Despite our recent successes on rivers we know well lately, there’s always this nagging thought in the back of my head to go out and find new places. I’m not entirely sure why I can’t be content with the 50 or more steelhead flows I already know on the island – especially since I rarely even get to more than maybe 35 of them in a season as it is. Perhaps it’s that I’ve often had incredible first time trips on more than one occasion, or that there’s always the possibility that every one I explore could become a new favourite like so many others before it. Maybe it’s the fact that I find myself growing “lazy” and wanting to stay close to home (with more options) rather than travel for hours or for entire weekends. Regardless of reason, this year, I really have the exploration bug. I’ve been mulling through my list of watersheds that I’ve highlighted in the past based on assessment reports and catch records from years gone by. Right at the top of my list is a small creek that shows promising numbers, one which I’ve been saying I’m going to do for nearly three years now. I decide that this weekend would be the time to do it, as long as Kitty was interested in trying something new.
I check the weather, and more rain (actually a lot more rain) is in the forecast. That’s no worry though this time, since I can tell by looking at discharge data and historic reports that this creek was going to be really small, and high water would very likely be a good thing. Heading into these exploratory days, I never know what to expect. What will access be like? Is the creek completely destroyed/filled in/braided out since the old reports have been published? When is the run timing? There are so many guesses to be made by looking at topographic maps for access (many rivers on the island consist of numerous canyon sections), and for when fish will actually be present and catch-able. Over the years, I’ve found that many small creeks either have a fairly early, or a really late spring time component. If it’s an early system, we’d be catching the peak to middle end of the run at this point – so it’s a great time to go explore. Based on my topo map, the river isn’t too steep, and there are a couple good access point (especially in the middle/upper). As mentioned above, the rain forecast is great, so it will have water. All is set for Kitty and I to lay eyes on a new stream.
We decide to start the day on the upper end of the creek first, and upon arrival, I’m relieved to say that it actually looks like a very healthy system. We spend a couple hours fishing some very nice water up here and don’t find anything, so the next plan is to head into the lower 1/4 of it. I figured access in this lower end would be shrubby and terrible, but it’s actually awesome after a short walk in. The creek is full of really nice runs. The pool riffle sequence is very healthy, and the amount of large woody debris present is exceptional. The river is even lined with fairly open old growth forest that makes walking quite easy. This still has to have steelhead in my mind, we just need to find them and unlock the secrets that this little system holds.
We find our way into the first run of the lower end and elect to walk up first. Within 5 minutes, we get to a picture perfect run. As soon as we get there, Kitty looks at me and says, “There’s definitely a fish in here, it’s the nicest run we’ve seen.” About half way through my drift, my float goes down pretty weird. I’m only 4 feet deep in what looks like a 6 foot deep run, but I have no past history in this river and I didn’t feel anything. I decide to move my float up about 6 inches, and go through again. I pass over the spot where my float had bobbled, and nothing happens. I continue to let it drift down through the tail out, and just where it starts getting visibly shallower, by float drags under again. This time I simply reel up thinking I’ve caught the shelf. All of a sudden, a 6-7 pound bullet chrome doe rises to the top, does one simple head shake, and throws my worm at me. Obviously I was pretty shocked, and kind of heartbroken at losing my first fish in here, but hey, at least we saw one!
We continue up for about an hour. There is so much good water – it’s actually awesome to see. It’s comforting to know that there are still small vulnerable systems that are so well kept in this modern era. We passed run after run that created great excitement as we walked up, only to be somewhat disappointed due to the lack of action. At this point I need to remind myself that it’s all totally new for us here, and that we have no idea what the habits of these fish are. At least the one fish we did find was in water that it “should” have been in, so it’s likely they’ll sit where we’d expect and not in weird water like I’ve found on past systems.
On the way back down I rig Kitty with a trout bead. I figured based on the sand (lack of footprints) and general cleanliness of this system (no gear in the trees or trash around), that very few people fish here. It’s likely the earlier fish will give more than one chance (especially with how brief that original hookup was). We finally get back to the run and Kitty fishes it hard with the bead. We quickly try colorados and a jig, nothing. Kitty decides to put the 4 inch worm back on. Immediately she gets a hard float down. She asks if I saw it, but I hadn’t. I watched the next cast, sure enough another hard float down that didn’t stick. I take out my cell phone for the next cast, but the fish didn’t bite. Two casts later it bites in another spot, but Kitty misses again. Now it’s being really picky. It goes a good 7 or 8 casts without a bite. Kitty decides to go 6 inches deeper as a last resort. The first cast deeper the fish comes back, and this time Kitty finally connects. It’s a great hook-set, but for whatever reason, the fish does the exact same thing as it did to me – comes to the top, does a quick roll and pops off. The video I have is hilarious, you can totally sense Kitty’s (and my) frustration with that fish. I’m assuming it was the same one as the one I rolled earlier in the day anyway, it looked very similar.
