Steelhead Follies

My first experience with the Skeena Valley was on a cross country trip to Vancouver. My dad had taken a job and Vancouver and in Clark Griswold fashion, decided to drive across Canada to our new home. The last leg of the trip would take us through the Skeena Valley to catch the Prince Rupert ferry to Vancouver. I was only 5 or 6 years old but I vividly remember the soaring mountains and the misty turquoise waters of the Skeena. I believe it left a deep impression on not only my memory but my soul. I had no idea at the time what a Steelhead or Salmon was but once living in Vancouver my weekends were spent with my little brothers and father taking trips to the local hatcheries learning about salmon eggs and fish ladders. Of course, we now know the negative effects of hatchery fish on wild populations but It was through these moments I would learn about the lifecycle and epic migrations of salmonoids. It was an impression on me that would spark my love of cold water rivers and the fish that inhabit them.

 It would be many years later before I was able to return to the Skeena – nearly 40 to be exact. In August of 2016, I set off on an epic 10 day off road motorcycle / fishing trip to explore and fish the Skeena. It was a naive attempt on both fronts. I narrowly survived the Telkwa Pass on the bike and didn’t catch any fish. Grossly unprepared for both excursions, I did come away with some hard earned motorcycle skills and an addiction to Steelhead. Of course, this trip left an even more indelible impression than that brief visit as a small boy. Experiences forged from that first trip greatly enhanced the return. To this end, the Skeena Valley is now firmly imprinted on me as one of my most favorite places on the planet.

 Hardly 8 weeks later my burgeoning obsession with Steelhead would lead me back to the Skeena River drainage to catch the end of the summer run on the Morice River. Armed with faith and a  new fly rod, ( A 13’ – 7wt Loop Spey rod) I spent 5 days fishing the Morice. Sadly it was 5 days of Spey casting practice and not fishing, as recent heavy rains had transformed the Morice into a swift flowing torrent of chocolate whitewater. The river was completely blown out and offered little hope of catching fish. My Skagit casting greatly improved after 5 days of cast, swing, and step through the muddy waters of the Morice. Skunked again but at least I didn’t feel like such a neophyte. Reading the water made more sense. Learning how to cast and work a fly through the swift current, while fishless, was a valuable experience.

 All winter long I’ve been scheming and dreaming about the Spring Steelhead run on the Skeena. I poured myself into researching and reading everything I could find on Steelhead and the Skeena Drainage. I studied maps and purchased equipment to aid in my quest. I’ve braved some pretty cold days fishing on the Peace River at home to keep my casting and angling skills honed. I crammed in hours preparing the boat for the river. The end of March arrived and I cleared my schedule for a 5 day trip to Terrace. And so it begins

I left Ft St John for the 10 hour trip to Terrace, BC. This time of year Mother Nature can be a bit on the bi-polar side but weather and road reports suggested agreeable conditions for the trip. 3 hours into the drive an oncoming tanker truck hurled a rock at my windshield and the heavy impact generated a softball size crack resembling an ampersand squarely in the middle of it. The collision was startling and made me question my sanity of riding a motorcycle again this summer.The rest of the 10-hour trip was uneventful. It was getting dark by the time I reached the short backroad and impromptu campsite by Little Oliver Creek 30 kilometers north of Terrace. I had planned on camping there overnight but the snow melt had created a slushy swamp that I’m sure would have over-ridden the 4wd capabilities of my Tahoe. I opted for a hotel room just up the road from the boat ramp in Terrace instead.

 In the morning after gassing up the boat and paying a small fortune for some flies and a couple sink tips at the convenient gas station / fly shop, I decided to fish the Skeena’s little sister, the Kalum river. Both rivers can be accessed from the boat ramp. Water levels on both were low. With perhaps a few regretful decisions I charged upstream through several dicey sections that in the back of my mind terrified me for the return but at the moment it was about finding Steelhead. I bumped my way about 12 kilometers upstream before a shallow river wide rocky section halted my progress. I found some nice runs and a good place to camp, so this was home for the night.

 After several hours of fishing it happened – sort of. I was lazily swinging a fly and all to quickly came that unmistakable tugging of the line. I was patient and let him have it. I expected him to make his run downstream which he did for an instant before changing his mind breaking the surface and charging towards me. I fumbled the line and when I regained tension he was gone. I stood there dejectedly with my hand and rod at my sides and head low pondering this epic failure; no one around to commiserate with. So after what I estimate to be a couple thousand casts, I had now managed to get one of these elusive fish on the end of my line but not in my hands. I figure this puts me way behind the curve in the quest for “the fish of a thousand casts” but it’s progress. I got over it. It wasn’t the first time I lost a fish and I won’t be the last.

