After eight months of hard rowing a guy can get rather worn down. As the trout season winds to an end our thoughts begin to wander to the great white north of Canada. Holy Land of Mother Skeena. The rivers of British Columbia have a definite aura to them, an indescribable pull that once you step foot into them for the first time you are already thinking about how to get back. The area we visit has it all; mountains, wildlife, glaciers, costal jungle, cool people and of course, the fish. Or maybe the promise of the fish, the idea that maybe if you stand out there swinging long enough the fish of a lifetime will magically appear.
We arrived in Smithers in record time, barreling through the Canadian Rockies like men possessed and hoping the Steel were moving upstream at a similar pace. There is no fast way to get from Montana into northern BC no matter which way you slice it. We stocked up in town and found out from the flyshop that the big river was open to us non-locals on weekends. Well why the heck not, we came here to fish dangit! Starting out on the big river was a bold move and we found conditions just peaking from rain and unusual early winter snowmelt. The Mother Skeena is intimidating even on a good day and when she's a' rising oh man. Good luck, bud! We knocked the rust off our casting and got a feel for what a real Steelhead river looks like, as far as you can cast and even then you wish you could get another ten feet. The Salmon and Clearwater rivers in Idaho get you going in the right direction but then you find yourself on this monster.. .
We moved up river, setting up camp on our favorite section with high hopes for the upcoming days. Weeks. Unknown duration. Until the river ices up? With the truck packed to the gills and boat strapped on top we were a caravan of Montana spey fishing gypsies here to party! Being on known water with falling conditions and stable weather all seemed like the ideal combination. Not gonna know by sitting, gotta go out and swing it. We started the first morning on the upper without any bites but confidence was high nonetheless being on a more manageable and dropping river. Right about lunchtime at the top of the prime stretch we got our first tug and first landed fish of the trip. Hot hen right where she was supposed to be. Oh man. The first tug is what gets ya'. Unbelievable strength and power that lets us trout hounds know we ain't in Kansas anymore. This fish has gotten through the gauntlet up to this point and is not taking your shit lightly. We found a few more that day giving us the sense that we might be onto something this trip.
Capt. America Steel
Where do I start on these fish. They are large, sometimes impossibly so, and earn every bit of there reputation for having a foul temperament. Spending time in the wide Pacific will give a fish a bad attitude towards anything that dares get in its way towards the natal stream. Im bigger than you, so whatchu gonna do. The first pull on the line from a BC steelhead lets you know you are connected to something special, the seasoned anglers' pulse rate and confidence in the fight evaporating quickly with the first boil on the surface. Their affinity for a swung fly is second to none. Getting at these mythical fish on the swing is the only way to go, it allows you a much deeper connection to not only the fish but also to the rivers that they inhabit. Learning a run while swinging is to map every eddy and slip stream on its course, the pull of the line giving away the invisible buckets in which a steelhead will reside. You know from the drift the second you are stepping into the head of "the bucket". He's gotta be in the next ten steps. It's this connection that makes the meeting between angler and fish that much more special. Two journeys crossing paths with a meticulously tied fly as the only introduction necessary. Big, bright, air-born, hard-charging wild Steelhead on the swing. One of those experiences that is hard to explain.
A big part of this trip for us is simply the camping, just being immersed in the environment that supports these animals for as long as we are. Camp living is good for the flyfishermans soul as the daily routine reduces down to the absolute basics with fishing at its core. The internet don't work out here so don't even try. Morning coffee, packing the truck, bumping the tunes, picking a stretch, fishing all day and tying flies to the Grateful Dead all night. Simple. Basic. Perfect. Add some cribbage tournaments and a little whiskey and I might just pull stakes and permanently move into a wall tent!
After a few days of this routine the habits of the fish start to make somewhat more sense : Early bird might get the worm some days but normally the best bite is during the lunch rush. As the trip went on our start times moved back, some would say because of hangovers but mostly because of the bite. Being this late in the season means the fish are most active for only a short window each day. Being fresh and swinging during primetime is a definite bonus. You can definitely cast yourself ragged out here and be worn out by the time you find yourself in prime water mid day. Saving your best for the confidence water paid off for us big time this trip more days than not.
All picture credits Alex Hibala, Chris Rockhold, Logan Smith, Gary Tilton