Making Lemons into Lemonade
For those people like myself who have to trudge into steel and concrete structures each week, sometimes without even the luxury of windows to at least watch the world go by, when you have a chance to go and reconnect with what makes you tick inside and recharge you take it. What that often means for people with busy work and family lives is grabbing each opportunity as they present themselves, and taking full advantage of it.
Recently I had such a window of opportunity, in between attending and cheering my step kids at busy baseball tournaments, yard work and general adult life. Lucky for me, I’m blessed to have a partner who understands my need for solitude, and the church of fly rod and reel. Having a partner that “gets it” is critical to being able to successfully balance life and work with a fly fishing addiction. Perhaps it’s the first step in the twelve step program, although in this case it only helps to propagate the affliction!
When receiving the green light to go fishing, I sometimes feel like a paratrooper, lined up at the back end of the C-130 Hercules, gear packed and ready to jump into action the minute that the drop signal is given. At the first sign of approval, one rallies the troops, packs the gear, loads up the truck and makes the jump before anyone has the chance to change their minds. Troops away..GO GO GO GO!
Having made my jump (figuratively speaking), and heading up the highway (I say up rather than down, as the first part of my journey normally involves a steep drive uphill, fueled with Tim Horton’s and high expectations), I had a plan in my mind to fish in the upper sections of the Cowichan River, due to the large number of resident trout that had been caught in recent weeks, particularly on dry flies. I had visions of quiet peaceful wading amongst drifting spinners, hooking trout after trout in solitude while deepening my already started fisherman’s tan. A few pit stops along the way to collect some water, snacks and other forgotten items (mostly due to my hasty departure!) and I was soon parked by the river, and strolling down to check out the action.
Let me pause here for a moment. Enter…the lemons.
When we as fisherman depart for our favorite river, we sometimes forget that it’s likely someone else’s favorite river too. Especially when said river is in prime shape, and even more so if that river is presently producing good fishing. And when access to that river is relatively easy to come by, the results should be fairly predictable, as per the mathematical formula below:
Excellent Water Levels + Easy Access + Abundant Fish + Good Weather = Crowded River
So, as it came to be, the above equation was heavily weighted against me so when I arrived at one of the access points on the Cowichan I was disappointed to see someone already there, and others waiting to join. So, what to do? Not being one to waste the chance to fish, and knowing that I had already leapt from the plane and parachuted in, I did what one does in such a situation. Out came the Backroads Map Book to find an alternative battlefield to run amok on.
The Cowichan River, being one of the most prolific and well known rivers on Southern Vancouver Island, often gets much attention due to its healthy population of trout, seasonal salmon runs, and of course the mighty Steelhead. But the Cowichan is only 1 of a countless number of rivers and streams that a fisherman can tackle, so I jumped back in my truck with a new plan. Given my geographic proximity to some other local hot spots, I picked one of my favorites that I haven’t fished in some time, and made the dusty run up the logging roads to my second destination. I figured that if the trout were hungry and rising in the Cowichan River, then certainly they should be doing the same elsewhere.
Having reached destination number two (I’m keeping this one to myself…sorry folks), I loaded up my 5wt rod, some small dry flies and nymphs, and bush bashed it in the general direction of the river I was targeting. I had fished this particular river a year ago, prior to it closing for the winter season, and I was keen to go back and take a look at it during the spring. Last June I had done some recon and had spotted a school of about a dozen fresh chrome Steelhead ghosts, but at that time decided to leave them alone. The fact that the water was gin clear would have made fishing for them tough anyway, as even my shadow on the water was spooking them. But fishing for Steel was not my goal today; instead I was looking for hungry trout, eager to take something small.
As I walked down the small river, I made cast after cast into the dark cool seams of water moving below the overhanging branches and banks, poking around to see if I could find trout resting in the colder and protected waters. There were some great looking spots that I made note of, but I didn’t get any fish to take hold. I wondered if the water levels were maybe too low, or perhaps resident fish just didn’t come up this high in the system? Checking out the river bed, the food supply looked minimal, until I came across more and more caddis larvae in their protective shells of leaf litter, and sand. Certainly with life on the river bed, there must be something around to eat it?
Wading through the river, and squeezing my way through groves of fresh alder, I came upon the start of a section of canyon, where the river spilled noisily into a deep pool that marked the start of a canyon runs. Harlequin ducks were milling around, telling me that there must be something of interest in the depths below, be it aquatic life, or fry. Looking at the way the shallower water spilled into the pool, I wondered if there were some trout sitting just below the white water and the drop off, waiting for food to spill down over into the cool, oxygenated flow. Tying on a small nymph pattern, I dropped the line upstream, and allowed the current to bring it down over the drop off, and let it sink into the bowl of the pool.
As the fly spilled over the riffle and I waited for it to sink as far as my patience would allow, I suddenly felt the line go taut and felt the tug on my 5wt that immediately gave me that rush of excitement I had been craving. YES! Fish on! My little Hardy lightweight reel began to sing, just a few times, as the fish below realized that something was not quite right. Circling around in the pool right in front of me, I could tell that this was no small trout, but could it be something more substantial? Do I even dare presume? And then it happened…the fish came right to my feet near the edge of the tank and showed itself. It was a Steelhead!
My heart pounded, the endorphins rushed over me and I felt immediately pleased with myself that not only had I hooked a Steelhead, but more importantly that I had remembered to bring my net (which I hardly EVER do). This wasn’t a 15 pound chrome hen or buck, but it was a Steelhead and none the less would present some challenges to land uninjured on a 5wt rod, with no help. I played that fish very gently, applying minimal pressure to get it to come closer, until it was within reach of the net and I was able to gently scoop it up.
With the fish safely tucked away in the net, I let out a mighty whoop of success. It was a nice female steelhead, likely left over from the winter and on the mend. Not too colored up, in good shape, and kept nice and wet in the river as I took a few quick photos of her at my feet in the net. After the briefest of moments of admiration, I gently let her go back into the safety of the pool, unharmed. As I watched the fish swim away, I just sat there and reflected on what had just happened for the next 10 minutes. I had not successfully landed a Steelhead on the fly so far in 2018, and had lost one on the center pin rod in January, mostly due to crazy high water. I hadn’t expected to catch anything but trout on this day, so to have been rewarded unexpectedly with a Steelhead was icing on the cake.
For the rest of my day, I continued my hunt for trout along that river, climbing high above the canyon until finding somewhere lower down where I would re-access the river. I took home a lot of new scratches and bruises from my efforts, mostly from having to clamber over untamed west coast wilderness, but I also took home a great memory of an unexpected fish, and a surprising turn of events. From the prospect of a very busy day on the Cowichan, I ended up instead with remote isolation and a huge reward for my decision to take the road less travelled. I think you will agree that I certainly turned some lemons, into some amazing tasting lemonade.
Until the next adventure, the next tug on the line, and the next hike into both familiar and unfamiliar rivers, I’ll keep this day top of mind and can’t wait to have another one.