Tales of the Tlell River

Story by Harvey Thommasen with Photography by Mark Hume

The Tlell River is a legendary salmon river that flows into Hecate Strait on the East Coast of Graham Island, which is part of the Haida Gwaii archipelago off British Columbia’s northwest coast. The river flows gently under Highway 16, which links the small towns of Queen Charlotte City and Masset, marking the protected southern tip of Naikoon Provincial Park, which runs north through bog and ancient forest, all the way to Rose Spit where, on a clear day you can see Alaska.

The Tlell River on a flood tide

The river is located about 22 kilometers southeast of the tiny community of Port Clements whose claim to fame includes being home of the golden spruce, which was chopped down by a crazed environmentalist, and of an albino raven, which managed to electrocute itself on a power pole and now sits stuffed in the local museum.

The Tlell is one of the most popular fishing rivers on Haida Gwaii (previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) mainly because in the fall it has a fabled run of big, northern coho. There are also sea run cutthroat in the spring and steelhead at various times, but the Tlell is best known for its heavy shouldered, hooked nose salmon, which come steaming straight in from the Gulf of Alaska. Most people on Haida Gwaii go to the Yakoun River if they want steelhead. But the Tlell, and farther to the south the Copper River on Moresby Island, are the two top coho destintions.

The Tlell is also one of those rivers British Columbia is famous for. Fisherman from all around the world visit, perhaps drawn more by the myth than the reality, for it is a moody river, with an unpredictable run, than can often disappoint. But when a fly fisherman hits it right, and the fish are in, it can be a spell binding place. Famous writers such as the late James Houston would commute yearly from their private homes as far as away as New England to stay in cabins along the lower Tlell. In fact, Mr. Houston wrote a book, entitled “Hide Away”, which described a life of fishing, writing, drawing, roaming, and rejoicing in their perfect summer and fall retreat on the Tlell. The legendary Lee Richardson would also come up from Oregon to fish the Tlell, which in the past has had such large runs that people could catch dozens of coho a day. Now the runs are less spectacular and more sporadic, so timing is everything. It is easy to go fishless on the Tlell, if you arrive before or after the main run has come in, and has rushed upstream to pools where the forest is so dense and the bank so steep it is difficult to cast.

I was told to fish the Tlell in early September, and fish it at slack tide, and during the first two hours of the incoming tide. I was told large northern coho to 16 pounds were commonly caught. The locals recommend using hardware, such as Crocodile spoons, Buzz Bombs or any of a variety of spinners. A lot of locals are of the opinion that the fly does not work well on this river, although there are some local fly fishermen who know that not to be true.

Most people fish the section of river below Highway 16, where a few broad kilometers of slow water flows through the forest and into the sand dunes of the estuary. This water is all under tidal influence, and when the fish come in they can move through quickly. The first two to three kilometers above the bridge are wooded, then the river makes it way through pastoral land which quickly gives way to grass covered sand dunes. The northern shore of the Tlell is the border of Naikoon Park, which features towering spruce, hemlock and cedar trees. Along the southern shore, below the highway bridge, a road runs beside the river, fronting a series of housing lots, where there are homes or summer cabins. At one point there is a bear hunting lodge, immediately facing the road and looking out on the river. The last of the houses is probably about two 2 kms from where the Tlell drains into the ocean, and depending on which way the wind is blowing you can sometimes hear the big surf crashing ashore in the distance as you cast in search of fresh run salmon.

At high tide the river can rise 20 feet in the slow section of water below the bridge, but at low tide the level drops so far one can easily wade across the slippery bottom to the far side. On one trip I crossed over, lost track of time, and much to my surprise six hours later had to remove my waders to swim back to where my truck was parked. A trail does go up the north bank to the highway but the the swim seemed like a good idea at the time, with darkness coming on.

Fishing the Tlell is pretty straight forward. You turn East off the highway on the South side of the bridge and park along the roadside. On a visit with my wife, Carol, we walked down along the bank with our dog Tuya, watching the calm waters for signs of salmon. Within minutes we could see fish rolling, and occasionally one jumped clear of the water, to land with a heart stopping splash. There were clearly big fish moving and it was quite exciting. There were some German tourists fly fishing on one run, and farther down two American couples were casting flies. Spread out along the river were another half-dozen locals, throwing spinning gear. We walked down about one km, where no one was fishing and to our surprise saw there were several coho surfacing in a long, slow pool which was maybe 50 yards in length. It was very exciting to watch them marking the surface. I waded out and began to cast and cast and cast. The water is so dark you can’t see the fish until they roll. I had on a bright orange marabou fly. There were fish surfacing within feet of me but nothing took and there were no signs of them following the fly as I retrieved it.

It was probably about 3 hours before low tide. After about two hours of casting, there was a sense that the school of coho I’d seen had moved up, with lots of fish rolling upstream out of casting range. How had they passed without seeing my fly? Maybe the local stories about these fish wanting spoons and spinners were true. Before I could gather my line and move up, a group of fish rolled below me and I fought to contain my excitement, as I imagined a dozen or more coho were closing and would soon be within casting range. Just at that moment a coho took the fly, jumped and ripped up the water as it ran across the river, slashing a line of silver on the dark water. The salmon jumped a few times, before I brought it in and pulled it up on the shore, which was so close to the ocean the rocks were covered with barnacles. In the excitement I cut my hand so badly it took weeks to heal.The fish was so fresh it seemed made of polished chrome, and there were a few sea lice attached to the ventral area. It had probably been out of the ocean less than an hour. I went back to fishing but didn’t move another to strike. Walking back to the truck I found the hardware casters had done about the same as me most had one fish for the day, a few had taken two.

I fished the Tlell five times that fall and landed three large coho and lost one just as it came to shore. I also took two bright silver jacks and lost two small fish which were probably sea run cutthroat.

The Tlell is not the great river it once was. But it offers a wonderful experience, where you can cast facing a towering, old growth forest while listening to the sea roar in the distance unless that sound is drowned out by the driving rain which often falls in sheets.

Haida Gwaii is remote and it is costly to reach. Is the Tlell worth worth it? The catch rates would seem to say no, but when you see big, bright silver coho here of about 16 lbs, just in from the North Pacific, you might well think that it is.