I’m not a religious person. Far from it really. But I swear…there’s someone up there who really likes to mess with me.
Two weeks ago, after a few missed attempts over the months, I finally got a chance to accompany my fishing buddy Steve Ford in his shiny aluminum drift boat on a full days drift down the upper fly fishing only section of the Cowichan River, here on Vancouver Island. As we prepped for the trip the river was sitting at a nice level, with just the right amount of flow and colour in it to make a person dream that the possibility existed of catching a nice chrome winter steelhead on the fly.
Gear loaded, hopes high, and the lunch I had so painstakingly made the night before left in the fridge at home (not the first time) we hit the river early in the early morning and spent a full day fishing with fly rods and boxes full of magic gear that was “guaranteed to work”. Over the course of the 8 hours on the water, we saw hundreds of spawning trout pairing up in the gravels, and a few steelhead that were extremely wary of anything floating near, above, or beside them. Super nice to see so many fish, and equally super frustrating to watch them ignore fly, after fly, after fly.
Out of the three experienced fly fisherman aboard, and despite valiant efforts by all of us, only one trout was landed for the day, and another one caught for a very brief moment before spit the fly out.But a day wasted? Hell no. I made a new friend, saw some new stretches of the river, and spent some quality time with a good friend.
After that trip, I started thinking about drifting the river again….and soon. With the trout soon to finish spawning, their focus would be back to eating and replenishing their energy, and it would be a bonanza of opportunity to catch multiple fish each day. The weather is also starting to warm up, and hatches of mayfly are starting to become more frequent. So with all that in mind I committed to taking another shot at it the following weekend.
Skip ahead now to the following Sunday, 7 days after the original trip. Not having Steve around meant the aluminum drift boat was out of play, so instead I packed up the Water Master raft, and committed to a solo trip instead. It was my first time with the Water Master, having previously only drifted using my Water Skeeter River Guide pontoon which while larger, is considerable heavier and more cumbersome for one guy. With the boat set up and loaded with two rods and more variety of flies than I would ever need, I set off to duplicate the drift from the week before.
As soon as I got settled in the boat and underway, I saw the same large numbers of spawning trout flitting back and forth below me, jockeying for the best position, best mate, and most promising gravel reds. But as I headed down the first few kilometres of river, stopping at the same spots we had stopped 7 days prior, I noticed that the river had significantly more volume moving through it, and that the spots I had previously comfortably stood and cast from were now difficult for me to maintain my balance in with the increased flow and depth. Once again the fishing gods had played their games and dealt me a bum hand. God damn it! It never fails.
So what do you do when faced with this? Stomp your feet and get grumpy? Or blame Donald Trump for his lack of protection against Global Warming (fake news apparently)? I did what any fisherman does when faced with adversity. I stood back, soaked it in, and decided that the worst thing that could happen to me that day is that I had not tried. So, with a good 12 km of river left to drift before the takeout point I put on a heavy T17 sink tip, a weighted egg pattern fly, and flogged the fast moving water the best I could. I knew that it was unlikely to produce anything, but honestly I didn’t care. I was just happy being out on the river and enjoying quite time amongst the mossy trees and cool clean water.
When I had started my day, there had been two inches of fresh snow on the ground and a damp chill in the air. But as the morning became afternoon, the sun came out and took the snow away, giving rise to a crisp spring day with patches of warm sun that reinvigorated the soul, not to mention my cold and wet hands.
With the increased river height came larger rapids to deal with, with bigger and heavier standing waves to maneuver around and over. Being the first time out on the Water Master, and being used to sitting much higher above the water level in my pontoon, I’ll admit to being a bit nervous at first. But after running though some of the heavier sections of water and feeling how stable the raft felt, I quickly gained confidence in the little boat and soon felt right at home. My only complaint was that being closer to the water meant I got more water in my face than normal. Who needs Disneyland..I had my very own private Splash Mountain! But overall, I was very pleased with the raft, and I’m keen to take it on some new adventures this year.
As I came to the last few kilometres of river, I came across a slow moving section with deep green pools of water that just begged to be probed with rod and line. I fished a long stretch of the this section, quartering my way down the entire run hoping to get that tug on the leader at the end of the swing. As I cast and waded, the air was suddenly full of swallows, swooping and whirling through the air like mini fighter jets in hot pursuit of their prey. There were so many at one point that I stopped and watched, amazed at just how these tiny birds are able to not only spot mayflies and other insects on the wing and catch them mid air, but also pick them off the surface as well.
