Exploring new Horizons – The Artlish River
Well here we are again..it’s the fall (my personal favourite), the weather is changing, fish are making their move from ocean to river, and that means that a fishing trip must be in the books!
Those of you who’ve read past posts will know how my stories normally begin. A phone call is received, followed by more calls, searches on Google Earth, selection of a site, confirmation of time off at work, last minute gear organization and fly tying, and then the countdown to departure begins. This fall my friends and I decided to forgo the normal pattern of finding somewhere that was boat or float plane access only, in favour of something a little more accessible and easier to retreat from (or relocate) if things didn’t co-operate with the weather, wildlife, or the fishing. Sure it would have been great to swoop in somewhere in a de Havilland Beaver, or nice 30 foot aluminum water taxi, but sometimes as much as those trips are great it’s not always required. More often than not, there are fish closer by, easier to access, with no aircraft space/weight restrictions to worry about. I mean after all, how can you pack your Coleman stove, oven, coffeemaker, portable heater, and all the other “essentials” in a float plane!
Our destination this year was the Artlish River, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island approximately 45km by logging road from the nearest town of Woss, BC. From Victoria, it’s about a six hour drive from house to campsite, and since I was really wanting to stay at home for an early Thanksgiving feast, I had planned to meet up with the rest of the boys a few days into their trip. So on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with temperatures in the teens, I kissed my wife goodbye and left home just after 5pm with plans of heading as far north on the island as I felt I was able to, before stopping for the night. Truth be told I could have made it the whole way in one sitting, but not being familiar with the logging road routes I needed to take I decided that waiting for daylight would be more prudent.
As darkness fell, my excitement started to grow as I begin thinking of the fishing, the bears, and my friends and I soon found that I had no problem staying wide awake for the journey, making it almost the entire way to the turn off past Woss by about 10:30pm. I knew of a fully equipped rest stop about 5km or so south of Woss, complete with luxurious washroom facilities, so upon reaching it I cleared out the passenger seat of my truck, curled up in my sleeping bag as best I could, and tried my hardest to sleep. I say try, because not matter how late it got I just couldn’t wait to get going and had a heck of a time! So, many, many rounds of Candy Crush later, and about 100 pages into my new novel for the trip, I finally crashed.
When 6:00am finally came around, and since I was now awake and ready to rock and roll I stashed my sleeping bag, took a quick walk around the parking lot (aka..went to the can) and after admiring the amazing display of starlight hopped in the truck and hit the gas. For some reason I had figured that Woss, being a logging town, would have a restaurant open early to cater to the loggers. So with a growling stomach I flicked on the blinker and eased my way off the highway into town to see what I could scrounge up to eat.
Now, if you’ve never been to Woss at night, well, it’s something else. Not even 200 meters from the highway is the Lucky Logger Pub, and General Store, which is lit up with flashing led lights along the roofline and edges of the buildings to a degree that would probably outshine most EDM clubs in a big city. It was ridiculous! I should have grabbed a photo but to be honest I was too hungry and just wanted to find somewhere to eat. As it turned out the town had nothing to offer me at that time of day, so after driving around for a bit and seeing the lights of logging vehicles and trucks everywhere as they warmed up for the day I figured it was a wash, and headed back on the highway.
About 20km from Woss I hit the Zeballos Road Junction, where the logging road that leads towards the communities of Zeballos and Fair Harbour meets up with BC highway 19. Turning off onto the logging road and passing a few logging trucks checking the chains on their loads prior to getting on the asphalt, it felt good to feel the rattle of the dirt road beneath my wheels again. I love driving on gravel roads, always have, and I think it goes way back to living on a dirt road myself growing up as a kid in rural Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada. The feel of the road, the spit of the gravel against the wheel wells, even the view of the dust cloud swirling behind me in the rear view mirror gives me a good feeling inside and considering that most of my adventures seem to start this way (combined with memories of coming home from school) I guess it all makes sense. Some sort of Pavlovian response to the call of the open road and what lies ahead perhaps. Either way, I love it.
