It’s been a few weeks since my last post so I figure that there are at least some of you waiting earnestly for the final chapter in my three part series about my first summer as a professional fishing guide in the wild west pacific ocean off Port Renfrew, BC. It’s been fun sitting here recalling the events of the season and even more enjoyable receiving emails and notifications from quite a number of readers who truly enjoyed my candid observations of major life changes, and what this particular experience meant for me.
In my last article I covered just a small sampling of what was fun, invigorating and extremely satisfying about guiding, so as promised this post will focus on the not so glamorous side that also comes with the job. When I first set out on this adventure in June of 2019, I had a preconceived idea of some of the ups and downs I would face. But in reality there were a few things that I just couldn’t have anticipated. Even now with only 1 season under my belt I am sure that I have only experienced a small spectrum of things that can swing either to the very good, or the very bad. So if you are reading this through the critical lens of a very experienced guide with many seasons behind you, be gentle on me.
So without further delay and in no particular order, here are some of the harsh realities of being a guide, a list I am sure can be added to by those with more years in the seat.
Now this one might seem self evident, but there are some companies that have relief skippers for those days when you’ve possibly…em…partaken in too many beers with your fellow guides or been out with your guests celebrating an amazing charter. Or god only knows you may actually be sick – guides are not immortals!
The reality is that when operating a fleet of three boats, each with only one skipper, and you’ve got guests booked for all three….well…you gotta suck it up buttercup. Believe it or not, being out all day in the ocean be it sunny, foggy, rainy, windy or whatever, can be exhausting. You are exposed to the elements for a good 8-9 hours and that in and of itself can wear you down. But here’s the catch; not matter how crappy you may feel or how many hammers are relentlessly pounding your skull into powder, you still have to show up on time and give your guests the exact same positive experience you would if you had slept well and felt like a million bucks.
Are we having fun yet?
Oh yes and also add in getting up at 4:30 AM every day without fail is something that you have to be OK with.
Everyone who has spent time on a boat knows about the teeth jarring, spine compressing, smartie bashing action that happens when you’ve got to head out in nasty seas. Even with suspension seating there are some days that you hit that one wave that has no backside to it and you are launched unexpectedly into the ceiling and find yourself apologizing to your guests (who aren’t on suspension seats) as they pick themselves up off the floor. It’s not only embarrassing as a skipper but has the potential to cause injury so we are always on the alert.
Charging off into rough seas aside and taking green water over the bow is not the only cause of injury from the waves. Once out on the fishing grounds and working the gear for the guests, you are often dodging objects in motion that are sliding across the deck, just trying to pin you to the gunnels. Take for example those enormous fish coolers that sometimes come onboard, often filled to capacity with ice, food and beverages. These coolers can be as heavy as 100-150 pounds when loaded, so imagine how it feels when suddenly one slams into the back of your legs as you are tending to the gear in the back quarter of the deck?
Speaking of things moving around the deck, one also has to consider the guests themselves who have not developed sea legs and who’s exuberance for the days events can sometimes mean that you are dodging them as well! I learned to be self aware very quickly as to everyones movements but there were a few times I was body checked as I went racing for a rod to set the hook after I saw a strike.
The examples above are just my own experience, and as the season went on I learned how to quickly deal with the giant coolers, misplaced guests, and other moving objects. But I wore a few large bruises early in the season as I learnt the lessons of how to make sure to eliminate as many sources of risk that I could reasonably manage.
When a person transitions from working in a white collar office environment to a more blue collar “hands on” office, certain parts of your body are not conditioned to receive a whole new level of punishment. Add to this salt water, monofilament fishing line, sharp hooks, harsh sun, and bait brine and you have created the recipe for what I like to call “cheese hands”. Why cheese hands you ask? Well that’s easy – because you feel like taking a cheese grater to them at the end of the day to get rid of all the damage you’ve created and get back to having hands that don’t look like you’ve dipped them into acid.
