting the worlds largest fly rod in Houston which I have to admit was pretty impressive as giant over the top monuments go. By the time the day was over and it was time to drop Steve off at the airport, we hadn’t hooked another fish and had to admit defeat. That’s just how it is sometimes, and from what we had been hearing from other fishermen in the area, it was to be expected. Fishing had been very slow for everyone, with many not even seeing a fish after a weeks worth of effort. So the fact that we had managed to hook three and land one in just three days fishing together, was a pretty decent result. The gear fishermen had being doing ok, but we were dedicated to fly fishing and hadn’t brought any other gear.
I saw Steve off to the airport, bidding my good friend farewell and a safe trip back. Over the next few days I did some more exploring around the area, visiting both the Skeena and the Kispiox rivers before I left. But that’s…another story.