After an pretty uneventful trip in on three logging roads (all be it with one wrong turn and a 5km backtrack later) I rolled into camp right around 7:30am or so. The boys were up, somewhat groggy after what I later learned was a long night of story telling and general bullshitting, and I was keen to get unpacked and set up before the next rains came. The weather had been nice for my drive up but the forecast was not looking great for the rest of the week, so I was anxious to get tarps, tents and gear unloaded before the deluge. A few hours later all was settled, and took an early nap in my newly setup “house” to make up for the lack of sleep the night before. I must have needed it because 2 hours later and I was still asleep! Once up, I spent the rest of the day getting things sorted just the way I wanted and sat by the fire catching up with the gang, and receiving my first real fishing report.
Bruce Milne and his brother Steve, plus by buddy Paul Zozula, had been fishing hard for the past two days without much success. There were definitely fish in the river, with both Chum, Chinook and Coho salmon being spotted. But nothing was showing any interest in either fly or gear. Truthfully I wasn’t that surprised about the Coho, since my experience has taught me that generally they become pretty tight mouthed once they enter the rivers and are often tough to catch. Chum on the other hand are generally more aggressive and easily tempted to take a fly, so that did concern me a little. With so many fish around, what was the issue? Bruce informed me that he had walked up river some distance the day before and had spotted a large school of fresh looking Coho, which he was hoping to go back and target. Paul had apparently hooked into a trout, but had not landed it. After being in the area in the early summer, Paul had the most local knowledge, and proclaimed that the river was very productive at that time of year for trout. Makes perfect sense, as that is the time of year when the fry would be falling down the river out to sea, making for very tempting meals of any anadromous cutthroat trout cruising in and out of the river from the estuary.
I had brought crab trap with me as the camp site was located right on the ocean, and Bruce was eager to chuck it in so we could gorge on wild Dungeness crab We spent the rest of the night talking about plans for the coming days, eating marinated pork chops from the barbecue, and tossing back a few drinks to help lubricate the story telling. After such a wild night the previous evening and a long day of messing around at camp, we all hit they hay early and I was soon transported off to a very restful sleep.
Come morning, as I lounged luxuriously on my camp cot while enjoying the warmth from my tent heater (yes…I am one of these people who have been spoiled. Don’t mock it until you try it!), a solid rain had begun hammering down on the tarp. “Well” I said aloud, “pretty normal weather for a fall fishing trip!”. I got dressed into my waders right in the tent, and made my way out to the camp kitchen area for some breakfast. Bruce, who always takes care of the food for these trips and has held the position for as long as I have known him, had a mess of pancakes, sausages, and french toast already prepared for us and we all had fully stomachs when we finally gathered up our gear to hit the river. Bruce and Steve headed out first, deciding to hit the lower section of the river. Paul and I took the high road, and began our day about 5km up from the estuary. As we hit the river, the rain really started up, coming down in buckets as we waded up the shallow river, exploring pools looking for tfresh fish. As it was, the rivers all over Vancouver Island were all very low due to lack of rain, which made access easy but fishing tough. The fish were extremely nervous, and with the gin clean water it was difficult to even sneak up on them and fire out a cast without them scattering.
Paul and I went a few more kilometres up river and found that the river just kept getting lower and slower, with large lazy flat sections that were not holding any fish. Backtracking, we headed down river instead and ran into a very nice deep pool with green waters, perfect to hide fish in. With the rain hitting the water surface we were offered some camouflage from the fish but even with this cover we were not able to convince anything to bite. After spending enough time trying to no avail, and feeling the cold rain now running down the inside sleeves of our coats from casting, we turned back for the trail and splashed our way back upstream.
