At the end of my annual British Columbia steelhead trip there is always a melancholic let down phase. Most steelheaders refer to this as the re-entry period. You've been gone for a month. You haven't picked up a newspaper or watched a television the entire time. Funny... your acid reflux has settled down and you're sleeping like a rock again. You misplaced the Advil bottle three weeks ago and never bothered to look for it, you didn't need it! Sporting a full beard you now have to face the real world once again. The idea of digging out from 300 e-mails and 50 voice messages is not something you're really looking forward to. Many of those calls are from concerned friends and family wondering why they haven't heard from you. Their worried! There's a stack of bills teetering on the edge of collection. Not to mention, a nearly $400.00 dollar bill to get man's best friend out of hoc at the kennel. Your girlfriend, if you still have one, is a bit crabby. For those of you who attempt this nonsense with a wife... scratch that. You're divorced already, or awfully close and you just don't know it.
Sheesh... this trip goes fast. I was gone for nearly a month including drive time. It was fifteen hundred miles from my driveway in Sheridan Wyoming to the bridge in Smithers BC. Twenty-four hours with a tender tailbone behind the wheel. That's moving! It's only because I live in northern Wyoming and I'm used to driving 65 miles an hour, at night, in a blizzard, with a foot of snow on the road that allowed me to make that kind of time. The drive to Smithers is actually not all that bad. If you do it over a three-day period, it's quite enjoyable with some spectacular scenery. Also, the dreaded border crossing was really simple, even considering I was importing my own 12 gauge bear repellent and enough gear at actually move to Canada permanently.
From Sheridan, my route took me through Great Falls Montana, north to Calgary and then west through the Banff, Lake Louise area. I drove the Ice fields highway north through Banff and Jasper National parks, along what seemed to be the top of the world. This two-lane road follows the Alberta, British Columbia border for 340 kilometers at the top of the Canadian Rockies. The scenery was simply spectacular! However beautiful, the drive was at times a little hairball in late October, even for a veteran foul weather driver. Heading out across this mountainous roadway with three inches of fresh snow, following no plow, no traction providing gravel or even tire tracks at first light was cause to lock in the 4-wheel drive, gear down and proceed with caution.
Even with the high price of fuel these days driving round trip, by yourself, is actually cheaper then airfare by about $200.00. Not to mention the savings on a rental car for over three weeks. That made the decision to drive this year a no brainier. Having your own vehicle also allows you to bring more toys, i.e.... a quiver of spey rods, tents, sleeping bags, coolers, inflatable kayaks and a raft. Things you could never bring on an airplane with all the new baggage and weight restrictions. The gear this year was critical as we had some great adventures planned.
Our first adventure was a doozie. For nearly a year, two friends and I had planned to do a float of the upper, upper Skeena River. To the best of our knowledge this float had never been done before in late September, for steelhead. The upper Skeena, between the Kluatantan River and Mosque creek is a float of about 60 miles. It is an extremely remote and chilly part of the world at this time of year.
But, a word of caution here, floating the section of the Skeena river just below the confluence of the Sustut is not advised. It's considered by many to be an un-run able white water canyon, with perilously steep cliffs, no eddies and no option for a portage. As fishermen... it's best to avoid this area of the upper Skeena.
The plan was to land on a remote gravel strip at the mouth of the Kluatantan river. Our mode of transportation was a fixed wing aircraft called an Airvan, flown by a great pilot named Evan McCallum. We wanted to fly with Evan because this fixed wing option allowed for a 1000 pound weight capacity for gear in addition to our three anglers. Additionally, the cost for our flight into the Kluatantan airstrip, then a pick up at the Mosque Creek airstrip, a week later, was a fraction of the normally prohibitive cost of using choppers in and out of this region. Each of these rivers has a short gravel airstrip within easy portage distance from the Skeena. Not many people know this and it's why you could do this trip fairly inexpensively and safely by using a fixed wing aircraft.
This float is one that has been on my mind for years. I'm sure it's been on the radar of many savvy steelheaders for quite sometime. The reasons I believe no one has ever attempted it are mainly due to the cost of the chopper flights in and out. Well... that's solved now! I'll tell you, this stretch of river... it's not for your average weekend camper. On our flight up the Skeena we observed three very major white water drops, water falls actually, that I would not want to run... ever! Especially in 40-degree water, wearing my waders instead of a wet suit. Conveniently, there is an old railroad bed that was intended for the logging companies to use. The rail line was never completed. However, what is essentially a roadbed, follows the entire eastern bank of the upper Skeena. Making for reasonable portages around these un-runnable white water drops. Attempting to run these sections during this chilly time of year, in fishing attire is a really bad idea and could cost you your life. Take the time and do the portages. Scout the drops on the flight up, mark them on your GPS, portage around them and you'll be fine.
With the right weather and water conditions this would be an amazing multi day float, limited only by one's own calendar and outdoor acumen. It's important to remember that you are in grizzly country so the typical clean camp protocol is very important. Also, as this is so far north and at an elevation of greater then 2500 feet, be prepared for winter, or at least freezing camping conditions in late September. A GPS and Sat phone would also be mission critical gear for a trip this out of the box. The Skeena is always a bit off color to begin with but it does go out like the rest of the rivers in this region from time to time. It does not clear super quickly either. These headwaters drain a massive area and blowout conditions are always a possibility. All you can do is wait it out and keep floating if your weather forecast is not to bad.
