It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post, so I figured it’d be enjoyable to write about the last summer steelhead trip I made; the one trip that dictated what the rest of my summer would hold.
It was our first year anniversary. Kitty and I decided that we would go back to the island for a fishing adventure in celebration of our anniversary – a trip in which we would go back to the same rivers that we fished on our “fishing honeymoon” last year. Truthfully Kitty was the one pushing for the trip the most, so I have to admit that I’m probably one of the luckiest guys around. Who else has a wife that would rather spend her days camping out on a river while hiking dozens of km’s a day chasing steelhead, instead of getting treated to nice dinners and resorts?! This picture below is pretty indicative of the type of (amazing) girl she is!
It was just at the start of the hot spell of weather for the island. We hadn’t had rain in a while (2 weeks), but the rivers we planned to fish were all snow melt rivers. I was actually surprised to see them so high; it was probably the highest I had ever seen three of the four at this time of the summer. The height of the rivers actually ended up changing quite a few plans, as some of the sections we normally like to fish this time of year were completely inaccessible due to the wading (or lack there of) in canyon sections.
We had 5 days total booked off for this adventure, and we wanted to do one river a day. Off we went to the first one that has always been good to us this time of year. Upon our arrival, the water was fairly high and wading was difficult (but just do-able). Typically this river is low at this point in the season, and it holds a bunch of fish in a certain section of river due to the water heights. This would not be the case today. We fished the money stretch of water first, and were surprisingly met with nothing. We finally made it down to the lowest run of the stretch where we would turn back around. We were slightly discouraged at this point. The runs we had just fished through were normally very good most years in even lower water conditions, and yet today, the best runs were completely void of fish under ideal conditions.
We decided on a few more casts in this run, and after that we would reconsider our game plan. On my fifth or sixth cast, I had what I was sure was a hit on a copper/orange trophy tackle spinner. It seemed to be a “spooky,” soft hit, which baffled me based on the water conditions. I decided to go with something a little more subtle. On went the always successful white silver/black body spinner (a firststrikelures special)! Two casts later, the fish didn’t hesitate to smash this one. I reeled in as the fish came back to me, and I looked over to kitty to say “It’s either a small fish or a tired one that’s been hit before.” Boy was I wrong.
As the fish neared the beach, I got a good look at it – my heart started beating faster and my legs even got a little shaky. I was slightly disappointed with the fight he had put up, but I knew that would fade as soon as I put hands on him. He slid towards the beach, and then to my surprise, woke up in a BIG way. He tore out of the shallow water instantly into a good 4 foot high, double cartwheel aerial, followed by another, and then another. He went on a blazing run and once again drifted his way back in to the beach. One more shallow water belly touch and he went absolutely berserk again. Another few big jumps and a few more drag burning runs and he appeared to be tired. After an insanely spirited battle, he remained stubborn, holding in the deeper water just off shore. Kitty asked if she should try to scoop him to avoid the fight from dragging on, but I knew this one wouldn’t even come close to fitting in our old Moby. I eventually was able to get him onto his side, grabbed his tail, and brought him back out to deeper water while Kitty set up the camera. This fish was truly a gem – a very large 35 by 17 inch buck, one of the larger summer runs I’ve hit in the past couple of years. You don’t get to see very many this size on the island – it’s typically dominated by fish ranging in the 6 to 10 pound range. This fish was an exception, and was worth every fish-less run of the day so far. To be honest, after this, I was already happy with our trip out, regardless of how many more fish awaited us. A few snapshots of the giant and he swam off with a burst big enough to cool me down from the already warming sun. What a great start to the day, and the trip.
After that we decided to try the lower river, since the only fish we had encountered was in the lowest run of our first circuit. A long story short: we were barely able to cross to the right side of the river for fishing, and with the higher water, the fish were not holding in this area, and had obviously shot right through while they could. We didn’t even see a fish where we normally sight dozens, let alone touch one.
Change of plans again – let’s boot upriver and quickly spot check some of the better runs we have found in years past. The next one we checked we call Kitty’s corner. It’s a beautiful spot hidden within a long section of skinny, shallow water. Typically a 2 km walk just to get to it – we had found access directly in to make it a quick fish. Kitty has managed a fish out of here nearly every year, and today would be no exception.
Now before we get into this next part – I have to tell you that I was elated that I could finally rub “the biggest fish of the trip” into Kitty’s face. While I sometimes put up way more numbers than her, she ALWAYS seems to lure in a massive buck. At this point I’m confident she’ll be the first to get a 20 pounder. This trip though, there was no way in my mind that she would “beat” a 15-16 pound summer buck, especially this early in the season. Now fast forward to “her corner” pool. I take my time fishing through the pockets at the head (where the fish pictured above was caught), as we’ve commonly caught fish up there. Kitty’s excitement got the best of her, and she rushed ahead right to the money spot in the run below. I look up a few seconds later and she’s hooked up.
