Meet me tonight at Devlin’s Run for Steelhead

Story and Photography by Dave Hadden

During the evening of April 20, 1991, I successfully bid $325.00 for two days of guided fishing for summer run steelhead. I was at a live auction at a Campbell River Branch of the Steelhead Society of BC fundraiser and the guide who had offered his services was Bruce Gerhart. Although I had met Bruce scarcely six months previous, I had learned enough about him to know I would probably learn more from two days with him than I would from a year on my own. Although I had caught several winter steelhead when fly-fishing on the Charlottes, I wanted to learn about summer steelhead. And besides, earlier that evening I had been successful bidder on a custom built Sage fly rod with an Islander reel autographed by Lefty Kreh. I had the equipment, and now I needed some knowledge. Bruce would supply that.
Around the end of May Bruce called me. Meet me tonight at Devlin’s Run, he instructed. Bring your gear.

I fussed over my gear for half an hour before Bruce arrived, checking all the knots on my hand-tied leader, running the leader through my line straightener and wondering what fly I should choose. Maybe Ill leave that to Bruce, I thought.
After exchanging pleasantries upon his arrival he quickly rigged up and donned his boots. Follow me, he said. He led off across the channel to the bottom of the Lower Island, wading as if the water was a mere afterthought. I was to learn later more about his legendary status as a fearless wader. Reckless wader, I’ve heard it said, but he never drowned.

How good can you cast? he bellowed. I don’t know, I answered. You tell me. With that, I pulled out some line, wiggled enough through the end of the rod to give me a start, picked it up, false cast two or three times and shot it out.

Wheres your fly? he asked, not a bit quieter than before. Only a little red-faced, I explained that I hadn’t been sure what fly to use and was going to ask him. In all the bustle of his arrival and the attendant fuss, I had forgotten, and had tied nothing on. And it was a good cast too. He laughed, told me to wait a minute and then pulled a fly box from a pocket in his vest. He selected two flies, one wet, one dry, from what appeared an assortment of dark coloured flies, handed them to me and told me to tie on the wet fly. I looked to see if the barb was pinched and then checked the hook for sharpness. It seemed like it could use a touch, so I brought out my hook hone and bent to the task. Don’t do that! Bruce exclaimed. Its fine the way it is. Somewhat surprised by his admonishment, I asked what he meant. The hook seemed less than razor sharp to me. He explained how steelhead normally rise and turn to take the fly and how the angler wanted the hook to slide to the corner of the jaw to ensure a solid hook up. A razor sharp hook can sometimes hang up in the fleshy bits in the mouth of a steelhead, and then pull free when the line tightens, often missing the corner of the jaw. This hook was plenty sharp enough to penetrate when it found the mark.
Whats the name of this fly? I asked. Its a Black Spade, he replied. Slightly weighted. The other is an Irresistible.

I noted the Spade was tied on a short shanked and heavy hook. This fly would definitely sink. We spent the next hour working our way down the run. Bruce seemed pleased that I could cast well enough to fish, and that I understood mending. To me, self-taught, that was high praise, although I just followed my instinct, and there was no great skill in that. I was well down the run, Bruce having slowed his pace behind me, when I heard him yell. I turned to see that he was into a fish. He waved me to join him so I waded up as quickly as the slippery rocks allowed. His 15 double hander was pulsating, bending from the butt and line was streaming off his reel. It was a fresh fish, one of those Tsitika River transplants that provided so much sport from the mid -80s into the 90s, and very strong. Bruce played it well, never allowing it a moment of respite, and soon had it lying on its side in two feet of water. It was a buck of about 14lbs. or so. Bright and beautiful, it recovered quickly and scooted away.