Just as we were about to reach the trail head where we had clambered down the soggy cedar lined banks to the river, a noise off to our left got both of our attention. Two young black bears, probably this years cubs, were climbing just as fast as they could up a large fir tree, looking furtively over in our direction. Of course, where there are cubs, there’s a momma bear. And sure enough there she was, shoulders square to us, standing at the edge of the brush by the base of the tree looking very intimidating. Not wanting to irritate her, we slowly started walking upstream and away from her, keeping our ears and eyes out for any charge. Being that we were about 100 feet away when we first encountered them, I felt pretty safe so I snapped a couple of pics before we moved on. The encounter ended without incident, which is just about how every encounter I have ever had with a bear goes. Give them distance and respect, and they will do the same. Be stupid and reckless, and you can expect trouble. I’ve only had to fire off a bear banger once while fishing or camping, for a bear that was far too used to people and habituated to free and easy food. My bear spray has never left it’s holster, and I hope that it stays that way.
After making it back to the truck, Paul and I headed even further upriver on the logging road to a point about 9km from the estuary, where we observed a nice school of about 30 – 40 big Chinook salmon resting in a canyon. Impossible to catch, but fun to watch none the less. They were sitting in a deep slot pool, about 15 feet deep, surrounded by steep canyon walls. Our guess was that they were waiting for higher waters as further up the canyon were a number of small waterfalls that needed navigation before hitting their spawning grounds. I took a few pictures of the area, and we headed back to camp. That night, we all had a great feed of chicken kabobs, pitas and salad. Turns out that Bruce and Steve also had no luck lower down river, so we all drowned our sorrows and all retired defeated to our respective tents.
After a night of heavy rains, we awoke to blue skies overhead and hopes of better fishing now that some water had moved through the system. A quick breakfast was had by all, with Bruce and Steve heading back to the lower section of the river to try their luck one more time. Paul and I decided to take the canoe out for a paddle around the estuary and up the river. With such beautiful sunshine and calm seas, it was the perfect opportunity to get out and onto the water. With the sun now above the mountains and sending some much needed warmth, we paddled out from our camp with the first order of business being to check on the crab trap. After pulling it we discovered only two small Red Rock Crabs, so we loaded up the bait with the remaining salmon heads and tails that I had brought from home (a result of successful salmon trips on the boat that summer) and dropped it back down in a deeper location.
The water in the inlet surrounding the area was glass calm, making for an easy paddle. The estuary itself is not a large one, but in the summer boasts a bountiful number of oysters that can be plucked from the beach at low tides. The water was full of large jellyfish, similar to the smaller Moon Jellies, all pulsating calming in the slack water. Passing through the mouth of the estuary, with sedge grass and the skeletons of huge trees that had been washed downstream in heavier rains over the years, I was totally expecting to see bears as this is generally prime for them. But with no salmon carcasses seen around, and plenty of berries still available, we didn’t see a single one. In fact, all of the bear sign that we had run into so far showed that they were still heavily feeding on vegetation and berries rather than salmon, leading me to believe that the majority of the fish had not yet spawned in the area. This fact was supported somewhat by the number of salmon we observed splashing around in the inlet, indicating that there were still lots of fish that had not yet entered the river system.
Paul and I made it up the river to where Bruce and Steve where, and upon beaching the canoe learned that both boys had caught fish! Bruce had reeled in a couple of feisty Chum, whereas Steve had landed a really nice bright Coho. Finally! It had taken a great deal of effort and persistence but I was pleased for both of them that they had been successful and had received a sense of vindication. As for me, I was content just to watch and hang out, as I much prefer fishing for trout and steelhead over catching salmon in the river. Catching a salmon on a fly rod IS fun, don’t get me wrong, but somehow when I sit and think about all the roadblocks and hazards that they face getting through in the wild, both natural and man made, I often feel a sense of guilt disturbing them any further on their journey home. It’s a bit hypocritical for me to say this, seeing as that is exactly what a wild steelhead does and the numbers of fish are significantly lower, but for some reason I can justify it to myself. I think perhaps its because its much more challenging to find them, let alone catch one, whereas sometimes with the salmon it seem a little too easy.
