With triathlon races being cancelled left, right and center, it opened the door for some fishing adventures. Pre Covid I had booked a 30th present to myself, Steelhead fishing in August, but with no international travel possible I squeezed in an additional long weekend in July. I would be targeting Chinook and Pink salmon, both of which I needed to complete the Pacific Salmon Grand Slam (all 5 species). That would then leave only the tricky and elusive Atlantic Salmon.
Covid hasn’t restricted us too badly in British Columbia so flying internally and staycations are encouraged, although I was interested what travel in the Covid world would be like.
Vancouver airport was so quiet, completely empty, which was fortunate as I thought my flight left 30 minutes later than it did. Luckily I always turn up early so there was no stress. Everything is low contact and self serve which is no bad thing although wearing masks will take some getting used to. The most stressful moment is having your temperature taken before security, if it’s high then no flight for you… I passed!
The departure lounge was busier due to the internal flights. I had been warned the flight would be busy and could change if I wanted but it turned out to only be half full. Everybody sat in the front half though which didn’t seem very socially distant!
Having to wear a mask throughout the airport and for the entire flight was annoying but bearable. There was no food or drink service on the flight but you get goody bag including: a bottle of water, gloves, mask, hand sanitiser, wet wipes etc.
Landing in Terrace it became clear it has 3 things: Forestry, Mining and Fishing. I was the only fisherman so maybe it was only obvious there were 2 and I knew the third. The airport reminded me of Scotland, small with wild scenery. I love these sorts of places and the more remote the better.
Jeroen, the owner of Skeena River Lodge, met me and we set off for the lodge, via the shops for some beers, as everything else is included.
En route we discussed the plan and as a result of the international travel ban I would have the 8 person lodge to myself. Their season has been absolutely decimated as their clientele are, 80% UK/Europe, 20% United States, and me. During the season they had only had one client a couple of weeks earlier from Toronto.
I would be fishing the Kitimat river as the other rivers were closed to protect the Chinook populations. Normally this would be a problem as the one river would be insanely busy but not this year as all the lodges are empty.
His lead guide, Frenchie (unsurprisingly from France) came for a drink as they went through my gear, setting me up to target both Chinook and Pink salmon. It was instantly clear they live for fly fishing and know their stuff, which is always a good start. I would use their reel on my salmon rod and my reel on one of their rods. My reel is too light weight for a big Chinook but would be great fun for Pinks as it has a limited drag.
Most excitingly though the flies I had been tying were deemed suitable, meaning I would get the chance to catch my first fish on a fly I tied.
Jeroen and Frenchie’s approach to fishing was more in line with our family friend David’s, than my dads (a fishing skeptic), in that they were confident there would be lots of fish and the conditions were good. The river was maybe a little high but conditions would improve as it fell over the 3 days. I would mostly catch Pink salmon (3-7lbs) but there should be a good number of Chinook (10-40lbs).
The plan of attack was a 5am start on Saturday, then earlier each day. This wasn’t what I expected at all but I love the commitment and am always game for an adventure, I just hoped I wouldn’t fade.
Given the crack of dawn start dinner was early and Jeroen produced an enormous plate of ribs with a side of potato salad and pasta salad. It was simple and delicious, just what I needed ahead of a long day but clocked that the weekends food and triathlon training might not be the perfect mix!!
After dinner they left me to relax and enjoy the lodge. There was no wifi or signal so I felt quite isolated but it is so nice getting completely off the grid, even if it did feel like the start of a horror movie. Alone in an empty lodge in the middle of the woods….
I arranged my gear for the early start before relaxing with my book and a beer. I also checked out the wall of fame in the hope I might make it…. just have to catch a 40lbs Chinook or a 20lbs Steelhead,
I got an early night as there isn’t a huge amount to do in a lodge on your own and it would be a long 3 days. The bed, along with the whole lodge, was super comfy and cozy, I really don’t need fancy! I do want to give a particular mention to my bedside bear lamp though, I would love one!
My alarm woke me at 4 45am to a grey morning and light rain. I grabbed a banana, waders on and Frenchie was there to pick me up.