I walk down to her, and arrive to find her rod completely corked over and nearly groaning with the weight being inflicted on it. The fish is slowly peeling line – almost like he doesn’t even know he’s hooked. She replies “I think this one might be almost as big as yours was!!!.” The fish finally wakes up. He doesn’t take to the air like mine did, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen fish make runs like that. In all honesty, I can’t believe Kitty’s 15 pound leader was able to hold up to the fierce forces he applied as he went straight to the tail out, and then turned sharply and proceeded to run up a set of rapids. Once he made the move upstream through white water, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to be a memorable fish. He finally got close enough for my first look. My knees started shaking again, and it wasn’t even me that was hooked up! This was most definitely one of the largest summer steelhead I had ever laid eyes on. A few more massive runs ensued as he tore the run up at a blistering rate – and then dead weight. Kitty says “I think he’s gone,” as she let her rod down and hung her head. What had happened? Had he buried himself into the rocks? Gone around something? I see her rod pulsing, and immediately think he must have gone around a stick. As I walk over to her, I see a flash. Upon closer inspection, I get a window and see her massive fish nosed into a rock and wrapped around a massive piece of wood. My brain is now going a million miles an hour. How were we going to get this fish back out of this situation? I grabbed the rod from her and pulled to see if there was any give. Nothing. Desperation kicked in and I waded out after handing her the rod back. I was now not more than an inch from the top of my waders, even taking water on occasionally as the water lapped at my upstream side. I leaned over the rock (which I was just barely able to get to), leader in hand, and gave a good pull from the opposite angle. The stick dislodged to my surprised! Now Kitty was fighting against a 6 foot long piece of wood and a steelhead that was near 20 pounds by my estimates. He goes on a good run and breaks the top of the water, and somehow unwraps the stick from Kitty’s line. He’s free at last! Now tired from fighting both the stick and Kitty, the stunning buck drifts into reach. I grab the leader and his tail wrist – or rather try to grab his wrist. He easily kicks out of my grip and goes on another run. I get one more chance and grab him with both hands. Kitty drops her rod and comes over; she had once again caught a fish of a lifetime against all odds, and had kicked me out of the biggest fish spot for the trip entirely.
This trip now couldn’t get any better. I’m fairly certain that we were both beyond satisfied already, and we still had 3 days left. This was going to be a memorable one.
It was now our second day, and we decided on another river in the area that I knew had big fish. We had actually found them a number of years ago stacked up in a single pool, with a few that I’m sure would have been over 20 pounds.
We don’t know much about the summer run on this river. When do they enter? Where do they hold? All questions we hoped we would be able to answer today. We had done a lot of recon this past winter, and had found the falls and a number of good access points into the canyon – so we figured we had a good handle on where we might find them. The biggest positive of the day was that I knew the river held large trout, so I brought my fly rod along to toss nymphs in case the steelhead didn’t materialize.
The day was rather uneventful. No steelhead, but at least the rainbows cooperated. We also found a couple large schools of sea run dollies that provided some entertainment. I was glad to have brought the fly rod along, as it provided constant action and entertainment on these smaller fish. In total we probably got around 20 rainbows, and close to the same number of dollies.
We were also able to add some good journal information on run timing. We have seen these fish before, so we know the time of year that they are already “in,” and now we knew the time of year when they weren’t, so we can narrow the timing down by a significant margin. A good portion of steelhead success on the island is knowing where to go, and WHEN. Encountering fresh fish is a good key to success. Also knowing the different run times on various rivers allows you to narrow down a list of places to go early season to give yourself a chance. This is obviously a later flow, and will be good to focus on in future trips.
It was now day three, and time for our highly anticipated favourite. This river has always been good to us. We’ve had some spectacular days here, and although it typically doesn’t fish super well early, there are a few fish around this time of year. Along with a few fish about, this river also holds a tonne of sentimental value. It was the first river I had ever taken Kitty “exploring” on – being that it was my first time there as well as hers (normally I go scout first so that we can capitalize on where to go on her days off). It got her addicted to the adventure of seeing what each pool around every new corner holds. It’s also, of course, the place I proposed to her.
The day started out surprisingly quick. Our second run down, right at the top, I hooked up a fish on my first cast. I replied to Kitty that I was sure it was either a small steelhead, or perhaps, a very large dolly. After that we walked for another three runs before Kitty hooked up as well. Again, another fish in the 4-6 pound range that was as chrome as they come, but we were unable to get a proper ID on it before it popped off. After that, we decided to go upriver a few runs that normally hold fish. We were pleasantly surprised again – the top run of the circuit was holding two large steelhead that we were able to sight. Kitty ended up hooking one of them, but the fish was as hot as they come and tore up the run before popping off in a jump.