I didn’t touch a fish that night, but Bruce assured me I would if I kept trying this spot. We spoke of my successful bid and Bruce said we would take one day in June and one day in October. We would fish the Heber, a river I had driven past a million times when I lived in Gold River, but had never bothered to fish. I was back at Devlin’s the following evening, alone. I waded into position, set my feet and worked out a comfortable length of line. Casting slightly upstream and immediately mending gave the best drift, with a few little mends thrown in as needed. I watched the end of the floating line intently as I methodically worked my way along. The pleasant rhythm of fishing was interrupted by the excitement of actually catching when I saw the line move, lifted the rod and the line came up tight. More through fortunate timing than any polished skill, I was solidly hooked to my first summer steelhead from the Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.
First fish on the Black Spade.

It wasn’t a spectacular fight, or at least I don’t recall it as such, unlike two other memorable fish I took later that year and I landed it quickly enough, fly firmly lodged in the corner of its jaw. Just where Bruce had said it should be. First fish on that fly, the Black Spade.
Another evening, a week later and two steelhead succumbed to the charms of the Black Spade, fished off a double taper floating line with a long leader. One was a gorgeous 36 inch buck that made two ponderous leaps amidst a flurry of runs and furious head shakes before coming to hand. I can scarcely recall the other. Second and third fish! I had some confidence in this fly now. The time for my guided trip to the Heber arrived and I got to know Bruce better during the drive. I discovered that he, being hard of hearing, presumed everyone else was too, hence his habit of bellowing. I also discovered he liked to swap stories, so I told him of my three fish on the one fly. He seemed very pleased about my success.

Within the hour after our arrival, Bruce had shown me a few spots where steelhead held and then spotted three holding next to a big boulder in fairly fast water. His ability to spot fish was uncanny and I learned much from just watching him and listening to his ruminations. Following his instructions, I positioned myself downstream of the fish, false cast off to the side and then dropped the Irresistible just upstream of where they were holding. Bruce was peering intently into the water. I was stripping in loose line and watching the fly drift towards me. The fly was taken in a quick and splashy rise, virtually always the sign of a smolt, rather than an adult, which usually take in a more sedate fashion. Sure enough, 10 inches of the prettiest baby steelhead you ever saw tore up the little pocket as Bruce pointed forlornly at the three adult steelhead scooting upriver for parts unknown, spooked by all the commotion. The rest of the day passed pleasantly enough and we saw fish but fooled none, except when Bruce got mad, and pulled out the hardware.
Damn fish wont eat our flies but they’ll fight each other over a bloody spoon, he exclaimed. With that he commenced rummaging through his vest, first one pocket, then another. I watched, expectantly, wondering just what he was on about. Here it is, he exulted. I knew I had one somewhere. He was brandishing a rather tarnished looking spoon, a Kroc, as I recall. He quickly stripped off about 30 of tippet material, attached it to his line, tied on the spoon and then strip-cast it into the pool. Five seconds later he set the hook on one of those gorgeous little summer steelhead the Heber is known for. A couple of minutes of give and take and he brought it to hand, about 10 lbs. or so, a good fish indeed for this stream. It was impossible to not ooh and aah over its bright chrome beauty.
It doesn’t count, he said. I just wanted you to see one up close. I didn’t want you to feel cheated.

How could I feel cheated? I wondered. I had hooked a fish on the dry fly, if only a smolt, had a day under my belt with one of the best summer steelhead guides around, another day to come and the Tsitika transplants in the Campbell to pursue. The following weeks found me searching out the holding lies of those fish in the Campbell, nearly always fishing the Black Spade that Bruce had given me. It rarely let me down, and I took a small buck one evening, followed by a 32inch doe the next. She jumped five times, almost symbolic it seemed, as she was the fifth fish hooked, and all landed.

