Steelhead for Every Season

Story and Photography by Peter McMullan

Steelhead Season: We talk and think a lot about steelhead in British Columbia but seldom acknowledge the remarkable diversity of the species. For example, how many countries can say with certainty that Atlantic salmon can be caught on the fly every month of the year? Few if any I believe.

In B.C. you can, although you will rack up a good few miles meeting the 12-month steelhead challenge. It starts, for me at least, on Vancouver Island in January, February and March in pursuit of winter-run fish in rivers like the Stamp, Cowichan, Gold and Salmon. These are the ones I know best and there are others too, smaller more intimate Island streams, and lesser known for that reason, which still produce more than the occasional fish.

 Pink Intruder

The Pink Intruder a Steelheads breakfast

Back in the 1970s I did well with gear on both the Nanaimo and the Cowichan, a river I first experienced in 1954, but the Nanaimo River, for whatever reason, has failed badly over the past decade, as have such formerly productive waters as the Big and Little Qualicum and the Englishman. Now only remnant stocks remain and should be cherished in hopes of recovery. Happily the Cowichan has proved to be the exception and still definitely holds it own.

Wright

Darren Wright on the oars

These winter run fish are not easily taken on the fly. Water temperatures are well down and flows can be high and strong. This adds to the difficulties facing the angler determined to do it the hard way with a swung fly on a fast sink tip rather than with a bottom-bounced lure fashioned from metal or plastic.  Using roe is simply not a subject to be discussed on these pages, smelly stuff that I for one would ban completely but then what right have I to impose my view on so many others for whom it is the only recourse? Each to his own as it were.

I have nothing against pink worms or Spin’glos, or spoons for that matter, but in recent years have become more and more enamoured with the mystique associated with seeking winter fish on the fly in the early part of the year. I have been successful on the Cowichan and the Gold in February and March but have yet to manage a hook-up in January.

April, the first month of spring and the long-anticipated changing of the seasons, is another story altogether, especially if you have the opportunity to head north to those rivers of the Skeena system. I am thinking in particular of the Kitimat and its run of spring fish, shining bright steelhead that move in from the nearby Douglas Chanel in March, April and May.

So different to the summer-runs, for which the Skeena system has garnered international fame, that start to arrive in July and August – that is if they can avoid needless, wasteful death in the nets of the commercial sockeye fleet.

Steelhead

Guide Darren Wright (L) with Peter McMullan and Steelhead

These are the steelhead that have brought international fame to rivers like the Morice, Babine, Kispiox and Bulkley, which attract anglers from the USA, U.K., Europe and Asia.

The name and potential of the Kitimat is less well-known, at least where thespring-run steelhead are concerned. It’s seen more as a river for the fisherman who wants to come in the early summer to fish for huge Chinook. But my focus is steelhead and, over the past three years, I have fished hard there over the course of an early April week.

The first year, 2011, was a useful introduction to a river that flows through a broad and sometime braided valley that must have been one of then most beautiful places in the world before the loggers decimated the forest and its huge cedars. Now the new growth, with lots of cottonwoods and alders, has become well established along with the moose, the wolves, the beavers and other typical wildlife.

That first year I caught three double figure fish on the fly and went home well pleased. In 2012, fishing with Doug Machuk, from Banff, we put in our time on both the Skeena and the Kitimat, ignoring the deep snow, and came up completely empty. Not a touch from a steelhead despite the best efforts of friend and guide Darren Wright who, with his partner Missy Macdonald, now operates The Steelhead House in Terrace, a log lodge which provides facilities for two guided fishermen at a time. Small is beautiful, and effective.

Steelhead House

Darren Wright, Missy Macdonald with their dog River

This year Doug and I met up again in Terrace for what proved to be a most successful week – perfect water and weather conditions, fresh run fish in the river and opportunities to hook, and land, some really substantial steelhead. The  size and vigor of the fish will stay in my mind for a long time. For whatever reason Doug had fewer hook-ups but managed to finish with a rare 100% record and the three largest steelhead of his career, two in the high teens and the best of them a formidable male of 21.5 lbs that measured out at 40 ins x 20 ins.

My own hooked to landed (and of course released) record was a lot less impressive but three in a row caught from the same pool on the last morning helped to ease the pain. Then, in the last 30 minutes I made contact again, this time with one of those fish we all dream about.

The fly, one of Darren’s pink Intruders, was taken with a thump at the edge of the seam and, while I felt I played it well, following his directions to give it no quarter, the hook eventually came back. I have only once before, on the Babine, been in touch with such a powerful and determined adversary.

And so the year goes on, month after month somewhere in B.C. we can expect to fish for and catch steelhead. Summer runs in the rivers of the Skeena and Nass systems, and on the Island too if you know where to look, into early November and then back to the Island for the first of the winters as they build numbers into December. No mention, you say, of all the other B.C. steelhead rivers, especially those of the Fraser system, but that’s another story and one for another time.

BigUn

Doug Machuk (L) with Darren Wright (R)

[For more about The Steelhead House see www.steelheadhouse.com ]