While the other two rivers mentioned in my previous blog post were completely new to me (Catalogue and Conquer – A Double Discovery), as said in the intro to this series, another goal of mine was to figure out rivers that I had been to in the past and wanted to know more about. This particular one is perhaps one of my favourite rivers on the island. My close fishing friends (and Kitty as well) find that odd, but why? Well, it doesn’t have many fish, it’s incredibly hard to get around on, and in fact, I still haven’t managed to land a fish on it yet. Between Mike and I, we’ve now hooked 8 or so over the last 2 year, but we’ve never managed to get one to the net. So why is it my possible favourite? There’s a bunch of reasons, but mainly: It’s remote, and we found it completely on our own after a lot of hard work, and with absolutely no information on it (we actually found it by accident thinking it was another river). The canyon walls and large rocks are the type of terrain that I love, and I feel at home on it.
It’s secluded and I’ve never seen another set of angler footprints, nor another piece of gear. I love the solitude. The water also has the most absolute classic green steelhead hunting colour I’ve ever seen. Really, this is as close to paradise as I could be while in the west coast rain-forest; the fish are just a bonus here.
So, here I was, alone and gearing up to go into the river with zero expectations. I fished through the first run, and then the next 6, with absolutely nothing. I was finally nearing where we had lost a handful of fish in the past, and the first run that usually holds a fish. I finally get there and absolutely flog it, and nothing is home. Again, it’s not a huge surprise, and I’m still content getting to billy-goat these canyon walls anyway.
I make it to the top despite the higher water and difficult canyon wall wades, and am at the “waterfall run,” the run that is pretty much a guarantee each and every time we’ve been here.
I anxiously unfold my rod, set my depth and cast out. The water is clear today and I’m watching my worm rather than my float. All of a sudden my worm is gone out of sight. I instinctively pull, even though I can’t see a fish. A 10 pound immaculate doe hits the top of the water. She gives two huge cartwheels, at least 3 feet out of the water, and exits the run. I start to give chase, and my line goes slack. I slowly start reeling in the slack line as I mumble under my breath – another loss – an all too often occurrence this season (and on this river in general). All of a sudden, I look down at my feet to see my float rooster tailing past me up the run – she was still there! I catch up to her, and am met with an absolutely vicious pull that seemingly never stops, one reminiscent of a really good spoon grab. This fish is mental. Now the real treat – something I’ve never had a fish do – she blasted up to the top of the run and hopped up and over the 4 foot cascade with a massive aerial display. Surely she was gone now. I keep pressure on her, but there’s no way I can chase her up. Somehow, I eventually pull her back down after a tug of war. She has to be done now after a good 5 minute, spirited battle. I grab the always trusted Moby net as I drift her towards me on her side. As I go for the scoop, she sees me and does the always expected last ditch effort to save herself. Normally it’s just another good run, but keeping true to her colours, she takes to the air another two times and finally wins her freedom. I sat down, defeated, yet elated. That image of her rooster tailing my float past me only to jump over a big drop into the run above, will no doubt stay etched in my mind for years to come, if not forever. That’s what makes these fish so special. Even after catching hundreds, you can still have a special one show up and leave its mark on you.
I sat and reflected on that fish for a while. I’m not sure how long. I just simply sat there taking it all in. The recent rains had the waterfall in front of me cascading down with great force and volume unlike I had ever seen before, and the whole canyon echoed with its roar. After letting the run rest, I cast out again and get a 6 pound dark buck, which surprised me for this early in the season. I land him and release him without a picture. Funny – I finally land my first fish ever out of this river, and I let him go after a simple admirable look in the net. He just didn’t seem to fill the void that the doe before him had left, but at least it was one to hand, and I could finally “check” the river off. I find myself taking fewer and fewer pictures anyway this year of fish when I’m alone. I simply am not happy with the “product” that I get out of it, and I feel as it if distracts from the experience. I’m slowly learning that having the full memory locked away in my head vividly, rather than a full memory card, is more important than the ever needed “proof” that I’ve caught one.
Again, I let the run sit. I’m not in a hurry. After 5 minutes or so I get up on my perch and start fishing again. I flog the tail out for a good while before finally deciding that those were the only two fish. As I go to step down though, I catch something out of the corner of my eye. Was that a fish? Right in the foam, at the head of the run, is a massive shadow. I’ve never seen a fish sit there, and the water is FAST, but it just doesn’t look right on the small cobble gravel. I get a good window – it’s a massive buck, the largest I’ve seen here, and for sure in the high teens. It takes a good dozen casts before I finally get the right drift, and watch him move over. I set the hook hard once I see his mouth open and my worm disappear. He immediately comes to the top. He too exits the run after a good long tail walk. I get him back up and he seems to be tired early. My mistake, he’s not tired, and again comes to the top only to throw the hook back at me again. That one hurt, but at least I got a good battle out of him again, and got a good look at him – plus the excitement of sight fishing him; it’s a win despite the loss in my books.
