River X. Not it’s real name, but for the sake of this blog post (and the fact I was sworn to secrecy) that’s what I will call the river this story is based on. Those who have read earlier posts of mine will recall when I wrote back in December 2015 (The Fear of Sharing and why Zipper Mouth Creek Will Always Survive) that Steelheaders can be a secretive bunch when it comes to places they fish. And sometimes, rightfully so. This Fall, I was invited along on a Steelheading trip in Northern BC with a group of guys that I don’t know, and one that I do. In return for my ticket to ride, I was asked not to give specific details on the river itself so as to discourage others from flocking to the area and crowding a spot that these guys have fished for the past 12 years. Out of respect for those wishes, I won’t spill the beans, but I will still tell the tale of River X and the trip that will go down in my record books as one of the most strange experiences that I have had hunting and hooking Steel in BC.
Let me start at the very beginning before this trip, and before I even knew that River X held promise. I’m a salt water fisherman as well as fresh water guy, and living on Vancouver Island I’ve had power boats of different sizes since the early 2000’s having since cut my teeth on open water ocean fishing for salmon, halibut and other bottom fish of all varieties. I’ve never written about any of those experiences (yet), mostly because I have been trying to keep the focus of this blog on fly fishing only. But it was my boat parked in my driveway one summer that led to an introduction to my next door neighbours son in law Mark Shannon (http://www.Mark11.com ) who as it turns out, is also a Steelheader, a former salt water guide, and professional photographer extraordinaire. Over the next few years following our introduction Mark made quite a few visits to our neighbourhood with his wife and kids and we’ve snuck out fishing on just about every trip. So a friendship was born, and a passion for these illusive steel unicorns shared.
Now it turns out that Mark and his friends have been making an annual pilgrimage from Calgary, Alberta for the past 12 or so years to River X. I’d been hearing tales about good sized steelhead being caught in numbers daily that most Steelheaders would be impressed to get in an entire year. Tall tales of landing six or more fish a day per person seemed like fantasy to me. I had to see this for myself so after dropping some not so subtle hints about heading up north myself this Fall and “could I possible tag along”, the invite came to join the crew for a few days and I snapped it up.
And so began the countdown to departure. Months turned to weeks, and in those last closing weeks many nights were spent at the fly bench trying up big gnarly intruders in blue, black and pink. Gear was laid out. Fly lines were cleaned and sorted. Multiple pairs of waders were packed, new thermal gear bought and rods packed away. After so much waiting with anticipation the day finally came to head out and after a short hour and half on the ferry I was off for the promised land with dreams of landing big chrome beauties every single day.
After a long an fairly uneventful solo drive north – fast forward to River X. Day one of fishing and in trademark British Columbia fashion and it brought the type of wet and cold weather I had expected. Donning the new thermal gear i picked up before the trip and feeling super confident that I would show these Alberta boys how BC Steelheaders take care of business on the river, I drove out to the meet up location and soon connected with the four other river warriors including Mark. It’s a sight to behold to see a Toyota Tacoma loaded up with three Water Masters and enough spey rods to outfit a local store, being trailed by another two pickups with keen fishermen aboard. We were on a mission and with the Alberta boys already having a two day head start on the river with promising catches being boasted, I had a good feeling that today would set the tone for the rest of the week.
Given the number of guys we had already planned to split into two groups. One group would drift higher than the others, and we would all meet up at the midway point each day. With three major floats on the menu of 16-18km in length each, there was ample opportunity over the coming week to fish a lot of brand new water for me. After a quick group rally and scotch toast, we set off to shuttle some vehicles, drop boats and gear, and hit the water.
My first drift was a mid section of River X, putting in high up and heading down through some interesting water. This particular float takes you far from the road access and as such you really get that feeling of being in remote wilderness. Having fished for Steelhead for the past twenty years, I’m no stranger to what type of water they normally sit in so I spent much of the day targeting what I thought was ideal holding water. The river levels on this trip were quite a bit lower than the boys were used to, causing a lot of their favourite honey holes to be unproductive. For most of the guys it was as if all they knew from the past 12 years was tossed out. As for me everything that I saw as fishy turned out to be a bust which made me really sit back and scratch my head and start to question everything I knew.
About midday while fishing a deep drop off riffle among one of many rain bursts Mark’s line suddenly straightened and put a good bend in the rod. “Fish on!” he yelled, backed up slowly from the deeper water he was casting in towards the shallows in order to land the fish. The first fish on the trip was soon to his feet and unhooked, posing quickly for a photo before being eased gently back into the river and on her way. Not a huge fish, but a nice sized hen with a shine like a brand new dime. Mark was all smiles of course and after a high five with yours truly went back in for more. But that was it for that spot despite a few more taps and so we moved on.
