As previously published in Fly Fusion magazine.
There are very few things in this world that I love more than the West Coast steelhead.
Dazzling, sleek bodies arcing wildly, broad tails smashing, and a mystique second to none… these majestic beauties captured my heart at first sight.
When it comes to fishing for steelhead, there are typically three kinds of anglers: those who understand and live the obsession; those who are simply indifferent to it and would rather fish elsewhere; and those who find this obsession of standing all day in the cold wind, hoping for just one fish to bite, only to then release it, slightly disturbing.
Regardless, whether an opinion be swayed more one way than the other, there is one thing about the West Coast steelhead that I’m pretty sure every angler can agree upon: they demand respect and they take it without asking…respect and a whole lot of backing.
When Fly Fusion approached me about being their new steelhead columnist, a multitude of thoughts ran through my mind…
“Am I old enough to write this column?”
“Am I good enough?”
“Have I been fishing long enough?”
“Is there someone who can do it better?”
These thoughts and others abounded as, in my self-critical mind, I questioned if I could justly bring you, the reader, into the steelhead world that so many of us have found and cherish.
I hummed and hawed for a couple of weeks, and seriously pondered taking Chris Bird up on the opportunity. Then, one day while out guiding on a local river, I got my answer.
As I stood beside a client fishing his way through a run, out of the corner of my eye I watched as a young angler in his early teens made his way towards me. He was soft-spoken and in a slightly quivering voice, he introduced himself to me.
His story was familiar to me. He was new to the sport, his father didn’t fish, nor did anyone else in his family and yet he had an inexplicable passion for fishing. Every day after school, this boy’s Grandmother drove him to the river, patiently reading her book while he awaited the tug of his first steelhead.
I glanced across the river to see Grandma sitting in a small blue car parked nearby, holding an open book and smiling as much with her eyes as with her mouth. She had watched her young grandson make the trek across the gravel bar in the hopes of having some of his steelhead questions answered by a local guide.
He had the steelhead bug, and he had it bad.
I could almost see steelhead jumping in his eyes, and his pudgy cheeks had the glow of fresh windburn…he was beautiful.
Full of questions and excitement, he wanted to know it all! It had been months of fishing every day after school and each passing day only brought him more enthusiasm in knowing that landing his first steelhead had to happen sooner or later. “It’s like treasure hunting”, he explained and I chuckled in complete agreement.
The two of us set aside a day to spend a little time together on the river. Full of questions, and possessing an attention span that never lost focus, he was a sponge to my knowledge and didn’t miss a beat. The small tidbits of information that I so regularly assumed were common knowledge were like gold to him and I began to realize just how badly he needed an accomplished angler in his life…one to learn from and to grow alongside.
I realized that what this fellow “treasure hunter” needed was not a trillion tales of hooked fish, or irrelevant biologist jargon. He didn’t need a chest-thumping biography full of first-place finishes in casting competitions or certifications… what this angler needed was for someone to help him through his journey, remind him why he chose this path during those bone chilling days when the fish don’t bite, and share with him the knowledge that so many of us seem to take for granted… but most importantly he needed someone he could turn to when he had a question that he had always been too unsure to ask.
He, like so many of you, was looking to improve his understanding of the elusive steelhead while doing so in a non-discriminatory, non-judgmental, and most importantly, fun sort of way. He was looking for an angler to empathize, share and laugh with as he walked the path to becoming a better fisherman.
That young boy, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason I was able to eradicate my self-doubt and why you are now reading this column. So, as I continue along the path as an eternal student, I invite you to join me, my clients, and other steelheading friends as we fish, live, and think outside the box inhabited by the conventional angler.
With egos left behind and minds wide open, we hope you enjoy the ride and that you learn a thing or two along the way.
I suppose it’s only fitting to begin part one of this column series by explaining exactly what a steelhead is…
An anadromous fish that travels from freshwater to saltwater and then back again, the steelhead is an ocean-going rainbow trout. A typical British Columbia steelhead ranges between 8 to 15 pounds, however, every year there are fish caught that exceed the 20 pound mark.
British Columbia is undeniably one of the world’s premier destinations for these large fish, as the steelhead runs here are still primarily wild; fish aren’t stocked or controlled by anyone other than Mother Nature herself.
The historic range of the steelhead in North America extended from the Pacific coast of the Baja Peninsula up through southern Alaska. Unfortunately, this range is shrinking and many of the fisheries in the continental United States have become increasingly dependent on the production of hatchery raised fish to mitigate the loss of their wild counterparts.
Hatchery steelhead are typically marked with a clipped adipose fin (the small fleshy fin located on the back of the fish before the tail), and are often targeted by anglers looking to harvest a fish for dinner. In many fisheries, the harvesting of hatchery steelhead is encouraged, as studies have shown that they can spawn with wild fish and dilute the unique genetic adaptations that wild fish have developed for each river system.
