Last summer I had my first encounter with a Steelhead Trout. For good reason they are called the ‘unicorn of fish’ and the experience lit a fire that will dominate my 2021 fishing plans. I lost that fish in a hard fight, including a spectacular acrobatic display, so now my mission is getting one to the bank.
I have lined up a number of opportunities and first up was a drift day with Pat from Chromer Sports on the Squamish River. Pat guided me on the Kitimat last year, one of my most enjoyable days on the water so I was excited to get out again.
The day before Pat confirmed we would fish the Upper Squamish, an absolutely stunning part of the river. The forecast was disappointing though, rain all day, but the river conditions for fishing were looking up. However, Steelhead aren’t called unicorns for no reason, you are unlikely to catch one on the best rivers in the world and while the Squamish is a lovely river it is not World Class and just doesn’t have the numbers. To enjoy fly fishing I always say you require blind faith that ‘the next cast will be the one’, this has never been more true than when chasing Steelhead. On the flip side, Pat’s clients caught a Steelhead and multiple bull trout the previous day so who needs blind faith when you have a sure thing!!!
Full of confidence we launched the raft and headed to the far bank to begin.
Pat set me up and as I started fishing it began to sleet/snow. I was dressed warm but gloves aren’t an option and straight away cold fingers began to be a recurring theme for the day. You can see why when you look at the snow line!
I methodically worked my way down the pool, on the other bank there was walk in group but the fish weren’t playing ball. Pat rotated me through different: lines, coloured flies and fishing depths but nada. This was the Steelhead pool from the day before but no luck this time. The fishing often improves as the water warms up (it was close to freezing) but Pat mentioned this pool is a good guide of river action as there is a large population of resident bull trout, so not the best start.
We could only hope things would improve as the river warmed up and as we moved on the sleet stopped and the sun almost managed to poke through. This was a lovely unexpected surprise and gave my hands a brief chance to thaw out. As we left that pool turned we left behind the only people we saw for the day. Half of my enjoyment is fishing in remote areas and enjoying the wilderness which is why drift fishing is the best as you gain access to areas you can’t walk to.
As we moved down the river we tried everything but the only positive outcome was the weather. The forecast had been rain all day but we were enjoying brief showers with the sun occasionally threating to break through. That being said it was cold! Standing in a freezing river for hours on end was taking its toll on my hands and feet but I put it to the back of my mind enjoyed the beautiful river and spectacular scenery on the occasions it emerged from the clouds.
The morning flew by but unfortunately no sign of a fish. I knew Steelhead fishing on the Squamish was a bit of a lottery due to their low numbers so you just have to enjoy the process and as always… the next cast is the one!!
In the early afternoon I was working down through a pool when the wind began to pick up and a very ominous band of cloud moved towards us. Exposed on a river there isn’t much you can do so I put my hood up and waited to be engulfed.
This was my first real test in pursuit of the treasured steelhead. As I finished this pool we were being pounded by horizontal rain. Not only did the wind make casting hard my hands were close to freezing and I couldn’t hold any tension in the line.
Pat and I were both feeling the weather as we continued the drift, but there is no escape so the only option was hood up, embrace the conditions and smile!
I wouldn’t admit it but I was very cold and couldn’t see how we would fish for another few hours. So when the river went shallow and I had to get out and walk I wasn’t complaining and jumped at the opportunity to warm up a little. The Squamish is a very safe river to drift, low gradient and slow, but there are so many channels blocked by giant log jams you need to know your route. Luckily I have Pat!
We shared a cold laugh about how miserable it was as we rowed in to the weather. It can’t always be sunny. Luckily for both my hands and morale the next pool provided some some shelter and the rain cleared, almost revealing the sun on the local mountains. The break in the weather gave my hands a break from the elements but my feet took over having been in a frozen river all day!
As the next band of rain arrived we rowed to one final pool, another area where Pat knew bull trout lived. We were both resigned to a cold hard day on the river but you can’t catch a fish unless your fly is in the water so we carried on.
Standing in heavy rain Pat and I worked our way down the final pool sharing the understanding of what it takes to catch a Steelhead. Most people would think I’m crazy spending my Sunday standing waist deep in a frozen river unable to feel my hands, fishing for something that I am almost certainly not going to catch. If you think that is the case then Steelhead fishing is not for you. However, if you are lucky enough to get a taste of their pure power and an understanding of the mystery surrounding these fish you might just be prepared to to get a glimpse of a unicorn.
It was time to call it a day, so Pat left me to a final few casts while he collected the raft. I will still casting, more out of habit than hope when I felt a tiny double tap. I thought it might be the bottom so I cast a few more times but nothing. I reeled in as Pat confirmed the gentle double tap as the signature of the bull trout. I gave a rueful smile while taking some solace that the day hadn’t been a complete blank.
We finished the drift at the bridge by which point I had begun to realise how cold I was. My feet were just cold, my hands were frozen. While fishing my left hand spends some time in a warm pocket but my right had been out all day holding the rod and it was more or less frozen in that position. I couldn’t open my hand or grip anything. This wasn’t a problem until we had to unload the raft and drag it up the bank.
To help warm me slightly the sun decided to try and break through one last time. One thing is for sure, we had experienced all four seasons at least twice but it was nice to finish in and change in the dry. The downside is the changes in weather and pressure may have been the reason for the fish’s lock jaw but who really knows.
It wasn’t until much later that evening, after a long drive in a heated car and a hot bath, that my hand started to regain some normality. A tough day for sure but I loved every second, maybe a slight moment of weakness during the horizontal rain but Pat and I laughed it off. We fished hard, tried everything and left nothing on the river so no regrets and I can’t wait to be back on the Squamish with Pat in May for another attempt!
You don’t just catch a Steelhead, you earn it through hard graft and paying your dues to the fishing gods.
Next up? Terrace in April. The Skeena and Copper Rivers again and hoping the weather gods are kinder than last year when it was washed out!