Canadian Steelhead

Harrison describes the steelhead addiction.

Back in 2013, I was lucky enough to spend a year living in British Columbia, Canada. During that time I got to share the water with some of the fishiest dudes around. They took me in as an outsider, imparting their knowledge and their passion. This passion is infectious and the community that surrounds steelhead fishing is unlike any other. It’s partly this encompassing mateship around steelhead fishing which draws you back.

My year in Canada involved around 200 days on the water, with the rest either skiing or mountain biking. When I arrived in January, the first few months of fishing involved rivers surrounded by snow, with water so icy, my toes protected by three layers of socks, waders and boots would go numb shortly after stepping into the river.

First Steelhead

For this sun-loving Queenslander, it was a relief when spring finally arrived, heralding warmer weather as well as the beginning of the local steelhead run. On a river where anglers go years without bringing a steelhead to hand, I was lucky enough to hook and land a feisty dime-bright steelhead on my first morning. The pure power and strength was beyond expectations. All of a sudden, I realised why so many anglers become fanatical about steelhead.

The summer came and went with spectacular salmon fishing fulfilling all my childhood dreams. But no matter how hard they grabbed the fly or fought, none of the salmon left a memory like my solitary spring steelhead. This new love was only compounded by a trip to northern British Columbia to fish the world-famous Skeena system. Bringing a few fish to hand as well as witnessing a 14lb buck smash a skated dry fly, reaffirmed my amazement.

The fish that keep you coming back – a dime-bright steelhead.

At the end of 2013 I moved back to Australia and down to Melbourne in February 2014 to begin my university degree. This meant less time fishing and more time doing the things expected of a student. When I had the chance, I would pack the car and head to the mountains. Although I enjoyed my time chucking flies to trout in Victoria, and holidays up north chasing pelagics, I couldn’t quite scratch the itch. I still dreamt about achieving that perfect juicy swing; waiting for the tug of a steelhead.

I completed my degree and after a fruitless search for a full-time job, I decided it was a sign to head back to British Columbia, catch up with some mates and scratch my steelhead itch.

Back to BC

After some messages and calls to my contacts in BC, I had worked out a whole trip on three weeks’ notice. Excitement aside, I had to get packed. My Australian summer gear would be of no use – I needed to dig out my warmest jackets and wool socks to get ready for early spring in Canada.

Finding my steelhead fly box was like going through an old photo album, with each fly bringing back a forgotten memory. After the trip down memory lane, I’d worked out a week in advance which fly I would tie on first! This only added to the anticipation as I began swapping the fly lines on my reels to slick shooters and shooting heads with heavy sink tips.

For those who aren’t familiar with steelhead, they’re a seagoing rainbow trout, native to the west coast of North America from California up to Alaska; and across to eastern Russia. Steelhead smolt (juveniles) drop down the rivers into the estuary, before they begin to travel along the coast. They feed and gorge themselves on protein-rich prawns and herring, attaining sizes far beyond what is possible in the river of their birth. Even with the seafood buffet, they can’t be complacent with orcas, seals and salmon sharks ensuring only the strongest survive. This creates a unique strain of trout with power that has to be experienced to be believed. Once mature, they return to their home river to spawn.

Steelhead can travel hundreds of kilometres upriver before spawning. This means targeting them in the lower parts of the rivers not only ensures that the fish are at their strongest, it also avoids fishing to steelhead on spawning redds.

Early spring can be very cold on Canada’s steelhead rivers.

As winter turns to spring, the snowmelt running into the creeks and rivers bumps the water level up and carries the scent of the headwaters as it flows into the sea, signalling to the steelhead that it’s time to begin running up the rivers. This initial icy run-off can make the fish sluggish, meaning they won’t move far to take a fly and even then, tend to only take larger flies. Although fishing for them can be accomplished using a single hand rod, most people fish two-handed Spey rods, matched with short ‘Skagit’ shooting heads. Fishing Spey rods makes the casting of heavy sink tips and bulky flies a breeze once the casting technique has been mastered.

After a short stopover and a celebratory breakfast beer in Los Angeles, I arrived in Vancouver, weary but excited. Typical of steelhead fishing, the consensus was there were a few fish around, but you had to work hard for them. I’m not sure if it was the excitement or the jet lag, but I was unable to sleep. I sat at the desk tying flies, letting my delusional state inspire some interesting patterns.

On the River

My first day fishing was typical of late winter/spring steelhead fishing: cold, grey skies and near freezing drizzle. Having not touched a Spey rod for three and a half years, my first casts looked and felt very rusty. However, as the reps increased, the rust began clearing. Just as I was getting into the rhythm and groove of cast, mend, step, swing, strip… repeat, to my surprise I hooked my first steelhead of the trip – after only 25 casts! Mid-swing, the line came tight and before I could raise the rod, the fish began powerfully trucking downriver, easily taking me into my backing. After dogging it for a while, it turned and began swimming upriver again.

