This year, I’ve decided on a new fishing journal for the winter season: Catalogue and Conquer. Rather than doing a numbers based approach/goal this season, I decided that I would rather focus on exploring new, and previously “found” waters. The main goal this year would be to intimately learn new and existing fisheries, and to give myself a broader range of opportunity in the coming years. The key there, is the word intimately. I wanted to actually learn and study each river I had interest in this year, rather than my shotgun approach of one and done that I did last year on the “Quest for 20.” Don’t get me wrong, the “Quest for 20” was an awesome experience – it pushed me to go a bunch of new places with a goal in mind, and highlighted the ones I wanted to spend more time on this year. This year, I would be slowing my approach down a little and taking it all in.
The season for me started in early December – and my focus at this time was to further my knowledge on island trout fisheries, rather than put my time in on early steelhead. From mid December through until the end of January, many Vancouver Island streams are seeing good numbers of coho spawning, but not too good. I find that trying to trout bead during peak spawn can sometimes be less productive (and more frustrating with accidental snags on salmon). Nearing the end of the spawning cycle, the trout are still seeing eggs (and therefore, the eggs are still seen as a food source and don’t look “odd”), but they aren’t seeing an enormous amount of eggs anymore. Being that the eggs are getting more scarce, the trout will move considerable distances for their last high protein meals before winter sets in. Being that the time of year was right, I set out with my 3 wt fly rod throughout December, to five different watersheds that I had previously “marked down” as good trout flows (often discovered while exploring for steelhead with high by-catch rates).
The first flow was one that I had the greatest confidence in. Previous years, this particular flow had produced large rainbows and cutthroat that we had often mistaken for steelhead on the first initial looks after a hook-up. I’m not all too sure why this particular river puts out monster resident fish, but it does, and I was more than happy to try and unlock its secrets to get consistently productive days.
The first day started rather slow. We actually brought steelhead gear, being that this river does get early steelhead – but I also had the 3 wt tucked away in my backpack. The first run that always holds multiple rainbows was only holding one – and Mike got it behind me on spoons. The next run down only showed one fish – a small buck steelhead (or rather, looking back at it now, probably another large resident rainbow that is easily mistaken for a steelhead).
As we rafted our way down, it was becoming obvious why the trout were difficult to catch on trout beads currently. Every single one we caught was either on a large ticket item (pink worms or spoons while going for steelhead in the “steelhead runs”) and were so fat with eggs that I’m surprised they even made an attempt at anything else to eat. Numerous spawning coho scattered nearly every run, and at times became a nuisance on the spoon.
We eventually made our way down to the one run that always seems to hold a bunch of fish for whatever reason. It is quite a nice run I guess – the river braids up above and dumps all back together, with a huge number of logs along the backside. As soon as we got to it, Mike had a float down right away that looked “trouty.” I decided that I would toss a bead on my 3 wt here, as it was an easy section of river to cover with the fly. My first cast produced a cutthroat – they were here!
Soon, I was into a number of good size trout. A solid mix of cutthroat and rainbows. The action on the beads was fast and furious for a good hour straight out of this fairly long, untouched run.
Although most of the largest fish were lost during this trip, it was still a great outing. We found five or six runs that were holding the large trout, and with the coho slowly dying off – my hopes soared for the upcoming trips.
I was back again fairly quickly, just after a water bump that had the river too high to fish for a few days. Another buddy (Mike) and I waded in and headed down to the ever faithful split run. I had told him that this river does indeed hold some early winter fish, and I was happy to have brought him. The first fish of the day out of the run was a beautiful winter steelhead buck that would have surely been a bit much for me on the 3 wt – but was the perfect size for his pin setup.
After letting Mike go through with the worm to clear out the steelhead, I threw in my trout bead. Again, the action was great. Mike actually hooked one other steelhead, and a very large rainbow, and I managed a good 3 or 4 trout. The highlight of this trip for me was most definitely one of my largest cutties ever, and most definitely my largest ever fly fishing caught Cutthroat.
I was elated to have caught that fish. Steelhead are a dime a dozen, but cutthroat that size are an incredibly rare breed of fish – I was beginning to think my choice to pursue trout instead of steelhead was now the right one. That thought was even further engraved into my head the next day when I managed this cutthroat on an entirely different system.
