Getting My Ass Handed to Me on The Columbia River

For years I have heard about and seen pictures of massive rainbows that inhabit the depths of the mighty Columbia. I love big rivers and chasing big fish so the Columbia has definitely been on the list. It’s a 4-hour drive from my place and most of the rivers in the region are closed to fishing till June 15th so I figured now was a good time for a quick fishing trip.

I hooked up the jet boat; packed it with camping gear, food, and beer and hit the road at 6am. The scenery makes driving in BC an experience in its self. For the most part, it is easy. The only trick is keeping your vehicle glued to the road while enjoying it and keeping an eye out for other drivers failing to do the same. It was snowing hard on Kootenay pass but clear and dry at the lower elevations as I rolled into Trail. I had the boat in the water and was heading downstream by 10:30.

The Columbia is absolutely huge. Its powerful jade green waters flow over a bottom made up of round rocks ranging in size from basketballs to school buses. The water is mostly flat but it is a flowing mass of powerful shifting currents, boils, and swirling football field sized eddies. Even at its lowest flows most of the river is at least 20 feet deep. It is obvious that a mistake on this river and you could be in a lot of trouble quick. I was glad for the experience I gained running and fishing the Peace River when I lived up north. The Peace is a massive rive with similar features but the Columbia is a different animal, not only in features but in how it fishes. As I was soon to learn.

I was excited to spend a few days hucking big flies and dredging the deep waters with my 13′ 7wt spey rod. For this trip, I set it up with an intermediate Skagit head and a t-14 sink tip. The first day I spent a good amount of time exploring the river looking for what I thought would be good runs to fish. At one point I may have violated international law when I noticed an American flag flying on a building about 20k downstream from Trail. I quickly turned the boat and headed back up river before an armed gunboat full of border patrol agents could apprehend me. 

So far the day had produced no fish and shortly after my border crossing I was fishing a run when some dark clouds rolled in and the wind really began to howl. Last time I was in this situation I decided to fish a little bit longer. That made for a terrifying 15k boat ride. This time I quickly packed up and throttled upstream out of there. Too late. Within 10 minutes I was in the shit getting pounded by rain and wind. I had planned on camping on the river but now I had no idea where a good spot would be and the thought of trying to set up camp in weather like this was not too appealing not to mention spending the evening in it. I wussed out and made a harrowing run for the boat ramp. An hour and a half later I walked into the Best Western Plus still in my waders and rain gear leaving a puddle on the floor while I checked into a room. 

Sunday was a nicer day but still yielded no fish. Everyone who fishes gets skunked. It happens. Sometimes it’s like a curse. Everyone else on the river is catching fish but despite everything you just can’t bring a fish to hand. This was not one of those times. As much as it pains me to say it “I blew it.” I won’t say I did everything wrong but I certainly didn’t do enough of the right things. Long story short I spent two days fishing underneath the fish. And when I felt like I needed to change tactics I just kept trying to get deeper. It’s a pretty sound approach as that is where most of the fish are except when their not. It never even crossed my mind to change my presentation and fish higher in the water column. Instead of trying the faster water I just kept looking for the slower runs of which there aren’t really a lot of on the Columbia. I swung weighted flies through the enormous back eddies convinced there were fish at the very bottom. 

I, of course, could have gotten all the intel on fishing the river before I left and when I got it after getting back I was feeling pretty stupid. Not so much because I didn’t ask my sources but because I couldn’t make the adjustment myself on the river and for being so narrowly focused on what I figured was the best approach despite the evidence that it wasn’t working. (Isn’t that the definition of insanity?) I think it’s just human nature to go with what we know. And when it isn’t working to double down on it. (Kinda makes you wonder a little bit about human nature huh?) There is a lot to be said for tenacity but at some point, it’s time to get creative and try something new. You can always go back to what you know. Sometimes you have to have your ass handed to you before accepting new methods, techniques, and gear.

There is a saying, “You learn more when you lose than when you win.” This aptly applies to fishing. We get stuck fishing a certain way because we have had success with it or even just a great day and are now convinced that this approach is the cat’s meow. Spending two days fishless on a river with an estimated 500 fish per mile is my definition of losing.