A typical spring steelhead scene on the lower BC mainland.

Before I knew it, my shooting head was in my rod tip and I caught an initial glimpse of my fish, a lovely chrome silver buck of about 12lb. However, I knew from previous experience the fight was far from over, and in no time, my shooting head was gone again and the fish was violently rolling in full view of myself and my fishing partners. This tactic allowed the fish to shake free the barbless hook. Even so, I was all smiles. The privilege of hooking up less than an hour in was special; I would have accepted spending a week just to get to this point. I fished for the rest of the day without another bite.

Day two started with the same dreary weather. I fished through some runs without managing a bite, then I got to the same run I’d fished the previous day. Within a few casts of where I hooked the steelhead the day before, I came up tight on another. This time, a bright doe almost ripped the rod from my hand as she took, proceeding to tear downriver, cartwheeling and ripping the backing off my reel. I fought this doe of around 9lb for ten minutes, playing her back and forth with my shooting head, and tried a landing attempt which failed. Finally, in similar fashion to the day before, she managed to roll the barbless hook out. Nonetheless, I got everything out of this fish but a photo, so I was happy.

Quiet Time

I continued fishing for three more days without out as much as a bite. However, with each cast, I still anticipated a take and reports of other anglers finding fish kept me getting up in the morning to begin another cold, damp day of fishing.

Then, on day six, I awoke to clear blue skies and the promise of no rain. To many Canadian steelheaders, these are horrible conditions as the fish apparently don’t feel safe under sunny skies. However, as a ‘soft’ Australian, I appreciated the opportunity to fish on a relatively warm day and thaw out from the previous week.

I decided to get up at first light to fish the lower river in search of a fresh steelhead coming in on the tide; hoping I would be the first angler to swing a fly through two of my favourite runs. I did just that; however I remained fishless. Being still early in the day, I moved even further downriver to a run where I’d had great success fishing for salmon back in 2013. As I walked down the trail along the river, I was watched by a pair of bald eagles on the other bank.

Another Chance?

When I got to my starting point, I began by fishing short casts down through the riffle at the top of the run. Not long after, my line came up tight and with a few strong head shakes, an unseen fish began a surprising run upriver towards me. Trying to keep the line tight, I cranked my reel as fast as I could. Before I knew it, the shooting head was a foot from my rod tip and I got a glimpse of the silver bar I was attached to.

More head shakes, and the big chromer turned and began a powerful run across the river, still peeling line at a constant rate even as I gradually tightened the drag. This had little effect as I watched half my backing disappear out across the river. It was the beginning of a twenty minute tug-o’-war. I would recover my backing and fly line, and have the fish almost close enough to tail, only for it to run back out across the river. I would get so close to my prize, then it would disappear again and again.

The saying is a minute per pound of steelhead. However this guy was punching well above his weight, a tribute to how strong these lower river fish are. When I finally managed to tail this amazing fish, the feeling of awe and jubilation is something I will never forget. Staring at this big chrome slab surrounded by snow-capped mountains, is a memory I’ll hold onto for the rest of my life.

A cracking buck under sunny skies.

I fished for three more days on this river without another grab, but I was nonetheless satisfied and ready to head north to the famous Skeena River system.

Skeena River

I arrived at the Skeena and even before I’d set foot in the river, I began hearing the old fisherman’s adage, ‘You should’ve been ‘ere last week!’ A warm start to spring had resulted in rising river levels and falling visibility, caused by the fast-melting winter snowpack. (As an Australian, it takes a bit of getting used to that consecutive days of warm weather raise river levels.) The Skeena is a large and intimidating river even at lower flows, let alone when it begins carrying big fir trees downstream with ease!

Undeterred, I got organised and headed to the river in search of a Skeena steelhead. The river was certainly murkier than what I’d experienced down south the week before, with the snowmelt flood limiting visibility to about a foot and a half. Slightly flashier and larger flies were obviously needed. The fishing was tough as the river continued to rise.

Unbelievably beautiful scenery on the Skeena helps when the fishing is tough.

Then, a few colder nights with fresh snow in the alpine areas saw at least the smaller rivers in the system drop and start to clear. These clearer tributaries and the clear seam they provided just below their confluence with the Skeena, became the target areas. As well as water clarity, these sites hold steelhead waiting for the next bump in tributary level before continuing upstream.

