For my 30th birthday present to myself I booked a long weekend Steelhead fishing on the river Skeena in Northern BC. A Steelhead is a bucket list fish as they are supposed to be one of the most exciting and hardest fighting fish. It’s a sea run rainbow trout, that returns to the river bulked up and angry, especially once hooked. Mid-August, on the world famous Skeena river, is absolutely prime time for Steelhead so I was going to the right place.
I had two days booked with Brian at Skeena Spey Lodge before returning to Skeena River Lodge, with Jeroen, for a further two days. They are good friends and worked together to give me the best chance of chasing down a Steelhead. The plan was 2 days on the Skeena river followed by 2 days on the Copper river.
The week before my trip the forecast looked OK, rain that would stop the day I arrived, meaning I would be fishing falling rivers, perfect. However, the day I flew the forecast changed to rain, rain and more rain. Not ideal, but as there are lots of options it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Brian collected me from Terrace airport before hurrying back to the lodge as the Sable fish dinner couldn’t wait!
I had a quick tour and met Ashlu, the guard dog above, before enjoying the excellent Sable fish dinner. Ashlu, is part wolf, part German Shepherd, and his job was to scare away the bears but like the best dogs you still have to walk around them. To me he looked placid, cuddly and friendly but during dinner he did indeed scare off a black bear and forced it up a tree!! Not to be messed with. This was made all the more impressive as two days later a neighbours llama (often used to scare things off) was killed by a bear. Nice to have protection in your corner!
While exploring I also got my first glimpse of the Skeena and it became clear I might be facing a bit of an issue. It was high. Very high! Normally you can walk across to the island in the photo below, it shouldn’t be brown and there was only more rain in the forecast.
After dinner I discussed the plan with my guide, Mike, over a couple of drinks. We would fish the Copper River as there was no point fishing the Skeena given the height and muddy water. I spent the rest of the evening discussing fly tying with the other guides and guests, picking up some valuable tips (its very new to me). The team at the lodge were awesome and it was so nice to have some fellow guests to share the lodge with and discuss all things fishing.
Day 1 – Fishing the Copper
I started the day with a cooked breakfast at 7 before setting off for the Copper river at 8. Our first fishing stop was 40km down a logging track and then a short hike through the bushes. We had Ashlu to protect us from bears but also passed moose prints and had to wade through a beaver lake that had swallowed the trail. It’s so special getting off the grid and exploring the wild and we were now in the proper wilderness.
It was a good looking pool but because of the high water level (not as bad as the Skeena but still high and dirty) the tail, best spot for Steelhead, was being ruined by a side channel.
Casting was so much easier with the lighter gear, compared to Chinook fishing, but the wading was hard. The river was high and fast which made it interesting and the poor visibility made locating good footing a challenge.
Steelhead fishing is different to Salmon in that you only cover water once, if you don’t catch one you move on. They are very aggressive and if they are there will hit the fly, if they don’t, best to move on and find one that will.
After the first pool we worked our way down the river fishing where we could. Unfortunately, when we walked in it was 50:50 as to whether we could fish. The river was just roaring through and blowing out the usual spots. Ashlu was always game though!! So nice fishing with a dog…
On the occasions I was able to fish it was nice to know I didn’t need much tuition. My casting is coming along nicely and I only need the occasional pointer. The reason I still take guides is for the more technical gear aspects and where to fish, but that will come.
For the final pool of the day we were down to the 12km marker and it looked as good as any we had fished. Morale was low due to the fact I hadn’t had a sniff all day, the water was brown and we couldn’t even fish most areas.
Then bang!! I didn’t have time to realise what happened but I had a fish on. It hit the fly so hard that the reel was screaming before I could strike or react. By the time I had finally lifted the rod it was backfliping and cartwheeling out in the middle of the river.
It then charged off down river, reel screaming! There was nothing I could do apart from keep my hand well clear or I would be losing fingers. It reached the bottom of the pool and completed two more sets of acrobatics. It’s hard to explain how they jump, there is no structure, it is just pure anger and aggression exploding out the water.
My arm already felt tired as it moved, with some pressure from me, to the calmer water on my side of the river. I was able to retrieve some line and figured it was taking a break. I thought I was winning, retrieving line and keeping it in the slower water. It had other ideas and exploded out the water, tossing, turning and flipping in the middle of the river and was gone.
I was shaking at the excitement and my heart was buzzing. In that short fight I understood, and had caught, the Steelhead bug. While I thought I had been winning it had run to the deep water, but upstream, and with so much line out I couldn’t feel the charge. By the time it jumped it had created enough slack in the line, combined with the barbless hook, leaving me pretty much helpless.