Having fished lots for myself over the years I had experienced what happens when you handle brined bait for a few days. Your hands, especially your pointy finger and your thumbs, get very dried out and start to take on the colour of a white walker from Game of Thrones. After a month of working as a guide my hands had taken a beating including not only being dried out, but also receiving numerous line cuts in the joint creases from hand lining fish into the boat. Each new line cut would then dry out as well and thus delay the healing process. As the weeks went on it just became the norm. Some guides use Krazy Glue or Gorilla Glue to seal the cuts (after soaking your hands in warm water to soften them up) and I gave it a whirl with some success. It took about a month for my hands to return to normal after I finished the season, and now I look back at them as badges of honour!
Ok on this topic I believe I actually got off pretty easy this season, at least that is what I’ve been told by the other guides. We really didn’t get that much rain until the end of the season which is pretty normal for the west coast. And I came to expect fog every single day and for the most part I wasn’t disappointed. But much like the “no sick days”, there are not too many days (perhaps none) when you don’t go out due to weather and as a guide you are expected to go no matter what. The exception of course might be hurricane force winds or a tsunami warning, but other than that you go and make the best of it. As I was told by a few of the other guides, “you just gotta put on your big boy pants and get out there”. Fair weather fishermen need not apply to be a guide!
Believe it or not the sun is also not necessarily your friend. Personally I have always found that fishing is less productive on a sunny and calm day. Overcast days are “fishy” for me and maybe that’s just my groove. But the sun and the glare on the open ocean is also extremely hard on your skin and your eyes, making forgetting your sunglasses on a sunny day not cool. Neither is getting skin cancer on thin skinned parts of your face such as the tops of your ears and the bridge of your nose. So you have to be careful with the sun and although having a great tan after the season wraps up is awesome, having skin cancer is not. Some guides use “buffs”, almost all wear hats, and those who are smart use some serious sunscreen. I did a little bit of everything but a hat was essential and after seeing first hand some bad sun damage on guides who have been at it a long time I could see it was no joke.
As everyone knows, the end of your charter means laying out the catch and cleaning it for your guests. That means on good days an hour of cutting off heads, gutting, rinsing, filleting, processing, and wearing as little of the blood and guts on your own clothes are you can manage. Being around fish all day means that your clothes begin to take on a life of their own and pretty soon you are blissfully unaware that you smell just about as bad as the fish cooler. Just imagine the horror when you forget your fishing bib pants inside your truck in the hot sun for a few hours after work while you eat and socialize, and then open the door and receive a bath of hot stinky fish breath! It’s not pleasant!
Some guides seem to wear the same outfit every day. Perhaps these are sacrificial garments or maybe they bring them good luck. For me I tried to wash my “wet gear” once a week but found that even a trip through the washing machine left them with a unique lingering odour of their own. It really didn’t bother me of course but I was hoping to avoid too many comments from guests about how bad their guide stunk!
I’ve lost count of how many of my guests got seasick. It seemed like almost every trip had at least one, if not two guests that couldn’t hold onto to their breakfast or lunch. Lucky for me I have never been seasick in my life and it appears from my observations that it kinda sucks! Once it starts it rarely stops despite calmer seas and I felt bad for all of my guests who were sick from the ocean swells. Even those who I knew had likely contributed to the issue due to overindulging the night before. Oh and for those who are wondering the male/female ratio of hurlers…seasickness doesn’t see gender.
On the plus side it never bothered my stomach when someone got sick. Perhaps it was my years of “training” watching my friends and roommates get sick during University (and being the root cause of it) but it’s one of those things that certain people just can’t deal with. It’s like the domino effect for some..once they see/hear one person getting sick….it’s a chain reaction. So if you are that person who immediately starts dry heaving when someone else is barfing, you better stay at home.
