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B.C Steelhead: River Roulette 10-27-2007

My fascination with steelhead began back in the fall of 1970. I was eight years old. As any parent can tell you, sometimes the trial and error path to success is filled with seemingly endless but ultimately necessary detours. It's how kids learn. This day was no different. Instead of fishing, I had spent the afternoon chasing a giant grasshopper up and down the banks of the Deschutes River in central Oregon. This elusive insect provided far more entertainment for me that day then any trout had. So... after considerable effort, I had my destiny in hand. The end was near for my little green friend. Immediately I impaled its struggling body with a size 12, Eagle Claw bait hook. Without the slightest remorse, I flipped over the rusty bail of my spinning reel and sent off a homerun cast. The hopper sailed off behind three heavy split shots and plummeted into the swirling depths below the highway bridge.

My hands were smeared with a disgusting, tobacco colored, insect saliva. Before I had wiped that nasty hopper spit to my pant leg, the sinkers delivered the drowning hopper to the river bottom. At that instant, the rod was nearly ripped from my unsuspecting arms. My short attention span instantly refocused. I was connected, albeit briefly, to a force that was way beyond this young anglers control. By luck or possibly fate, a chrome bright steelhead had grabbed my hopper. Instantly, the thin six-pound mono snapped as the drag was set far to tightly for such a fish. Suddenly, a massive steelhead, locked in my surreal gaze, cart wheeled across the slick, shaded pool. What a sight! That explosive image was burned so indelibly into my memory banks, it's as if it occurred only last week. It was at that very moment that an electrified steelhead captured me as one of the species most devoted fans.

If you fish long enough, there will be many memorable moments like the one above. Those images become permanently locked in your memory. Many times, it's those fish that get away that captivate us the longest. I believe every encounter with one of British Columbia's prized steelhead is to be treasured. Especially when you consider how hard these fish are to come by at times. But with out a doubt, those fish that get away, especially the big ones, those fish haunt your dreams. It's those lost opportunities that we obsess upon and keep us coming back year after year, despite all the reasons not to.

This was certainly the year to be an optimist in British Columbia. Many folks believed that 2007 was not going to be a great year for steelhead fishing. I'll admit to being one of them. But, I'm also a hopeless optimist. As it turns out, it was a very slow year. The Skeena system and its famous steelhead are in a serious crisis at the moment. There are battles raging on several fronts, all to the detriment of the wild steelhead. Between the pen-raised Atlantic salmon farms spreading parasites and disease and the commercial sockeye fishing fleet that indiscriminately nets the mouth of the Skeena. All the anadromous species in this system are currently at risk. The challenge for the early run steelhead is that they historically enter the Skeena system with the peak of the sockeye salmon run. Unfortunately for the steelhead, they become an incidental by-catch of the commercial salmon fleet. The "NET" result boils down to a significant loss of wild steelhead tragically killed in the nets. The higher ups in the provincial government seem uninterested in doing anything about this issue. So far, they have done absolutely nothing to protect what remains of the Skeena systems precious wild steelhead stock.

Fortunately there are some concerned people outside the government agencies dedicated to the conservation of the Skeena's wild steelhead. The steelhead angling community in and around Smithers British Columbia is a passionate lot to say the least. Concerned factions include: local and visiting sport fisherman, guides, lodge owners and a variety of local businesses that cater to these annually visiting anglers. The dollars that flow into the community by way of these visiting fishermen are vital to the local economy. The community as a whole is incensed with the way the fishery is being managed by the provincial government. A movement, supported by angling conservation groups, local businesses, lodge owners, guides and sportsmen are rallying to the steelhead's cause. They are slowly beginning to catch the ear of their elected officials and expose those individuals with in the government who are acting irresponsibly.