With the fish that high up already (it seemed to be a common trend this trip), we decided that the higher water probably allowed them to move as far as they wanted. Going up turned out to be a good decision. The first run we came out at, I missed a fish twice before finally hooking it up. A poor hook set (trigger happy on the sight fished bite) resulted in the ~10 pound steelhead popping off. We knew the next run down also held quite a few fish in the past, so excitement mounted as we grew near. Sure enough, right at the head, Kitty’s spinner got absolutely smashed. Before she knew it, the fish was out of our run and down to the next. This was where it gets tricky. The next run down is a canyon pool with near vertical walls. She had to fight the fish from the top as we could no longer chase it down. Luckily we had the net -and the fish wasn’t too big to fit – so I was able to scoop her prize out of the deep pool just below the large cascade he had come down. An absolutely perfect buck.
Now we were really excited. We headed upriver, and Kitty let me have first water for the next couple runs. The next one we encountered surprisingly wasn’t holding a fish, but the one above that was about as nice as they come. Surely there would be a fish here. I flipped out my trusted full copper trophy tackle spinner for these low, clear conditions. A few casts later I watched as a fish came out and grabbed it. It was another one of those fish in the 4-6 pound range that was absolutely bar chrome. What could it be? We finally landed one, and it turned out to be a super early coho! This would be my earliest coho ever on the island in fact – and 30 km up the river nonetheless. A really cool by-catch surprise.
It was now nearing the end of the day, and we only had time for a couple more runs. We decided to punch into one more that always seems to hold a fish. Sure enough upon our arrival of the first nice rock wall pool, Kitty hooks up right in the same spot that they always sit – right in the tail out beside a huge boulder. The fish goes crazy again and manages to pop off. It turned out to be the last fish of what I would consider a really successful day. The landing % wasn’t all that great, but at least we had encountered a few quality fish and a new “first” for me.
It was now day four. We decided to go back to a river that we had fished earlier in the year to see if they had shown up. It’s typically an early run, but the steelhead were never there in the numbers we had seen in the past back in June. We arrived and hiked down into the incredibly difficult access point. It’s a 300m descent into the canyon, a rope descent in fact. It’s pretty much the only place you can access this canyon within an 8 km radius – it’s a miracle we even found this little debris slide and braved going down it in the first place. In four years I still have yet to see a single footprint, or evidence of another angler in there. It truly is a “wild” river – and an amazing one at that.
Upon our arrival to the river’s edge, it appeared as though the fish had shown up. Two were seen cruising around the first pool. Kitty had both of them follow at one point or another, but the clear conditions had made them spooky. We decided to go down first, as the downriver canyon pools often held fish in the past. I honestly couldn’t believe that we didn’t see a single fish down there. I again, attributed it to the water being much higher than normal. Normally the large cascade above here proves to be a bit of a barrier under low conditions, but the river was not low on this trip. These fish could move freely. It was time to quickly go up to the section of river just above our access point – one that consists of more runs rather than deep canyon pools.
The first two runs provided nothing, which was surprising, as one of them consistently holds fish by the dozens. Perhaps this river was just having a very poor return year. We finally get up to the “last” run of the circuit. I call this the last run, because we rarely go above here unless the water is low enough (and of course if we find fish). I hop up on a rock to take a look, and immediately regret it as I spook a steelhead doe sitting about as far back in the tail out as she could. I freeze instantly, and to my surprise she drifts back to her original spot. This was our chance. I stand my ground without moving even a finger, and tell Kitty to approach from above and cast down towards me. Kitty makes the perfect cast, and just as I suspected, the doe darts forward and smashes her spinner nearly top water. It’s a little fish, but she’s dime bright, and the first of the day – we’ll take it!
There is another massive buck, estimated to be 16 pounds sitting with her, but he’s hunkered down and nearly right under the rock. We try a few casts at him and realize he is not going to move. At this point we had found fish, so we decided to head up higher. The very next run, I get a beautiful rainbow, and to my dismay, watch that rainbow spook a good dozen steelhead down to the tail out. I try many times with followers, but no committed takers. We decided we will come back to here.
We continue up, and nearly every run has a fish or two that we either spook or miss. We finally make it up to a canyon pool that isn’t holding anything and decide it’s time to turn around and try way lower in the system. Kitty turns around and hops up on a rock. I turn around, and rather than go up, I crumple to the ground.
This is where the misfortune of the trip comes into play. Apparently I completely underestimated the grip on the rock shelf we were on, and as I turned, my feet went out. Unfortunately for me, my back foot got stuck in a crack running down the rock. I fell backwards (the 50 pound pack I was carrying pulled me back) and landed right on top of my foot. In an attempt to salvage myself from the fall, I tried to twist mid fall. I heard and felt a gruesome pop. Kitty looked back as I rolled onto my belly in significant pain. “I’m pretty sure I just broke my leg” were probably not the words she wanted to hear.
