It’s December on Vancouver Island. The days start and end dark, dreary and wet for the most part this time of year and likely for the next month or more. Sure we don’t get much in the way of snowfall around this unique rock on the west coast of Canada, but we make up for it in rain. Lots, and lots of rain.
And it’s cold. Not the minus 40 kind of cold where your contact lenses freeze to your eyeballs on the way from the parkade, or your snot freezes in your nose though. You won’t find anyone here throwing cups of water into the air to capture the water droplets freezing mid-flight. But it’s a damp “chill you to the bone” kind of cold that most new arrivals to Vancouver Island laugh off when they first arrive here until they’ve acclimatized. We’ve all met those people from the Prairies who tell us how lame we are because we aren’t skating on the local pond in minus 25 with 60 km/h winds. I guess we all have our war stories, right? But, on the plus side of things I do tend to wear shorts even in the winter and pants seem…restrictive.
So what does any of this weather related noise have to do with the title of this post? Well, it’s more a reflection on why I recently got up at 4:30am the day after Christmas when I was already wiped out from all of the family activity. Followed up by a long winding drive in the darkness and pouring rain, barrelling down highways and then logging roads that were so bad with potholes and washboard that I swear there isn’t a tight bolt left on my truck or filling in my teeth. And to top it off, a struggle through soaking wet forests so thick that you would swear that darkness was falling. Oh and did I mention the very steep and very slippery slopes that you need to descend without losing your footing and tumbling headlong over a cliff and into the a raging cold river? Yeah. You love it.
For those who aren’t afflicted with the Steelhead bug, the above seems ridiculous, unwarranted, unwanted, and maybe just plain stupid. But I assure you that those with the disease that is Steelheading and the search for the illusive unicorns this is nothing more than a typical winter Steelheading trip. It comes with a combination of eternal optimism and hope mixed together with the inhuman ability to endure wind, snow, rain, dampness, darkness, slippery rocks, fast cold water, and the risk of certain death if you screw up. You have to be passionate about these fish to put yourself through this wringer especially considering your options are low when it comes to finding and hooking one (let alone landing it). I recently heard John McMillan, the voice of the OP Fishing Podcast, biologist and Steelhead junkie, talk about a statistic called Catch Per Unit of Effort, or CPUE. It refers to a measure of how much time elapses between hooking a fish, a statistic that if most Vancouver Island (or anyone in the PNW really) were to calculate based on their Steelheading experiences could result in a glut of centerpin, spey reels, rods and tackle offered immediately for sale followed by mass intake at your local mental health clinic for depression. But I digress.
So there I was. Waking up from far too little sleep to the sound of my alarm clock going off at “4 dark thirty” in the morning and trying not to wake up my partner while she slept. I had my clothes laid out in the bathroom (multiple layers of long johns, fleece and wool), got my contacts stabbed with fat fingers into barely open eyes, and blood stream preloaded up with ibuprofen prior to the caffeine blast. With meds and caffeine onboard, light up the truck engine and roar out of the neighbourhood to meet your buddy, also afflicted with the Steelhead bug. Do I dare say STLHD-19? Hmm…might be too soon for that. Oh well, too late.
Every trip starts out this way in the winter. You wake up, both excited about the possibility of catching a fish and having a new adventure on the water and also thinking about how nice it would be to just fall back into bed with the one you love and go back to sleep. You have all kinds of excuses ready of course:
“Water’s too high/too low”
“The moon phase is all wrong, those fish won’t be holding anywhere”
“Water was really dirty last time, why bother?”
“My buddy says that there are no fish this year, so this is stupid right?”
“Kids were up all night, I can’t see straight”
“Celebrated too hard last night, shouldn’t be driving really..”
“Have you seen the dismal DFO returns and the forecasts?”
You get the drift. When it comes to going fishing and getting up early in the morning let’s face it, most people would rather go when it’s light out, sunny, and calm. But the weird thing is I must be the opposite because even though I love my sleep, I actually LIKE getting up early to fish.
Consider the early morning wake up call as your offering to the fishing gods. Your sacrifice of sleep, your exertions hiking in and the physical uncomfortableness of being wet and cold are just the price you must pay to hop on the bus that takes you to Steelhead nirvana. The ride there is often long and frustrating, and some trips the bus takes you to another destination (also known as Lake Disappointment or the River of Crushed Dreams). But sometimes if you’ve punched your ticket just right or have ridden that bus on just the right day you are rewarded and it’s well worth the trip.
As this god awful year that has been 2020 ends and this new one begins we as fisherman should reflect back on how many people have been affected by the global pandemic and take a moment to think about those 4 dark thirty missions. Think about why it is that we all do them and the fact that we CAN still do them. The world might be gone to shit, but the things that are important like family, friends, and fishing are still there to remind us why we do many of the things we do. It’s for the pure love and joy of it. For the promise that today could be your lucky day. For the simple fact that being with friends and family sharing your passion for fishing is what makes you who you are. For your health both physical and mental. For your soul.
So how did my 4 Dark Thirty mission go on Boxing Day you might wonder? Was it worth getting soaking wet and freezing cold?
Hell yes it was.
I ended my season in 2020 with a good friend and two nice steelhead that will feed the addiction until I hit the river again in early 2021.