It took me a while to recover but it was nice to know, confirmed by Mike, there was nothing more I could have done and that’s why these fish are so hard to land. It hadn’t even been a very big one so I can only imagine what that would be like.
I fished the pool through but that was to be the only action of day one. But at least I knew even with the bad conditions it was possible to catch fish.
I returned to the lodge to tell my tale and it turned out I was the only person to hook a fish that day. The strange thing was I wasn’t that upset I’d lost it as I got to experience their sheer aggression and power. Whereas had I not been able to land my Chinook in July I would have been devastated. There is definitely something mysterious about Steelhead.
After a nice long hot tub I relaxed and read before dinner. I also found out I had managed to break one of my toes. No idea how but luckily it didn’t seem too bad.
That evening I had dinner with Pat, my guide for Sunday, before a very technical discussion on gear that went straight over my head. I am slowly learning but the technical side is still a struggle. I was just really enjoying having people to talk to who are passionate about fishing, something severely lacking in my friends.
Day 2 – Pinks on the Kitimat
Breakfast was French toast and ham with maple syrup, delicious!
The Skeena River was again unfishable, and on Sundays the options are limited as they can’t guide on most rivers. This meant the only option was to drift the Kitimat. The Kitimat has no Steelhead at this time of year so we would be targeting Coho salmon and trout, but would probably catch old Pinks. Not what I was here for but I can’t control the conditions so it is what it is.
I had fished 3 days on the Kitimat in July and it’s a nice river so I wasn’t too upset and drifting is a great way to fish. I had drifted the section previously with Frenchie but we skipped most of it in pursuit of Chinook so I would be fishing new water.
Not a huge amount to report. We didn’t find any Coho or trout but caught enough Pinks to keep things interesting, plus now they are spawning they look awesome. The good news was I managed to avoid hooking any zombie fish (spawned and now wasting away) although I did stand on one at one point.
It was cool to see the fish spawning, all the humpback males swimming behind the females. You can also see the grooves in the gravel where they have lain their eggs. We did our best to avoid them but given the number and poor visibility this was quite tricky.
The highlight of the day was seeing fresh prints from grizzly bears, wolves and bald eagles, a reminder we aren’t fishing alone. Unfortunately, the only one I actually saw was the bald eagle.
It was great to land some fish, even if they weren’t the ones I was after, as 4 days with one take a day would be tough going. I also used the opportunity to learn from Pat. We worked on some casting techniques, as always useful, and practiced how to set the hook for Steelhead but on Pinks. I got on really well with Pat and he guides back in Vancouver so think I will look in to a spring Steelhead float on the Squamish.
Back at the lodge I had a quick hot tub and then a beer with Pat and the team while waiting to be picked up to switch lodge. They are a great team and I would love to come back but it is more of a family or couples place where there are tings to do other than fish. If the priority is fishing long and hard then Jeroens’ set up is perfect. It’s 100% about fishing and there isn’t really room for non-fishing guests.
Over the two days the Skeena had risen another meter so was completely unfishable. It was the highest Brian and Jeroen had seen in their 20 years summer fishing in Terrace. It was as high as it gets during the spring melt which is crazy given it’s August. The next two days would be on the Copper River, which is better for Steelhead, but I was very disappointed not to get a single cast on the Skeena.
Day 3 – Back to the Copper River
As mentioned the Skeena River Lodge is more fishing focused and less relaxed holiday friendly. My guide, Seth, picked me up at 6 30 and we set off for the Copper river. On the way up the trucking road you have to radio in every few km as the last thing you want is to meet one of these coming around a corner…
He wanted to check out one quick spot at 35km, before moving further down and drifting the river.
The first pool looked great and I can see why it is so popular. Half way through the pool the line suddenly went tight and I felt a few tugs, heavy rather than an obvious take. I raised the rod to set the hook but the fish wasn’t doing anything (nothing like Saturday). Seth even had time to comment ‘it hasn’t woken up yet’!! Eventually it swam about 5-10m taking some line but not in a hurry. Finally it made effort and broke the surface with a half-hearted roll, showing its silver tummy, but this was enough to flick the hook out.
Very frustrating, but again I was more excited than annoyed even if the fish hadn’t really done what it was meant to. Apparently it can sometimes take a Steelhead a while to realise they are hooked, then once they do they go berserk.
A take so early on combined with a clearer lower river boosted morale as I completed the pool but with no luck.
We proceeded to the launch spot, not an easy launching spot, and started the river drift. On the Copper they insist you wear life jackets, especially when its this high, as it can be pretty dangerous.