I must have stood there for a good 15 minutes, watching some of them dip into the water, and then miraculously “fly” our of it. As I observed the swallows, I heard the familiar streaking call of a Bald Eagle, and soon spotted him sitting high atop a big Maple, overlooking the whole stretch of river. With the leaves still not out on the trees, I was also able to spot his nest, just a hundred meters or so from where I was standing. It was a massive structure, having been built and reused by the Eagle year after year. How cool would it be to climb that tree and take a look inside!
Having soaked up the scene, I hopped back into my little raft and made the run the last few km to the take out point, where my friends would be waiting to pick me up and take me back to my launching point and my truck. I hadn’t caught any fish, but who cares. I had been serenaded by huge fallen trees hanging down into the river and drumming off the bottom of the river bed in a rhythmic beat. I had heard the soft whispering of a cedar tree’s fronds being brushed by rushing water as they dangled gingerly against the surface. I’d gazed dreamily at slow flying brown mayfly spinners as they made they way through the air, as if in slow motion, as their singular day of life took flight. I had watched more trout than I’ve ever seen dance amongst the boulders and the gravel, as they courted their mates and their hopes to pass on their genes to the next generation. And I had felt the warmth of the sun on my face as I lay down on a dry gravel bar to enjoy a snooze after lunch.
So my advice to you all is this. The fishing gods can be cruel and fickle and Murphy’s Law will apply more times than not. But do not despair…simply sit back, and enjoy the ride.
Back in the late part of the summer of 2016, I was introduced to my next door neighbours son in-law Mark Shannon, visiting from Calgary,who had been admiring my ocean boat from across the yard. Aft…
Source: Singing the High Water Blues
Back in the late part of the summer of 2016, I was introduced to my next door neighbours son in-law Mark Shannon, visiting from Calgary,who had been admiring my ocean boat from across the yard. After a quick conversation in the late day on a beauty of a summers evening, I soon found out that like myself, Mark had been bitten by the fishing bug and it wasn’t long before we quickly found ourselves in conversation over Steelhead, spey fishing, and the thrill of catching these incredible fish. Mark mentioned that he would be back again in the fall, so I threw out an invitation for him to bring his waders and fly gear, and hit me up for a day on the water. As I left and went back next door I remarked to my wife that I had met a fellow Steelheader, and that we may cross paths again. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get call from Mark, but something told me he was genuine in his interest to go fishing on Vancouver Island again.
Fast forward now to November, when I received a call from his mother in-law at my house. “Mark’s coming for 10 days, and wanted to know if you were up for a day of fishing? Could you forward me your cell number” she said. “Sure!” I replied quickly, why not! Mark had just returned from his annual guys fly fishing trip to the Smithers area, and after connecting up with him via text I was soon receiving photos of his recent trip and the amazing fish he was fortunate enough to hook into. It was completely unfair mind you that I was receiving these photos while at work, thus making my desire to hit the river grow from the usual gnawing in my stomach to a raging impulse to throw on the gear and go! After a week of texting back and forth, swapping stories, and connecting up on social media, we made our plans for a day on the river and I waited for his arrival.
For those of you who know the Pacific Northwest, you’ll be more than familiar with the term “when it rains, it pours”. And rain it did. Each and every day for the week prior to Mark’s arrival it rained, and rained hard. Knowing how easily the rivers here are affected from the runoff, and our plans to hit them with fly gear on the weekend, I was getting a bit concerned that our fishing day would be ruined. As each evening passed I was watching the hydrographic reports, checking river levels, and watching them peak higher, and higher. “This can’t be good” I said, watching one of the indicator rivers I was eyeballing hit a huge spike of water flow two days before Mark’s arrival. I observed the levels rise…1 meter above the norm, then 2 meters. Things were not going my way! Then miraculously on the Wednesday night before our planned trip on Saturday, things changed in our favour. The rain eased off, and for the next two days I saw the river levels plummet back down. On the evening before our trip, the river had settled into a fishable level and we were pumped for a fun day!
As any Steelheader will tell you, the best time to catch fish on the move is a few days after high water, as the levels come down and the clarity improves. As I went to bed on Friday night and confirmed an early start time of 6AM with Mark, I could barely sleep for excitement. Over the week I had learned that Mark was a professional photographer (Mark11 Photography, ww.Mark11.com) and we had agreed to collaborate with his photos, and my writing. As an amateur photographer myself I was excited to see his work, and to be part of something cool. Most of the time I am behind the lens so it was a new experience to consider not only being in front of it, but to also see Mark’s work and check out his perspective and take on fishing photography as well.