 

The Jet Sled 2.0

IMG_0401

I’ve had the jet sled for a year now and it has been put through the paces on several rivers scattered around northern and southern BC. After a year of use and a long  fishangry  (this means angry about not fishing enough) winter, I came up with a few more modifications for the boat. When I  got the boat I did a few modifications to it to make it usable. You can read about that here. Jet sled 2.0 would have some significant upgrades.

In the current configuration, the boat was lacking two key ingredients: storage and a place for cold beer. After doing a couple of multi-day trips it was clear that piles of dry bags on the floor wasn’t going to cut it any longer. And having no place for beer was unacceptable. 

For the first part of the project, I enlarged the bow casting deck and built one over the rear seat in the stern. The two new casting decks did several things for the project. The rear deck created a bilge so I installed an automatic bilge pump. A bilge pump in a boat is never a bad idea. The deck also gave me space to recess a 48-quart cooler in it for beer, food or dry storage. I recessed another cooler in the bow deck as well, and an anchor pot to store my chain anchor. There is now plenty of storage under the bow deck for tools, ropes, repair kits etc. This freed up storage under the center seat to be used for things more directly related to fishing. The last thing I did was to put a kill switch at the end of my tiller extension so I can kill the motor instantly and not have to reach back and fumble with the switch behind me. The kill switch would be put to the test a couple times this weekend as things got a little skinny on the Kootenay River. More on this later.

IMG_0388IMG_0386IMG_0387

IMG_0389IMG_0390

We had some pretty good days catching bull trout on the Kootenay River last fall before the sky started puking snow to usher in winter. I had been itching to get back to chasing those bullies all winter long. On Saturday a buddy and I took the newly improved jet sled and some new gear out to the Kootenay for a test drive. I put a Hardy Salmon 1 on my Winston Micro Spey and I got a 450gr Airflo F.I.S.T. intermediate skagit line for my 7wt loop Spey rod. Between the jet boat upgrades and the new skagit line, I was pretty sure the bull trout were fucked. It’s good to be optimistic.

Upon getting to the put-in at the Skookumchuck bridge we faced with a slight stumbling block. The cut in the bank to get to the river is normally very rutted and steep. Today it was still steep and rutted and now icy and in a few hours, muddy. After some hemming and hawing, we did the grown-up thing and went to look for a more user-friendly place to launch. We drove another 20k to Canal Flats to try and put in there. The river was frozen solid there so we drove back to Skookumchuck and slid the Tahoe and boat down the cut to river’s edge. No problem getting down. We rigged up, put the boat in the water, and left the Tahoe and trailer at the water’s edge. Getting the boat in the water was not the hard part. Getting back up the cut was the real worry.

The water was low and I soon forgot about getting back up the bank as I swung the jet boat back and forth across the river hunting blue (deep) water. The boat will run on-step in about 4” of water. It was easy to hit the right lines going upriver. A couple spots I knew were going to be trouble on the way back down. The sun was out. The wind made it a little chilly but still a gorgeous day to be on the water.

We fished every spot that looked good and spent the entire day doing it. The beer stayed cold. Lunch was warm and the boat stayed nice and organized. I was pleased with how all the modifications to the boat worked. I love the new Hardy real and the Intermediate skagit head casts well and definitely, gets the fly deep. It was a little disappointing to not hook into any of the massive bull trout that inhabit the river but we did catch some meat-eating cutties and a rainbow.

Now for the fun part. Remember those tricky sections I alluded to previous? Yup, they were tricky and we beached a couple time after missing or failing to see the right line. The kill switch worked like a charm and prevented any damage to the impeller. The only way to really know how skinny you can run is to beach it so I’m glad I got that out of the way. We were back to the put-in around 6:00pm. The ramp was now basically a muddy waterfall. The ice had turned into a fluffy mud. The ramp is steep, to say the least, and the first section which is nearly vertical was a oozing water and mud. This is not the first time I’ve put myself in this kind of situation. The problem is the outcomes always go one of two ways. They either become no problem at all and I feel a little silly for even dreading the situation, or, they turn into a total shit show that takes years for the scars of failure to heal. This had the makings of the later. We were at least two hours from anybody we knew that could come help us and it would be dark by the time we could get anyone out there to help.

