As a lifelong angler, there are times when I find myself inspired to take fishing to a new and higher level. As a dedicated trout fishermen, this has lead me to steelhead. To many, including myself, the steelhead is the ultimate freshwater gamefish. It's size, often exceeding 40" in length and its weight, often exceeding 20 lbs., put this regal gamefish in the"big boy" category. Combine that size with the striking beauty of a rainbow trout and an oceanic inspired athleticism and you have a fish that makes grown men behave like they are about to receive their first kiss.
A steelhead is often referred to as the fish of a thousand casts. Not always, but sometimes, it certainly feels that way. It is a migratory creature, meaning their presence in the river is not always guaranteed. Once encountered, the steelhead's presence is often fleeting as it makes its way along a migratory route that may cover many hundreds of river miles.
Many issues confront the steelhead angler. Season to season, week to week, even day to day variables present challenges that impact an angler's success. River levels, water clarity, water temperature and weather conditions all impact the fishes' behavior and our ability to hook them. This type of fishing is not for everyone. Anglers looking for a guarantee with respect to large numbers of hook ups should look elsewhere. Steelheading is a labor of love; it's about hard work and putting in your time. Practice, focus, intuition and attention to detail provide the potential for success... not a guarantee of success.
Steelhead fishing has much to do with process. Reading the water, loading the rod, the size of your loop and the length of your cast are all important parts of this process. Repetitious techniques, honed over time, improve presentation. And presentation is everything. A subtle rod manipulation improves your mend, which slows the speed of your swing and allows the angler to control depth of the fly. It's these small details that will often separate success from failure. Those who are willing to put in their time, perfect their skills and accept whatever the river has in store are candidates for success. The payoff brings you tight to an epical fish. This hook up creates an image that will reside in the forefront of your angling memories forever.
When one thinks of steelhead fishing, it's difficult not to think of British Columbia. Here the elements of weather, water and geographical terrain combine to create the habitat necessary to grow wild steelhead of mythic proportions. Rivers of legend: The Babine, Kispiox and Sustut make up the headwaters of the Skeena River system. These rivers are home to the largest strain of wild steelhead on the planet. It's a remote region although not completely unaffected by the destructive hand of man, it still provides a truly wild environment for these fish to thrive. There are no hatchery fish here, only wild fish of pure genetic perfection. Having made their way out to the ocean and back, these hardy steelhead have survived encounters with Orcas, sea lions and many other perils of oceanic life. This journey ensures only the most superior fish return to spawn. It is this time spent at sea that makes a steelhead a steelhead and not simply a large migratory rainbow trout. Comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges or guppies to sailfish.
The Pacific Northwest region of North America is the birthplace of steelhead fishing. The region in and around Smithers B.C. is a steelheader's Mecca. Some anglers, whose commitment to the species borders on obsession, make annual pilgrimages to fish these great rivers. The classic rivers are few, enormous in scale and access is often very difficult. Do it yourself steelheader's are generally veteran anglers who possess expert angling, river running and outdoor skills. For those anglers whose time and energy are more closely tied to the realities of modern life, there exists a more practical alternative, the steelhead lodge. The number of lodges are few and spots at these lodges are highly coveted. Prime weeks are usually reserved years in advance by the same group of returning anglers. Some lodges have names and reputations as legendary as the rivers and fish themselves.
One lodge that exemplifies this fishing subculture is Suskeena Lodge. A classic self-sufficient operation carved from the bush, Suskeena Lodge is on the banks of the Sustut River. The lodge is strategically located in the center of over 20 miles of fishable water. The river's characteristics vary from classic, long wide runs to canyons puntuated with deep pools that require a wide variety of fly fishing techniques. Skating dries, greased line, sink tips from type III to 300 grain all have a time and place on this river. The angler who keeps on his toes and can adapt quickly from pool to pool can greatly improve his chances of hooking up.
Suskeena Lodge has a comfortable and rustic main building. Here guests gather for meals, tie flies or relax after a full day on the river. The guests sleep in comfortable, clean, 2-person cabins, each complete with a full bathroom... they'll be no bear encounters while making your way in the middle of the night to a washhouse! The lodge takes a total of 9 anglers per week. Three veteran guides operate sturdy and reliable 20 ft. jet boats with 3- anglers per boat. These three angler groups (who fish together the whole week) rotate each day with a different guide into one of three beats: upper, middle and lower. Although there is another lodge located several miles downstream, you would never know it. The two lodges have choreographed a seamless shared water program that virtually ensures fresh, rested pools and (so far) no one standing in your assigned water when you arrive.
The guides at Suskeena Lodge are as varied and diverse as the beats they fish. Unlike trout guides who will stand in your hip pocket all day and provide commentary on your every mend, steelhead guides, as a rule, are a little less hands on. When asked, they will offer expert advise tailored to each angler's skill level. They will also share a pregame plan for fishing each of the day's pools. They may suggest to "start here", or "the buckets (sweet spot) is over there", or "remember to fish all the way to the tail of the pool". Beyond that, most of your time will be spent in relative solitude. Steelhead fishing requires a lot of space to be done properly so the guides have to spread the anglers out a bit... usually within eye or earshot of your guide. They will however, be right at your side when it counts... such as when it's time to land your fish. Another area where these guys really earn their keep is in their ability to operate a jet boat. Masterful and courageous boatmen, their main job is to get the anglers safely from one pool to another.
Suskeena Lodge is one of the B. C.'s more remote steelhead camps. Weather permitting, it takes about 45 minutes via fixed wing aircraft to fly in from Smithers, B. C. The aircraft seats 10 passengers and has an enormous load capacity. For example, last year's 8 anglers, each with a week's worth of late season, cold weather fishing gear (about 80 pounds per angler), made the flight back to Smithers with an extra 700 pounds of dressed and quartered moose meat!
The lodge, staff, food and amenities at Suskeena Lodge are what you would expect from a great steelhead operation. As remote as they are, the comforts Suskeena Lodge provides are truly amazing. Aside from the facilities and atmosphere, it's really the fishing that we come for. Our two weeks last October on the Sustut were what we all wait for... that perfect year. We rolled the dice, took our chances and nailed our weeks. Our timing was perfect. Our water was chilly, but clear and we had great numbers of fish around. But that was last year and it's important to remember that a steelhead season covers a fairly short window of time; usually 6-9 weeks make up the entire season. Any week can be the best or worst depending on the weather and water conditions. There is no way to predict these elements from year to year. History tells us that our mid-October weeks can provide outstanding fishing. The truth is.... there are no guarantees... and no refunds if the river goes out and we sit for a week. This extreme case is rare.... but it can happen! Individuals need to ask themselves if going down gracefully with the ship is something they are prepared to do? We pay our dues, we go together and as a group, we live and die by a set of unpredictable circumstances over which, we have no control. Sure there is risk, but the rewards are definitely worth the price of admission.