I headed out on a day that was bright but crisp: plenty of sun and not a breath of wind. The casting was easy with lovely, gradual swings maintaining a constant speed. Then, halfway down to a tailout, my line abruptly stopped mid-swing. This stop was followed by a series of gentle headshakes and before I knew it, I was connected to my first Skeena steelhead for the trip. After a back and forth in the shallow tailout I brought a lovely chrome doe to hand.

Anxious moments as a fish comes closer. Many steelhead pull the barbless hook at this point.

Not expecting another fish for a while (if at all!), I was pleasantly surprised when around a dozen casts later, another steelhead grabbed the fly and tore off down the river. This time, a nice little buck came to hand, capping off a great spell. Content with my two fish for the morning, I took the afternoon off to tie some flies and share stories.

The next day, the rivers were a little higher with the sun and a cloudy night keeping it warm enough to melt some more snow higher up. This added some colour but not much, so I headed to the lower section of one of the tributaries. This river was comfortable to fish, with good swings achievable through most of the runs. However, things did not feel ‘fishy’; a feeling I’m sure many anglers can relate to.

Meeting up with some friends, the day turned to jokes and storytelling while we fished our way downriver; seeing who could cast the furthest with their opposite hand, or throw the tightest loop. It made for entertainment while nothing was showing interest in our flies.

The hours passed and my friends had to head off, so I went and fished one final run alone. Skipping the slow, deep head of the pool, I made my way to what looked like some good holding water further down. It wasn’t long until an energetic doe grabbed the fly and was making all sorts of acrobatic jumps. This fish was bright and strong and I expected to lose it, so I was surprised when I eventually brought it to hand.

Worth as many casts as it takes.

With the fish released, I resumed fishing, and made my first cast out and across the river. As my fly swung towards the ‘dangle’ at the bottom of the swing, the line went tight and I was connected to another fish. Two steelhead in two casts? Surely not! A leap clean out of the water revealed the blush of a buck steelhead. After a slightly shorter fight, I had this fish safely tailed too. I sent him on his way and decided to make one last cast. It’s funny how confidence works, when you feel that at any moment a fish could grab the fly. The anticipation was high through every bit of the swing; however it was not to be. Walking back I reflected on what was a truly amazing last hour; sad I was heading back to Australia in the morning, but already looking forward to next time.

FLYSTREAM FACTS – Gearing up for steelhead fishing and casting with two-handers

Steelhead, especially winter and spring-run fish, are generally few and far between, so the more time your fly spends in good holding water, swinging at the right speed and the right depth, the better. Trying to cast a single-handed rod all day with a heavy sink tip and a matching bulky fly, is not only tiring but wastes time false casting. A double-handed Spey rod matched with a modern ‘Skagit’ shooting head permits the angler to cast large flies on heavy sink tips at distance, without the need to false cast.

Go for a 7 to 8 weight rod around 12ft, matched with a large arbour reel and a smooth drag, filled with plenty of backing. To that, add some nice stiff slick shooter for running line, and a 520-550 grain shooting head with around a 12ft sink tip.

The sink speed of the tip depends on what sort of water you are fishing, but if you could only have one it would be a Type 6 (6 inch per second sink rate). To the end of this, add a 3-4ft section of 16-20lb leader. The short leader allows the sink tip to do the work, helping to get down and hold the fly in the zone. Since the fish sees the fly before anything else as it swings down and across in the current, a lengthy leader is not required.

Steelhead generally aren’t picky when it comes to flies. It’s really more about presentation and drawing an instinctive reaction from the fish, which strictly speaking aren’t feeding. The lack of pickiness in steelhead allows a tier to get creative, making the tying of flies as enjoyable as it gets. Flies are generally bright, with reds, pinks and oranges being favourites, as well combinations of black and blue. The flies have lots of movement in the water and commonly feature marabou, rabbit strips and ostrich, as well as healthy doses of flash.

Some typical steelhead flies.

In an attempt to reduce fish mortality as well as maintain a large profile, modern steelhead flies are tied on bare shanks, with a loop tied off the back where generally a size 2 octopus-style hook is looped in. This reduces the need for a large, potentially fish-damaging hook in the fly, while also allowing an easy change from a dull hook to a sharp one – without having to dispose of the fly you spent half an hour tying!

It’s easy to get carried away and overthink fly selection, however it’s more important to focus on getting the fly to the right depth through a combination of lead eyes or heavy shanks, with a matching sink tip. Fishing with a light fly on a light sink tip for the most part is ineffective; as is spending you time constantly hanging up on the bottom with a too-heavy fly on a too-heavy tip. Overall, it’s all about balance, and choosing a setup which allows ease of casting, while also getting the fly to the depth of the fish.