It was a 40 minute drive to the river where we lined up to the raft before Frenchie paused, concerned the river looked too high. After a brief discussion he wanted to check the river lower down as once we launched there was no turning back and if the river was too high the fishing would be challenging.
We drove to Kitimat and the river was indeed too high and very brown, so we returned to the upper Kitimat which had looked better. Two other rivers joined lower down so they must have been blowing out.
We were finally ready to launch and off we set for day 1!
We didn’t drift far before pulling over at the first fishing spot. Frenchie selected one of my flies and after a quick casting recap left me to it. Cast, let the line swing round, retrieve, 3 steps down and repeat.
15 casts in and boom I was in to a fish! I was instantly on the back foot as it swam upstream straight towards me. This made keeping the line tight challenging but also led to quite a short fight as it was a Pink salmon and I was using the Chinook gear. What a great start to have my first fish (and first Pink salmon) on the bank, taking some of the pressure off.
It was also my first fish on a fly I tied which was a great feeling.
However, my fly tying might need some work as by the time it had been munched and I had finished the pool it started to come apart. After the one run through the pool we moved on as Frenchie was keen to get to the best pool before anyone else arrived (the main reason for the early starts). I took the break as an opportunity to change fly and retire my first successful fly.
The next pool was a large section of the river I would fish two parts. The top part was faster flowing deep water where the Chinook sit and the lower section was shallower slower water where the Pinks sit. I was learning that Chinook are harder to catch as they swim in the deep fast water and are hard to get to, you generally have to cast heavy sinking line a long way. The other 4 species all take the easier route and therefore are easier to cast to.
The top pool was a challenge. A steep drop off meant I couldn’t wade very far, combined with trees on the bank and having to cast a very heavy line. I couldn’t reach the deep water effectively and kept catching the bottom as I let the line swing as long as possible. I lost a few of my flies but they aren’t too hard or expensive to make.
I had something on briefly but it escaped as again it swam upstream and I wasn’t quick enough. After two further takes, failing to set the hook both times, we moved down to the second part of the pool.
The sun started to break through the rain and the fishing in the lower pool was a lot easier which meant my casting improved. It wasn’t long before I had another take, I missed this one as well. I hadn’t mastered the technique at all, as unlike trout fishing you have to pause before striking which is hard to do as I get easily overexcited. I was also fishing with barbless hooks which makes life a lot harder but on the flip side it’s more rewarding and better for the fish.
I finally managed to strike correctly and landed a nice Pink. Unfortunately, this was when we discovered there was a hole in the net and he was gone before I could get a photo. A shame but better a Pink than a Chinook.
I returned to the same spot and landed 3 more in quick succession. This was clearly a holding spot and they couldn’t resist the pink flies but I wasn’t used to this level of success salmon fishing.
After the flurry of fish I took a break and an early lunch (provided by lodge) before returning to the Pink’s but on the lighter rod and my reel. I caught a couple more that were more entertaining on the lighter gear as they can run and make the reel scream.
Eventually I returned to the Chinook spot but couldn’t master the casting, the heavy line and difficult background defeated me so we moved on downstream trying a few more spots for Chinook but had no luck. It was intriguing how if I used a fly with pink I would quickly catch a Pink salmon, change to the purple/blue/black that Chinook like and the pinks stayed away.
I was also discovering there are some pesky flies on the river. You can’t feel them bite but the bites bleed. They then swelled up a few days later, making the back of my neck look diseased.
Throughout the day weather was very changeable, showers, to hot and sunny before returning to showers which probably shouldn’t be surprising for a mountains and and coast combination. The river wasn’t too busy which was great but Frenchie emphasized how if the lodges were full the river would have been crammed and so competitive to fish the best spots.
Nothing much to report on the spots we fished through the afternoon, some nice scenery but no fish. I took an accidental dip at one point but my waders did their job.
We fished the day on a pool call the mill in glorious sunshine. I flicked my fly in to the water while stripping the line from my reel and by the time I was ready to cast I had a fish on. This continued and almost turned in to mackerel fishing, catching every 2nd/3rd cast. It was a great way to finish the day with lots of action. I lost most of them (easy to do when fishing with barbless hooks) but didn’t mind as the fight was fun and we didn’t have a net. It was just great fighting fish and to hear the reel screaming. Always finish on a high and I called it a day on what turned out to be my biggest Pink of the trip.