Clayton scoured the beach for flat rocks to build up some of the ruts while I jockeyed the truck and trailer into position to take a run at it. Visions of all that could go wrong were running through my head. Truck stuck. Boat and trailer jackknifed upside down. Gear and parts strewn everywhere. 

I popped it into 4wd low and basically punched it. All that stress and worrying for nothing, the truck popped and bounced its way up the cut with the boat following faithfully right behind. I could see Clayton in the rearview mirror arms stretched upwards in relief that he wasn’t going to have to spend the night in Skookumchuck, Put one in the “I feel silly” column but at least we will be home before dark.

 

They Call it Snow Valley for a Reason

IMG_0364

Winters are tough for me. Opportunities to do what I love to do are extremely limited. As the days go by without any time spent on the water I get cagey and cabin fever starts to set in. There are things to do to keep it at bay when my spare time can’t be spent chasing fish. This blog is one of them but its success really is dependent on me getting out and fishing. My trip to Baja was a nice break from the snow and cold that hampers my fishing but since getting back I had not been out.

When I got up Tuesday morning the snow was still falling and there was at least 30cm on top of my Tahoe. The head muckety-mucks at work called a ‘powder day” and everyone went to the ski hill along with the rest of the town. I don’t ski anymore so while everyone headed to the hill I decided to do what I always do when I’m not working and go fishing.

The Elk River is deep in the grips of winter. Much of its waters are buried deep under snow and ice and its banks are surrounded by mountainous piles of snow. I headed out to a section I knew had some open water and place to park not too far from the river. Big heavy wet snowflakes were falling adding to the already stark white landscape but the temperature was right at freezing. Pretty much as good as it gets for January in Snow Valley. That’s what the Elk Valley is called during winter.

I parked the Tahoe and climbed over a 10’ pile of snow to start the 200-meter journey to the river. Halfway there, stuck in snow up to my crotch, I began to question the sanity of this venture. The thought of turning around this close to water was crushing so I trudged on huffing and puffing from the effort of having to lift my feet over my head to take a step. I eventually found the river’s edge. Its banks were lined with 5 – 6 foot walls of snow and ice. Should it really take snowshoes and ice climbing gear to go fishing? I managed to slip down one into the water. An unsettling feeling crept over me as I found my footing on the river bottom. There was a very real threat of a titanic sinking chunk of ice breaking loose and running over me. There would be nowhere to go. The best case scenario would be a life-threatening swim. Worst case would be drowning, pinned underneath an iceberg. Not that it helped but I “cautiously” made my way to the head of a pool out of the current and felt okay to cast from there. From this spot I could cover a lot of water and didn’t have to worry about icebergs. After several hours of swinging a fly from every vantage point possible, I had thoroughly covered all the open water. My efforts produced a nice meat eating cutty and  I crawled my way out of the river and back the through the snow drifts and called it a day. My cabin fever had been medicated but not cured.

If having cabin fever isn’t bad enough, The condition is made worse by the fly fishing industry as retailers use print and social media to bombard us with tantalizing offerings of the upcoming season. Their Facebook posts of leviathans caught in clear waters surrounded by blue skies and lush green backgrounds creating an anguishing impatience. Magazines offer teasing write-ups of manufacturers latest and greatest  gear offerings for the upcoming season. My unfishable hours and days are occupied by falling victim to the industry and researching gear and dreaming up more modifications for the jet boat. Which wouldn’t be so bad if I could actually implement them but the jet boat is encased in a tomb of snow.

IMG_0363

Just looked out the window and it’s snowing again.

