Steelhead – Damned by the Rain, Damned by the Sun

Steelhead are known as the fish of a million casts and rightly so as they are rare and hard to catch.

My pursuit of steelhead in 2020 took me to Terrace at the peak of summer Steelhead season only for the rivers to be blown out by record August rain. In 2021 I was back for peak Spring Steelhead season. Spring Steelhead are fewer in number but are bigger and meaner after an extra 8 months at sea.

Spring steelheading is also notorious for tough conditions and brutal days on the river. In the weeks prior to my trip it was consistently snowing and below 0, I was excited to put myself to the test and earn my fish!! However, 3 days before it did a 360 and warmed to mid 20’s and clear blue skies. Time to swap out the thermals and big jackets for suncream and t-shirts. (I still packed the thermals just in case!)

As in August I was fishing with Jeroen’s team but he moved lodge and this time I chose a hotel in town to keep the cost down. The journey was a bit of a nightmare with flights moving etc, travel in the Covid world I guess, but I finally arrived to an absolute scorcher.

My guide, Jake, dropped me a text to say we would be fishing the Zymacord River on day one and it would involve a snow mobile ride to the river. What an awesome day we had lined up, first trip on a snowmobile, steelhead fishing and glorious weather.

This however was when the major hiccup popped up.

The excitement of snowmobiling was short lived as Jake text me shortly after to let me know the plan had changed as the Zymacord had blown out. As it turns out really hot weather in April is dreadful news for fishing! The mountain snow melt blows the rivers out and the visibility drops to zero as they collect all the winter dust and dirt. The new plan was to fish the Kitimat River before it blew out.

Sometimes I feel the fishing/weather gods have it in for me as to be blown out in August by rain and in April by sun seems a tad unfair but what can you do. Given I managed to hook one and get a second take in the torrents of the summer there is always hope. As the saying goes you can’t catch a fish without your fly in the water so I would just have to fish hard and see what happens!

Day 1

Jake collected me at 6am and we left for the Kitimat river. As we crossed the first bridge it was brown and high so Jake made a snap decision to turn around and, after checking with Jeroen, switched the raft for the jet boat, also a first for me, and headed for the upper Kalum. The Kalum River is fed from a lake so isn’t as susceptible to dramatic changes in weather and is the last river to blow out.

Despite the sun in the sky and the slightly later start the air was still freezing which shouldn’t have been a surprise given there was still snow along the river. As we whizzed down the river, sliding the jet boat around the corners, I had to keep sitting down to let my ears recover some feeling! A couple of people had beaten us on to the river but we had the bottom section to ourselves and would work our way back up.

The river wasn’t in too bad condition with about a foot of visibility, not ideal but enough. We worked out way up the river trying various spots but unfortunately there wasn’t much to report. Apart from the river being a little high and murky the fishing conditions were glorious. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the scenery was spectacular and I really couldn’t complain, but I just wanted my steelhead!!

There was one pool in particular that I loved fishing. It was long, with a steady flow and mountains in the background. As I worked my way down I prayed to the fishing gods for a fish as it would be the most idyllic spot to catch one. I did get a couple of taps from something but nothing to write home about. By the time I completed the final cast the pool had gone the same way as all those before it.

This would have been the perfect spot for my first fish!

Away from the fishing Spring is a lot less interesting on the wildlife side. There are very few fish in the river so no bears or wolves and not as many eagles. Lots of Canadian Geese but they just aren’t very exciting.

As it approached 4pm I was beginning to burn out from a combination of the sun and a hard days fishing. It was at this this point we actually saw our first action of the day, a small trout rising. Normally you would hope to catch a few trout while hunting steelhead but not today.

We fished one final pool which yielded the usual 0 fish before returning to the car at 5 where the temperature was 27 degrees. That is just ridiculous for April and was ruining my fishing. My concerns were equally split between worrying about the fishing and hoping I hadn’t missed any spots with the suncream!

Back at the hotel I went for a run before collapsing, worn out by the sun and heat!. As I lay there exhausted I was did the math’s and it wasn’t pretty reading. Since moving to Canada I have done 14 days guided fishing and excluding pink salmon have only caught 1 of the fish I was after, lots of other fish but not the main target. Through a combination of poor conditions, my mistakes or casting limitations and I guess some bad luck. Not much else to do apart from just keep casting and hope fortune would turn my way.

Day 2

The plan was to fish the Kalum again with the other rivers blown out. I emerged groggily from my hotel at 6am to a strong wind and a disappointed Jake who said we had to fish the Kitimat as the classified rivers (Kalum) are closed to guiding on Sundays.

Morale was pretty low as we had rejected the Kitimat the day before and today it would likely be worse. The only slight consolation was no one had caught anything the day before so at least I wasn’t the problem.

We drifted the upper Kitimat trying a few spots and it was amazing how the flow had changed since last year. It has a wide river bed and is susceptible to major changes meaning a number of the hot spots from last year were now dry or unfishable.

The fish weren’t playing ball but Jake is a great guy to fish with and for the most part he put me in a pool and left me to fish. Now this is either a great compliment, in that I don’t need directing once in the right spot, or a slight weakness in his guiding. I am used to changing things more often if it’s not working but I was fishing the same set up as the day before even on a different river.