We completed the drift to where our truck was waiting and it was home time. I was exhausted. My take away from the day was I can catch as many Pinks as I want but catching a Chinook would be hard. They sit in the deep, fast water and I struggle to cast the heavy sinking line far enough. Getting one was going to be a struggle.
Back at the lodge I realised I had caught the sun a bit and collapsed exhausted, we had been on the river 9 hours. I had planned to go on a run but that wasn’t happening so I just curled up with my book.
Jeroen and Frenchie came round for dinner, I dont know if this was normal but I appreciated the company being alone in the lodge. We discussed the plan for Sunday over an enormous portion of lasagna, garlic bread and salad. We would start earlier, 4 30am pick up, as we were going to Frenchie’s favourite spot to target Chinook. They both left after dinner and I headed straight to bed. We were hoping the river level would be lower but as I was falling asleep I heard some light rain, hopefully it would stop but all I could do is wait and see.
The alarm went off at 4 15, waders on, grab a banana and wait for Frenchie. Confusingly it sounded like it was raining but I couldn’t feel it. Anyway no time to worry about that as we were in a hurry. Frenchie wasn’t going to risk not being first to the main pool as you are most likely to catch on the first run through. The risk of this though was that the pool was the second last on the drift, so if we were beaten to it we would be left with very limited options.
We returned to the spot from the previous day to launch and there was a car already parked there. We felt if might have been left there overnight so confidently set off down the river. I was happy to commit to the Chinook pool (the wind tunnel) as that’s what I needed, so we gambled we would be there first.
As we turned the corner above the Wind Tunnel we spotted a couple of people and their dog on the bank fishing. One even had a fish on but when they saw us he let it go and they threw their stuff in the raft and set off in a hurry. Frenchie went in to full race mode rowing his heart out, not even looking and just asking me direct him. We cruised past them as in their hurry launching they had got in a tangle and we whizzed past.
Victorious, we arrived at our fishing spot and set ourselves up. Unlike in the UK, in Canada it is acceptable if you get to a spot first you can just stay there all day going round and round. If Frenchie knows people and they are nice he will let them in behind me, otherwise he does his best to scare them off and protect my fishing. Part of the defence is having his rod set up so he can protect the space if people are coming down.
Given the importance of the first time through the pool we spent the time getting the set up right but I was ready to go at 6 15.
My instructions were the Chinook were on the far side of the river so I needed to cast as far as I could. Over the whole weekend the instruction just become wade deeper cast further. I was struggling with the weight of the line but I would give it everything.
Before long I had a Jack (baby Chinook) on but he quickly jumped off. Shortly after I lost a small Chinook, rather annoyingly, before foul hooking a Pink salmon. Nice to know there were fish around, but I needed that Chinook.
The next take was stronger and while not huge it was well hooked. It eventually broke the surface and excitement levels rose as it had the silver back of a Chinook. Post jump things got more exciting and it ran a couple of times stripping line off the reel. I was pretty nervous as I needed to land it and with barbless hooks, any mistake and you will lose it. Every time it ran my heart sank as it created another escape opportunity. Eventually I maneuvered it to the shallows and while it successfully avoided the net on a couple of occasions, eventually it was secure! Yes!! Mission complete!!
While at 10lbs it was on the smaller side for a Chinook, it was a nice fresh fish shown by the colour and still having sea lice. A quick photo and it was happily and safely released 🙂
It was early on the second day and I had completed the objective for the trip. This meant I could relax and enjoy the fishing while focusing on trying to catch a monster.
Buzzing from completing the Grand Slam (Chinook, Chum, Coho, Sockeye and Pink) I finished the pool off. I lost a couple of Pinks but really didn’t mind as I knew there were more Pinks and I was still thinking about the Chinook.
After a quick break I went back to it and started moving down the same pool again. Wading deeper, casting further!