 

 

 

Pez Gallo – Chasing Roosterfish in Baja

IMG_0353

After a freezing cold day sliding around the Kootenay River in the jet boat dealing with frozen guides, frozen feet, fingers, toes and faces one starts to wonder how the other half lives. Don’t get me wrong. As fun as fishing for bull trout is in the East Kootenays in November is, at some point you would like to be not catching fish somewhere warm. The boat would be buried under several feet of snow soon and fishing options here start to disappear quickly as winter sets in. There’s a reason half of Canada goes south in the winter… It’s called winter.

In keeping with the not catching fish theme of winter, I decided that Roosterfish on the fly on foot from the beach should meet those requirements. Pez Gallo, as the locals call him is extremely difficult fish to catch and the odds begin stacking against you as you add in a fly rod and chucking flies from the beach. This is a manner of fishing that requires extreme focus and patience as well as casting skill and slight aerobic capacity. In short: lots of waiting around followed by stripping line off the real while running down the beach casting to a rapidly moving fish that can change directions in the blink of an eye. The East Cape of Baja offers hundreds of miles of beach from which to pursue this demented folly so that’s where we’re going. My goals for this trip were pretty simple: Catch el pez gallo on the fly from the shore. And two: speak only Spanish, and not get lost, killed, or offend anyone with my poor use of the language.

 

Some Thoughts on Fly Fishing

Fishing is nothing more than trying to induce a fish to accept a hook in his mouth. This is attempted through a plethora of offerings using a variety of methods and gear. For the most part, once the “bait” is in the water paradigms tend to equalize. How it gets there is what makes fly fishing special.

The casting of a fly rod is the qualifier that separates fly fishing from other forms of catching fish. A four-year-old can figure out how to cast a traditional fishing rod and operation of the different types of reels is just a formality. The casting of a fly rod is something quite different. It requires skill. Practiced mechanics and muscle memory must combine to produce a cast. This must be learned under ideal conditions and then be adapted to a variety of changing conditions and challenges. High banks, obstructions, the wind, rain, distance, and water conditions are just some of the challenges for the caster.

Manipulating a tiny fly at the end of 30 to 50 feet of line with a long flexible stick to land precisely where desired is the objective. How that happens is a combination of skill and artistry. The mechanics of producing a movement on a 9 foot plus fly rod to influence the placement of a fly on the end of a 30 ft plus weighted line are a study in physics.  Mass, acceleration, force, power, and  speed; the ability to Influence these denominators is fly casting

The same laws of physics that produce a soaring perfectly executed cast are the same ones that will doom it to a fluttering failure. Each movement of the cast must be executed with precision and the correct amount of speed and exact timing. Similar to a golf swing, a fault in these metrics will anger the laws of physics and much like a poorly struck golf ball careening horribly off course a fly line will do the same, resulting in similar nastiness. A well-executed cast delivers the fly to its intended target and lands it on the water in a manner enabling the best chance at enticing a fish to a momentary lapse in judgment. Conversely, when it goes bad any number of repugnant results can occur. Bad casts crash on the water sending fish darting for cover. Flies get stuck in trees or drift poorly in the water alerting fish to their intention. Bad casts can literally tie a line in knots in mid-air requiring vast amounts of patience and dexterity to return to a usable condition.

Power in a cast is produced effortlessly and feeling the rod load and release its energy into the line inflicts a satisfying feeling of mastery.  A perfectly executed cast is a thing of beauty. A synchronization that sends a fly line rocketing through the guides delivering a fly to intercept perfectly with the desired target. Casting creates a rhythm to working a piece of water in search of fish. Cast, drift, mend, drift, repeat. It is a rhythm that begs to be interrupted. Anticipation builds with each cast and when the line comes alive with a fish on the end of it and the rod loads only this time with the object of its intention it’s a feeling that cannot be described. It has to be felt to understand.

Pike on the Fly 2.0

IMG_0092

My new obsession with Pike on the fly brought me to Bearhole Lake. A mapbook gave up a little information and the internet provided the rest. A Google search coughed up a listing on the travel site Tripadvisor.com complete with reviews. The first said, “THERE’S PIKE IN THIS LAKE!” The second complained about the FSR road used to access the lake. Between the two I knew what to expect.

