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British Columbia: “Rivers of Steel”

by Jim Bourque
photos by Jim Bourque
The Skeena River drainage in western British Columbia offers your best shot at a wild trophy steelhead.
British Columbia Steelhead

Casting for steelhead on the upper Sustut in British Columbia.

BRITISH COLUMBIA steelheading. The words alone conjure up images of wild rivers, spectacular mountain scenery, and monster steelhead turning to the fly. And for good reason. No doubt about it, a fly fisher’s best shot for tying into a huge wild steelhead is to head for the rivers of western Canada. Storied rivers such as the Dean, Thompson, and Frazier are legendary, but the mother of all B.C. steelhead rivers is the Skeena.

One of the longest undammed rivers in the world, the Skeena begins high in the coastal mountains of the Spasizi Plateau and makes its way more than 350 miles to the ocean port of Prince Rupert. As this enormous drainage follows its course to the sea, it picks up more than 30 tributaries, some of which are sizable rivers in their own right. Three of these tributaries — the Bulkley, the Babine, and the Kispiox — account for the majority of the steelhead caught in the system because they afford the angler an incredible amount of fly-friendly water and support the highest number of returning fish. The prime fishing time for all three is early September through late October. During this period, the odds of hooking a once-in-a-lifetime steelhead are higher on these waters than they are anywhere else on the planet.

The Rivers

Winding its way through more than 80 miles of patchwork farmland, forest, rugged canyons, and a few small towns, the Bulkley may have more impeccable steelhead water than any other river in the world. Its many long smooth runs make you wonder if it were designed by a Spey angler, with some stretches so smooth that you rarely have to mend.

Two separate systems, the Bulkley and the Morice, make up the longest and largest of the Skeena tributaries. Together they account for more than 40 percent of all steelhead returning to the Skeena system. Most of this watershed has easy access. A good portion of the upper river is within easy reach of the Yellowhead Highway and adjacent logging roads. Below the town of Smithers, the river is less accessible and narrows into canyons and heavier water. While the Bulkley is not known for having the largest fish in the Skeena system, its specimens average more than 10 pounds, with plenty of tankers in the 15-to-20-pound class.

British Columbia Steelhead

Ken Morrish of Flywater Travel locked into a big one with spey rod.

Often challenging, crowded, and occasionally intimidating, the Kispiox has staggering potential. Despite fewer fish, tougher wading, and frequent blow-outs, the Kispiox has an almost cultlike following of dedicated anglers for one reason alone: It likely holds claim to the largest race of steelhead in the world. Although numbers of returning steelhead are much lower than that of the Bulkley or Babine, the fish of the Kispiox are consistently large. In 1963, Karl Mauser landed the current world-record fly-caught steelhead of 33 pounds. Since that time, a good many larger fish have been caught and released. In terms of sheer mass, these are the steelhead against which all others are measured.

The Kispiox meanders through boggy camps, logged forests, and valley farms. It ends its journey by joining the Skeena at the native village of Kispiox. A public road parallels most of the river, and there are several undeveloped campsites maintained by the government. Several lodges are situated along the river.

When you’re fishing the Kispiox, make sure that your terminal tackle is up to the task. Ten-pound test will not hold most of these legendary fish. Although Kispiox steelhead will come to a skating dry, fishing down and deep is the preferred method. Often muddy and easily blown out, this river lends itself to big, dark flies. Most of the runs contain a lot of structure, so take your time and cover the water well. The reward could be a 30-pound steelhead.

When we dream of the perfect wilderness steelhead river, the one with deep forests and distant towering peaks, we are dreaming of the Babine. And while many suspect that the Kispiox has the largest race of steelhead, the Babine boasts more steelhead over 20 pounds than anywhere else on the planet. Due to government policies of limiting road construction and commercial development, the Babine also has some of the healthiest returns of any fishery. These same policies limit access and account for only three existing camps.

The only other access to the river is a long, bumpy logging road from Smithers to where the river leaves Babine Lake. Here you will find a trail that follows two miles of the upper river, but don’t expect to have it to yourself. Local anglers and bears frequent this area, especially while salmon and steelhead are present.

The river itself consists of every type of water conceivable. There are long runs for skating and deep slots for dredging heavy sinking tips. Structure runs the full spectrum from bedrock to gravel. Wading can be challenging, and high banks and brush limit casting. Considering the number of fish, and the favorable conditions, every fly technique is productive. Many 20-pounds-plus fish have been taken on a skater, and 30-pound fish are pulled from runs every year.