At 6AM Mark and I took off in the dark and rain, intending to fish a section of the Gordon River near Port Renfrew BC that I knew would provide some interesting terrain and a decent likelihood of running across some Steelhead. Over the course of the hour and half drive out to the river, the rains were pretty consistent and sometimes pretty heavy, but I was feeling confident at the river levels I had seen online the day before. My optimism might have been a bit misguided, but I was excited about the day ahead so I pushed it aside and pressed on.
When daylight found us, we had made our way to the lower section of the Gordon river, fully fuelled by caffeine and the thought of fishing. Intent on checking out the river heights, I headed to the logging road that follows the river from Port Renfrew to Honeymoon Bay, stopping on the high bridge that overlooks a lower section of the river. Much to my dismay, the river was raging heavily, and had swollen to the point where it had completely consumed any exposed gravel bars that are normally available to walking and casting. “Aw crap!” I said to Mark, “Looks like the upper Gordon is a no go. But, don’t worry I have a few other spots that may not be so bad”. Truth be told, I really wasn’t certain of that. But with Mark keen to go and check, I was up for the trip. My heart sank when I realized that it must have rained heavy all night long, and that I should have checked the river levels before I left from home.
Backtracking along the logging road, I took us up to another location, this time along the San Juan River instead. The San Juan is a nice spot to fish, meandering down from higher elevations in the Port Renfrew area, stopping to spill briefly into Fairy Lake and then onwards to empty into the ocean at Port San Juan. In November the river is usually full of spawning salmon, a mixture of Chum, Coho and Sockeye. The Chum and Sockeye would be well past looking pretty, spawning earlier in the fall. But the Coho should be in better shape, being the last to enter the rivers and traveling the highest. With Steelheading looking out of the question, I figured Mark might enjoy trying for some fresh Coho instead.
Finding a place to park the truck, we geared up and gave the San Juan a go. Once we got down to the river banks, we could see that the water levels were quite high, and well into the trees. Not to be beaten, we waded into the water to see what we were able to do. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very much! With the water so high in the river, trying to find enough “air” to move a 14ft spey road was a challenge. Wading deeper into the river, we were faced with either not enough space due to flooded trees overhead, or sudden drop offs that put you in a precarious position. After only a half and hour, we conceded defeat at this spot and decided to try elsewhere.
Heading back along the bumpy logging road we passed a side road that looked like it held some potential in getting us closer to another part of the river. We parked the truck and headed off into the bush, using our best guess as to direction and hoping that we would hit the river. Bushwalking in the rain, getting showered by a fresh deluge from above each time we bumped against a tree or grabbed a limb for stability, we made our way over a steep bank and down to a small stream below. Thinking that this may be a side channel to the river proper we followed it
for some time, watching in amazement as huge Northern Coho scooted along by our feet through the rapids, and in some spots catching glimpses of Cutthroat Trout hanging back behind them waiting for freshly disturbed eggs to float by. After following the stream for some time, we realized it was not going to lead us anywhere promising so we humped it back up the hill, and back to the truck.
It was now raining hard, and we were hungry so the most logical thing to do was head to the local pub for some heat, some food, and a few beers to decide our next move. Knowing now that the rivers around Port Renfrew were a bust, the only fall back plan I had was to head back toward home and stop in town of Sooke on our way home, and throw some flys in the Sooke River for Chum and Coho Salmon. After a nice hot meal, we got back in the truck and made tracks for Sooke.
At the end of our day, I at least did manage to hook a few fishing the Sooke River. Nothing to brag about though, as I caught 1 nasty old Chum, but I did manage 1 fairly fresh one as well. With our day wrapped up with not much success, we broke down our gear and turned for home. As far as fishing went, the day was a bust but as far as making a new fishing friend, I think it was a great success! Over the next few days we hung out some more, spending the entire following day searching for bears and lower water along with another friend of mine further out on the Nitinat River system. We had lots of laughs, ate well, had a few drinks,
and generally had a great time. It’s days like this that I have to remind myself that it’s not all about the fish. It’s about the experience, about friends old and new, and appreciating the gifts that surround us in nature. Sure it would have been awesome to post some great “Grip and Grin” photos of us with dime bright Coho’s or spectacular winter run Steelhead, along with this story, but I get just a big a kick looking at the photos we both took regardless of the fact that there were no fish. And that’s really how it ought to be, isn’t it?
Until next time.