As I wade knee deep into the forty-degree water at the head of the run, I pause for just an instant. A quick glance up river, across and then down... God, I love this place! I can't believe a year has come and gone so quickly. My personal IMAX view reveals grand mountains accented in white, that appear briefly through breaks in ragged clouds as they drift deliberately up this spectacular valley. Change is well underway in this mysterious northern land as the last remnants of fall's color cling precariously to the sparse skeletons of poplar and aspen. This is the time of year when the Sustut river valley transitions to it's nearly dormant, wintertime complexion of dark evergreen, gray and white. To witness this unique beauty is a privilege reserved for only a select few of our sports most hardy angling souls... the steelheaders.
Once in the river, the familiar weight and load of my 15-foot spey rod becomes rhythmic and soothing as I begin to work the kinks out of my rusty cast. In short order, I'm back to the almost spiritual routine of cast, mend and step as I work my way in solitude through 100 yards of classic water. The distance is coming back now. My precise arm motions ensure the mends find their normal harmony with the steady current speed. The line is straight and the speed of my swing is slow. Two thirds of the way through the swing, my line comes tight to the long-anticipated tug of a steelhead.
The tug. Well my friends..."the tug is the drug" and a powerful addiction it is. It makes seemingly rational and responsible adults behave in ways that clearly defy logic. Some anglers agree that steelheaders must be a little nuts. Why do they travel with such conviction year after year, at great length and expense for only the fleeting possibility of success? Yes, the odds are at times long, but such is the story with all fishing. It's just that where the normal odds usually end is where the odds begin for a steelhead fisherman. We are, at a core level, extreme anglers. Willing to endure on a regular basis the worst Mother Nature has to offer. These extremes include: snow, freezing water and frigid air temperatures. And add to that the potential for a rain-swollen river to go completely out and not fish a single day. These are the every day realities of steelhead fishing. It's not a game for every one, but only the most dedicated steelhead fisherman. We wear these challenges like a badge of honor. In fact, we relish and even embrace them.
This year's visit to Suskeena lodge on the Sustut river, was filled with great expectations. Our mix of 16 anglers, spread in two groups over the two-week period, varied in experience from absolute beginner to seasoned steelhead veteran. For our newer anglers, there was the anticipation of that first steelhead or maybe their first steelhead on a spey rod. Others had loftier goals, as each member pursued personal fishing milestones. Maybe it was taking a fish on a waking dry fly, or a big Sustut buck of 20 or maybe even 30 pounds or more. One angler, after going fishless his first three and a half days, landed his 100th British Columbia steelhead on the fly. He was convinced that century mark was the reason he had struggled so. I knew the steelhead gods wanted to be sure this guy was worthy of possessing, albeit briefly, that much chrome. All our anglers, whatever their motives, came to the Sustut prepared with the most important element of all... attitude. Good ones! These guys knew the score and came to the show with an open mind and a willingness to deal with whatever the river had in store. That my friends, is the secret to steelhead fishing success!
The first major event of our week comes early Saturday morning at the Smithers airport. Helga, the lodge's in-town logistics liaison, receives hourly weather updates via satellite phone from the lodge. Weather conditions at the lodge can change in an instant and as we are on a visual flight plan, we wait for the all-clear before take off. This day we are fortunate and we are in the air by 9:30 AM for the 30-minute flight to the lodges private gravel strip. Upon the approach, everyone's spirits are lifted, as they see that the river appears to be in perfect shape. The previous week's guests are all smiles. That's a good thing! Outstanding reports are exchanged. Good numbers of fish are reported and river conditions are improving. Translation to the uninitiated... you should have been here last week. Oh well, since all we really have is today, we rush through the usual lodge formalities and beat it to the river like a bunch of hyperactive school kids just let out for recess.
The first half-day's fishing is always a bit rushed and mostly a warm up for the week to come. Practice aside, we are all delighted at day's end to learn that many of our guys hooked steelhead. Our river was high, but clearing and coming into shape nicely. With stable weather and improving water, it was shaping up to be an epic week. Our first several days produced consistent fishing with most guys hooking a fish or two or even three. The down side, there were not as many fish hooked this year. Which I believe was due to the higher water. The good news was that many of the bucks were bigger... some, much bigger! The higher water, which was clear, but not gin clear, had given the monster bucks the courage to come up from the depths and rest in the more classic three to five foot holding water. The proportions of some of these immense wild steelhead we caught were beyond imagination. Last year's 40-inch bucks had an average girth of 19". This year, they were a full (taped) 21". These were the most full-bodied and thick fish I have ever seen and it was nearly impossible to get your hand around their tails. Fish of this caliber are why anglers from all over the world come to fish this legendary river of giants. To put it in perspective, catching a 30 pound steelhead is in the same category as say a 15 pound bonefish or a 190 pound tarpon.
Many impressive fish were landed during that first week. One of the most memorable was a 40" by 21" beast caught by Denver angler, Dave Gale. Dave is a do-it-yourself angler and affectionately known to the members of our group as Lonesome Dave. He had spent the two and a half months prior to joining us on the Sustut, fishing mostly alone through Alaska and British Columbia with his truck, trailer and raft in tow. Dave's epic tale from this year's trip begins on the upper beat in a pool simply referred to as The Wall. This is classic canyon, big fish holding water. It is deep, relatively short and filled with ledge rock and conflicting currents. It is very difficult to fish! To make matters worse, the pool lies directly above a 300-yard section of swift, riprap strewn white water called Steamboat Rapid.
