With the beginning of December came the beginning of our winter fishing season. Truthfully, this feels like our only fishing season these days, but it’s by choice. Summers have been consumed by bagging various mountain peaks in the Fraser valley, and our fall seasons have been completely dedicated to hunting various fungi species. I prefer, and embrace, this shift in our outdoor hobbies. I feel becoming well rounded in different outdoor activities has made me appreciate and understand the amazing locations we have across the island and lower mainland quite a bit more. These days, I almost find myself craving a walk through a “new” old growth forest rather than up a canyon on a remote river.
With the mushrooms come and gone, and snow covering the peaks of the mountains, I found myself dusting off the rods that had been waiting patiently out of view for most of the last six months. I walked into our little laundry room, and reached for the 3 wt fly rods. Historically, December has always been my favourite month to trout bead behind the last of the dying salmon, but even a number of those fisheries have disappeared due to extreme summer temperatures and dwindling salmon runs. There was still one that had done spectacularly well last year, so we opted to try that one for the first outing of the year.
As we approached our runs of choice, I couldn’t help but feel some excitement. The runs looked better than they ever have with recent changes, and conditions were perfect. I anxiously set up the rod at our favourite spot, and adjusted the indicator to the magical depth. I cast out, and nothing happened. Maybe I was too close in; another cast, and another, and another, lead to more and more disappointment. Soon I had flogged the whole run over the course of 20 minutes without a touch (along with Kitty and Mike doing the same). One apparent thing was the extreme lack of coho. The island had a dreadful return of coho and chum in most locations, despite the fact that they had predicted a good year (for coho at least). This river in particular really doesn’t have resident trout, and completely relies on salmon to draw trout out of the lake. It was obvious that the trout fishery wouldn’t be occurring here this season with the river complete devoid of salmon and their eggs.
On to plan B on day two. It used to be quite possibly our favourite fishery on the island. It wasn’t uncommon to get a handful of trout in the 20 to 24 inch range each day, and a 14-16 inch fish was the expected average. The extremely hot summer of 2016 completely killed this place off – we’re talking about going from a 50 fish day on the low end to only hitting two, small, emaciated and scarred up fish in multiple trips the very next year. I took a water temperature in December that was mind-blowing high (over 20C), despite snow on the ground; evidence that the river had likely hit lethal temperatures throughout the summer. I returned in 2017, hoping that the fish we had always loved so much would have maybe just taken refuge elsewhere to escape the heat and had magically returned the following year. They didn’t.
Refusing to give up on our favourite fishery, I once again returned in 2018. The fish were back! Only that fall they were all 6 inches, with a really “big one” being 14 inches (likely the smaller ones that had somehow survived the hot year). They were numerous though, and we often found 10 or more in each of the better runs. It was obvious another “cohort” was starting to repopulate the system – and they were doing it rather quickly. I couldn’t believe how fast they had grown in a wild setting in just one year (realistically it was probably 2 years; in 2017 they were probably parr size, and not able to be caught yet). Being that the river was practically void of fish life for 2 years, it made sense that there would be a lot of food to go around, and water temps in this system are often warm (even on cool summer years), so that will facilitate fish growth more so. If conditions remained, it seemed like 2019 fall could be a good one, so I had my fingers crossed for a cooler/survivable summer in 2019.
As most British Columbia residents would know, 2019 was indeed a cooler – and a much wetter – summer than normal. Almost every river that I was actively monitoring temperatures in stayed fairly reasonable. It was now time that we would return to see if the trout were back to their previous condition. We arrived to find plenty of salmon in the river, and sure enough, the first run was loaded up with trout eating the eggs. They were definitely a much larger size this year (compared to last years 6 inchers), and the first day out provided some great action. The river was a little higher than we liked, and we didn’t find any monsters, but the average size (shown below) was more than enough incentive to return the following weekend.