Could it get any better? Yes, it could! After that week of seemingly only finding big cutthroat, I started finding the big rainbows I had gone out searching for as well. I took a short video file of one of the nicer ones I landed in the two consecutive days following the cutthroat, you can watch it below:
After now having flogged the first two systems for a few days, it was time to head North to a couple of different ones to see if they would produce the same. Historically, these two systems had provided memorable days because of their exceptional trout by-catch fisheries. One of them is arguably my favourite island river.
Now, as many people would know, the lower mainland and Vancouver Island portions of British Columbia had exceptionally high temperatures and droughts for extended periods of time this summer. I was fairly vocal on social media about leaving fish alone during this time period – as my last fishing trips to Vancouver Island at the start of July already had river temperatures peaking over 16C on most flows. I can only imagine how high the temperatures actually got, as after I left we had a 6 week period with air temperatures ranging 28C to 34C, and no days of rain. Fish mortality, specifically rainbow trout and steelhead mortality starts taking place around 20C (without angling). Yet, there were still numerous individuals fishing, holding fish in shallow warm waters, just to get a picture. I was often met with responses of “the fish swam away fine,” or “the water feels cold.” While both of these statements may be true, they may not paint an accurate picture of what’s going on without a thermometer in hand, and going back days later to see dead fish on the pool bottom. When I came back to the island in September, two of the rivers I measured ranged between 22 and 24 degrees celsius.
It appears my fears of fish dying seems to have been a real one. My adventures to my two favourite rivers were heartbreaking. I took the water temperature of one of them. It was mid December, after 4 or 5 snowfalls, and the river temperature was still 15.8C. Where I had caught literally up to 100 rainbows in a single day before, I now only found 3 – all in very, very poor condition (emaciated, dark, ratted fins, one with lesions). I still held hope – maybe the rainbows in this first system were just staying out of the river and had gone up into the deeper, cooler water of the lake. On to the next snow melt system. It was here that for the last 3 years we even had rainbows named. Residents of the same spots year after year that only got bigger as each season passed – easily recognisable by distinguishing features. I fished an entire 6 km section of river for only 2 resident fish – none of the residents who “owned” their holes were there, and again, the only two left had nothing left in them (as far as fight was concerned), and were emaciated and in very poor condition. I let those fish swim as fast as I could, hoping they would survive this ordeal, feeling bad that I had even caught them in the first place.
I’ve since gone back to those same two trout flows 3 different times now, once per month, to see if the fish ever showed up. The fish have never shown back up in any of them. This should be a stark reminder that it may be best to just leave the fish alone for a couple months during the summer doldrums – or you could risk losing them for a long time (I’m sure it will take those systems at least a handful of years to achieve fish quality like we experienced in the past). Now, I’ll only have pics to look back on of recognisable fish, like “gimpy,” who we caught 3 different years within the same 2 pools (he had put on 4 inches of growth each year).
Being that a handful of my target flows seemed to be killed off from the heat wave – I went back to the rivers that were producing fish still. I took Kitty on a few consecutive weekends, and she too got into the awesome trout action. I’ve posted one video below to show how well these feisty critters were able to work over the glass 3 wt rod.
Soon, the steelhead were showing up in larger numbers in all of my trout haunts. It got to the point where I had to go with both my pin and my fly rod. I’d toss a 6 inch worm through first to “sort out” the steelhead, and then run my beads through afterwards for the rainbows. It proved fairly effective, but there were still some steelhead that didn’t want the worm, and would gobble the bead on my first go resulting in some pretty interesting battles.
Eventually, the steelhead even started to match the number of trout in the runs, or outnumber them at times. I decided that I would tuck the 3wt away at this point, and would move on, to actually fishing and targeting steelhead now.
Overall, the trout mission was a success. I was able to learn three new flows quite well, and got to the point where I could almost guarantee at least one hookup per day on a fish better than 20 inches. These fisheries, I’m sure, will provide a great deal of enjoyment in years to come. Occasionally, it pays off to change pace a little and do something completely different to keep your interest in the sport high. I know that the trout fishing, and figuring out their habits and haunts was full of satisfaction for myself. It truly was a great way to start off the year, just as this cutthroat was a great way to close out the “troutin'” season, and move on full time to steelhead.
At this point of my blog articles, I’d now like to encourage some discussion. If you have any comments/questions about anything in the article, please feel free to share! Any questions about rod/reel/line set-ups, or the indicator rigs we were using can be asked about as well. Hopefully you’ve all enjoyed the start of this new series!