A heated letter writing campaign was enacted in the days that followed the opening of the commercial salmon season. Predictably, the returning steelhead numbers recorded from the Tyee test fishery were abysmally low. The nets were taking their toll on the early run steelhead. This information swept the angling community via the Internet and generated nearly 1300 impassioned letters. Many of the letters from irate steelhead fishermen bordered on hostile and demanded that the government officials stop the netting. The letters created such a firestorm in the Ministry of Fisheries office that the commercial netting season was ended. Only a few days after this flood of letters arrived, the nets that had closed off the mouth of the Skeena River were pulled. It saved what was left of the steelhead season for 2007. Fortunately for the migratory steelhead, there are later run fish that continue to enter the Skeena system after the nets have been pulled. But the damage had been done. For an already suspected low return year for steelhead, the effects of the netting were devastating.

For many anglers, myself included, the annual BC steelhead trip is the highlight of our angling year. For those optimistic souls that fished the early part of the season... they really struggled! There were just fewer anglers around this year as a result of doom and gloom reports. Our weeks typically fall towards the later part of the season. Always the optimist, I believe that the fish I'll be fishing for, in mid to late October, will still be swimming far out at sea while the netting is going on. At least that's my way of rationalizing the situation. This small kernel of truth helps keep my spirits up enough to return year after year. So... that's my theory and I'm sticking to it!

No matter how you look at it, British Columbia's Skeena River system is famous for its steelhead and also the regions high-end steelhead lodges. These lodges deliver an un-matched experience in terms of locations, facilities, staff, guides, food and equipment. For the lodge's highly loyal clientele it creates a bit of a catch 22 when the fish counts get predictably low. Here's why. If you do not deposit nearly a year in advance, you will lose your coveted spot at your favorite steelhead lodge. No matter how long you've been coming! Due to the extremely high demand, you must pony-up a significant non-refundable deposit to secure your spot. This is done based on a belief that there will actually be fish in the river, a year later, when you arrive. It's always a gamble!

The BC steelhead season is a relatively short window of time. The steelhead lodges in the area operate for a limited number of weeks, with limited numbers of spots available each week. At the top lodges, providing cash refunds to their clients who voluntarily cancel trips due to low fish returns would mean financial suicide for the lodge owners. Most of these lodge owners are great, well meaning people, but the economics involved make it tough, if not impossible, to even get them to roll your money to the next year. Bottom line is this... your money is in Canada. Demand compels you to act on faith that the fishery is sustainable. That the government entities in charge of managing the resource will do so in a manor that protects, not only the fish, but also the investment of your discretionary income. At the moment that is not happening! Fish or no fish, the reasons be damned, if you decided not to show up, you are not getting your money back! All you can do is... put up your ante, show up, accept your fate, don't complain and be stoic about it if there are no fish around.

As great as these lodge experiences can sometimes be, there exists a hard reality that nobody likes to discuss. And that is this, once you step on that plane or helicopter and fly into your favorite lodge... you are stuck there for a week. No matter what! Every steelheader understands that rivers are unpredictable and gambling on river conditions is part of the program. River in... river out... steelheaders are expected to deal with this reality. Most folks take it in stride. It's a testament to these anglers commitment to the steelhead. But, when you add to the river conditions roulette wheel, the element of extremely low fish counts, the normally acceptable odds become far less tolerable. Well... I'm one of those anglers that just couldn't take it anymore. I have had fantastic lodge based trips for steelhead in British Columbia. In terms of numbers of fish, two weeks were utterly superb, four were simply average and three were a total bust! So, if you're into playing the odds for nearly a decade you will encounter most of what Mother Nature can throw at you in terms of fishing and river conditions. Given the number of weeks I've spent at these high-end steelhead lodges, I feel I've paid my dues and now I can speak from experience. There has got to be a better way to tilt the odds in the anglers favor.

I believe there is, but first you must ask yourself what it is that brings you to BC in the first place? Is it fancy lodges, gourmet food and shiny new jet boats? Maybe it's the coveted lodge spots among the steelhead aristocracy? I don't think so! For me it's about the fish. As in... lets get to them, wherever they are. With time being equally as important as money, you won't find me pinned down for a week on a blown out river. Successful steelhead fishing, given today's changing weather patterns and declining fisheries, demands a better more flexible approach. Don't let me give you the impression that this is a new idea. It's really not. I was exposed to this way of thinking over a long period of time. It makes sense. So I'll be doing it from here on out!

