A Fabled Babine Steelhead Lodge Changes Hands

Story by Peter McMullan

An historically important link with the early days of steelhead fishing in British Columbia is changing ownership. The Babine Norlakes Steelhead Camp, one of just three such operations on the famous 61-mile long river, is passing from the hands of Pierce and Anita Clegg to Billy and Carrie Labonte.

babine river

Pierce Clegg on the Babine River

Both families, the new and old owners, live in Smithers, and both have a strong connection to the wild land and wild rivers in northern B.C., so no major shift in attitude is expected.

Joy Madsen (L) with Pierce and Anita Clegg

“Anita and I believe the Labontes are a perfect fit for the furtherance of  the steelhead camp, and for the continuation of stewardship efforts on behalf of wild watershed values,” says Pierce, who has long fought to protect the wilderness values of the Babine River. “Billy and Carrie have much experience in wild places and their combined angler/hunter-guiding skills well suit them for serving our guests.  They will create their own goodwill and legacy given time to learn the ropes and make their own strategies for stewardship.  Billy already has the benefit of many years of steelhead guiding at the Silver Hilton Lodge; Carrie, in association with her father, well-known guide-outfitter Ray Collingwood, has contributed to her family’s business for years.  Together they have the skills and connections to keep Norlakes a top rated steelhead destination for years to come. “

Pierce and Anita have run the fabled camp since 1986. Before then it was in the hands of Ejnar and Joy Madsen, a pioneering family that built the original rustic riverside steelhead camp around 1965,  12 years after they took over the Babine Norlakes Trout Lodge. The trout camp is on Babine Lake which, at 110 miles, is the longest natural lake in the province.

In the early days guests and guides intent on catching a steelhead had to make a daily 28-mile round trip, in an open boat and early winter, from the trout lodge through Rainbow Alley and then Nilkitkwa Lake to reach the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) weir, the starting point of the river. Ejnar Madsen’s construction of the steelhead camp, largely in its original form to this day, and the mid-1960s introduction of jet drive outboard motors, opened up a whole new world of the best possible sports fishing oportunities.

One happy client with his catch

Steelhead camp, with its four original guest cabins, owner’s and guides’ cabins and main kitchen and dining building, hosts up to 11 fishermen on a weekly basis for a nine-week season that begins in early September. It is often fully booked by spring.

Trout lodge operations, which Pierce and Anita intend to keep, will be on hold this year to give the Clegg family some time off before helping the Labontes settle into their new venture.

Pre-season  preparations will be under way in the third week of August with provisions to be ordered, cabins prepared, boats and motors checked, and wood – up to 15 cords are consumed in the roaring and very popular nightly camp fire – cut and brought some six miles downstream by boat along with the hundreds of gallons of fuel for the essential cabin stoves, the camp generator, the outdoor hot tub and the 22-foot aluminum jet-drive boats. Guides use the boats to take fishermen to the more than 70 named pools along 17 miles of absolutely prime steelhead water.

The Babine, part of the famous Skeena system, is world renowned because of the numbers and the size of the fish it produces every year. Steelhead to well over 30 pounds can be taken –  that is if they don’t break free, which is a frequent occurrence with the very big fish.

I speak from bitter experience having left my fly in a real brute after a memorable encounter on a pool called Sandy’s. My guide, Darren Wright, had a good look at it and estimated it weighed “in the high 20’s or low 30’s.”  I am left with only a vivid memory of a massive, double red striped shape showing its flank well down in the clear water, one that then turned and left the pool with all the irresistible power of a runaway truck – an unforgettable moment and the reason why so many anglers are drawn back to the Babine year after year.

The famous square tail of the Steelhead

Incidentally, for readers unfamiliar with steelhead fishing in British Columbia, wild fish are protected by catch and release regulations and by the use of single barbless hooks. The quality of the Babine fishery is  further enhanced by a fly only rule adopted by all three lodges. The others are Babine Steelhead Lodge, located some three miles further downstream from Steelhead Camp, and Silver Hilton Steelhead Lodge, which operates on the lower river and where Billy Labonte, 37, started his guiding career 20 years ago.

Billy was born in Kelowna and spent his childhood with a rod in his hands while camping and hiking the Thompson-Okanogan region of B.C. A skilled caster with single and double handed rods, he has fished in 17 different countries for fresh and salt water species, but his true love is the cold northern rivers of the Skeena system, the Babine being the crown jewel. In 1992, still in his teens, he started guiding at the Silver Hilton under the tutelage of owner ‘Babine Bob’ Wickwire, master jet boater, Jud Wickwire, and steelhead guru Lani Waller. He guided each full season on the Babine until 2004 and part time until 2008.