British Columbia Steelhead Map

The town of Smithers, British Columbia, is the best jumping-off point to the Skeena River system. Located in Trans Canada Yellowhead Highway (Route 16), this ski town welcomes several daily Air Canada flights, and there are plenty of car-rental agencies at the airport. For more information on travel, guides, and lodging, contact Flywater Travel (800-552-2729; www.flywatertravel.com). Illustration by Bill Tipton www.compartmaps.com

Seasons and Tactics

Although the prime fishing months of September and October produce the lion’s share of angling pressure, this is by no means the only good time to fish the Skeena region. Most steelhead start to enter the Bulkley and Kispiox systems in mid-August, with the productive upper reaches of the Babine lagging roughly two weeks behind. In addition to pleasant weather and less competition from fellow anglers, late August and early September can produce some stunning days of steelheading.

This is when short sleeves come together with minimal fishing pressure and the hottest, most surface-oriented fish of the season. With water temperatures typically at their highest, the conditions are usually perfect for stalking steelhead with a dry fly. Instead of employing the typical method of dead drifting the fly, steelheaders tend to skate or wake the fly on the surface in order to tease the fish to the top.

String up an 8-, 9-, or 10-weight rod with a long-belly floating line and a stiff 10- or 12-foot leader that tapers to 12-pound test. Good dry patterns range in size from 2 through 8, and the emphasis is on the fly’s ability to wake, rather than on any specific colors. Cast slightly down and across, placing the fly upstream from where a fish might lie. When the current puts tension on the line, the fly should produce a visible wake or V on the surface. The key is to maintain just the right amount of pressure on the fly to keep it waking and moving.

After each cast, take one or two steps downstream and repeat the process. Be sure to cover each run thoroughly. If a steelhead boils to the fly without actually taking it, change to a smaller fly, which will create a finer wake. When a fish takes the fly, remember not to rear back and strike, but release a small loop of line or bow the rod to the fish. This initial slack will enable the fish to turn downstream with the fly and hook itself solidly in the corner of its mouth.

If a fish fails to return to the dry fly, swinging a wet fly just under the surface will often do the trick. Using the same line-and-leader combination as with the dry-fly setup, cast across and slightly downstream with one good upstream mend. As the line tightens, you should follow the fly with your rod tip until the fly is just hanging in the current, whereupon you should pause for a few seconds. Often a steelhead following a fly will take it here.

Traditional wet-fly patterns such as the Green-Butted Skunk tend to work best. Start with a big and bright fly. If you get a grab but come up empty handed, replace the fly with a smaller, less colorful pattern. Resume casting from just upstream of the hot spot. Covering a run like this with several different flies will often entice reluctant fish.

The middle of September through mid-October constitutes prime time on the Skeena system. The first big push of fish enter the tributaries in early September, with new fish (and new anglers) arriving daily until early November. This is the most crowded time on the water because lodges and guides are usually fully booked. Under optimal conditions, a good fly fisher may average two to five hook-ups per day.

The heart of the season combines spectacular fall colors, ever-increasing fish counts, and moderate water temperatures that enable anglers to succeed with a wide range of techniques. But, as water temperatures drop, sinking-tip tactics work best. The key is to have a good selection of interchangeable tips in different lengths and weights. Most anglers use 15-foot tips in types 3, 6, and 8. Instead of a tapered leader, attach a 4-foot section of straight 12- to 15- pound Maxima via a loop knot to a short leader butt. This will keep the fly down in front of fish that are holding deep.

Use large patterns that have a lot of movement in the water. A big, dark silhouette works best in cloudy water. Smaller patterns work well when water clarity is good, and brightly colored flies produce in low-light conditions. A well executed cast across and slightly down with an upstream mend should present the fly properly. As the line tightens, the weight of the tip will cause the fly to swing deeper through the run.

By November, colder air temperatures tend to increase the probability of  snow, so the water doesn’t rise and fall much. Before the onset of ice, which in recent years has occurred in December and January, late-season steelheading can be very productive. The vast majority of the run has arrived, and oftentimes the colder temperatures concentrate the fish in the slower parts of the river, especially inside bends and soft pockets. And when the water temperature hovers in the mid- 30s, the fish are unwilling to move far to the fly.

Matching flies and tips to the conditions is crucial. You may need to lighten both tips and flies to swing through these soft lies. As the fly sinks, mend or feed line into the drift to help the fly sink. Follow the fly with your rod tip, and when the fly reaches the proper depth, pinch off the line to start the downstream swing. Cover the lower water column methodically, and make sure that the fly is swimming slowly. Takes will be less aggressive, and the slightest tap on the end of your line could be a trophy fish.

Early November on the river offers the hardcore angler solitude and the opportunity to fish to large numbers of steelhead. The season itself ends only when there is too much ice to fish effectively.

A fly-fishing trip to British Columbia is a must for any angler who wants an authentic wilderness experience. This untamed and majestic land offers the best opportunity for an angler to hook into a wild trophy steelhead. If you are lucky enough to land one these incredible fish, you will be forever changed.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
This article first appeared in American Angler magazine. Copyright © 2005 Jim Bourque.
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