Now, I’ve taken falls a number of times, and I’ve taken some sketchy swims, but nothing has ever given me the sinking feeling this did as I lay on my belly contemplating what my next move would be. I’ll admit I was slightly scared at first. I was still in a bit of shock, and wasn’t sure what kind of pain would be kicking in after the shock wore off. Of all the 40+ rivers I fish on the island, this is absolutely the last one I would have wanted to do this on. We had come over two good 15+ foot high rock nubs that required some free hand rock climbing, and we were 4 km from the access point up to the car. I knew that getting me out of here, even with experienced search and rescue personnel would be a major undergoing. I had made up my mind in my head before Kitty could say much of anything – I had to try and walk out.
I asked her to take my pack off, which allowed me to roll myself over. As soon as I stood up, the blood flow to my foot made me dizzy. I had most definitely done some serious damage that wasn’t going to walk off. I told Kitty to get started so that I could hopefully make a good portion of the hike before the adrenaline wore off. I’ve only seen one other person break their leg before – my mom – and it was nearly an hour before she went from the “I think I broke my leg” stage to absolutely agonizing pain. I knew we had to hurry. A half an hour later we were at the first big rock nub. We had a hard time with it. I had to help Kitty on the way over the first time, but this time I couldn’t. It was incredibly difficult for her to overcome her fears of falling off of it, and she almost chose the swim around instead, but she eventually made it! We arrived to the run where I had seen the dozen fish, and I decided to fish it. She looked at me like I was crazy, and my reply was, “Hey, I’m not going to be able to fish for at least 6 weeks after this. I’m down here already, so I may as well take advantage of it.” I never did get anything out of that run in my dozen casts before the pain reminded me that continuing on was in my best interest.
Soon it was the rope section, and subsequent hill climb back out to the car. This portion was probably one of the most painful things I had ever endured. My foot really didn’t like the gradient, so I crawled most of the way up. What seemed like forever only actually turned out to be 2 hours; we were finally back at the car. Pain had really started to set in now, and I was hardly able to get my waders off. The tight boot had minimized swelling, but I ballooned up not more than 5 minutes after taking my waders off. The two hour drive back was anything but pleasant. I proceeded to sit in a hospital two hours before I finally got the diagnosis – a fairly severe high ankle sprain. I had partially torn two of my ligaments: the one running across the top of my foot, and the one running up my leg to my knee (which holds your two major leg bones together). The result of this was that my fibula was constantly popping in and out of both my ankle socket and knee socket. Kitty’s first response was “Yes, no broken leg.” The doctor looked at her, completely serious and said, “This is much worse.” I had already known that. These things are terrible and take upwards of a year to heal, if they ever do.
What had been an amazing trip full of fish had now taken an unfortunate turn, but even so, I won’t soon forget Kitty’s excitement from her first fish of the trip. Those first two fish made everything worth it, even if the adventures were cut a short a day early due to injury.
At this portion of the blog, I want to say that I spend upwards of 200-250 days a year on the water. A good 150 of those days involve going into canyons, with long hikes, and doing sketchy climbs that most people wouldn’t even consider. The last thing I expected was to fall and seriously injure myself on a nearly flat rock shelf. These things happen fast, and it’s best to have a plan in place. Although I had told someone where we were going, I didn’t really have a plan in place for if things went sideways (I would have most definitely been spending the night in the bush). Upon asking Kitty what she would have if done if I couldn’t have made it out on my own, she told me she would have driven to the town the hospital was in – nearly 2 hours away (at my driving speed). There is a small First Nation’s reserve less than 20 minutes away that she could have gone to, but she didn’t even consider that. Knowing what’s around you and making a game plan with your partner is of the utmost importance. I know from now on, on the way to any remote system, I’ll most definitely be discussing where to go in order to get help if help is needed.
In the end, it turned out that this summer wasn’t the worst time to injure myself anyway. The heat streak continued, and it’s been nearly 2 months without rain now and temperatures in the 30’s C (90’F for my American readers). Only two weeks after hurting myself, rivers were already reaching the 16C mark, which is my cut off limit for fishing anyway. I was able to take a lot of time and do some physio to help myself recover. It’s been nearly 8 weeks now since I did this, and I can finally get around fairly well under most circumstances. My ankle remains fairly weak, with lessened mobility (7 cm difference between my two legs), but as long as I’m in a brace I can hike fairly well. Canyons will still be a few weeks out yet. Apparently it will easily be upwards of 9 months before I can do the things I used to. Hopefully though, I’ll be able to chase coho and steelhead this fall on the remote rivers I love so much, with the help of my trusty new brace!
I hope you enjoyed the blog. Be safe out there this fall season chasing the salmon!