Like surfing and flower power, fishing for steelhead is a West Coast state of mind. These sea-run rainbow trout draw anglers from all over North America to the rivers that flow into the Pacific. Some of these pilgrims never return to their home towns, their families. They become steelhead bums, anglers errant who spend seasons in combi vans, chasing runs of fish west of the Great Divide.
Steelheading is the closest thing there is to an angling cult, and the initiation can be tough. The fishing is traditionally best in the winter months. Snowy days spent wading freezing rivers in thick neoprene are a kind of ritual purification that makes the fisher worthy of the fish.
Yet even these hardy souls dream of a better place, and more often than not it is sited in British Columbia, in the Skeena system. The Skeena is the largest river of the Pacific coast that remains undammed, leaving all of its headwaters open to migratory fish. Steelhead begin arriving in the estuary as early as July and continue to run into the tributaries until November. Other smaller creeks see their fish arrive in the spring.
“Effectively, you can fish for steelhead somewhere in the system from March to November,” says Dustin Kovacvich, head guide and co-founder of Nicholas Dean Outdoors, on the ride from Terrace airport (we are visiting in early September). “But they all gotta go up the Skeena. The trick is finding them. It’s not a small river.”
The Skeena is certainly not a small river. Dustin chuckles at our reaction as we drive across the bridge. On the shingle shore five fishermen stand evenly spaced, one downstream of the other. They look tiny against the might of the river, grey and swollen after three days of rain. Conditions are not ideal, but Dustin is confident he can find us some water in good shape.
Chad Black, Nicholas Dean’s operations manager, meets us at the Yellow Cedar Lodge, just off Highway 16. It is spacious, well appointed and has an excellent restaurant. It is not a wilderness lodge, but as Chad points out, “Like this, we can stay flexible. We have licences to guide on more than 60 rivers, creeks and streams within a 300km radius of Terrace, and with conditions so changeable it’s good to have our hub near the highway.”
Until the recent rain, the weather has been great and the season exceptional. Our hopes are high, but for the next two days the rain continues to fall and it feels as if my fishing partner, Godfrey Butler, and I get everywhere either a day early or a day late. The day after we fish the Kasiks river they catch lots of coho salmon; the day before we fish a “no-name” freestone creek they have caught steelhead there.
Finally, the sun comes out that second evening and one of our party, Richard Sankey, returns from the Kalum river having landed a steelhead of 20lb. I hope our luck won’t continue in the same vein – we are to fish there the next day – but by 2.30pm on a hot, fishless afternoon I find myself wondering if we aren’t in the wrong place again.
Our guide, Greg Buck, pulls the jet-boat in to shore where a backwater has dug a deep hole on the inside of an easy bend. He sends me to the top of the pool, an awkward place to fish with 7ft of lead-core sink-tip on the end of the line, but steelhead usually hold close to the bottom. It doesn’t feel promising, yet as I reach the point where the line begins to swing nicely, something large pulls my fly.
I cast again; the fish hits the fly hard and in that moment I discover what it is that makes steelhead so special. It is not their elusiveness or the difficulty of catching them; it’s their speed and power, their runs and leaps, their sheer brio. I am breathless by the time the fish comes to the shallows, a bright hen of around 12lb with a faint flush of pink across the gill plates. The water looks different after that.
It hasn’t rained for 48 hours but our guide, Jeff Langley, isn’t saying anything till he’s seen the river. We are heading for the Upper Copper, a fabled tributary of the Skeena, and rattle along logging roads for an hour and more until we reach a spot from which we start hiking.
We push our way through the roadside scrub and suddenly we are in a different world, a piece of the original Great Bear Rainforest. Huge cedar and hemlock and spruce tower over us, more than 50m tall and covered in moss. Thirty minutes later we emerge, enchanted, to a stony shore and our first sight of the river. It is not as green as it might have been – the greener the better, says Jeff – but you can see stones on the bottom in the shallows, and that is his rule of thumb for when it starts getting good.
Jeff has spent a lot of time exploring the Upper Copper and knows the structure of this pool intimately. The hot spot is halfway down, where a ridge rises up from the stream bed and, sure enough, as Godfrey’s fly reaches the incline, a steelhead hits. The spot is so hot another fish takes my fly in exactly the same place.
Nothing could have seemed better in all the world and looking around, after I release the steelhead, at the glaciers of the Howson mountain range and the cloudless day, the only word that comes to me is a German one, herrlich – “magnificent” (in a manly sort of way).
I land nothing else all day, and neither does Godfrey, but he is already scheming for our return, by helicopter. So at eight the next morning we are standing on the bank of one of the best pools on the Upper Copper. Does it feel like cheating? A little. Do I feel bad about it? It feels worse when Godfrey lands two steelhead in the space of 10 minutes downstream of me; the second one jumps nine times. I catch one right at the tail of the pool.
Only from the air do you begin to realise how much fantastic water there is, when the Copper is in shape. We set down beside another pool of jade. Casting into it, I become mesmerised by its swirling eddies, and then a 12lb steelhead leaps clear of the water just upstream of my left ear. It takes me a moment to realise that it is attached to Godfrey’s line. I move upstream, cast from the same rock, and I too hook and land a beautiful fish. It is just past noon and we’ve banked five steelhead.
But the fishing slows down after that. It isn’t until we reach the last pool of the day that we touch another fish, and then it is Jeff who does something magic. Just occasionally, when conditions are right, it is rumoured to be possible to catch steelhead on a dry fly. A fish is rising tight against a rocky ledge on the far side of the pool. Godfrey passes the rod to Jeff to see if he can cover it and finally he gets the fly to drift right along the rock ledge. The fish just sips it down and a 10lb steelhead charges across the pool.
But that’s just small beer. Two others from our party, Peter McLeod and Alistair Robjent, who were with Dustin further down the Copper that day, fished exclusively with dry flies and in one pool they hooked 20 steelhead and landed 16. The best they estimate at 17lb. That’s way beyond herrlich.
Our last day dawns grey and cold and we spend it fishing the Skeena guided by Sky Richard. Out on the big river, as grey and thick as the clouds, we stay close to Terrace and head for a spot below a vast pylon they call Upper Power Lines.
Sky has fished as widely across the system as is possible for any one person, and yet his favourite river is the Skeena itself. He reckons there are more and meaner fish in the lower Skeena than in any other river, especially in mid-August; but lined up on a featureless bank with other anglers, I find myself missing the Copper. I expect I would change my tune if I hooked into a 25lb steelhead with 200km left in the tank, but I don’t.
Late after dinner that night, Dustin and Peter and Alistair roll in from a long drive back from the sea with tales of casting to schools of coho in the saltwater and a cooler full of Dungeness crab. Dustin and Chad boil them up in the carport, and as the rain comes down on the tin roof we sit round a bin cracking their legs and picking out the sweet flesh. It is the end and we haven’t even scratched the surface. For that you need more than a week; you need a combi van and a vocation.