In 1998 he started summer trout guiding for Spatsizi Wilderness Vacations where he met his future wife, Carrie Collingwood. Today he is a father of two, Adison, 4, and Logan, 2  and an accomplished bush pilot, in addition to being a fly fishing and wilderness adventure guide. He and Carrie manage and operate Spatsizi Wilderness Lodge (www.spatsizi.com). Steelhead have always been in Billy’s blood and it goes without saying he and Carrie are excited about the opportunity to continue local ownership of Norlakes and to be able to offer “exceptional service and many memorable angling adventures.”

Carrie was born and raised in the Bulkley Valley spending her youth fly fishing in the Spatsizi Wilderness.  Her family has owned and operated a world renowned guide outfitting and fly fishing lodge in Spatsizi Wilderness Park for the last 42 years. She has handled the marketing, reservations and office management for the last 12 years.

“I have led horseback hunting and wilderness trips, slept under spruce trees, watched the Northern Lights, and been stalked by wolves,” she says. “I love the outdoors and look forward to bringing up my children to love and appreciate the wilderness.”   She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Leisure Service Administration from the University of Victoria and has worked as a planner in public sector recreation and as a downhill ski instructor.

After 27 full seasons of guiding on the Babine, I asked Pierce Clegg to reflect on some of the issues he has faced over the years and to consider how he felt his legacy would be viewed in the years ahead. Always a passionate advocate for the watershed, he loves it for its beauty, its abundant wildlife and its magnificent fish.

Pearce Clegg guiding on the Babine River

“Besides taking on, at the age of 25, a hunting and fishing tourism operation in the Babine watershed, I think the single biggest achievement or legacy would be the Babine River Corridor Park and the many land-use plans surrounding the park,” he said, referring to a green belt established to protect wilderness values along the river. “While I cannot claim to have single handedly achieved this, I believe it would not have happened unless I had immigrated from Oregon to Canada, purchased Norlakes and fought hard to keep the river from being clear-cut to within 50 metres of almost of the entire river.

“I think the second most important achievement was to pioneer a much more aggressive guiding strategy for the upper Babine which led to a fly only clientele including a catch and release ethic before it was required by regulation.  The naming of un-named pools and learning fly-fishing techniques for the runs and pools took years to perfect.  The knowledge gained and the experiences acquired have become a storehouse of appreciation for the wild values of the Babine watershed, and how best to protect them.  One particular legacy aspect of fly fishing the Babine has been the introduction of the floating fly line and waking fly as a priority in terms of guiding.  I believe the Babine River is perhaps the best surface action steelhead river left in the world.

“Third, the establishment of the Babine River Foundation (BRF), which also led to the creation of the Babine Watershed Monitoring Trust (BWMT) are  legacies of stewardship as well as models to apply on other watersheds in the future.  The funding formula for the BRF, through a guest surcharge collected by the three lodges on the river, provides consistent budget and financial support for the BWMT plus other efforts.

“The trust monitors land management strategies in the Babine River watershed and reports to governmenht and the public as to whether those strategies are putting land-use objectives at risk.

“Even though compromises and losses to the wild ecosystems are also in  our legacy in fighting for wild values, what would the Babine watershed look like today if those efforts were never made?  I can tell you that the difference would be shocking.  So even though advocates for wild values don’t get what they would like or even need, precious time is purchased for the future, time in which the watershed can recover much quicker had no advocates been there to make a difference.”

Pierce noted that there are plenty of threats yet facing the Babine system, including a new open-pit copper mine proposed from the Morrison watershed. If approved, it could add to the pollution already seeping into Babine Lake from two old mines.

“There is also the ongoing pine beetle epidemic, mostly within the  Babine River corridor and including the park,” said Pierce. “ The logging interests want those trees and the B.C. government dropped stumpage fees making uneconomic timber harvest in the pine beetle area all of sudden profitable.  At the same low stumpage, many other green non-pine beetle infected trees also get harvested. In other words, there may be a free-for-all on timber rights in the name of the pine beetle,  definitely not a win-win by any definition.”

Fall on the Babine River

He’s also concerned that government budget cuts have delayed production of a master plan for the Babine River Corridor Park. Meanwhile development outside the park continues.

“The forest adjacent to the Babine is not considered a park concern so it can get clear-cut right up to the park boundary, even in spite of detailed land-use planning.  It seem ludicrous to make a park and then surround it by logging or mining and watch the park values degrade to the point where the park is only a title and not a reality,” he says.

“These and other issues are not going to go away so the work of the BRF and BWMT will never be finished.”

[Editor’s Note: Peter McMullan and Pierce Clegg co-authored ‘Babine A 50-Year Celebration of a World-Renowned Steelhead and Trout River’. Their book was published in 2010 by Frank Amato Publications Inc., Portland, Oregon, with all authors’ royalties and a special publisher’s contribution going to the benefit of the Babine Watershed Monitoring Trust.]


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