A few more bends down the river and both Mark and I hooked fish in close succession however these were Dolly Varden and not the steelhead we were looking for. I was pleased enough to have caught something at all having not had a single tug on my line all day. For the rest of the drift I divided my time between learning the secrets of this section of River X by watching Mark and his friends, as well as taking my turn casting and making my way through what looked like great steelhead water. At the end of the days drift we had only hooked the one fish between the three of us and ended our day at the pullout just as the light was starting to fade from the dreary day. We met up with the other float party who had seen better luck than us but still not catching the normal numbers of fish they were used to.
“First day, that’s all” I said to Mark and the guys. “Could be the weather pattern messing things up, or the low water. Tomorrow I am confident will be much fishier!” General nods all around and after boats were packed and gear stowed we headed home to rest up. I went home somewhat discouraged but mostly because I had dropped my camera in the river and watched it float down with the current only minutes into the first section of river in the morning. Perhaps I needed to make a sacrifice before I would be rewarded though. At $500…it was a decent offering.
Day two. This time we switched up runs and Mark and I drifted a lower section of the river while a few of the other guys went higher up. This section of the river was quite different from the upper section from the day before, as the river opened up wider and slower, with fewer large rock outcroppings and small canyons. The weather was a bit nicer though with mild overcast skies and no rain to chill us down. As Mark and I made our way down the river we stopped at quite a number spots and worked hard to see if we could rustle up a fish from the depths. With not much in the way of structure in this section of the river, you have to look for any river bed troughs that provide just enough shift in current for a steelhead to comfortably rest. “Forget about the usual headwaters and tail waters,” Mark told me, “you need to look for more trouty type water”. I started to look for riffled water or sections of river where two currents collided while Mark fished tight to shore along the banks where big troughs could be seen. And then it happened again.
“Fish man…got me a nice one!” Mark shouted, holding his rod high above his head as he tried to get back to safer footing having waded out almost to his armpits. “This one feels a bit better than yesterday!”
I quickly waded over to my boat and grabbed by DSLR (luckily that one did NOT fall in the river) and snapped a few frames of Mark getting the fish in closer. After a short fight the fish was soon in hand and tailed, with Mark being sure to keep the nice buck low in the water and sucking in the cold river water. A few more pictures and then he was gone, gliding back smoothly to his resting place deep in the emerald green water. From frantic splashing to calm silence everything went back to normal as the river eased back to sleep.
“Mark, a real nice one bud” I said, “good on ya, at least one of us is catching steelhead on this trip. Come on, let’s had a rip of some Fireball to celebrate before we get back at it!” And so we did. A quick break for a drink and some food and we headed off in search of more silver.
The rest of the day was a lot of casting, a great deal of rowing, and more casting. By days end we were both a bit tired and cold and we warmed up by having a nice beach fire at the take out while we waited for the rest of the guys and their reports.
Just as the darkness descended on us, two sets of bright off road lights lit up the dirt road as a convoy of two Alberta plated trucks loaded with boats pulled in. Rolling out of their trucks, in wet wading gear and big smiles, the boys revealed that they had a mixed bag of luck, but that one of the guys had a very good day. Not only had he caught three fish and had five on, but had seen several families of Grizzly bears and a very rare spotting of a Wolverine as well. I’ve seen many, many Black Bears on the river over the years, but I’ve never seen a Grizzly let alone a Wolverine!
At the end of day two I was starting to wonder what I was doing wrong, I wasn’t catching fish or even loosing fish plus had not spotted anything other than an abundance of eagles. Had I brought some sort of fish stink curse with me? It just didn’t make sense. We doused out the fire with loads of river water from empty wader boots and headed out.
As I bombed down the dark logging road, my head was spinning. I was at a loss to understand what the problem was….and why my fishing juju was missing. When I got to my hotel that night I decided that I would fish a different river the next day, and let the Albertans do their thing without me for a spell. Truth is I was a bit exhausted and had been suffering bad headaches all day so I needed a day to regroup. I texted Mark and told him I would take a pass on day three, and would connect with them at the end of their day tomorrow.
“All good man”, was the reply, “we’ll catch up tomorrow. Good luck out there!”
I slept hard that night, feeling both mentally and physically exhausted from two days of rowing and fishing, my legs chilled to the core from standing in the ice cold water for too long. When morning finally came I packed up my gear and decided to go into a nearby town to restock on some fly’s and to see if I could get any local intel on what I might be doing wrong. So I did just that. Spent a bunch of money on more flys and gear, met some locals and even some visitors from Vancouver Island and then hit the river again.