What follows is a different steelhead fishing strategy. Most of these concepts get revealed to us through simple observation. Which is fortunate, because the folks that already understand what I'm talking about, they're reluctant to discuss the merits with outsiders. So... without trying to sound to entitled or Zen like, I'd tell you, this style of steelhead fishing is not cut out for every angler. Remember fishing, especially for steelhead, has a learning curve that takes some time to develop. Some anglers are definitely better off utilizing the services that the steelhead lodges provide. Fishing out-a-the-box, or DX steelhead style requires a lot of physical ability, energy and commitment. It also helps to possess an adventurous spirit, knowledge of river etiquette and a whole lot of self-reliance. One last important item... you have to know when to keep your mouth shut! Because, once you trod beyond the regimented confines of the lodge program, it's every steelheader for himself! The coveted rivers, beats and runs are held very close to the vest by these poker-faced veteran anglers. And for good reason... loose lips can land a guy in your favorite pool the next day and potentially costs you a fish or two.

The DX approach is really quite simple... be flexible, be mobile and have options in terms of where you can fish. Then, fish hard and never give up. If steelhead fishing is a gamble, why not stack the deck in your favor? This year in BC was the first year I fully committed to this concept. I'm calling it the DX steelhead program not because I've discovered some new secret river full of steelhead, but... maybe... you never know? It's called DX steelhead fishing because the DX type angler profile is what's required to reap the rewards of this rough and tumble approach.

Following the DX concept of not revealing pertinent information, such as river names and other logistical details, I went forward this year with two smaller close-nit groups dedicated to this plan. What makes the plan so great is that there is nothing more than a loose plan. I actually had guys sign on to this program without knowing where we will be fishing, where we will be staying and who the outfitter will be. That's all classified! This was a shoot from the hip program from start to finish and it worked! Perfectly!

Our outfitter this year in BC was a well established, fully licensed, highly experienced, hard working guide. He also has a lot of super cool expedition type toys. Some of the places he took us to fish were well known and some were not. The important thing to understand here is that this is all on the up and up in terms of legal outfitting and appropriate rod days for our guided fishing. All the accommodations we utilized this year where arranged through our Canadian outfitter. Going in, we all knew that fancy food and accommodations were not part of our plans. We stayed in clean comfortable B & B's, strategically located doublewide mobile homes and large 5th wheel travel trailers. Warm, comfortable and well fed, we stayed where we had to each night to access the best fishing opportunities the following day. We covered many miles some days following the fish and best river conditions. In fact, we ended up fishing 6 different rivers over the two-week stay. If a certain river went out, we simply moved to another river. If a certain system was completely out, we switched river systems entirely. That's the beauty of this program.

There is no denying that it was a slow year for steelhead fishing in BC. This DX concept allowed us to meet each day with new optimism and a new plan that maximized opportunity. There's nothing worse for an angler's moral then flogging the same empty pools, on the same river, day after day after day. We faced a variety of conditions that included, rain, snow, cold water and air temps, even blown out rivers. Our approach kept us fishing productively, every day, in fishable water throughout the trip. There were even a few days, given the river conditions that we were required to fish unguided. So we did. Our outfitter did not have the rod days necessary to fish on a specific river. It was the only fishable river that day, so we got after it by ourselves. And we had some success. This is where the self-reliant part of the DX concept comes in to play. You do whatever it takes! Why be guided on a blown out river with zero chance of success, when you could simply go fish un-guided on a river that's in better shape?

Guided or unguided and depending on the river we fished, each new day often required a different angling approach. Some days the four of us raced up and down the larger rivers in a custom 22-foot jet sled. Other days found us quietly floating medium sized rivers in rafts, pontoon boats or inflatable kayaks. We even wade fished some smaller streams, busting brush in the classic "bank maggot" fashion. Again, the key to our success, we did whatever it took, wherever that took us. Some days we had tremendous success with one angler hooking four fish in a single day, and some days we got spanked! In between, we had all the daily success and failure scenarios that make steelhead fishing as rewarding as it is unpredictable.