The next weekend we went back with a friend of ours. The morning started out with an awesome foggy setting with the rising sun, due to the extremely cold air temperatures against the relatively warm (10C) water temperatures. We found a number of trout in our normal section, but again, nothing that was any bigger than perhaps 15 inches in length.
We had our buddy Mark with us, and he suggested that we head upriver to where we had seen more salmon spawning, as this area just didn’t seem to have them in big numbers. The exploring started to pay off right away, and we were into a number of trout with a good average size of 14-15 inches. Soon light was fading though, and we had made it to our last run.
Earlier downstream, Mark had done a wade on his own that I didn’t feel like doing with Kitty, so we stayed on one side while he worked up the other. At the last run, he waded back across to us after taking a few casts, right through the middle of a nice looking run. After he had waded, I continued to eyeball the top of the run, and decided that I just had to take a cast through – it simply looked too perfect to leave it untouched. Sure enough, my first drift through, I was met with a freight train hit. It was a really good fish that I lost, finally a “big one.” We couldn’t believe that the fish had stayed put even with Mark having done a wade not more than 30 feet below them; that being said, there are a ton of bears around grabbing spawning salmon, and perhaps the trout are now just jaded to in-water commotion. I cast out again, and again lost a great rainbow that I estimated to be in the 20 inch range. At this point Kitty couldn’t help but come over. She took a cast nearly in unison with me, and we both connected on good fish. Somehow, after losing the first 2 big ones, both came to hand this time. A Beautiful bow and a stunning cutthroat.
With the weekend’s success, it made it impossible for us to stay away the following weekend. The water had come up in every watershed in the area, but we decided that it would be worthwhile to try the stream at a different height just to see if it would be do-able. Historically, we only really do this river while it’s low, so it’s kind of nice to see it at various heights to establish a maximum for years to come.
Upon arrival, it’s definitely much higher than last weekend – likely around 8 to 12 inches in rise. We decide to suit up while watching some salmon spawn and eagles fly over, their cackling and chuckles echo through the fog producing quite the surreal environment. It’s nice just being out here with no one else around, even if the fishing might not be so great (potentially) today. We decide to start where we left off last weekend – the top run, and work down to our normal stretch. Right in the first run, sure enough, Kitty is into a few right away.
The next run down, which hadn’t been good last weekend, was also loaded today. Maybe the slightly higher water created enough chop to perhaps keep the fish covered enough to be comfortable. Another bonus to a “new” spot being loaded was getting three different species from the one riffle – Cutthroat, Rainbows and a nice Dolly, which is a rare sight in this system (it’s only the second one we’ve encountered in 6 years).
We hit at least a dozen fish from that one run before it died off, and then continued downstream. As we came around the corner and started fishing through the next run, we got to watch a bear fish for some salmon in the run below us as well – another cool sight for the middle of December.
We push on and continue to hit fish out of pretty much every run and pocket there is. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced fishing this good, and the average size and condition of these trout was absolutely spectacular. Seeing this turn around so quickly for a system that was seemingly wiped out only 3 years ago gives me hope that maybe our pacific salmon and steelhead could do the same if conditions change and allow for it.
It’s nearing the end of the day now, and we get down to our last run. Honestly, it looks a little too high, but we decide to take a few casts as the light dies out. I decide to wade out a little ways to reach the far slot, and Kitty fishes the in tight slot just down below me. I barely get out there to turn around and see her hook up on a fish – and it looks like a good one. I wade back over to her, and it’s indeed a really nice sized trout. As it nears the net, I see that it’s a Cutthroat. What a great way to end a really good day!
It’s now the third weekend of December. I’ve heard rather dire reports on steelhead in general, and I’ll be honest, I’ve really grown to love trout fishing the past couple years. I ask Kitty if we should go give the river one more go for trout before it blows out with the upcoming rain forecast. The water had come back down, similar to the first week, and I’d like to go back while the getting em’ is good. She agrees, and we do the long traverse one last time.
