Friday, September 16, 2011

Steelhead On Top... The Obsession Gets Worse?

It doesn’t take a genius to calculate that a size eight mayfly doesn’t have the same hook strength as a 1/0 streamer.
Way to go, Einstein. (Bill Klyn photo.)
This said, one can imagine my disappointment when after waiting a lifetime to finally hook a 15-plus pound steelhead on a delicate dead-drifted mayfly, all logic, know-how and thought processing suddenly vanished from my head.
As I torqued on the rod, my hook bent out, the line went slack and a straight piece of wire flew back at me as a reminder that perhaps overpowering such delicate hooks was not the best idea.
Perhaps they're a little different...
Yes, I admit it; after years of searching for surface feeding steelhead (particularly steelhead who wanted to eat my fly!) I didn’t take into consideration that my hook might bend out if I wasn’t careful.
As I pulled on him while he jumped, turned, and bucked, I don’t know why I was so shocked to watch the fly tear out of his mouth resulting in a useless hook at my feet.
Adam Tavendar Photo.
It poked at me from the rocks below my boots and taunted me with cruel silent jabs and criticisms. I dropped to my knees, hated myself and hung my head in mental exhaustion.
I never will forget that fish and what it did to me that day...
It goes without saying that there are days on the water that mould us as anglers.
There are those days that leave us confident, proud and sure of ourselves as nature’s fish stalkers.
Alternately, there are days when we are filled with self-doubt and we’re left to wonder just how crazy we really are.
Not so proud...
Personally, my best days are those that cut me deep enough to leave a distinct mark. I strive to dress myself in these scars and hope that every day I’ll return home after time well spent on the water, covered with the entrenched markings of an unforgettable memory or new experience.
Does this make me a masochist? Not particularly, but it certainly encourages me to spend each day on the water in search of an adventure or experience that will humble me so greatly that it will simply be impossible to erase from my memory.
To date, I have never met a man, employer, friend, competitor or single living life form who could bring me to life and scar my memory the way that fish did that day. It’s an irony really, a beautiful beating of experience that many of us wish we could only be so lucky to endure.
Rather than continuing this story by bruising my ego further, perhaps I should start at the beginning.
It was September in Terrace, British Columbia and the Skeena River and its tributaries had been fishing unbelievably well. I had phoned Nick Pujic of Fly Max Films and asked for him to make the trek to western Canada to join me and to experience BC's notorious wild steelhead.
Ben Grady Photo.
I let Nick know that my dear friend Andrea would be joining us while we filmed, and that my plan was to spend this week helping Andrea land her first Northern BC steelhead. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for Nick to book his flight into Terrace.
Nick Pujic Photo.
The town of Terrace (a two hour drive west of Smithers) is a major flurry of activity in the Skeena region. Most important to visiting anglers is the fact that the area is laced with countless waterways that provide sanctuary for wild steelhead year-round. Though the Skeena is the primary waterway, there are multiple rivers, both large and small that are home to steelhead making their migration in the fall.
Skeena steelhead frequent the majestic rivers of the North year-round, most notably during the spring and fall seasons. Traditionally, fall is the most popular time of year as anglers from all over the world flock to share in the adventure of roaring rivers, breathtaking scenery, and a chance to battle a 20-plus pound steelhead. These fall fish are commonly referred to as summer-run steelhead since they enter the system during the summer months.
Yos Gladstone Photo.
The Skeena River originates on the remote Spatsizi Plateau and flows for over 500 kilometers before emptying into Chatham Sound south of Prince Rupert. Fall fishing in the Skeena system typically begins around the end of August, with September and October being the region’s most popular months. The small towns of Smithers and Terrace are typically the starting points for anglers journeying to the Skeena and its renowned tributaries.
The weather had been warm and the sun drew lines around the glasses on our faces.
Andrea and I couldn’t wipe away our smiles and I closed my eyes as the jet boat carried us upriver to find some fresh fish in the Skeena.
The water’s clarity was near perfect and we found a run that swung slow and steady. With a large orange fly and a downstream cast, I followed my fly with my rod tip low to the water and clutched on to my cork handle firmly.
A short and soft loop of running line rested under my index finger and I prayed that it would soon be violently ripped from my grasp by a large steelhead looking to play tug-of-war.
The sun was descending and a soft orange glow lit up the river. A moody sky was moving in, trapping the sun’s rays and forcing them to dance on the water’s surface.
The fly swung across the myriad currents and held parallel to the shore before suddenly tightening as I let my loop slip through my fingers until the line was taut against my reel. I glanced downstream and watched the water churn as a large steelhead dashed into the broad flow of the Skeena.
Eventually I landed the Skeena beauty and the darkening sky momentarily opened up and shone its contrast onto my face and the water I knelt in.
The buck’s scales caught the light and as I held him up for a quick photo, the water droplets plunged off his fat belly like liquid diamonds disappearing back into the river.
Nick Pujic Photo.
British Columbia steelhead have a way of getting into the blood of those who pursue them.
Personally, never an angler who fished nymphs, I was addicted to the thrill of the swing.
Large streamers made for great fun and I loved watching how various currents made my fly dance in different rhythms. Like a moving puzzle, I would analyze the water currents and try to fit each cast to each current accordingly.