Access to Bearhole Lake is via the Bearhole Lake Forest Service Road just outside Tumbler Ridge off Hwy 52. The Trip Advisor review about the road wasn’t exactly wrong. It’s just most people don’t complain about the quality of forest service roads. The road was fairly rutted and would be interesting, to say the least with a little bit of moisture on it. With the jet sled bouncing back and forth between ruts I slowly picked my way down the road. Around 20k there is a twisted and rusted wreck of a pick-up being consumed by the forest — a testament to someone’s bad driving and even poorer judgment. A few kilometers later I arrived at the lake campground.

The lake is in a Provincial Park. It’s tea colored water shores are surrounded by dense forest of conifer trees typical of the region. There are no reserved campsites and walk-in wilderness camping is allowed. A few 4wd trails meander around the lake leading more campsites. The boat ramp and I use the term “boat ramp” loosely here is currently an undercarriage grinding descent to the water’s edge with no room to turn around. Backing down is not an option. Getting a boat in requires a little creativity but possible

I brought 3 rods with me to experiment with different types of line and tip set ups. What I found I liked best was my 9ft – 9wt GLoomis with a 375-grain OPST commando head and a 10’ floating tip with a 7.5 Rio Pike leader. The Spey rods were fun too but Skagit casting from a boat on stillwater is not ideal. With the single hand rod, it was easier to just pick up line, double haul one stroke and chuck it where you wanted it. The Winston with a 250-grain commando head, no tip, and a 7.5’ Pike leader worked pretty good casting overhead but it was limited to smaller flies. I suspect I would be way under gunned in the event that a monster decided to look me up but it was a blast with the smaller Pike. The Winston microspey if proving to be a very versatile and fun rod.

Taking fish on the surface is often considered the apex of fly fishing and Pike are no exception. My large mouse patterns got a few looks but no one fell for it. Next year I will invest in some of those traditional Pike streamers that require half a chicken of feathers to construct. I eventually settled on a large black and white bucktail or a smaller perch imitating pattern. Both worked amazingly well, Casting big streamers on still water is audacious. They collide heavily with the water saying I dare you to eat me. Predatory instinct kicks in and Pike dart from their concealment to oblige. Most often it was two or three strips on the line and then a headshake on the other end as a Pike sunk his teeth into the offering. Then all hell breaks loose. These fish fight hard and more with the purpose of keeping what’s in their mouth than escape. Their aggression is endless and it doesn’t end with hooking them. There is still the matter of retrieving the fly.

Pike are voracious predators. If they were Sharks, no one would swim in the ocean. They hit flies with extreme malice. Any disturbance in the water will at the very least be investigated. When they do attack, their toothy jaws clamped shut on whatever is in their mouth and they will not let go for anything. Getting a fly back from a Pike can be a precarious endeavor. Their teeth tangle in the fibers of the artificial prey. As tempting as it may be to use fingers to aid in the extraction, it is a horrible idea. Ask me how I know this. Keep all digits away from the fish’s business end at all times.The delicate hook extractions performed on trout will not work on Pike. Even if all goes well the fly is often mangled beyond fishability. One difficult extraction required the use of both pliers and hemostats simultaneously while holding the leader in my mouth. The fish survived. The $20.00 Polar Bear hair bucktail did not. Once the fish is in the net be prepared for a struggle retrieving flys and use caution… and bring Band-Aids.

Day two was more of the same as I got into a dozen Pike in a couple hours before I was beaten off the lake by a steadily increasing wind. Whitecaps were making the lake treacherous to navigate in a flat-bottomed boat. Ducking and dodging 6-inch flies tied on 0/1 sized hooks made conditions less than appealing and I decided to call it a day. It was only 2 o’clock so I opted to pack up and head home. Loading the boat went well following the unloading sequence in reverse and road in stayed dry so there were no issues getting back to the highway. I took a route home that allowed me to check out conditions on a few of my favorite rivers in the area and as I suspected they looked terrible. I drove the rest of the way home thinking about where to go next week. I had successfully caught Pike on the fly. The total for the weekend was somewhere around 25. As is always the case the next step is now to catch a big one. I will spend the next week researching where the best place for that to happen will be. I may be returning to Bearhole Lake. There have to be bigger ones in there.

