February 04, 2022
This article was originally titled "Land of the Giants" in the April-May 2011 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
A blushed cheek accented her metallic canvas, and a downward-facing eye flashed flecks of gold and amber in the sun. The crystalline water enveloped her white body, and with one hand gripped firmly around the girth of her tail, I found myself momentarily blinded by sheer perfection.
It was a transcendental moment that all passionate steelhead anglers can relate to; where there are no other sounds, no other people, no other thoughts or distractions. It’s that fleeting moment when angler meets fish, and the rest of the world pauses for just an instant. To some it’s an everlasting memory, to others it’s an infatuation . . . for me it’s an ongoing love affair I just can’t seem to quit.
British Columbia is home to the largest and strongest steelhead in the world. These wild, anadromous rainbow trout, free of hatcheries, adipose clippings, and human handling, attract a passionate and unique group of anglers and conservationists. Wild steelhead have infected anglers’ hearts and minds ever since Roderick Haig-Brown first put pen to paper. Thrilling fishermen with ferocious takes, acrobatic leaps, “straight-to-backing” runs, and a spirit that cannot be tamed, B.C. steelhead are the wild mustangs of the sea, and they sure put up a fight when one of us tries to saddle up.
As a B.C. native, I have spent my fair share of time fishing for Pacific steelhead—most of it for winter-run steelhead on the lower mainland. The highlights of my year are always spring and fall sojourns for aggressive Skeena River steelhead.
The Skeena River originates on the remote Spatsizi Plateau, and flows for over 500 kilometers before emptying into Chatham Sound south of Prince Rupert. The small towns of Smithers and Terrace are typically the starting points for fly fishers on the Skeena and its renowned tributaries.
Smithers, located on the Bulkley River, is a popular destination for do-it-yourself anglers—especially in the fall. The town provides an ample collection of modern amenities, and plentiful public boat ramps and roadside accesses keep the river constantly buzzing with anglers and boat traffic.
The town of Terrace (a two-hour drive toward the coast from Smithers) is the other major activity hub in the Skeena region. The Terrace area is laced with countless waterways that provide sanctuary for steelhead year-round, and especially for spring- and winter-run fish that typically complete their migrations much closer to the ocean than summer-run steelhead.
Traditionally, fall is the most popular time of year as anglers from all over the world flock to share in the adventure of roaring rivers, breathtaking scenery, and a chance to battle one of the Skeena’s famous 20-pound-plus steelhead. (Note that these fall fish are commonly referred to as summer-run steelhead since they enter the system during the summer months.) Fall fishing in the Skeena system typically begins around the end of August, with September and October the most popular months.
Fall weather means warmer water (from 45 to 55 degrees F.) and as a result, more aggressive, surface-oriented steelhead. The fish at this time of year (particularly in September and early October) are notoriously energetic and are often willing to rise for skated dry flies. There are even times when lucky fly fishers spot these fish feeding off the surface, and small dead-drifted drys can prove exhilarating.
Most of my B.C. steelhead have been of the winter variety, but I had an incredible summer in 2010 with Dustin Kovacvich of Nicholas Dean Outdoors, when we found a group of steelhead gorging themselves on hatching mayflies on a Skeena tributary. A large dry fly fished with a dead-drift was the ticket, and we held our breaths as steelhead snouts poked through the surface, opening their white mouths to sip our flies like regular trout.
Though the fall fishery in the Skeena region is undeniably mind-altering, the spring season is similarly enchanting, with hefty fish siphoning through the small coastal streams of B.C.’s shorelines directly out of the salty depths of the Pacific.
From April through June, the Terrace area (less than 100 miles from the coast) plays host to spring steelhead as they briefly traverse the local, nontidal waters, spawning quickly before returning to the bounty of the open sea.
Unlike summer-run fish that travel far inland, spring steelhead typically return to rivers nearer the ocean, and generally don’t hold or stay in fresh water for much longer than a month. As a result, they are more chrome-colored than fall steelhead, and are often peppered with sea lice.
Timing their runs around a freshet, they make their push through the rising water of melting snowpack, thus making timing and weather awareness critical factors for fly fishers. Colder water due to snowmelt makes wet flies the preferred method, and often sinking-tips and/or heavily weighted flies are a must to get down to the fish.
