Atlantic salmon and steelhead: the uncatchables? Part 1

Harrison sets his sights on two famous sportfish that aren’t supposed to eat.  

As fly anglers, we set ourselves the challenge of catching particular species of fish. How easy or difficult that fish is, can be determined by a number of factors. Firstly, do they live in hard-to-reach or distant locations? Are they simply rare? Do you need to cast far, fast and/or accurately to be in with a chance? Do you need particular weather and water conditions to line up? Are the fish spooky or ‘fussy’ about flies? How difficult are they to land once hooked? And so on.

Against these criteria, you can probably rank most species on a leaderboard of difficulty. The few exceptions, and arguably another notch up, are those fish which have stopped feeding altogether. This is the case with anadromous salmonids such as steelhead and salmon, which return to the rivers of their birth to spawn after a period feeding in the ocean. During my overseas adventures this year, I was lucky enough to spend time chasing steelhead in some fabled rivers across Canada’s British Columbia, and Atlantic salmon in Scotland and Ireland.

BC steelhead

I left New Zealand for Vancouver in mid-March, to fresh reports of a small number of steelhead turning up in the island’s rivers, despite low river levels and cold temperatures.

Being my first time in Canada in 6 years, it was a special feeling disembarking my early morning flight. Standing in downtown Vancouver watching the sunrise over the snow-capped Coastal Mountains, it felt like I had returned home. Canada is a special place to me and upon arriving at my mate’s place, it seemed I had never left.

Still recovering from jetlag, I took a walk to the river after lunch to see it low and clear; certainly not ideal for steelhead which, like many anadromous salmonids, like a little ‘bump’ in water level to encourage them to leave the estuary for their run upriver. Still, I formed a plan of attack for the next few days. I would start by focusing on the lower river, given any fish present would probably hold there while waiting for the next decent rainfall event to coax them further upstream.

Back on spectacular steelhead water.

My first day back on the river was under high cloud, which gave me some confidence despite the low river level. After six years of not even looking at a Spey rod, it took me a good hour until I was once again making consistent 70 to 80 foot Spey casts. Before long, I was in the rhythm of cast, step, swing, repeat. I fished plenty of good water with the right flow and structure to hold fish. However, that first day proved to be like so many steelhead sessions: uneventful. Despite feeling I was fishing well, there were no fish hooked, or even a grab.

Bull trout interlude

The next day, a mate of mine, Elliot, invited me to fish the upper river. Although the initial plan was to focus my efforts on the lower reaches, I decided to join him as there was at least a chance of getting a few bites from the aggressive bull trout population.

The upper river was even more amazing than I remembered, surrounded by steep snow-capped rocky peaks, and avalanche chutes at all angles. It didn’t take long before Elliot had some scrappy-fighting bull trout to hand, while I managed a few takes fishing in behind him as we worked down through several runs. While we didn’t encounter any steelhead, Elliot shared plenty of tales of steelhead caught and lost since we last fished together back in 2017. These conversations remind you why you endure those fishless days out chasing steelhead, because when you do eventually hook one, no feeling quite compares to it.

As feeding fish, bull trout are a bit more catchable!

Despite the encouraging stories from seasons gone by, I spent the next three days up on the ‘hill’ skiing: what usually makes bad steelhead fishing, makes for good skiing.

Steelhead moments

With a few good days skiing, I was back out for a dawn shift on the lower river. Not surprisingly, steelhead tend to favour entering the river on an incoming tide rather than an outgoing tide. With a high tide due for mid-morning, I figured I had a decent chance as I walked along the river dyke with low grey clouds overhead. This was quickly confirmed by a seal, which had obviously followed some steelhead hanging out in the tail of the pool I was fishing. It took off like a rocket, heading upstream and past me, clearly chasing something, but it came up empty handed. I continued fishing down the run full of confidence hoping this meant a small pod of steelhead had potentially come in together on the tide.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, 20 feet away and slightly downstream, I noticed the unmistakable, almost purple glow of a chrome steelhead. Apart from seeing steelhead on the end my line years ago, until that point, I had never actually ‘polaroided’ one before. After a few seconds, the fish sensed my presence, fading out and away into the tail out of the pool. Hoping it might still be there, I walked halfway back up the run and fished down again, but with no success.

Friend Scott searching for his first steelhead for the season. If nothing else, the scenery is pretty good!