An opportunity to again fish the Heber arose when Lin Antonelli, a friend and fellow angler, asked me to take her out there after summer steelhead. We arrived early in the morning and I immediately took her to a good spot I had learned from Bruce. She was fishing a spinner and on her first cast hooked and landed a lovely little doe, which made her day right there. As she glowed in the glory of her success, I carefully moved into position to drift my trusty, if somewhat bedraggled Spade into the depths of the larger pool. On the third cast I hooked up and subsequently landed a good little buck. Two casts later and I had his girlfriend too. The rest of that day is lost to memory, but I had added two more fish to the tally of the fly. So far I was seven for seven, unbelievably lucky!
Came another evening, and I was in the Main Island Pool, diligently probing with the Spade, casting, mending, fishing the drift, moving; casting again, another mend, and repeat. It gets repetitive, no doubt about that. Yet every cast has a promise, and a possibility, and a hope. Hope was rewarded when the line tightened up, releasing that sudden flush of adrenaline we seek. As quickly, it was gone, as the line went slack. The first fish lost after hook up, but my fly was still there and not noticeably the worse for the experience. I retied it carefully. I worked down to the Lower Island Pool, sat and had a smoke, then waded in and started working through it. Two thirds of the way down, and I had another one on. Again, the attachment was but a brief romance and I was left standing alone, unsatisfied still, except for the relief that my fly remained attached to my tippet. I retired for the evening, zero for two, and feeling somewhat chastised. But I still had the fly.

Back to Devils Run

The following Sunday evening found me thigh deep in Devlin’s Run, carefully slithering my way along, ever mindful of just how slippery the Campbell gets in summer. Reaching the spot where it always seems right to turn around and try a few casts in the deep slot where the water from the inside of the Lower Island rejoins the rivers main flow, I did just that. To my surprise, as this place had never yielded a fish to me before, I found myself indulging a rather smallish buck, as he turned out to be. He was hooked right in the nose, almost dead centre. I state this because it was a noteworthy thing at the time. All of the other fish had been hooked in the corner of the jaw. I released him and finished off the evening. The next night, I caught that same fish, in the same spot, with the same fly.
He was hooked in the corner of the jaw, and was my eleventh hook up, but only the tenth fish.

The rare blood disorder that took Bruce from us much too early had not afflicted him yet, so in October, when I spent my second day with him, he was still strong and vital and wading like a maniac. The Heber was considerably higher, carrying the rainfall of the past few days to the Gold, and spots that were easy to wade in summer were now worth a second look. Bruce didn’t believe in second looks, and two or three times I worried about his choice. Fortunately, I am the same size as he was, so I was able to stay upright, even during one brief instant when I actually floated a few feet before tip toeing ashore. He definitely waded deep.

We arrived at the pool where Lin had caught her fish earlier that summer and I explained to Bruce how I had caught two more by creeping across the tailout of the upper pool and into position against some boulders that I had used to break up my shape. He seemed pleased that I had listened to his belief about stealth on small streams and thought we could buddy wade across and try the same tactic, although the current through the pool was much stronger than before. We gained the other side without mishap, and carefully moved into position. I noticed a bit of an edge along the main current of water into the pool and indicated thats where I would try. Bruce nodded in agreement, and with that I commenced working out line, roll casting slightly upstream to gain length. Then, after one quick backcast, I shot the line out, aiming above the spot I wanted the fly to fish through. The steelhead that took a few moments later counted as hook up number twelve, although only 11 fish were involved. I lost it, and far too quickly too, as memory serves. Still, that Black Spade has accounted for a dozen hook ups and nine landed fish, a remarkable record I think.

I still have that fly, although I shall most likely never fish it again. I haven’t used it since Bruce passed on. It has a place in my home where it resides, and I look at it every now and then. When I do, I think of Bruce, and what he meant to me and countless other anglers he mentored, or influenced, or entertained, or took fishing, or bellowed at. He really was one of a kind, in the truest sense of that aged clich, and he left me a legacy, in the form of a tattered old fly.

I took Bruce to the Heber for his last trip there. He was very weak and tired quickly, but we took our time and he was able to walk to a couple of easy access spots. He leaned on me a few times, and I could feel how frail he had become. We both knew his life was slowly being taken by an affliction that couldn’t be stopped, and that this was most likely our last trip together. All day I contrived to always be fumbling around and not quite ready to fish so as to give him first cast on new waters, praying he would raise a fish. He knew what I was doing, too, but he never refused first cast either. We didn’t fool a thing using flies and Bruce got mad, and then he got really mad when he couldn’t find a spoon in his vest. We laughed about that on the drive home.