Some of the more experienced guys averaged better than a fish a day. That's pretty good steelhead fishing in any year in BC. Some guys simply did OK, having only a fishless day or two. One guy we nick named "Dolly" really struggled. He caught fish, because after a few days of zero steelhead hook-ups he started getting special treatment. You feel bad for these guys that can't even catch a cold. But in the spirit of fair play and what I refer to as hook up management, Dolly started getting preferential treatment within our group. Which he hated! That treatment, among fishing buddies automatically comes with an open heckling penalty. It entitles the struggling angler to more than their fair share of being the first guy through a pool. Also, it permits the struggling individual to slow down while fishing through the sweet spot of the run. These are the kind of advantages that really tip the odds in the favor of a struggling steelhead fisherman. Dolly did start catching fish, everything else in the river but a steelhead unfortunately. His misfortune was odd and really started getting into his head I'm afraid. He caught a ton of nice Dollies, thus the name. He also caught numerous cohos, rainbows, whitefish and even a sucker I think. The steelhead gods were abusing this guy, hammer and anvil!

Dolly, whose name is Steve Schneider, is a high school buddy of mine. Steve is a great sport and the definition of a true DX angler. He was the first guy in the river each day and the last guy out. He never gave up. In true DX fashion he never complained and was forever the optimist. Steve was happy to share in every angler's success, calling it a team victory when someone else hooked up. Steve's an accomplished fly fisherman in many venues, but this was only his second year steelhead fishing. We all wanted him to get a nice fish.

Perseverance paid off and Steve finally got the nod from somewhere out in the fly fishing cosmos. By pure will, he managed to pick up a couple small steelhead as the week drew to an end. But... despite picking up a couple fish, I could tell, even behind the smile, he was discouraged. The trophy fish that he'd waited a year to catch had eluded him all week and time was running out. A guy named Lani Waller once told me "in steelhead fishing... you're only one cast away from being a hero!" How true. I quoted Lani's words nearly every day and Steve kept at it. I'm happy to report that on his last day he finally got his due when a spectacular steelhead finally grabbed his fly. All the long fishless days and endless casts simply vanished as Steve, through his enormous toothy grin said... "This fish made my trip!"

As the afternoon shadows stretched long out across the river, Steve finally got his tug. He was working a sneaky little three-cast bucket off the high-side bank. The taught line and heavy bow of Steve's rod telegraphed a big buck steelhead, sulking heavy just off the bottom. With the nonchalance of a grazing water buffalo Steve's fish simply made a few slow laps around the pool then unceremoniously headed off down stream. All you can do at this point is follow as the powerful current commits the fishes mass to leaving you behind. It's quite a helpless feeling! We joked afterwards that Nike should develop a new cross-training wading shoe for running down a steelhead.

I'm not sure how, but Steve managed to keep within his backing capacity. Nearly 400 yards down stream a magnificent buck, measuring over forty inches, slid along side him in a soft tail out. Trophy fish, like the one Steve caught, are the reason we fish for steelhead in British Columbia. You would think protecting this prized strain of wild Skeena system steelhead would be a higher priority for the Ministry of Fisheries? Judging by the smiles in Steve's digital photographs, I'd say we made a believer out of him. I suspect he'll be a certified steelhead junkie from this day forward and help us rally on behalf of the steelhead's cause!

As for next year, we will be back. What choice do we have? Once you've hooked a forty-inch plus British Columbia steelhead, nothing else seems to get your attention. You're permanently spoiled. I think we all learned something about the future of this crazy passion of ours. Flexibility is the future of steelheading. The runs at present are in a down cycle and the weather seems to be getting stranger every year. Despite these challenges, we managed to put together some fairly decent results during a year when many other anglers where struggling. The flexibility of the DX approach was the key to our success. Catching a steelhead has always been considered a difficult undertaking. That's cool, if it were easy, everyone would do it. I want it to be challenging. Just not impossible! Hopefully in 2008, the efforts of the entire steelhead angling community will reach a few more influential individuals in the BC government and convince them to do their jobs and protect this priceless resource before it's to late.

Written by: Todd Sabine


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