These spring fish are as large and as powerful as fall fish, but they generally require more effort and precision to present the fly slower and closer to the fish. However, you can frequently find a level of solitude that can be in short supply during the fall, and the fish are fresher—both in their fight and their appearance.
The main Skeena River is relatively unpopulated with anglers at this time, yet is teeming with migrating steelhead and spring Chinook (king) salmon, making every cast laced with anticipation. The Skeena’s gigantic Chinooks frequently top 50 pounds.
The Skeena’s large size is intimidating to some fly fishers, but if timed right, the big river can be highly productive when fresh fish are making their way upriver. Luckily, both steelhead and salmon often use the softer water close to shore to navigate upriver, and the Skeena has an abundance of classic fly water on wadable inside bends within walking distance of the highway.
As an additional bonus, at this time of year, the river is considered “unclassified,” meaning nonresidents can save themselves the daily cost of a classified water license—currently $20 or $40 per day depending on the river. (A standard B.C. angling license and steelhead stamp are still required.)
Unlike holding fish that stack up in deeper upriver pools, sit behind boulders, and rest in gentle seams, Skeena steelhead in the spring are frequently moving at a determined pace. Every time you cast your fly there’s a new chance at a steelhead moving along to intercept it. You don’t require the “first crack” at the run.
Upon finding a run with a gentle swing, and a smooth-flowing current, you can contentedly fish a single run all day while still having the opportunity to hook into several fish. These fish are pushing through the river with determination to make it to their home tributary, and throughout the day, several pushes of fish may make their way through a stretch. Every cast is a new opportunity.
Public access on the Skeena is prolific, though without the use of a jet boat, side channels in some locations can be obstacles.
Long casts are often needed and though there is plenty of backcasting room, double-handed (Spey) rods are preferred by guides and most experienced anglers.
“I look for areas that concentrate migrating and semi-holding fish that offer some cover in the form of riffled and broken water,” says Kovacvich, head guide for Nicholas Dean Outdoors. “Many anglers forget to fish close to shore, particularly when the river is high. My preferred outfit is usually an 8-weight switch rod with a Skagit head. The most useful tips are RIO’s intermediate, type 3, and type 6 along with 5', 7.5', 10', and 12.5' lengths of heavy T-14, LC-13, or similar material.”
Steelhead in the Skeena that are making their way up to the watershed’s tributaries typically weigh 8 to 15 pounds, but fish exceeding 20 pounds are not abnormal. A typical catch rate for a spring day ranges from one to three fish. However, as many steelheaders know, this is not a numbers game and there are days when no fish are caught.
Near the outskirts of Terrace, the beautiful, blue Kitsumkalum River (Kalum for short) pours into the Skeena River. At the mouth of the Kalum there is a roadside boat launch where guides and local anglers launch their jet boats to fish either the Skeena, or jet upriver into the Kalum.
Unlike the Skeena, the Kalum is a tricky river to access without a boat. An impassable whitewater canyon splits the river into two parts—the upper and the lower Kalum—making it a difficult river to drift. Much of the property lining the river is private, and there are no maintained pullout spots for rafts or drift boats.
Beautiful as it is, anglers fishing the Kalum usually seek the help of a guide, as it is inconvenient to do it yourself without the aid of someone who has a jet sled, and knows the river.
The Kalum fishes best in the spring and also receives the first big push of Skeena spring Chinook.
Steelhead fishing often slows down by October. Guiding is allowed only until October 31, and a classified waters license is required to fish this river year round.
Kalum steelhead are the same as those in the Skeena, typically ranging between 8 and 15 pounds, and as chrome as fish can be.
Backcasting space is often limited, and 8- and 9-weight Spey rods are the preference among guides and locals for swinging flies through the beautiful named pools of the lower Kalum. Bring a large reel with generous amounts of backing just in case you hook a monster steelhead or fresh Chinook. Kalum fish often hold in the tailouts of the best pools, and if the fish gets into the rapids below, you’ll often have to chase it.
Flies range from large to small and bright to dark, depending on the clarity of the water and the mood of the fish. Heavy sinking tips and larger flies turn over best when set up on a shooting head system similar to RIO Skagit Flight heads.
In May of 2010, I made the journey to Terrace to fish the Skeena region with friends Bruce Holt, Ross Purnell, and Steve Rajeff. We stayed at the beautiful Yellow Cedar Lodge and were guided by Kovacvich and the rest of the guides at Nicholas Dean Outdoors. While we spent ample time jet sledding and fishing the big rivers—the Skeena and Kalum—Kovacvich also led us on foot to a number of small coastal streams that feed directly into the salt.