Pike on the fly — 0 for 1

Run-off is in full effect and to further enhance the waterworks a low-pressure system has squatted over the Peace region. The system has dumped 120 millimeters of rain on the region in two days pushing the already swollen rivers of liquid muskeg to flood levels. Arduous river conditions have now officially become absurd. It’s time for a new approach.

I did a little bit of research and found that hungry Pike are moving into the shallows after a long winter trapped under the ice to feed and spawn. This sounds interesting. This is a fish that is known to eat ducks. Stillwater fishing isn’t really my thing but any fish capable of eating a duck should at least be investigated. Stalking shallow water with a fly rod in search of a predatory behemoth is definitely in my wheelhouse. Targeted casting and creative stripping to incite a Pike to violence is definitely me.

For my first foray into the world of Pike fishing, I chose Charlie Lake. Charlie Lake is a largish brackish lake to the north of town considered “waterfront” for Ft St John. I’ve heard about and seen pictures of some decent sized Pike in the lake so it seemed like a logical place to start.

The temperature was just above freezing when I got up Sunday morning and there were hints of rain turned to snow lying about on car windshields and foliage. I decided to wait a few hours for it to warm up and by 11:00 I was in my boat heading north past the waterfront properties on the south end of the lake to find some good “Pikey” looking water.

Being new to this whole lake and Pike thing I wasn’t really sure what I was doing but I looked like the guys catching monsters on YouTube. I anchored the boat off-shore and pounded the banks with a streamer tied to imitate a Perch. After a couple hours and a few different locations, something slashed at my fly as I stripped it back to the boat but it missed and that ended up being the only action for the day.

0 for 1 for Pike on the fly. It will be a month before the rivers clear. In the meantime, I’m going to research out a few more lakes in the area and continue my pursuit of these toothy water wolves.

 

The Flood

HighWater2.3-11.jpg

It’s that time of year again. After patiently suffering through the cold dark winter, where fly fishing opportunities are few and far between, the fleeting signs of warming weather are co-dependently latched onto as the frozen landscape begins to transform. I get excited. Time on the water able to feel fingers and toes is almost euphoric. The warming water is clear and soft. Previously ice-bound fish are aggressively feeding. It’s fishing season! And then it happens — The environmental fart known as Run-Off. Pristine ice-free rivers hopelessly morph into raging torrents of chocolate milk. River waters churn with mud and whatever else they can tear from their banks. Trees are snatched from their roots and fired like torpedos downstream crashing into a pile of previous years torpedos. As days become longer and the sun shines warmer the rivers stay angry, violent, and dark. These aquatic avalanches will build and peak in the coming weeks. Anticipation will turn to desperation and before long I will find myself standing in a river the color of a Tim Horton’s Double Double trying to hit a trout in the face with a fly. It’s the act of a hopelessness but something has to give.

It will be over soon. Then it will be a few weeks of studying flows to see which rivers look like they’ve cleared. This year I created a little network to assist in the process. The Facebook Group Northern BC Fly Fishing River Reports will hopefully create a community of northern anglers that can share river information. Summers are short and no one wants to waste a weekend fishing a blown out river. Somebody might have to but at least now they can take one for the team and the rest of us can enjoy some quality time on the water. This is the North. There are no fly shops right on the rivers (no fly shops period) that send out emails with weekly stream reports. Up here it’s DIY so a little collaboration between river junkies will go a long way.

So, here’s the stream report. Rivers are quickly rising and filling with mud. Hunker down or go fish the lakes — if you’re into that sort of thing.

Catch and Release

IMG_1319

Years ago a couple friends and I went up to Elktrout lodge in Kremmling Colorado. The plan was a to fish the Colorado River but run off had come a little early and it was blown out. To counter this annual event Elktrout leases and manages spring fed ponds on ranchlands throughout the area. The ponds range in size and the folks at Elktrout have grown enormous trout in them. With the river unfishable we loaded up and headed to the ponds.