As the day wore on it began to cook me again and the cold air turned in to a warm summer wind, very confusing. Not that we needed it with the baking sun but we got frequent reminders that the conditions were far from ideal as a tree would occasionally come drifting past!

Like day 1 we saw limited wildlife but did see a kingfisher, very different to UK kingfishers, but they have a fun head.

Jake kept in touch with the other guides and no one else had caught anything either. So we just fished on under a cloudless sky, glorious weather for pretty much any activity including fishing, if the weather wasn’t ruining the fishing part. Jake admitted if he was fishing he would have called it a day but I wanted to cover the pools even if I wasn’t prepared to stay out till sunset! There is only so much you can flog a dead horse.

In the last major pool Jake followed me down and caught a cutthroat trout. While it was nice to see a fish it wasn’t great I hadn’t caught it given the chances of catching a fish were so low.

But shortly after I got myself a cutthroat. While I’m not the competitive type, mine was bigger!

This was important for my attitude even if it was overpowered by my heavy salmon gear. It reminded me that I love catching fish and the excitement it brings even if it wasn’t the steelhead I was after.

We finished the day shortly after and on the way home I reflected how the Kitimat river gets a lot of stick from the guides. I think it’s because it gets so busy but today we hadn’t seen a single other fisherman. For me however it is a river that has delivered every time. It is pretty, if you stay above the town, so for now it remains very much in favour for me!!

Back at the hotel I took a rest before going on my run. Fishing is exhausting but triathlon training never sleeps so I have to keep on it even when away. Again I heard that none of the other groups had caught anything so our two trout was actually a good return!

Day 3

We returned to the Kalum as it was the only river with any visibility. We wanted the first choice of pool so agreed on an earlier start, 5am. We might have gone a little early as had to wait for it to get light at the boat launch but we got our spot, Deep Creek Pool. The key spot. At the launch the colour didn’t look promising but as the sun rose it was actually clearer than expected and probably the best visibility of the trip.

Dressing for this fishing was hard: being on the river at 5 30 was freezing; fishing till about 8 was chilly with icicles for feet; by 11 it was hot and starting to shed layers and by 3 it was t-shirts and trying not to melt!!

We stayed at Deep Creek fishing it through 3 times as the sun began to slowly cook us. Unfortunately the only thing I managed to hook was my waders but after a self styled waterproof test it seems a hook hole doesn’t stop them being waterproof. Convinced we had covered this water we moved on to search elsewhere.

I was still fishing and covering the water but by this point I was resigned to my fate of missing a steelhead. Things just never quite go as planned when I go fishing which is annoying as I love the process of fishing but it would be nice if I had a few more successes. Maybe I need to find out what I have done to annoy the fishing gods and set the record straight!!

The next spot was a nice big bend in the river and given my thoughts on the likelihood of catching a fish I decided I should take the opportunity to improve my casting and the different Spey casting techniques.

Then all of a sudden, bite, strike, fish on…..

It took some line and then just sat slowly moving upstream. We were confused as I couldn’t pull it in even on a salmon rod, so not a trout, but also not screaming away like a steelhead. Jake said ‘I think this is what we came here for’ and we guessed it hadn’t realised it was hooked which can happen. Also at a best guess it was a buck fish as they are known to swim upstream.

It kept heavy on the line and as I moved it towards the shallows Jake warned me to be ready as it would likely take off scared once in shallow water, so keep my fingers clear of the reel!

Finally it emerged on the surface and we realised it wasn’t going to run. It wasn’t a Steelhead but a monster Dolly Varden, a type of trout.

I had very mixed emotions, I genuinely thought I was well hooked in to a steelhead. And while I was happy to have a fish on the bank, and the biggest Dolly Jake had seen from the river, it wasn’t a steelhead. On a side note, probably the largest trout I have caught and it put up a fight on gear designed for a much much bigger stronger fish.

Happy to at least have a fish we moved on to fish a few more spots but unfortunately that was to be the last of the fishing action. My final observation is when fishing on high rivers it’s worth keeping an eye upstream on what’s coming down as I got hit by a couple of trees!

We finally called it a day after 12 hrs and for now the mysterious steelhead would remain a mystery to me.

It again turned out no one had caught anything at all and I didn’t hear of anyone catching a steelhead over the 3 days I was there. So while it was frustrating, coming away with two nice trout wasn’t an awful result.

It was also annoying that I have yet to fish the river that initially drew my attention, the world famous Skeena River. On this occasion it had been ruined by a landslide on the Copper River that was throwing chocolate coloured water out. It was so think it looked like you could hold it in your hands. Very sad as it will have damaged the fish populations but it now meant after 10 days Fishing in Terrace I am still yet to fish the Skeena. 3 – closed to Chinook fishing, 4 blown out by summer rain, 3 blown out by Copper River landslide.

The Steelhead pursuit is not over but it may be on the backburner for now. Next up is a trout day introducing a friend to fly fishing before heading for what should be a very special trip to Montana and Idaho. It has been postponed for now but I can’t wait to get down there, once Covid allows, for some on the worlds best trout fishing!

Categories Fishing

1 thought on “Steelhead – Damned by the Rain, Damned by the Sun

  1. Love the Dolly Varden! Shame about the steelhead but lets make another plan! Talk soon. D

    Jamie Sheldon
    Kings Manor,
    Isle of Wight,
    PO40 9TL.
    Tel: 01983 756050
    Mob: 07771 917746


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