Kovacvich is a descendant of Doukhobor immigrants—Christian pacifists who came to Canada in 1899 to avoid conscription and persecution by the Russian Empire. He is also a former forestry worker and has a deep knowledge of local history and flora. He has fished almost every small stream in the Terrace area searching for spring and summer steelhead, and shared a few of his favorites with us.
The rivers had names we couldn’t pronounce, and purposefully didn’t try to remember. He discovered some of his secret streams working in the forestry industry, while walking for miles and cataloging the best timber in the area. What he discovered is dozens of coastal streams, with small steelhead runs compressed into a few miles of wonderfully fishable water.
Kovacvich takes scales and a fin clipping from each steelhead his clients catch and release, and sends his data to provincial biologists to build stream profiles and baseline population studies to hopefully protect the rivers from future development and declines.
In some cases, before Kovacvich explored these streams, their fragile steelhead populations were not officially documented. In other words, as far as the government was concerned, there were no steelhead there to protect.
One of the highlights of our trip was a jaunt to one of his favorite off-the-radar streams. Kovacvich advised us to dress warm and to keep our hands in our gloves as we crossed a choppy saltwater bay toward a mountainous wilderness on the other side.
He had an inflatable one-man pontoon boat secured in the jet boat’s bow, and explained that we would anchor the jet boat in the ocean, and use the pontoon boat to get to and from shore. Because of strong tides, it was important to anchor the boat in the middle of the river mouth to ensure that when we got back, the larger boat wasn’t beached on the rocks.
Green, clear, and pristine, the river oozed with secrets guarded by giant Sitka spruce and Devil’s club. With no roads, no development of any kind, and a steelhead population that was barely known to man, we were truly immersed in the unspoiled wilderness of British Columbia.
As we traveled on game trails through the hidden paradise, the forest hummed with the singing birds, and I wondered just how many bears and cougars we’d awakened on our excursion.
Kovacvich’s giant frame moved skillfully through the foliage and kept us on our toes as we tried to keep up. He pointed out trees that were likely saplings when Columbus first landed on the opposite coast, and described the differences between the Sitka—the largest spruce on the planet—and nearby giant cedars.
He climbed atop an old uprooted log, slipping his size 14 wading boots into footholds among the roots. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he scanned the clear water, spotting multiple steelhead moving up through the run.
Ross started at the top of the run and I joined Dustin atop the outlook. My heart beat quickly as I watched Ross’s bright pink fly swing across the rocks, almost tickling a steelhead’s snout. I held my breath . . . nothing. Ross would have to wait until later in the day to find his “taker.”
Downstream, I found a fast riffle with a mellow tailout that looked promising. I stood on a large rock and peered through the current hoping to spot a bright, feisty steelhead that had recently made the transition from salt to fresh water.
I found the fish sitting quietly in a small pocket just a few rod lengths away, and instantly dropped to my knees, fearing that I’d spooked it in the clear water.
I cast one of Dustin’s marabou concoctions to where I was sure the fish would notice, but nothing. Had it seen me? Damn, should have been stealthier. My thoughts spun out of control, and I mentally beat myself for errors I wasn’t even sure I had made.
I took a deep breath and decided to try something different. I cast again, and this time stripped the fly back toward me streamer-style. The heavy hen smashed the fly and churned the water with her first jump. Upriver, Dustin heard my shout and ran a few hundred yards to help me quickly land the angry hen. At first, the steelhead threatened to run downstream out of the tailout, but she eventually resolved herself to wild acrobatics that tired us both, and left me trembling.
Dustin finally secured his grip around her tail, and I leaned over her calm and flawless body and absorbed the moment: A blushed cheek accented her metallic canvas and a downward-facing eye flashed flecks of gold and amber in the sun.
It was that moment all passionate steelhead anglers can relate to; those ephemeral seconds where there simply is nothing else. And call it what we will, an addiction, an obsession, a heartbreaker, or a love affair, perhaps we should all just call this for what it really is. While most of us may claim that we’re involved in a love affair that we just can’t quit, the truth is, all steelheaders are actually involved in a love affair that we pray will never quit us.
April Vokey is a guide, instructor, and custom fly tier. Her web site is flygal.ca.