It is important, however, to remember that all wild steelhead caught in British Columbia are protected and must be released unharmed to continue their journey.
There are several different “strains” of steelhead in British Columbia: winter-run steelhead, summer-run steelhead, and spring steelhead.
The most aggressive and, consequently, most popular of the steelhead, are the summer-run fish. They enter river systems during the summer months and are most often targeted from July to early November.
With the warmer water temperatures of July, August and September, summer steelhead can be caught on dry flies and subsurface presentations using sparse flies. As October and November come around and bring fresh snowfall and colder temperatures, most anglers turn to sink tips and weighted flies to ensure their presentations reach the increasingly lethargic fish that are holding low and near the river’s bottom.
Perhaps the least known of the steelhead, are the spring fish. Unlike summer-run fish that make their way far upriver through lakes and tributary headwaters, spring steelhead typically return to locations nearer the ocean and generally don’t hold or stay in fresh water for much longer than a month. As a result, they are as chrome as steelhead come and often peppered with a small number of sea lice.
Timing their runs around freshet, these spring-run fish make their push through the rising water of melting forest and alpine snow pack, thus making timing and weather awareness critical factors to the pursuing angler. Colder weather and frigid water make streamer fishing the preferred method here and often times sink tips and/or heavily weighted flies are a must to ensure a proper presentation the fish.
Lastly, there are the winter-run fish. Winter fish tend to be the most difficult of the steelhead family as they are less aggressive than the summer and spring fish, and are known for their lockjaw tendencies and non-compliant behaviour. Certainly cold water plays a role in this, and extra effort, heavy sink tips, large flies, and generous amounts of patience are usually required to be a successful winter steelhead angler.
Perhaps one of the most enticing features of British Columbia’s steelhead fishing, are our wide rivers with endless boulder filled runs and evergreen lined banks.
These rivers present an array of structure and the best anglers are proficient when it comes to being able to “read the water”. Often looking for soft seams, sheltering troughs, distinct runs and generally “fishy” spots, truly great anglers understand how to locate and fish appropriate steelhead holding water.
In addition to this understanding, a thorough comprehension of how to fish pocket water, will boost a fly fisher’s success tenfold. Though fishing pocket water and holding slots is effective, it is the classic runs of steady, flowing current that are sought out by many steelhead fanatics, as these locations are ideal for “swinging flies”.
The swinging presentation consists of a cast across from, or slightly downstream from the angler. Maintaining a reasonable amount of tension, the line is held tight to the fly as it “swings” through the current and back into shore, ensuring direct contact in the event that a fish takes. These takes are often vicious and heart-stopping, consisting of an always surprising and unsuspecting jolt that makes every fisher’s heart jump.
Swinging allows the fly to cover a remarkable amount of water, as it is often cast far to the other side of the river, and is given the entire width of the river to flaunt and tease itself through the lies and waiting noses of both holding and moving steelhead.
The swing is the favourite presentation amongst anglers who fish out West, and many are hard pressed to fish any other method. Spey fishing is the preferred method of covering large swaths of river here, as a decent Spey cast can often clear the water’s distance and avoid getting tangled up in trees that would typically pose an obstacle to a single hand caster’s back cast. These attributes have made Spey fishing for steelhead increasingly popular over the past several years.
In this day and age, it is imperative that steelhead anglers not only pursue their quarry, but also educate themselves on the issues that these amazing fish face and work to preserve their existence for future generations to experience.
As a result, the steelhead community is made up of a close-knit group of people who have the same goal in mind…conserve, protect, educate and improve. Perhaps one of the most noted of these organizations in British Columbia is the Steelhead Society of BC.
This non-profit organization was formed in 1970 by a group of dedicated Steelhead anglers who were concerned about the state and future of wild steelhead stocks in British Columbia.
Though the Steelhead Society consists primarily of members from across North America, it also includes members from around the world and I would like to take this opportunity to ask you to look into joining this organization.
By means of member’s support, private donations and monies raised through fundraising campaigns, funding is put forth to encourage positive change in government and private enterprise, conservation, and restoration of wild fish and the wild rivers they inhabit.
The Steelhead Society is dedicated to the ongoing advocacy of environmental education, stream restoration, dam decommissioning options, maintaining flow rates, mitigating the effects of hatchery programs, effective control of the Aquaculture Industry, and holding government and public agencies responsible for the natural heritage rivers that British Columbia anglers are so proud of.
In 2010, steelhead stocks sky-rocketed and fishing was fantastic in most rivers throughout British Columbia. Now as spring approaches, fishing continues to be productive and winter-run steelhead in the lower mainland have most anglers leaving the river banks with smiles and shaky arms. So why not make 2011 the year you decide which category you fall into? Who knows, perhaps you’ll find the obsession that so many of us have been fortunate enough to have found…