Singing the High Water Blues
Back in the late part of the summer of 2016, I was introduced to my next door neighbours son in-law Mark Shannon, visiting from Calgary,who had been admiring my ocean boat from across the yard. After a quick conversation in the late day on a beauty of a summers evening, I soon found out that like myself, Mark had been bitten by the fishing bug and it wasn’t long before we quickly found ourselves in conversation over Steelhead, spey fishing, and the thrill of catching these incredible fish. Mark mentioned that he would be back again in the fall, so I threw out an invitation for him to bring his waders and fly gear, and hit me up for a day on the water. As I left and went back next door I remarked to my wife that I had met a fellow Steelheader, and that we may cross paths again. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get call from Mark, but something told me he was genuine in his interest to go fishing on Vancouver Island again.
Fast forward now to November, when I received a call from his mother in-law at my house. “Mark’s coming for 10 days, and wanted to know if you were up for a day of fishing? Could you forward me your cell number” she said. “Sure!” I replied quickly, why not! Mark had just returned from his annual guys fly fishing trip to the Smithers area, and after connecting up with him via text I was soon receiving photos of his recent trip and the amazing fish he was fortunate enough to hook into. It was completely unfair mind you that I was receiving these photos while at work, thus making my desire to hit the river grow from the usual gnawing in my stomach to a raging impulse to throw on the gear and go! After a week of texting back and forth, swapping stories, and connecting up on social media, we made our plans for a day on the river and I waited for his arrival.
For those of you who know the Pacific Northwest, you’ll be more than familiar with the term “when it rains, it pours”. And rain it did. Each and every day for the week prior to Mark’s arrival it rained, and rained hard. Knowing how easily the rivers here are affected from the runoff, and our plans to hit them with fly gear on the weekend, I was getting a bit concerned that our fishing day would be ruined. As each evening passed I was watching the hydrographic reports, checking river levels, and watching them peak higher, and higher. “This can’t be good” I said, watching one of the indicator rivers I was eyeballing hit a huge spike of water flow two days before Mark’s arrival. I observed the levels rise…1 meter above the norm, then 2 meters. Things were not going my way! Then miraculously on the Wednesday night before our planned trip on Saturday, things changed in our favour. The rain eased off, and for the next two days I saw the river levels plummet back down. On the evening before our trip, the river had settled into a fishable level and we were pumped for a fun day!
As any Steelheader will tell you, the best time to catch fish on the move is a few days after high water, as the levels come down and the clarity improves. As I went to bed on Friday night and confirmed an early start time of 6AM with Mark, I could barely sleep for excitement. Over the week I had learned that Mark was a professional photographer (Mark11 Photography, ww.Mark11.com) and we had agreed to collaborate with his photos, and my writing. As an amateur photographer myself I was excited to see his work, and to be part of something cool. Most of the time I am behind the lens so it was a new experience to consider not only being in front of it, but to also see Mark’s work and check out his perspective and take on fishing photography as well.
At 6AM Mark and I took off in the dark and rain, intending to fish a section of the Gordon River near Port Renfrew BC that I knew would provide some interesting terrain and a decent likelihood of running across some Steelhead. Over the course of the hour and half drive out to the river, the rains were pretty consistent and sometimes pretty heavy, but I was feeling confident at the river levels I had seen online the day before. My optimism might have been a bit misguided, but I was excited about the day ahead so I pushed it aside and pressed on.
When daylight found us, we had made our way to the lower section of the Gordon river, fully fuelled by caffeine and the thought of fishing. Intent on checking out the river heights, I headed to the logging road that follows the river from Port Renfrew to Honeymoon Bay, stopping on the high bridge that overlooks a lower section of the river. Much to my dismay, the river was raging heavily, and had swollen to the point where it had completely consumed any exposed gravel bars that are normally available to walking and casting. “Aw crap!” I said to Mark, “Looks like the upper Gordon is a no go. But, don’t worry I have a few other spots that may not be so bad”. Truth be told, I really wasn’t certain of that. But with Mark keen to go and check, I was up for the trip. My heart sank when I realized that it must have rained heavy all night long, and that I should have checked the river levels before I left from home.
Backtracking along the logging road, I took us up to another location, this time along the San Juan River instead. The San Juan is a nice spot to fish, meandering down from higher elevations in the Port Renfrew area, stopping to spill briefly into Fairy Lake and then onwards to empty into the ocean at Port San Juan. In November the river is usually full of spawning salmon, a mixture of Chum, Coho and Sockeye. The Chum and Sockeye would be well past looking pretty, spawning earlier in the fall. But the Coho should be in better shape, being the last to enter the rivers and traveling the highest. With Steelheading looking out of the question, I figured Mark might enjoy trying for some fresh Coho instead.
Finding a place to park the truck, we geared up and gave the San Juan a go. Once we got down to the river banks, we could see that the water levels were quite high, and well into the trees. Not to be beaten, we waded into the water to see what we were able to do. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very much! With the water so high in the river, trying to find enough “air” to move a 14ft spey road was a challenge. Wading deeper into the river, we were faced with either not enough space due to flooded trees overhead, or sudden drop offs that put you in a precarious position. After only a half and hour, we conceded defeat at this spot and decided to try elsewhere.
Heading back along the bumpy logging road we passed a side road that looked like it held some potential in getting us closer to another part of the river. We parked the truck and headed off into the bush, using our best guess as to direction and hoping that we would hit the river. Bushwalking in the rain, getting showered by a fresh deluge from above each time we bumped against a tree or grabbed a limb for stability, we made our way over a steep bank and down to a small stream below. Thinking that this may be a side channel to the river proper we followed it
for some time, watching in amazement as huge Northern Coho scooted along by our feet through the rapids, and in some spots catching glimpses of Cutthroat Trout hanging back behind them waiting for freshly disturbed eggs to float by. After following the stream for some time, we realized it was not going to lead us anywhere promising so we humped it back up the hill, and back to the truck.
It was now raining hard, and we were hungry so the most logical thing to do was head to the local pub for some heat, some food, and a few beers to decide our next move. Knowing now that the rivers around Port Renfrew were a bust, the only fall back plan I had was to head back toward home and stop in town of Sooke on our way home, and throw some flys in the Sooke River for Chum and Coho Salmon. After a nice hot meal, we got back in the truck and made tracks for Sooke.
At the end of our day, I at least did manage to hook a few fishing the Sooke River. Nothing to brag about though, as I caught 1 nasty old Chum, but I did manage 1 fairly fresh one as well. With our day wrapped up with not much success, we broke down our gear and turned for home. As far as fishing went, the day was a bust but as far as making a new fishing friend, I think it was a great success! Over the next few days we hung out some more, spending the entire following day searching for bears and lower water along with another friend of mine further out on the Nitinat River system. We had lots of laughs, ate well, had a few drinks,
and generally had a great time. It’s days like this that I have to remind myself that it’s not all about the fish. It’s about the experience, about friends old and new, and appreciating the gifts that surround us in nature. Sure it would have been awesome to post some great “Grip and Grin” photos of us with dime bright Coho’s or spectacular winter run Steelhead, along with this story, but I get just a big a kick looking at the photos we both took regardless of the fact that there were no fish. And that’s really how it ought to be, isn’t it?
Until next time.