 I made my way back to the boat, happy with the events of the day only to find that I had cracked a weld in the hull on one of those “bumps” upstream and the boat was now taking on water. It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong. I hauled the boat out of the water, set up camp for the night and then went about trying to figure out how to repair the leak so I could at least get back to the boat ramp. Off- road motorcycling taught me to be prepared for failure so I was happy to discover some marine sealant instinctively packed away on the boat. I used some Gorilla tape and the sealant to make a patch and hoped it would hold? I would have to wait until morning to find out. I made a fire and cooked dinner then spent the rest of the night reading in my hammock tent by the glow of the fire listening to the river.

 In the morning I pondered my options over coffee and breakfast. Would the patch in the hull work? I decided to fish the previous evening’s run first (priorities) and then see if the boat would float. I pulled the boat back into the river and as it settled in the water with the sealant not fully cured I could detect no water violating the hull. My fix was working, no water was getting in – for now.

 I knew going downstream was going to be difficult. I am not an experienced jet boat operator but I have spent enough time paddling rivers in a kayak (class II to class IV) to know that there was no way to make it back downstream in a 14’ jet sled under power without the very good chance of disaster. Narrow 90 degree bends through rapids with log jams on one side and a sharp hull tearing boulder on the inside left me scratching my head as to how I had managed to navigate it on the way up. I fished my way back downstream, motoring where I could and swinging my boat via long line through the un-navigable sections just like swinging flies for steelhead. It was work and at about the halfway point little trickles of Kalum river were pooling inside the boat. The patch was starting to fail. Fortunately, I had pushed, pulled, and swung the boat through the worst of it and I could now motor back to the ramp.

 Back at the boat ramp, I began to weigh my options. Load up and go home or try to get a more permanent fix for the hole and head on to the Skeena and keep fishing. Maybe “weigh my options” is a little to drastic a description. I promptly headed to Canadian Tire and bought some Water Weld Epoxy putty. Sets up underwater in 25 minutes. Perfect, back in business and off to steelhead in the channels around the maze of islands on the lower Skeena.

 The water levels on the Skeena were low to but it rolls at a lesser gradient than the Kalum, so easier to navigate. The Skeena is a massive river. It can be intimidating to fish just because of the sheer size of it. So much water, so many currents, so many changing depths and bottom featues. It is overwhelming. My “home” river, the Peace is no Skeena but fishing it has taught me how to fish big rivers and I soon I settle into a my habitual  search for fishable water. I eventually reconnoitre my way about 12 kiliometers downstream and find some promising looking runs to fish. The last run for the day comes complete with a decent place to camp.

 I covered a fair amount of water but the Steelhead eluded me again. What i di have to show for my effort was a near soleless wading boot and leaky waders. After 7 years my wading boots had finally blown out and my new Patagonia waders had developed a leak on the right side leaving my  right foot cold and squishy.  I fished till noon and then decided that I didn’t want to spend another night on the river with a cold wet foot and then have to navigate back upstream to the boatramp in the dark hours of Sunday morning to get home late anyways. I packed it in, made my way back to the boat ramp in and headed out of Terrace. My spring Steelhead season was over. To stay awake for the journey home I scarfed down two bags of sunflower seeds and made convient stops to fuel up on coffee and sugar as well as put more gas in the Tahoe. Aside from a blinding blizzard going over the Pine Pass the drive  wasn’t to bad and I arriverd home at 1 am in need of a shower and sleep.

 I returned home with a bustred windshield, leaky waders, blown out wading boots, a hole in my boat, and no picture of me holding a Steelhead. It was a great trip. It’s an experience most people don’t understand and I’m not going to try to explain it. You either get it or you don’t. Being in that environment and being a part, even if it is just a small disruption in the miracle that is the lifecycle of a Steelhead, is special. There is something about the Skeena that is magical. The Steelhead is an almost mythical creature and as such should not be easy to catch. The challenge and environment make Steelheading the curiously rewarding pursuit that it is. While the juice has eluded me I’m sure it’s worth the squeeze.

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