As far as steelhead fishing goes, these sorts of interactions give you at least some confidence that something is about to happen. Fishing down the run below, I was getting a good consistent and steady swing of the fly, which can be essential to successful steelhead angling. Mid swing, I had a single ‘pluck’, which was followed by another firmer pluck two seconds later. At this point I knew my fly wasn’t merely dragging over the rocks, and I nervously waited to see if my line would come tight before raising my rod. Just before the dangle at the end of the swing, it did! I raised my rod, and a steelhead began thrashing on the surface in an attempt to dislodge the hook, before taking off downstream. I yelled something primitive in response to my excitement as a back and forth battle ensued for around two minutes… before the barbless hook (which is mandatory in BC) simply came out. Despite the initial feeling of disappointment, I was ecstatic that after less than three days of fishing effort, I had already connected to a steelhead.


Over the next seven days, I was very fortunate to experience some special moments. With the river so low from the cold and dry conditions, I managed to wade across the lower river which is normally unheard of. Now fishing the other side from where I saw the steelhead two days earlier, and on what was my last cast in the tail-out of the run, I experienced the same unmistakable pluck, pluck. Then the line tightened! The fish took off upriver first, before racing downstream and almost into the pool below. There was a nervous battle at close quarters, and then finally, I tailed a steelhead of around 8 pounds. I was shouting and yelling to myself, overjoyed at getting one to hand. I was able to admire a steelhead in person for the first time in years.

Finally! My first steelhead for the trip.

Over the following days, there was a warmer sunny spell which helped increase the water temperature, especially by mid-afternoon. Seeking a change in scenery from the lower river, I decided to turn my attention back to the upper. Coming off a few weeks hiking around New Zealand, I had a bit of a fitness base – unlike many Canadians who were just coming out of winter. So, I began hiking around and exploring a few of the harder-to-reach runs, knowing I was likely to be, if not the only angler, then certainly one of a mere handful putting a fly through these runs. After three days, I had connected to and landed a good number of respectable bull trout, as well as some resident rainbow trout and sea-run cutthroat trout. Every cast now into good water, I was almost expecting some sort of a bite or grab, and I was feeling very switched on with my fishing.

Coming to a new run, I began making short casts of around 35ft with only the shooting head outside of my rod tip. About ten casts in and shortly after the fly began to swing, my line came up tight. Before I could do anything, a steelhead took to the air, cartwheeling downstream as it quickly peeled line off my reel. Before I knew it, I was staring at my backing! After a nervous ten minute fight, a steelhead of around 12lb was brought to hand.

The 12 pounder.

Unbelievably, from then on, the afternoon only got better. I continued to fish through the run and began making longer casts to reach further across and down the pool. Stripping off line, I made a long cast, mended, took a step, and let the fly swing… and almost straight away, line began coming off the reel as a second steelhead was hooked. Let me preface this by saying most of my mates who fish the river regularly, were yet to hook – let alone land – a steelhead this season, and I was now fighting my second one in the space of 20 minutes! I tailed it too – an 8 pounder this time.

We certainly had a few beers that night to celebrate, and not many of my mates could remember the last time they’d heard of someone physically landing two steelhead in the same run.

And another! Two steelhead in one day is worth a celebration.

Back to reality

The two steelhead day was by far the high point of my success that spring, and even more so when compared to my next three weeks of fishing effort. I was slowly brought back down to earth over these weeks, to the point when, even after my early success, I began to wonder if these fish were catchable. During a solid five days fishing the Skeena River, which by steelhead standards is usually quite productive, I only managed one brief hookup to a single steelhead.

The famous Skeena River kept its steelhead to itself.

This preceded another eight days of difficult fishing, until I managed to hook and land what would be the last steelhead of my trip. This fish was made even more special by my mate ‘Scoot’ netting it for me, who at that point had not even seen a steelhead all season, despite 20-plus days on the water.

We had some fun but unsuccessful days fishing as the weather warmed later into spring and the river began to blow out due to snowmelt. I knew it would be almost two months until I was fishing a two-handed Spey rod again, so I tried to gather some confidence from my moments of success in BC, to mentally bottle for later.

Last fish of the trip.

I had saltwater trips across the USA and Mexico planned, before I headed to Scotland for some salmon fishing, with the hope of living out a childhood dream of catching an Atlantic salmon.