We were having fairly good success catching decent size trout. The weather was taking a turn for the worse when we arrived at the next pond. It was pretty much right in the heart of the ranch compound with corrals and cabins surrounding it. The guide assured us that this one had HUGE trout in it. Soon after we had wet our lines the sky let loose and people went scrambling for cover. Jim and I decided to keep fishing and in one of those iconic fly fishing moments, we both had a fish on the line. The drag on our reels screaming told us they were big. For about 15 minute our lines raced back and forth across the pool and eventually, we landed our fish. Jim released his first as I was tailing mine. I popped the hook out and gently picked up a 30” Rainbow out of the water. Jim quickly snapped a picture and I slipped the fish back into the water and released him. It was at that moment I heard a loud groan and looked behind me to see a couple of guys on the front porch of a cabin eyes wide and their jaws in the mud. One of them stammered, “You let it go? Why would you let it go? You guys just let them go?” Cleary, the concept of catch and release was foreign to these gentlemen. They were in complete shock as to why anyone would catch and release a fish like that. It is an exchange I seem to find myself in a lot.

I’m getting a little tired of people looking at me sideways when I tell them I don’t keep the fish I catch. This huge look of disbelief or concern appears on their face and it happens so much I feel a little self-conscious about it. In an attempt to neutralize the situation so no one (me) feels awkward I usually offer up some excuses like I don’t like the taste, or the regulations confuse me or my personal favorite; I don’t want to walk around in bear country with a bunch of dead fish on me. Ok, the last one is mostly true but the point is that based on the number of times I have to use these excuses so as not to appear freakish, I appear to be in the minority when it comes to releasing caught fish.

Why is it that people don’t get the concept? Why do people feel the need to enjoy the outdoors by killing its inhabitants? That’s not what this is about. To each his own. I just need to get up on my soapbox through the anonymity of the internet, seeing as how I mostly make up stories to explain why I don’t kill the fish I catch when confronted in the real world. So here it goes.

I like to fish. That may be an understatement. I like to fish a lot. And I do. I like to eat fish too. Of the two, catching and eating, I prefer to catch them… By a wide margin. Oh yeah, the only thing I like more than catching fish is catching big fish. Studies have shown that there are 28 times more trophy-sized trout in catch and release waters than in harvested areas. See where I’m going with this?

Catch and release is one of the single most important practice to improve the quality of a fishery and ensure that there will be lots if big fish to catch now and in the future.There is a reason that the best trout streams in the world are full of big fish – catch and release. The best trout waters in the world all seem to have a culture of conservation. They are fished by anglers that care deeply about these waters. They treat the fish with respect and educate others on how to do likewise. The Elktrout ponds are certainly no wild river ecosystem but they demonstrate the effectiveness of catch and release on a fish population.

A trophy-sized trout is a truly remarkable creature. Big fish are rare. The mortality rate for newly hatched trout in the first year is over 95%. It falls to 40-60% in subsequent years. Do the math. Out of 1000 eggs spawned by one trout after the first year, only 50 fry will survive. After the next year, only 25 fingerlings will have survived and by the next year of 1000 eggs only 12 will have become fish. The chances that one of those 12 will go on to reach trophy size? The odds are staggering. It is truly a numbers game. The more fish that live to spawn the greater the chance that one of their offspring will grow into a trophy sized fish.

If big fish are constantly taken soon the river will be left with little fish that are too small to be taken as well as diminished numbers of fish. So the next consequence of not practicing catch and release is stocking with genetically inferior hatchery fish which eventually breed with the wild population and even further reduce the quality and size of the new resident population.
We are not a part of a river’s natural ecosystem. The less interference and management by humans the more stable that ecosystem and the more it will flourish. We should feel fortunate to be able to interrupt it briefly with our angling pursuits. There are many ways to give back but the easiest is to just simply take care of the fish you catch and release them.

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.