Standing hip deep in the cold flowing water, I tried to think what was missing from my fishing technique. My casting was good, I was getting nice long casts and good loops so it wasn’t that my gear wasn’t covering water. I went from medium sink to heavy sink lines to super heavy sink, with no difference. I swapped out flys, went from intruder patterns to regular hooks, then heavy weight to lighter. I switched up from classic spey patterns to egg sucking patterns. Nothing was making any difference and it was driving me nuts especially watching other fishermen a dozen or so rod lengths away hooking up and landing fish. To a fisherman who has started to doubt themselves, there is no greater torture!
As day three ended, my head was hung low again. Three days in, and no fish. Heading back towards my hotel in defeat I decided to turn back to River X and wait for the guys at the takeout spot to check in and see how they did. The day was coming to a close and by the time I got there the daylight was already fading and the temperature dropping off so I lit a bright little beach fire and plonked myself into a lawn chair to wait. Just as the dusk settled in the boys came around the bend in the river and soon had their boats tight against the shore and were happy to see a warm fire to great them.
“How was it?” I asked almost half heartedly hoping that nobody had even hooked anything.
“Not bad”, they said “got a few fish on and landed a few as well. Numbers were down today but stuck a few!”.
Well. Chalk up another win for the Alberta boys and another big goose egg for me. I filled them in on my day, and my lack of success. to which Mark said “Don’t worry bud you just gotta keep at it you know? It’s got to happen sometime, it just has to”. Man I really hoped he was right.
Day four came with the promise of good weather, and so it was that three of us took on the highest section of the river, drifting down from the headwaters to the first bridge crossing where we would take out for the day. The remaining two fisherman teamed up to fish a lower section of the river, and we agreed to meet at the end of the day to swap stories. The section we were hitting today had so far produced the highest numbers of fish hooked, so I was sure that today was my day. Today, it WOULD happen and my status as a successful Steelheader would be restored.
The three of us loaded up our Water Master rafts with our gear and food for the day, and made our way to the headwaters of River X, taking in some spectacular scenery along the way. The morning weather was spectacular, with not a breath of wind to disturb the calm surface of the water. As we began to pick up the current of the river we were absorbed into the emerald green water and quickly fell into the rhythm of rowing, with Coho salmon still active and spawning below us even this late in the year. As we drifted over some deep pools and nice looking riffles, scores of Bald Eagles both mature and immature lined the edges of the river in the trees, looking like guardians of the secrets below.
By noon we had drifted more than half way down our chosen section, fishing areas that had produced fish earlier in the week with no success. Bear sign was everywhere on the banks, with evidence of half eaten salmon carcasses and piles of scat gleaming with the seeds of huckleberries and other local fruits recently consumed. The bears around here were obviously not suffering from a lack of available food that was for sure, but despite being quiet during our float down River X that morning, not a single bear was spotted.
Pool after pool and section after section I tried my hardest. Cast, mend, swing, two steps downstream and repeat. Still nothing. By the time we hit about the 14km mark on our 18km drift, I was done. I was starting to think that this entire trip was a complete waste of my time. Four days of hard work with not even a single touch from a steelhead and only two Dolly Varden to my rod.
“If I wanted to get skunked fishing for steelhead I could have just stayed home” I muttered to myself, recounting the hours spent so far out in the cold water with no success. Being as discouraged as I was I rowed past Mark and his buddy and made my way down the last few bends without even trying to fish. The takeout was in sight and I was ready to get out of the water and that was that. Upon hitting the shore I grabbed my gear and hauled everything up to the road where Maciek’s truck was parked for the shuttle ride home.
Now a friend of mine often jokes with me that efforts spent fishing may as well be equated to just taking a handful of loonies and throwing them into the river. “You may as well just throw your money in the river first and then go home, because you won’t catch anything no matter what, and all you’ve done is spent a bunch of money on gear and magic beans that don’t work”. Truth be told it may indeed be cheaper to throw the loonies. So it came to be that while sitting on the tailgate of the truck and reading a book while waiting for the other guys to come off the water I suddenly heard a noise over the river.
“Ummmppph”. That’s how it sounded. Like a guy groaning getting out of bed after a big night out. I looked up and saw nothing so I refocused on the book I was reading and paid no attention. Then it came again…”Uuummmmppppph.” What the heck?! I raised my head and looked across the road and that’s when I got the shock of my life. Standing on its hind legs, towering taller than I am, was a Grizzly bear not even 30 feet away and looking directly at me.
“Get out of here bear!!!” I immediately yelled while grabbing for my bear spray and releasing the safety slide. “Go on bear, get outta here!” I yelled quite loudly and as soon as I uttered the last syllable the bear dropped down and scampered off. In reality I think the bear was just as scared and surprised as I was to encounter me as I was him or her. But I won’t lie my heart was racing and my body full of adrenaline and excitement! My first ever Grizzly encounter, and at close quarters as well – how awesome was this! Suddenly my day of disappointment had been turned on its head by a brief ten second encounter with one of the natures magnificent animals and I couldn’t have been more pleased to have ended my day in that manner. Well well, looks like day four wasn’t a total loss after all.