We worked our way down the river fishing the areas available to us that looked fishy but they were few and far between. Seth had the same issue as Mike in that often the usual spots were blown out so had to be flexible. One difference in guiding style was Seth was more proactive with the set up, changing flies and leaders as I fished different water, don’t know which is right but different. However, the fish were either not there or had their heads down in the murky fast flowing water.
I was fishing with my Shakespear switch 7/8# and Hardy Salmon 1 reel which was fishing beautifully. However I was a little concerned what a Steelhead would do to my reel given the lack of drag!! Something to worry about when the time came!
Despite the lack of action I was having a great time drifting the river. It is very atmospheric with the low cloud and the steep mountains either side.
Seth, similar to Pat, let me be most of the time as my casting is getting pretty reliable. However, as we got to harder or windier sections he would step in and give me pointers (nailed the snap T cast although had an end of day casting meltdown as I tired). Similar to Frenchie, Jeroens other guide, I really felt the Seth cared about improving me as a fisherman not just trying to catch fish.
Unfortunately, despite fishing a longer than normal, that early take turned out to be the only action of the day. I really appreciated Seth’s effort as the second day had to be cut a bit short for my flight.
As we drove out we met a few other guides who had been fishing and they had drawn a blank as well. It’s so unfortunate the conditions were this bad and the fish had apparently gone in to survival mode, but I had one more day!!
Dinner was waiting for me back at the lodge. Jeroen had cooked me a whole chicken!!
Jeroen stayed to discuss some potential trips for next year while I worked my way through it. Like Joey (Friends) I had to as once you can’t finish a whole chicken on your own it’s a slippery slope!!
Jeroen is moving next year to a new lodge that will be a combination of heli-skiing and fishing. I am hoping this might mean I can get some friends in for a spring trip as heli-skiing will be an easier sell. They can ski while I go hunt spring Steelhead, which are bigger/stronger but fewer. The river would also be very low and crystal clear!
Day 4 – One more chance on the Copper
We started even earlier as Seth was keen to fish the same first pool before anyone else. We met at 5 45 and loaded the car, Seth had even taken the time to tie me a fly before coming to pick me up. So awesome of him.
As we got to the pool there was a guy parked camping there. However, he wasn’t fishing so we parked up and walked down to the top of the pool. He appeared a bit later, probably quite unimpressed, before driving off, but what is the point in camping at a river if you aren’t going to be fishing at first light. Snooze you loose.
I started fishing with my new fly and second cast I had a tug but it turned out to be a nice Bull Trout. Not what I was looking for but nice to land a fish.
Half way down the pool I felt a tap tap but then nothing. We tried another few casts and a different fly but whatever it was it wasn’t coming back. At the tail of the pool I hooked a teeny tiny fish (couple of inches long) but that was it. We figured the guy camping may have fished it pretty hard last night so maybe he had the last laugh in the end.
We moved around for the rest of the day trying all sorts of locations and even a dry fly but nothing was happening. The one thing we weren’t short of was effort.
The sun came out briefly to show it can be nice and the river was beautiful even if the fish weren’t playing ball. I also saw some wildlife which is always a bonus: a very unfazed black bear, a couple of sightings of an owl and a family of mergansers.
As the day wore on Seth was trying everything and took me to all his secret spots but the only thing that changed was the conditions got harder. For the most part I could handle it and Seth complimented me that at no point had he had to move to avoid one of my casts. In the heavy wind I really struggled with the scandi line but I now feel pretty comfortable with my casting.
That brought an end to the trip and the Steelhead remained elusive but the fire has been lit. I will be back!
This was meant to be a spectacular 4 days fishing for Steelhead but it just didn’t turn out that way. Usually at this time you would expect 4-5 fish on a day, I managed 2 in 3 days and couldn’t even fish one day. More frustratingly the river is now falling so the conditions are probably continuing to improve.
On a positive note I got enough on an experience to understand why people travel the world for Steelhead, not sure words can explain how spectacular the fight was. I was also lucky with the weather in a way in that for the most part I had 4 dry days for fishing. The occasional shower, but heavy rain and no fish would have tested my resolve.
I am slowly starting to learn more and I think I could potentially fish the Copper alone now I know some of the spots. Where I am lacking is the more technical aspect of leaders and lines. It is also nice to have a guide for company or I need to find some friends who fish.
Steelhead will now become the focus of my fishing and I may come back up in December for some winter fishing. More likely though, is a Spring Steelhead day on the Squamish with Pat or a spring trip up to Jeroens’ new lodge. I am sure I have a few friends who could be convinced a heli-skiing trip would be a great idea!!!