With the day coming to a close and tired fisherman ready for food, a hearty meal of spaghetti and meatballs with fresh garlic bread was served up to a hungry crew who devoured it in record time. With a clear sky overhead, the temperatures dipped cooler than the previous few nights and we all bundled up warm for a few beers before bedtime. With a great day behind us, everyone slept soundly with a symphony of snores roaring throughout the camp.
As morning broke, the rain had returned to the area and we had a grey wet day ahead of us. With the results from yesterday fresh in their minds, Bruce and Steve once again returned to their spot on the lower section of the river, with Paul and I tagging along this time too. Unfortunately I did not experience the same degree of success as Milne boys had, and after a few hours I decided to head back to camp and putter around in my pontoon boat on the ocean instead, as I had seen quite a few cutthroat slashing around in the shallower water the day before. After putting the boat together and dragging it down the water, I set off with my 6wt rod in search of fish. I’m not sure what the difference was on this particular day compared to yesterday, but after hunting around for some time I could not find any sign of fish to save my life. Perhaps it was the difference in atmospheric pressure with the rainy front moving in, or just a different set of tides happening, but what ever the reason it was a fruitless task. After an hour of hunting around, I decided to go and pull the crab trap to see if we would be eating crab for dinner.
When I reached the float, and gave it a tug, I could feel that there was some weight in there! Now I’ve been fooled before, and pulled up heavy traps with visions of crab dinners dancing in my head, only to discover a huge starfish in there with a bunch of empty shells. But this time, there three BIG male Dungeness Crab inside just waiting for me to scoop them up! After wrestling with them while balancing a big crab trap on my pontoon boat, I stuffed them into my bag and brought them to shore for cleaning. Once done, I popped them in a pot with some salt water and awaited the rest of the tribe to return.
That night, we had the most amazing, sweet, delicious crab for dinner, complimenting the tacos (ok not the best pairing but it was what was on the menu!) that were already being prepared. More garlic bread, more beer, and more full campers heading for their tents for the evening. Another good day on the river, on the ocean, and at camp.
The following day it was time for Bruce and Steve to head back, as Steve needed to hit the ferry back to Vancouver and Bruce was needed back home to prepare Thanksgiving supper. I had planned to stay another few days at camp, but with the weather deteriorating quickly and having been sick with a bad head cold from the day I arrived, I decided that the best plan was to pack it in early and just go home. If the fishing had been better, I would have stayed longer for sure, but there’s nothing fun about staying by yourself, in the rain, sick, for another few days. We packed all of our gear, disposed of the garbage and left the site cleaner than when we had arrived, and by 10:30am we were all on the road home back home to loved ones.
As trips go, this one had been a bust for fishing. But on the positive side I did explore a new area with good friends, had some great meals and good laughs, and would rather be in the rainy woods any day than in my office. I’ll be back to the Artlish River I think, in the summer this time, to see what it looks and fishes like then. I saw lots of good steelhead water on this river, so I am interested in seeing if I can run into some when the salmon are not around. As I headed out on the logging roads, I thought about how both awesome and how sad it was that there are so many easily accessed logging roads on Vancouver Island. It’s great that we have so many opportunities to explore the interior and coast of the island, areas that without logging would be virtually inaccessible. But sad too, to see the areas cut down, old growth forests vanishing, and the mess that people who don’t care make of these untouched areas. I’m not against logging, in fact I am an advocate of ethical logging practices. If we take care of our forests, they will serve us for our lifetimes, and the lifetimes of our kids, and their kids. But the destruction of old growth forests cannot be replaced, even with replanting, so we must be careful to protect what we can, while still enabling commercial harvesting and economic prosperity for our communities that rely on this long thriving industry. Our lives depend on it.
Until the next adventure beckons…..