If you are single with no significant other, close family, or kids in your life then you can skip over this one. But for anyone else who has loved ones that you are not able to be with because you our away guiding trust me it’s tougher than you think. Being gone all summer meant I missed out on my step kids and their baseball games, tournaments, barbecues at home, swimming in the lake, and hanging out in the backyard. I missed my wife and our quiet time, and being able to share the events of the day with each other. As much as we tried to keep connected each day over FaceTime it wasn’t easy to feel as connected as we had liked. With each weekend this past summer consumed with my other half travelling with her boys for their baseball season it wasn’t possible for them to come see me even though I was only an hour and a half’s drive away. And on the odd single day off my trips home were rushed and not relaxed.
With a good supporting family it can work, but you have to be prepared on both sides to sacrifice some things. That being said it is a short season for most guides and you’ve got the remaining nine months or so of the year to enjoy that family time and build up the memory bank to tide you over. For some it works, for others it’s tough.
I’ve touched on this in my previous two posts from “It’s a Guides Life” Parts 1 and 2. The length of your day as a guide is at a minimum 9 hours, and some days it can extend to 12 hours or more. Many variables can factor into this such as the guests themselves, how good or bad the fishing is, bad weather, time needed to repair gear or the boat, fish processing time, cleaning the boat, prepping for the next days charter…and so on. This is not a clock in at 6 and out at 2 work environment folks. The reality is that your days are long, and sometimes they are not enjoyable.
For me it was less like work and more like fun and the long days didn’t get me down. As the season went on I became more efficient in my work thanks to the help and guidance of the other guides and within no time I felt that my routine was working well enough that the very long days dwindled down to more manageable ones. Since most guides are paid per day and not per hour you are in complete control of how long you want to be working after the guests go home. All the guides I worked closely with were all proud of their businesses and their boats and took good care of both. If that meant a little extra time either on the water or at the dock, they did it without complaint because it is their passion and their livelihood.
So there you have it, my brief and for certain not all inclusive list of things that aren’t glamorous about being a guide. I should point out that even though I’ve listed quite a few there are a few more that are related to the type of guests you get. But that is not industry or guiding specific as let’s face it those type of guests, customers or clients exist everywhere in life no matter where you work and so I have opted to leave that out.
I hope that over the past three posts that I’ve been able to give you a look behind the curtain into the life of a fishing guide. It’s not a job for everyone that’s for sure but I have few to no regrets about my first season guiding and I am hoping to expand on it by dipping my oars into fresh water guiding this winter.
Part 3 of “It’s a Guides Life” marks the conclusion of the series, but stay tuned for more adventures as the winter steelhead season will soon be on us here on Vancouver Island. Please subscribe to my blog for future posts, as you will be notified via email each time a new one is up. Thanks for stopping by and reading!
For those of you who’ve read Part 1 of this series, thank you! Over 1,000 of you have now read it, making it one of the most popular posts I’ve written on the site so far. I wasn’t expecting such interest to be fair, but perhaps it was because I exposed my honest struggles with depression and anxiety and how my work life balance had become unhinged. Or maybe it was just because I said things out loud that many of you have felt yourself, but weren’t sure how to express. I’m not braver than anyone else, just old and wise enough now to know when enough is enough. But never mind that, let’s get on with the next chapter!
When the season finally got underway in June, our industry was already reeling from new salmon retention restrictions imposed on Southern Vancouver Island by the Department of Fisheries in Ottawa. I won’t get into the politics and whether it was wrong or right as that could consume many pages and it’s a subject that’s been debated to death already. But the actual impact on local business was real and for some operators, it was crushing. For myself, I questioned whether I had made a huge mistake choosing to be a guide in what was being touted as the “worst time ever” by others. But the decision was made and I was determined not to get mired down in the negative talk and instead take hold of the opportunity I had and go for it regardless.