Unfortunately we were not so lucky with the timing of this float. What had been an exceptionally low water year throughout British Columbia, creating optimal low, clear water conditions on the upper Skeena had over night turned into a roiling, muddy mess. Unbeknownst to us, a sudden storm over a hundred miles to the north, high up in the Spatsizi wilderness area had dumped over 10 inches of rain into the Skeena headwaters during the pervious 24 hours. Our excitement was extremely high as we ended our evening that night before our float. All the supplies had been acquired, gear culled, organized and reorganized. We were ready for our trip of a lifetime. After we loaded our plane we were off the ground at about 9:00 AM, flying up the Bulkley river valley. Shortly after take off we reached the Bulkley's confluence with the Skeena. Hung a wide right turn around a majestic mountain peak and were on our way. The sad reality of our river's color was soon apparent as we flew up this incredible valley. As we continued the conditions worsened. You could feel a quiet despair come over our group.
After an hour, through worsening visibility and tightening valley walls, we were on approach to the Kluatantan's rugged but landable gravel strip. Both rivers were completely blown out. As we got out of the plane we reluctantly unloaded our gear as the rain began to spit snow. A howling bitter wind drove the sleet down the neck of my fleece as I dug into my dry bag for my parka. Evan suggested that I ought to load my shotgun immediately as there were a number of large inquisitive grizzlies in the area. One quoted as being the largest Evan had ever seen in his life... Great!
At this moment a million scenarios are running through the minds of each of the groups three participants. Do we wait it out and hope for the river to clear. That could be a week. Or more? Do we float a blown out river and just enjoy a wet, chilly camping trip in grizzly country with no prospect for fishing at all. I'm thinking NOT! What are my comrades thinking? I don't want to be the buzz kill here, but the idea of sleeping in a wet tent, in a wet bag, in my waders to stay warm, does not sound as intriguing without the chance of hooking a steelhead. We were here in BC with limited time to fish and if I thought we had a chance to catch even a few fish, I would suffer through almost anything. With the river still not crested, knowing the river would be out for at least a week, I mentioned to the guys that we abort the trip. At least back in town we would have more options and some fishable rivers.
I left it up to the guys. If they wanted to go on with our plan I would do it. I certainly did not want to be the weakest link here. After 20 minutes of runway gravel kicking the collective consensus was to head back. Our charter plane money was water under the bridge. Worrying about that at this point was senseless and part of the risk when doing trips such as this. There are no guarantees and no refunds in adventure angling. Weighing all our options we were now faced with going to plan B. With the truest sense of disappointment I had ever experienced we loaded back up into the plane and headed back towards town.
The dynamics of runway length, gear weight, body weight and fuel weight makes for interesting decisions when flying in and out of the bush. Inbound we were fully loaded coming into an extremely short runway. Not a problem with the design of this plane. Evan needed to be much lighter to get out. He expected to be empty when he took off. The pilot's experience is huge here as he mentally calculates remaining fuel, weight of the load, wind direction and air temperature. This is all pilot instinct at this point and a wrong decision could cost us a lot more then money. Weighing all those factors against an extremely short runway, to Evans credit, the decision was made to take anglers out first and shuttle us to a much longer strip down river. He would then fly back up to the Kluatantan for our gear. It's these sort of prudent decisions that gives us the faith to do these out of the box trips over and over again. Safety is always the number one priority!
So... months of preparation, a pile of cash, a huge commitment in terms of time and gear were flushed (no pun intended) overnight. Our river going out was an unpredictable act of god and completely out of our control. If you do enough of these trips you run into this. The disappointment... it only gets slightly easier to take over time. You just move on, roll the dice again and dream about the next great adventure. I'll admit that during the planning stages of this trip I often wondered why this float had never been attempted. Many savvy steelhead anglers have dreamed of what might exist way up into the headwaters of the Skeena. It's still a place of great mystery and unknown potential. I went there, I saw it, but was stopped on the one-yard line wondering if I'd ever return?
If there's one thing I've learned about steelhead fishing in my life, it's that this is a game of chance. Tilting the odds in your favor whenever possible can be the difference between a fantastic week or a real tough week. I always like to have a solid plan B in my mind just in case. Unless you have unlimited amounts of time, being pinned down on a blown out river makes no sense. Why sit for a week? Waiting for your river to clear is a gamble, sometimes it does... sometimes it doesn't. Over time you will generate a sense for these things. At that point forget about the money because it's gone. For most folks time now becomes the more valuable asset.
Veteran anglers know that the key to steelhead fishing success is flexibility. How well and how quickly can you react to what the changing conditions dictate? A steelhead is a migratory creature. They are often here today and gone tomorrow. If it seems you don't have many fish around... move! Change rivers. Or simply move up or down on the one your fishing. Be proactive. If your river goes out, look for other rivers in the system that may still be in better shape. An early AM drive, even a lengthy one, can often lead to greater success then simply flogging muddy water just because you're already there. Invest time in relationships and network with other anglers. Rent a car. Look around and do some exploring. Utilize different methods to access your target rivers. Some rivers you can walk and wade fish. Others can be accessed and run in a pontoon boat, kayak or raft. Hire a jet boat to run you around on the larger rivers. Hire a guide for a day. Just about anything is possible if you do your homework and refuse to give up. And most importantly... always have a solid plan B!
Written by: Todd Sabine