Surprisingly, the first run only produces one fish – a good one – but it took a long time to get her to bite. Of interest, while I was fighting it, there were a couple of Chinook actively chasing the poor bow, with one even latching on to the poor trouts tail and giving it a pretty good shake. I was wondering at this point if the aggressive salmon had put the trout down, or if they were simply too full at this point and wouldn’t eat an egg unless it hit them right on the nose (unlike the ones in past weeks that seemingly moved large distances to grab any egg they saw).
The next run down didn’t provide much luck, besides me losing maybe one of the largest coastal cutthroat trout of my life. I won’t soon forget getting that fish close and Kitty screaming, “it looks like a steelhead!!” That statement was followed by, “Please Dan, don’t lose this one, you’ve almost got it.” As it neared shore after a really long fight, just before Kitty could net it, the giant specimen won, and spat the hook. I swear Kitty was more devastated than I was. As cool as it would have been to land it and get up close and personal, those are the fish that keep us coming back. I got all the best parts anyway – the float down, the first big run, and getting a good look at it.
The next run down, it became evident why this week was a lot tougher. Kitty finally got a few fish to the beach, and of course, they were absolutely bursting with eggs. Upon inspection of her one fish, while removing the hook, it became evident that they had completely switched “egg diets.” Rather than feasting on the large Chinook eggs that they had been onto in previous weeks (which matched the beads we were using perfectly), they had now started hammering on the much smaller sockeye eggs that were washing out in droves from the high water. It made sense – why sit behind the Chinook, and risk getting chomped on (like my poor fish earlier), when you could sit in a much more comfortable pocket or riffle and mow down on a buffet freely drifting by? What surprised me though was that they, for the most part, were turning down the larger chinook egg presentation. I would have assumed that they would have been more than willing to grab the odd larger egg drifting by amongst the many smaller ones.
As we worked down, it became evident that we weren’t going to have a day anything like the last couple of weekends. While we weren’t hitting as many fish, it was pretty evident that the average size was quite a bit larger than weeks past – perhaps the little guys were just completely full and needed a break. The weather this day was nice for a change too, much warmer compared to the negative temperatures we endured weeks previous.
We had just enough time left in the day to do the last few runs. Being that it was likely the last time we would be here this season, we decided to push on and finish the circuit. The first run through the new stretch Kitty loses a fish first cast and ends up in a tree – and tangles her whole leader section beyond belief. Knowing light was closing out, I gave her my rod, and let her go through while I climbed the tree as best I could, broke off what I couldn’t get, and then re-tied. In the time I re-tied, Kitty got a three or four fish out of the one tail out. I was finally done just as she left the tail out of the run and headed for the next one. I threw a cast out and walked with it. As I got towards the tail out, my indicator buried. I set the hook hard, and it became evident right away with the first couple head shakes that this wasn’t a trout. I yelled at Kitty, “I think I may have a steelhead!”
She came running back up. My fish was just sitting there, it hadn’t really woken up yet. No sooner than she gets to me and asks if I’m sure, the fish wakes up and goes on a blistering run into the tail out. It comes close to the top, throws a huge flash, and then exits the tail out. Definitely not a trout. I chased it down three whole runs, and finally caught up on it. It had held up in a deep part of the run. This was where I had to make my stand, as the water downriver was pretty gnarly. I started cranking on it hard, and surprisingly, it actually came upriver towards me – the three weight and 6 pound leader was holding up extremely well. As I got it close, it wakes up again and goes on a really hard run and a couple big top water rolls. I put the brakes on again in the tail out and it somehow turns around without breaking off. I feel like I’m making ground, but it goes on one more run across river into a large section of boulders, and breaks me off. Having never gotten a close look at it, I couldn’t decide whether or not it was a chrome Chinook (which would be pretty non typical being the end of December), or a nice early steelhead. I’m leaning towards the latter, but there was no 100% confirmation. Regardless of losing it and never getting an I.D., it was sure an exciting way to end our day, and transition from trout into the steelhead season.