As the charter bookings began to increase, I was keen to get my first paid trip under my belt and start the season off. I had hoped to be busy right out of the gate, but the uncertainty of the new fishing regulations had put some customers on edge and cancellations/re-bookings were affecting our team in Port Renfrew. As it happened, my first official trip was booked for the weekend of June 15 (the day after my 50th birthday) and smack dab in the middle of the first salmon competition of the season, the Fathers Day Derby.
Just like any other “firsts” in life, I was nervous as hell. Nervous about the weather, the swell, the fog, the guests, and would I be able to deliver fish. Silly really, as I have lots of experience with boating in horrible weather and fishing on the west coast, but having the designation of “Professional Guide and Charter Boat Captain” I felt a tremendous weight on my shoulders. What if I couldn’t get them into fish? What if I was the ONLY BOAT that didn’t? So many what if’s that I slept very little the night before due to my excitement and my own induced pressure to perform.
When morning arrived the weather was predictably lousy. Foggy, overcast, and lumpy. I got the boat motors fired up and warm, loaded the ice into the fish box, programmed in the destination in the GPS and made sure that the gear was rigged and ready. My guests arrived and by a twist of fate, one of them was an employee I knew from the company I had just left. Instantly I felt at ease and it was if someone had given me a gift. I went from feeling like the dorky new kid in a strange unfamiliar school on his first day, to that same kid but with a buddy in tow.
The day went off without a hitch other than a few of the guests suffering from seasickness due to the swell offshore. Fish were caught, many laughs were had, and I arrived back to the dock with happy guests and a relieved skipper. Thanks to Randy Turner and his buddies out on a bachelor party for allowing me to get past that first trip, and helping to build my confidence as a guide.
As June turned to July, bookings ramped up and over the course of the summer I became busier and busier, and subsequently the odd day off became more and more scarce. Many guides work the entire summer with no breaks, so as to maximize the short season we have for salmon. It’s not uncommon to hear of stretches of 80-100 days with no time off. As I was boat number two in our three boat fleet pecking order, I was lucky enough to be snag about 60 trips, and only had one long stretch of about 20 days with no break.
I cannot say enough about how thankful and grateful I am to all of the guides who helped me out as the newbie at the dock. Coming into the start of the summer I thought I knew enough about salmon fishing to be a decent guide having been actively fishing the west coast for the past 15 years or more. But as I soon came to discover, sport fishing and guided fishing are two different animals. I was humbled by the other guides around me who would consistently bring in larger and more bountiful catches than I was. They were fishing the same areas as me but had a toolbox full of knowledge and experience that I simply didn’t have and those things can only be gathered by practice and time on the water.
At the end of each day, most of the guides sat at the dock and discussed their trips over a beer or three. For me those relaxed and informal sessions with the other guides formed my daily classroom. And like all classrooms, sometimes (ok most times really, who am I kidding) I was the dummy in the corner. Take for example the term “Stupid Tickets”, imaginary violation tickets issued by the more senior guides to rookies each time they did something dumb. I think I earned at least one or two each day for months, even issuing some to myself when I knew I had really tripped over the obvious. For example, here are some common violations worthy of a stupid ticket:
All of these stupid tickets were issued in jest, and I didn’t take them personally but took them for what they were – opportunities to learn. I knew that I had a lot to absorb over the summer, and I guess if they really hated me they would have just ignored me completely.
As part of my first post, I promised to highlight the highs and the lows of my first season so to wrap this post up, here are some of the highlights of my summer, in no particular order.
Port Renfrew and the waters off its amazing rugged coastline holds some pretty outstanding wildlife. I spent my summer in the company of thousands of seabirds, huge pods of humpback whales, killer whales, grey whales, sea lions, eagles, and of course some of the prettiest coastline you’ll see north of Maui. All of this while breathing fresh clean salty air, being bathed in both sunshine and fog, and watching mountains of ocean wash by me.