Half way down a gear fishing guide arrived with his client and went in below me. Frenchie spoke to them but they were rude and ignored his request to go in behind me. The irony being the spot they chose was rubbish for gear fishing and kept snagging the bottom, while 400m up the bank was an awesome spot where all the fish parked up but fly fisherman can’t effectively fish there. They didn’t catch anything and eventually moved off. Karma.
I didn’t catch anything either, highlighting the importance of getting there early and being the first person through.
After another break I went through the pool for a third time. I was working so hard trying to cast the heavy line as far as I could but I wasn’t really winning. While the casting wasn’t getting any further my wading was getting deeper to the point it got a littler interesting but I managed to stay upright.
Frenchie came down after me testing his new rod and could easily reach the deep water. He instantly had a take but lost it. A couple of casts later he hooked another and called me to over to fight it. It was twice the size of mine and its power was awesome. It took me back to when I learnt to fish on the trout rivers but couldn’t really cast so other people had to hook them but I got to play them. When you learn like that you will always remember your first solo fish, probably my most memorable fish.
This fish was roughly 20lbs which is a medium Chinook in this area, they can get to double this and in Alaska they can get to 100lbs, but as you can see I was pretty excited.
Frenchie’s instant success just highlighted how I couldn’t get to the fish. I finished the pool with no luck but my casting was coming along.
I switched to a pink fly as Jeroen had recommended we keep a small Pink for sushimi at dinner. We passed on a couple before I caught a nice fresh run fish. I am a massive believe in catch and release and felt sorry for the fish but I had been promised it was delicious and there were pink Salmon everywhere.
One thing that still surprised me was the ease of catching Pink salmon on flies with even a hint of pink. It may have been Frenchie was getting me in the right sport but they just cant resist the pink flies.
It started to rain so I returned for one final crack at the Chinook with the heaviest line possible.
WADE DEEPER, CAST FURTHER.
I was beginning to get some good distance, but it was only about 1 in 6 casts (the other 5 failed). Not very efficient and it was physically exhausting to the extent I only managed managed 6 or 7 successful casts before I had to give up knackered. It is nice to know I can do it but more practice required to be consistent.
I finished with one last Pink before we moved on for a few casts at the final spot. No luck, so we called it a day and completed the drift in to Kitimat.
I was again shattered as we returned to the lodge but managed to squeeze in a run before Jeroen and Frenchie returned for dinner. Jeroen expertly filleted the Pink for sushimi, the rest went in the freezer for me to take home. The Sushimi was accompanied by soy sauce and wasabi and was absolutely delicious, definitely competition for the duck sushimi we make at home!
Dinner was simple and awesome. Fresh sushimi followed by steak and tiramisu. All three dinners had been exceptional and the lodge was exactly what I was looking for. Simple, comfy, friendly with the a focus on good fishing. I was having such a good time, and being so well looked after, they convinced me to extend my August Steelhead trip and come back for couple of days with them. I would have loved to do all 4 with them but am already committed to two days with another lodge.
My arms were hurting as I went to sleep and I woke up in the middle of the night with my leg in agony, very odd, but a 3am walk around the lodge fixed it. I was pushing myself pretty hard but there was only one day left.
For the final day we planned to fish the lowest pool on the river. This involved walking in and as there is only one pool it was essential we were there first. This of course meant an even earlier start, 3am!
We parked in town and walked 20 minutes through the forest including a couple of stream crossings. Every few minutes Frenchie would blow his fog horn to scare the bears off, which was also very effective at waking me up!
It was a nice pool on the first bend in the river and I was fishing by 5. No pink on the fly as I was chasing that big Chinook. I had one take but lost it straight away, pretty sure it wasn’t a Chinook though. I still haven’t the mastered the delayed striking, I’m just far too excitable.
At the tail of the pool I had a take but instantly realised it wasn’t a salmon. Once landed it was identified as a Dolly Varden (a sea run bull trout) which was a new species for me.
The only real downside was there was a seal cruising up and down exactly where the Chinook should be sitting. Very disruptive to the fishing but nice to see some wildlife, although it stayed for the whole day which got rather annoying. It was the quietest spot, people wise, we had fished but we did have to put up with the consistent banging of the new LNG plant being built in Kitimat.