Pocket water, slow seams, fast tail-outs, deep troughs… I was always intrigued by the different water flows and how every run seemed to present both my line and fly differently.
Fascinated by the various presentations and their efficiency, I would cast while standing on rocks so I could watch my fly as I swung it high and over the heads of oblivious fish.
Unfortunately, sink-tips and heavy flies are often necessary in British Columbia and no matter how hard I strained my eyes, I wasn’t always able to see the action taking place below in the mysterious depths.
I would hold underwater cameras in clear runs, sight fish for my friends and hike up countless overhanging ledges to simply stare into the water and see the grey shadows swaying fluidly in tune with the current; I loved watching them in their habitat.
I didn’t always care if I caught a steelhead, I was just desperate to know they were there. It wasn’t until I began fishing for them with dry flies that I realized I could truly experience the take, up close and personal.
I had skated dry flies for steelhead before and had fished obnoxious foam patterns, and intrusive mohawked bombers, in an attempt to coax fresh steelhead into taking top water patterns.
They drove me nuts as they swirled underneath my flies and flashed as they broke water with their snouts. They’d swipe at the bomber just as it would catch the wake of their rise and push it through the water’s surface away from their grasping jaws.
So as Andrea and I made our way through the week, she fished her streamers and I desperately tried my luck with a dry fly.
I skated and waited and heard Andrea yelp with excitement behind me as she’d pick up a fish that was more interested in a pink and orange egg-sucker than the tan colors of my floating deer hair concoction.
I’d sigh, check my head, let myself know that I’d caught enough steelhead on streamers and that I mustn’t give up until accomplishing what I’d set out to do.
Andrea with a nice streamer caught fish.
One morning, as the sun warmed the night-chilled air, we hiked into a Skeena River tributary and found ourselves at a long and glassy run. We were joined by good friend and angler Dustin Kovacvich, who stands at 6 foot 4 inches and is a giant of a man, especially when standing next to myself and Andrea.
Together, the two of us shielded our eyes and peered out into the tailout of the run.
There they were, flashing and uninterrupted; multiple steelhead laid incognito behind boulders, tilting their bodies to catch the light as they fed actively below the surface.
As we watched intensely, a snout broke the surface and slurped in a large mayfly before it could dry its wings and achieve the relative safety of flight. I gasped… they were feeding!
Finding feeding steelhead in British Columbia is somewhat of a rarity and most certainly a treat for anglers who are fortunate enough to experience it. Though many fish are caught every year on skated flies during the warmer months of July, August and September, opportunities to catch steelhead on dead drifted flies tend to be fewer and farther between.
Dustin passed me his fly of choice, a rugged looking, broken fibered, deer hair mayfly in a size 8. I looked at it like he was joking but saw quickly that he wasn’t. I obliged him, tied it on, and made a cast upstream. Mending to ensure there was no line drag, the fly sat upright and obvious as it drifted over the large dark shadow that hovered in front of us.
The shadow abruptly flashed, rose, and fell back down. My heart pounding, I cast again, only this time further upstream.
He levitated, angled his head towards the surface and then gracefully slurped in my fly before descending. I raised my rod tip into a solid hook set, and he pulled deep before jumping and turning my thoughts into a jumbled mess of indecipherable words. I was petrified!
I think this is about the time where I bring you back to the beginning as my bent out hook flies back towards me, landing at my feet and insulting my common sense.
I wish that I had caught enough steelhead on dry flies to be able to write you a thorough piece about the intricacies and logistics that go into catching steelhead on dry flies, however, at this time in my angling career I am truly just happy to even simply find surface feeding steelhead.
Like a playground full of cloud-scraping mountains, cascading waterfalls, thick trees and rivers alive with silver tails and wild fish, British Columbia is some of the finest entertainment and adventure that an outdoorsman/woman could ever hope to experience.
As we scan the vast wilderness, we squint for bears, eagles, moose and deer.
Our eyes adjust to the different shades of green and we see details through cliff crevices and forest gaps that resemble those of moving mammals. While we make our way down to the river, we bring with us these same hopes of seeing life through the camouflage and shelter of the rippling water.
We squint, clean our polarized glasses, cup our hands around our eyes, and peer into the glare of the river, scanning the run like an aquatic barcode.
Shadows and divots in the river’s bottom catch our eyes and momentarily stop our hearts while we sit patiently and wait for these shadows to move in sync with the never-ceasing flow.
A natural habit for all predatory life forms, we track, stalk and hunt; our hearts beating and our blood rushing all the way to our final strike.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons British Columbia affects anglers as intensely as it does.
One of the last places on Earth where man can momentarily conquer the wild, free from titled and reserved stretches of river, tamed bears, the din of traffic, or hatchery grown and clipped steelhead.
BC is a final frontier and one of the last places where man can still truly test the wild and where the wild can truly test man.
The stalking of feeding steelhead turn our heads into a massive blizzard of adrenaline laced thoughts and internal hysteria…
For that one short moment, we can remember exactly what it is that we were put on this Earth for as we become one with the mountains, swim free like the fish, and ultimately, turn ourselves into the hunters that we were all born to be.