I loved running the Terminator. Sure she’s not the worlds fishiest boat or the most luxurious vessel, but I simply loved it. I loved hopping on board every dark morning and getting her ready for the day. I loved being her captain and taking my guests out in her. I felt safe driving Terminator, and as the summer went on and my experience as her captain grew I had more and more confidence in all weather conditions. Running a larger boat, that handled more like a transport truck than a sports car, was a great education for me and I hope to build on it. Using and relying on radar was a skill I honed after countless mornings motoring miles and miles though fog that at times gave you no more than 20 foot visibility. And since I am a boat person, I loved the cleaning, prepping, and taking care of the boat in my down time. While not a mechanic I did learn some new things when it came to maintenance and I will take those with me.
10,000 hours. That’s what they say it takes to become an expert at something. No matter what your skill level, there is always someone better, smarter, and more successful than you. Fishing is no exception to this rule and I have always maintained that I am foremost a student and only sometimes a teacher. Seasoned Port Renfrew guides like Steve French (seawindfishing.com), John “Welsie” Wells (hindsight fishing.com), Bruce Miller, and Dan Findlow were treasure troves of knowledge that they shared with me and provided a big chunk of my education. Just as helpful were guides like Matt Wiley (wileyssportfishing.com), Nelson Karger (ofishalcharters.com), Nick Hui (springrollsportfishing.com) John Rogers (vancouverislandfishing.ca), Blair Legalais (swelltime.ca) Markus Kennett (fish-vancouver-island), Bill Cooper (kingcoopsfishingcharters.com), Dan Harvey (pacificsportsfishing.ca), Des Hatchard (viciousfishcharters), and Brent Story/Chris Plunet (pacficprocharters.com) as well. What I learned from this cast of professionals will serve me well for years to come yet I feel that I have only touched the tip of the iceberg.
As I have eluded to being a fishing guide is tough work, and that will be my main focus for the next post. For the past 15 years I’ve held on to the dream of what it would be like doing something that I am passionate about, and I can finally say that I have tried it and its left me wanting more. Guiding is something that you sort of love and hate. You love the adventure, the challenge and the sense of the unknown each time you hook something on the line or head out into the impenetrable fog banks. You love being your own boss, yet you yearn for that day of sleeping in and relaxing. If fishing by yourself is the gateway drug then guiding is the next step into hard core addiction.
One final highlight for me was being able to share my enthusiasm for fishing and the wildlife around us with my guests. The degrees of fishing experience for my clients ranged from none at all to well seasoned and it was a pleasure to converse with them all during their time aboard Terminator. Like any job in tourism you never know what you are going to get when the guests arrive, and while there may have been some long days aboard the majority were great. When on board a small boat miles from shore, you really get to know your guests! I met people from the USA, the Grand Caymans, Ireland, England, and of course guests from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and even Newfoundland. They came in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life including surgeons and lawyers to trades people and retirees. Each one had stories to tell and what united them all was a love of fishing, a common thread which opened up many interesting conversations.
I also really enjoyed the community of fishing guides I was fortunate enough to be part of. As the rookie I did feel like the odd man out at first, and these guys are a tight group for sure. I still don’t know if I was really ever accepted into their inner circle, but I will say that I trusted them all to be there if I needed them, especially when far out at sea. Port Renfrew does not have a Coast Guard station, so help is not close by. But I felt reassured that no matter what personal relationships existed, nobody would would leave you hanging if you needed help. That extended not only to assistance on the water, but helping to fix problems on your boat at the dock, or giving you a particular piece of gear you needed urgently.
So that that’s a wrap for this post, next time up I will share some of the not so fun parts of the job! I’ve probably missed some of the highlights but I hope that I’ve been able to share enough with readers to give you a glimpse behind the curtain. Until next time!
Do you ever wonder how many people going to their daily jobs each morning are happy? Have you seen them walking, robot like, cups full of hot beverages in their hands as they trudge off to some boring, demoralizing job that’s killing their soul each day? Have you ever seen yourself in a passing window front on your way to work and didn’t like what you saw? Feel like life has passed you by and that this simply CAN’T be all there is to it? Well I have. For too many years. That’s been my work commute for as long as I care to remember, all the time thinking that someone would save me from my own destiny of being one of the monkeys typing away on computers all day, making someone else rich.