As I head down I once again come to the run where I hadn’t touched anything previously on my way up. I decide, after watching how long it took for that large buck to hit, that I would try a few more casts through the good slot at the head. I fish through once, and start the process of adjusting my depth down by 1 foot each drift through until I’m tapping bottom. After 5 or so casts, I finally find the bottom with a couple taps. Around 5 feet into my drift, my float taps but doesn’t seem to want to come back up. I halfheartedly reel up and feel a small head shake. I set the hook, but feel nothing. As I’m reeling to the top, I have a beautiful 8 pound doe chase my worm right to the surface. I pause, she circles, tries to bite and misses. I start reeling again thinking she’s gone, and she turns around and surface wakes at my worm. I pull again when I feel resistance, and again nothing – this time she sinks to the depths. To my surprise, a few casts later she’s on the worm again giving me another chance. This time I hook her, but once again, I completely blow it during the battle.
At this point I decide that I’ve had enough for the day and start hustling back to the car. As I walk back, I take the “short cut” way. On the way up, there is a gap 4 feet wide over the churning river on the elevated rock slabs, the problem being that it’s also a solid 3 foot jump up from one slab to the next. Therefore, while going upriver, you need to go up and around. Coming down, however, you can easily jump from rock slab to rock slab with the extra height advantage. I work my way down to the edge of the slanted rock slab and go to jump. My bad ankle gives out and slips simultaneously. I find myself falling between the narrow gap of rocks into foamy roaring white water. Although I have no idea how, I managed to swim to the right through the crack and beach myself, dumping out a solid 10L of water from my waders. I sit for a second thinking about how bad that could have been, and wonder, really, how I even survived it. To make matters worse, I look down and realize I broke the top 4 inches off my favourite, custom built, discontinued pin rod. The otherwise great day has now been dampened down (literally) by a super cold swim and wrecked gear. At this point I’m defeated and quicken my pace for the car, not only because I’m through with fishing, but also because the cold January air is quickly cooling my body temperature. I’ve hiked hundreds of canyons the last few years, and honestly consider myself quite experienced in doing so, but this was an incredibly stark reminder that a small slip up can happen in an instant and can have dire consequences.
As I come to the bottom end of the river, I walk by a run that looks absolutely stunning at this height. It’s a run I’ve never fished and often walked by. With my pin rod broken, and my hanks now shaking from the cold, I’m not even sure why I decided to reach for my spinning rod, but something pushed me to do so. My first cast, not three feet into my swing, I pin yet another chrome, hot doe. She cartwheels three times and pops off. I decide to try another few casts, as the fish in this system do seem to travel in pairs quite often. Sure enough, I connect with a large chrome buck not even 2 km from the saltwater. This time, I manage to slide him into the Moby. This one I decided to take a picture of. He was absolutely perfect, almost cost me my life, cost me (at minimum) a few hundred dollars in gear, and once again raised my spirits to save my day. Just another average steelhead, but the backstory behind him is worth telling – even if the picture isn’t that great.
A few days later, after hearing of my success, my buddy Mike just had to go back with me knowing that the time appeared to be now. We hit the rains perfectly, and the water heights were prime once again. We hiked up in anticipation. Of course the first hour of hiking up was uneventful, once again flogging the same 6 runs that look great but never produce. We finally arrive at the first holding water, and Mike hooks up and loses what likely could have been the same doe from the previous trip that I had hit. We flog the run for a while more before heading up to the waterfall pool.
We arrive at the waterfall pool, and I set up the camera in confidence that he’ll get one here. His first cast with the spoon is short, and I ask him “what kind of cast is that?!” Not more than 2 seconds after I finished saying that, my words changed to “One’s coming, he’s got it!!!” A large buck charged forward off the back wall to crush his poorly presented spoon. Surprisingly, this fish didn’t fight the way every other fish we’ve hit in this system has. All our other previous fish have taken to the air with magnificent displays, yet this guy just went on big runs and bull dogged around. Mike wasn’t complaining though, as he too had been longing to land one from here, and the type of fight this fish provided made that possible. The large buck finally hit the net and ended both of our curses.
Although the fish wasn’t as dime bright as mine the day before, he was still obviously a fresh arrival. It’s amazing to me how quickly some of these winter steelhead bucks will colour up. That being said, the ones sporting some colour are often my favourite to photograph and look at. Each one has such unique colouration and war wounds, which can provide some awesome picture moments. After a couple of artistic shots, his buck too swam away, followed by a hoot and holler, and a high five. We had done it.
Although, once again, the river didn’t provide spectacular numbers, I honestly can say it’s still one of my favourites. Even with the low numbers of fish, we are finally figuring out where they seem to hold each and every time, and just one in a day here makes the trek worth it. It’ll now always be remembered by me as the one that almost “got me”, but as with most things, the most beautiful ones are always the most dangerous and exciting. I most definitely can’t wait to return here in the following years to unlock more of its secrets. At this point, I’m convinced that it simply doesn’t get a big run of fish, but I’m completely fine with that. As long as it keeps providing spectacular views, beautiful water, and a secluded escape from the rest of the world (and all the anglers that walk on it), I’ll be happy, and will continue to call it one of the best around.