Well, Lonesome Dave is a never-say-die kind of guy. Rather than complaining about where he had been left to fish, he simply adjusted his gear and got busy. The adjustments he made included a type 8 super fast sink tip and an inch and a half brass tube fly. Simply put... he went dredging. After only a cast or two, something from deep within the abyss climbed all over Dave's 5-inch industrial grade leech pattern. By it's behavior, it was clearly a significant fish. Big male steelhead... they have this way of showing anglers who's in charge and it ain't the angler. It all starts with a fish that is clearly indifferent with having been hooked. It moves on to a series of inquisitive, yet deliberate shakes of it's massive head. The fish's concern began to increases as it evaluated the foreign object now occupying space in the corner of his mouth. For the next several minutes, this massive fish stayed deep, swimming slow, powerful laps around the bottom of the pool. There wasn't a thing Dave could do to alter its course.
It took some time before the long spey rod's massive lever irritated the fish into action. The fishes new plan now seemed to be, leave town and return to the sea. Dave's worst fears were soon realized as his fish, still unscene, bailed through the tailout of the pool and into the swift rapids below. Dave's instincts took over and in a flash he was in hot pursuit. At this point, let me make this disclaimer: "Angling Destinations in no way endorses this sort of over the top commitment to landing a fish." Especially in forty degree white water! Half running, half bobbing, Lonesome Dave made his way, mostly in fast forward, over and around the Volkswagen-sized boulders that lined this treacherous canyon rapid. At one point, Dave saw the metal of his spool showing through his backing. Wet, frozen, winded and rattled, Dave finally made his way into a quiet pool some 300 yards below. Moments later, a magnificent 40-inch plus male steelhead approaching thirty pounds lay in the quiet eddy at his feet. I say approaching because we had no way to weigh this magnificent fish. Even worse, the traditional formulas that calculate weight by length and girth simply do not apply to fish of this mass. Whatever it's actual weight , this was Dave's steelhead of a lifetime!
Week one progressed solidly, but the only sure thing you can count on in steelhead country is change. Fair weather gave way to steady rain and just after mid-week our river was going out. Our steadily improving river of the first four days gave way to flood during the night and by day's end on Wednesday, the river was up another 18 inches with visibility cut to less than a foot. Reports over the SAT phone from Smithers brought the somber news; the entire Skeena system was out. It would be a week or more before anyone fished again. That was a bitter pill to swallow and I knew my next group flying in to Smithers on Thursday would be nearly suicidal. I remained quietly optimistic, as I knew something they did not. The Sustut goes out very reluctantly and clears much more quickly than the rest of the rivers in that region. By the following afternoon, we were fishing again and at 2:00 PM I could see the river bottom when standing waist deep in a run! This was a miracle, especially when one considers that the Babine was out for the entire next week and that the Bulkley was out for nearly ten days. On Friday, the last fishing day of our first week, I hooked six steelhead, landing four in the upper beat. We were spared!
The look of relief was priceless on the faces of our week-two guys when they landed. They had spent a rather depressing two days in Smithers and were doing their best to keep their heads held high in the face of total blown out river conditions. Once again, as at the beginning of week one, our river was high, but clear and dropping. The year's optimism, at least for that day, was back and these guys were out of their heads with excitement. With the high water, it was simply a matter of switching to a type six head and tying on a slightly weighted fly... then it was game on. While the rest of the steelhead angling community around the Smithers region was sitting in their hotel rooms despondent, we were fishing!
A steelheads willingness to move to a fly is inversely related to water temperature. The colder it gets, the less they want to move. Then you have to go down to get them! As our water temperatures fell first to 40 degrees, then to 38, 36 and so on, the fishing predictably slowed. We still caught fish, but the numbers reflected the chilly trend. We had gin clear water that was falling noticeably. With visible steelhead staged in the tail-outs of numerous pools, the rapid drop in water temperature had our fish in a temporary comatose state. A brutal cold front had moved in by mid-week and not only did it effect the fish, it took a heavy toll on our equipment and bodies. Boats, reels, fingers and toes were not spared from the unrelenting ice and cold. It was a challenging week, but in the end, with half our group just learning the ropes as new steelheaders, we did manage to hook over 40-steelhead! Top rod honors went to the veteran steelhead angler John Rogers. John hooked eight magnificent steelhead during the second week and managed to land six. This was a true testament to John's angling skills and proof that if you don't give up, anything is possible. Another interesting sidebar to this week was an exploratory day we took via jet boat into the upper Skeena River, above it's confluence with the Sustut. This was an extremely wild and remote section and a place seldom visited by anglers. Our efforts were rewarded as we had six steelhead hooked and four to hand before lunch.
What made this second week such a tremendous success, despite the grueling fishing conditions, was the quality and perseverance of the individuals in our group. These guys faced nearly every extreme Mother Nature could throw at them. In true steelheader fashion, they took all this adversity in stride. They did however have the satisfaction of knowing that they survived the worst and it can only get better from here! It was a pleasure to spend time with these great guys in the beautiful surroundings of the Sustut River Valley. I for one, cannot wait to get back!
Written by: Todd Sabine