As it turns out, by staying in jobs I was unhappy in (a succession of them I suppose), I was able to build up a higher and higher salary with bigger and more stressful obligations. But it didn’t make me happy. Instead it did the complete opposite, making me angry, resentful, short with my wife and kids, depressed, stressed, and just downright miserable as a person. I wasn’t the leader I used to be and it was showing. Of course it wasn’t all fire and brimstone and I had good times amongst it all, small blips of sunshine in a cloudy world, but in the end my career path felt less like success and more like punishment.
Eventually, in February 2019 my unhappiness led to the inevitable end at my most recent place of work. I went from hero to zero in a span of about two weeks, leaving me with nothing but a dwindling bank account, severe depression, and anxiety for weeks on end. The feelings it left me with were right up there with the death of my mother, and my failed marriage years ago. Even with the support of my wife, friends and family, I felt lost. But ultimately I was happy to be out of the job I had held and able to breathe again (in time) and re-evaluate my choices.
When the dust settled I started looking for new work in earnest. Applying for postings for the same line of work I had been successful in, believing that was what I should be doing. After all, I am University educated with an impressive resume yet it seemed like I was applying for the sake of applying, but not understanding why I was really doing it. By definition, the word “insanity” means doing the same thing over and over and believing that the outcome would be different. Yep. I was nuts alright.
So after chatting with my wife, my friends, and lamenting over what to do, the common suggestion I received was the same. I love fishing. I love being on the water, and I have the gift of the gab. I’m a half decent photographer, and writer. So why not do something that I am clearly passionate about instead of something I am not? Why not immerse myself into a life I have only dreamed of trying but was too afraid to try or locked into a higher salary? Why not….be a GUIDE. I made the decision to get the Transport Canada training I needed right away, and soon had the required certifications in hand.
In April, the timing was good to apply for guiding work, as most lodges were ramping up and hiring guides for the summer salt water season. I whipped up a “fishing resume”, drafted introductory letters and sent them out to about a dozen different lodges and outfitting companies and much to my surprise, almost all of them responded back positively.
Interviews happened fast, from remote lodges on Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, Rivers Inlet, and my local waters off Sooke and Port Renfrew. For the first time in my life I was excited about a job, like…actually excited! After meeting with a few different companies I got a good vibe from owners Ward Bond and Darren Wright of Island Outfitters (www.fishingvictoriacom) a local hunting/fishing store here in Victoria, and was hired as their new Port Renfrew charter boat captain. Along with their returning head guide Dan Findlow, and first time Port Renfrew local captain and young gun Colby Benty, the three of us would be running three boats all summer. I was super pumped.
As April turned to May, we worked on getting the boats ready for the season, and I spent time being shown the local waters off Port Renfrew by both Ward and Dan. I’ve got my own boat at home, but my boat for the summer was a 25 foot aluminum boat called Terminator, which required some time to get familiar with, especially as it handled very differently from my 21 foot fibreglass boat. I’ve fished in “Renny” lots before, but had limited experience fishing 12 miles offshore on Swiftsure Bank, not to mention being a rookie when it came to the techniques that Dan and the other guides use after seasons of honing their craft in the local waters. I had a lot to learn, and I was keen to start showing my worth. I knew that equally important was earning my credibility with the other guides, being the only true newbie at the dock.
In June the season started, and in the next few posts I am going to give you a peek into that life, the highs and lows, and what it all meant to me as a person looking for a new direction in life. I don’t want to give anything away yet, but what I will say is that anyone who thinks the life of a fishing guide is easy, and just a party every day….think again. It’s hard work, long hours, and it demands a lot from you and your family. Was it worth it? Well, you’ll just have to read the next few posts to find out!
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!