Day five saw another sunrise, another A&W breakfast, and another chance for steelhead redemption. With this being the last day of fishing for both myself and Mark, we had a shorter than usual window on the river as both of us had to be on the road by 4pm that evening. Having fished all the sections from the top of the river to the mid/lower sections we decided we had time to hit one more slower section of the river before heading home. Unfortunately due to easier access to the river we knew we would likely encounter more fishermen than the past four days, but regardless we knew there would still be plenty of river for everyone.
With the sun shining down on a bluebird sky, we enjoyed warmer temperatures and spent time working sections of less fished waters in the morning before ending up in heavier trafficked areas by noon. We had hoped that the morning part of our drift would give up a few fish and allow us some solitude before hitting the busier sections, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. As we passed by group after group of anglers in the afternoon my chances of hooking a fish before heading back home seemed to be shrinking at an exponential rate.
Passing by Mark working a long tail out section from top to bottom I rowed hard through some slower water to find a section of river to fish before he would eventually leap frog past me. Such was the game we had been playing all week, trying to give each other enough room to fish without stealing each others water. Spotting a nice deep run that had all the hallmarks of “fishy” water I started to fish my way down through the run, edging closer and closer to where the bouldered bottom of the river started to slope up to the faster water downstream. I had switched up to a very heavy sink tip that morning at Mark’s advice as he told me that he had been bouncing off the bottom all week. At the end of my tippet I had tied on a pink intruder of my own design with heavy barbell eyes to try and reach those lower depths where hopefully a fish would be sitting.
Cast after cast I fished the section of river being sure to get the fly down low and slow with as little unnecessary rod motion as possible. And then it happened. The moment I had been waiting for for five long days. Actually check that….for the months leading up to the trip itself! WHAM!!!
Suddenly everything came alive. The rod bent fast and hard and line began to scream out while mayhem ensued below. Steelheaders will tell you that there is no mistaking it when you hook a steelhead because there is nothing else that hits as hard as they do or acts as aggressively when hooked. Finally after so much work and hundreds of casts my efforts had paid off and I was back in the game. Or so I thought.
Not even ten seconds in and suddenly it was all over when the fish snapped my fifteen pound leader like it was nothing. My one fish of the trip….was gone.
Was I sad? Not really.
Disappointed? A little but not too much.
Honestly I felt like a million bucks because I had proven that I still had what it took to catch a unicorn. Sure there was no tailing of the fish or grip and grin trophy pics (which I am not a fan off regardless, but I digress) but in fact by snapping me off the fish likely had a much better chance of surviving. And that made me feel good.
After tying on a new fly I fished through the run again and then left it alone, heading back to my boat and drifting down over the section I had fished. Sure enough as I passed over the tail-out of the pool I spotted my fish resting in the current, like nothing had happened. A beautiful chrome ghost that reminded me again why it is I pursue this crazy passion for steelhead. Never mind that it was on the third to last bend of the river for my entire trip or that I had thrown a $500 camera into the river. Never mind that I was exhausted and cold and felt like I had rowed for the entire 80km or river we had covered. Or that I had driven a very long way just to hook and lose a single fish. It had all been worth it.
As we drifted down the last few kilometres of river to the final pullout the sun shone down and gave us some of the warmest weather of the week. Mark and I packed out our boats and stowed them away for the drive back to our respective homes far away while talking about the trip and how it had been so different from previous trips for the Alberta boys to River X. This year marked the toughest fishing for sure, but ranked highest for the number of encounters with wildlife. Was it a success? I think so.
On this trip I learned a new river and have the confidence now to go back again and fish it with more knowledge than I started with. I now know the areas to focus on and the hazards to avoid. But most of all I was humbled by the fact that everyone always has more to learn in this pursuit of steelhead. And that even if you are a decent fisherman on your home turf that doesn’t mean you will be the same on new water. I think that’s the beauty of fly fishing really and it’s evident if you ever watch any of the slick fly fishing adventure films. Many of them feature experienced Steelheaders who spend a great deal of money to fly in to remote areas only to be stumped for days on end. It’s easy to forget that when you are out on the river yourself and getting beaten by nature. We are by our very design our own worst critics but perseverance is the key to success. As a Project Manager by profession we place a great deal of emphasis of “Learning from Experience”. So to close this post, here’s my LfE from River X:
River X you might have kicked my ass this time but I will be back and the next time we meet I will improve my results. To Mark Shannon and his buds from Alberta – thank you for allowing me to share your river with you and for letting me experience something new.
Tight lines and screaming reels!