I lost another that was either a Coho or a Jack (a little failed Chinook), it was stronger than a Pink and had the bright silver back, but definitely not a fully grown Chinook.
After a couple of failed runs through I moved to another spot just around the corner. This involved some complex wading as there was a bar in the middle of the river that the fish sat behind. Again it became wade deeper, cast further. The complication here was the stones on the river bed had a layer of slime and the river was strong. Staying upright was a real challenge as it was like an ice rink, let alone trying to cast as far as I could.
Frenchie was keeping an eye on the other pool in case anyone turned up and after a few close calls I gave up as didn’t want to go for a swim. I also informed him I was in rubber wading boots rather than felt (I had got rubber as some places don’t allow felt), had he known he wouldn’t have sent me out there. I lived to tell the tale.
I returned to the first pool and fished it through a couple more times catching a few Pinks. They were so fresh as the sea was 200m away. No Chinook though and it was pretty slow going.
The conditions, in theory, were getting better as the river was falling but the pesky seal was really impacting the fishing which was a shame. That being said the sun was out and I had achieved my objective for the trip, a Chinook and a Pink so I was pretty content. My casting was improving and while I still wanted a large Chinook that is not how fishing works.
So we both spent a relaxing afternoon fishing on and off as we felt it. We kept trying for Chinook at the top of the pool before working down to Pinks at the tail of the pool. So it worked quite well, fish hard for a Chinook and when that didn’t work you usually got a pink at the end as a reward.
I was mostly fishing with my flies which were very effective on the Pinks and caught me another little Dolly Varden.
The water cleared as the day went on and I could see the Pink salmon swimming around me, a couple even swam in to me. It was fun watching them migrate up the river in the shallows.
I had a tight deadline for my flight but wanted to finish on a fish so went to the tail of the pool to get a Pink. I got my take and like many before it it swam upstream towards me, close enough that I could see. It was bright silver and on the large side for a pink. It saw me and took off across the river, reel screaming. I moved back towards the bank and as I began to bring it closer it started jumping all over the place. It definitely wasn’t a pink but I couldn’t identify it. Then pop, it shook the fly. I was devastated as what a fish it would have been to finish on. It might have been a large Coho or a small Chinook but either way would have been a great way to finish.
I had 5 minutes left and Frenchie could see Pinks moving up river so I decided to try and finish by sight fishing for a Pink. If I succeeded it would be awesome to actually see them take the fly. Unfortunately, and maybe not surprisingly, this didn’t really work and when my 5 minutes were up it was time to pack up and trek out.
We met Jeroen at the airport, he had brought my bags and the fish from the lodge, another example of the 5 star service they had provided. I said my goodbyes and was already looking forward to being back.
To finish off a special trip I was treated to a spectacular flight back to Vancouver…..
What an awesome trip. I love fly fishing and the people you meet. I achieved the objective: catch a Chinook and a Pink. What I didn’t expect was to be sold on another two days fishing in August but I can’t wait to be back hunting my first Steelhead.
The lodge was everything I wanted, simple and homely with a focus on fishing. 5 stars for both Jeroen and Frenchie who looked after me so well and I cant wait to get back on the river with them.
The Kitimat is a pretty river but I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful but fished very well. I am excited to get out on the Skeena in August which is a bit more remote, followed by the Copper which I believe is stunning. Lets hope the August weather is decent but given Covid the one thing I can be sure of is that the river will be quiet!
Salmon fishing in Canada definitely takes some getting used to. Very different to the UK but similar to fishing in New Zealand, in that it’s public public access on a first come first serve basis. The difference in New Zealand though is that there are no people. Most people have what I would consider good river etiquette, we met numerous people that Frenchie gets on well with, but not everyone sticks to it and there isn’t much you can do if people ignore the unwritten rules.
I can’t wait to get back in August and fish the Copper River. This is an opportunity born out of Covid as normally you have to come for a whole week in peak Steelhead season which is well beyond my budget. Given all the cancellations it has allowed me an opportunity to do a few days at a discount which I had to jump at. Super excited to be back and hopefully catch my first Steelhead.
1 thought on “Pursuing the Pacific Salmon Grand Slam in Northern BC”
Amazing, well done.