After that brief encounter, we also decided to fish down to the very bottom end of the system, and again found great water, but no more fish. By this time, it was starting to get dark, and we decided to start the 2 km walk back up to the car. True to Kitty’s habits, she wants to take a “short cut” up and out of the lower canyon (the river did end up having a canyon section approximately 2 km long). Of course, the “short cut” was horrible and we get cut off along a ridge, and it takes two times longer than it probably would have if we had just stayed on the river. I’m still not sure why I always let her do that to me, especially when I’m the one with the map in hand, but she always seems to convince me to do it. As a cool little surprise though, we found a really decent patch of large hedgehog mushrooms in perfect shape – probably the latest I’ve ever seen fresh mushrooms on the island (hedgehogs are a well known “winter” mushrooms, but late January is even late for them here).
Anyway, back to the fishing talk. After seeing that one fish and gaining some hope, Kitty and I feel like we have unfinished business here. It’s definitely going to be a goal of ours to get a fish out of here. Only one question, was that the early beginnings of the run, or were we catching the tail end? My gut tells me that is probably the start – no fish seen up high and a very aggressive, very chrome fish in the lower 3 km of the system. It looks like a return sooner than later will be key for gaining knowledge on this little creek.
The next 6 days of weather were dismal. More rain, and a heck of a lot of it. In fact, we had a category 4 atmospheric river pass over the island on top of already record precipitation. Pretty much every single river that I regularly watch hit the highest instantaneous water levels ever recorded (some went up 6m/19 feet in a matter of hours!), with discharge rates exceeding 800 m3/s on a few rivers compared to their average of 21 m3/s. We actually received upwards of 250 mm of rain (10 inches) in a 24 hour period. The far west coast recorded 600 mm in some areas – I can’t even imagine what that would have looked like. It was obvious that there would be significant changes on a huge number of my favourite systems, and that many would be days or weeks away from fish-able after this. I tried fishing a dam controlled river during this time, and somehow managed to hook one (my first ever on that particular river), but overall this stretch of weather and conditions were nothing to write home about. As discussed in a previous post in this series, these high water events are when you go explore the smallest watersheds. This event however, was even too much for the little rivers, so Kitty and I spent one of our weekend days simply bouncing around different places to witness the power behind those incredible 600+ m3/s discharge rates that many rivers were displaying.
The Saturday of exploring marked the second day of water dropping, so I kept an eye on gauges for Sunday with my fingers crossed. By Saturday night, it appeared as though there was some small potential for the little river from last weekend to be a green light. That particular location didn’t get hit quite as hard as our area did, and the very small overall water catchment and steepness meant the river should drop fast, so we gambled.
We got out there mid morning the next day, and headed straight for the lower end where we had found success last time out. This time we decided to do the lowest portion of the river first and continuously work up. Upon our arrival into the canyon it was obvious that the river was quite a bit higher than last trip out, and was just barely wade-able, but we were able to work down. Only a couple runs in I had a great float down that actually tore my worm off. Around 5 minutes later Kitty managed to hook a large cutthroat out of that run, but I’m still not convinced it was the same fish that gave me the original rip down. As we worked our way down, we encountered quite a few sea run cutties that weren’t here the other week, so it was obvious fresh fish had indeed moved in. Next up was our steelhead holding spot from last week.
This week, we were unable to wade up to the steelhead hold, so we did have to do a bit of a bush crash up and around a high bank to get into it. We fished the run thoroughly, and although it looked even better than last week, all it had today was a cutthroat. Now that we were down on the river, it was much easier to get around through the open forest, although wading would be tricky in the spots we needed to. We finally get up to the one spot that would involve a wade to go any further. We first fished it from our side, but I didn’t like the drift, so we decided to try the wade. The wade was pretty intense, but soon we were on the other side. I had on a bead, and Kitty was throwing the trusty 4 inch worm. Before I can even get my second drift in, Kitty was doing the drift I had just done, and I watched in amazement as her float dropped simultaneously with a fish exploding onto the surface before she even knew what was going on. It was a beautiful fish, and it was crazy hot. Kitty had no chance in controlling it, and within seconds he was tail walking out the bottom of the run and heading for the next one. I’m always amazed that when Kitty has a fish on she powers through wades without even thinking, and before I could even lend her a hand she had gotten across the river and was chasing this fish down. At this point she has to make a stand in the next run, as there’s a log across the river and she can’t go any further. Luckily for her, the log was 90% above water, and she was able to fight the little chrome buck back up to our side of the log where he eventually made his way into the net. An incredibly exciting fight ended up resulting in a brand new river being “checked off.” This was now Kitty’s third river of the year. It was good to see all the research and persistence pay off.
After that fish, I was excited to get up further. I remember from last time that the next run up had looked really, really good. I was sure that after seeing this fresh buck and good water conditions that we would find one there. It was now my turn to go through, and I throw on the pink worm since that seems to be the ticket in here. I start at the head, and slowly start to work my way down. By the time I’m mid run, Kitty decides to come in behind me at the head. Her first cast I hear, “Dan I just missed one.” I ask if she’s sure, because her float had been travelling very close to the log. She replies definitely, and casts out again only to have her worm torn off on the next cast. Rather than re-rig a worm, Kitty decides to bust out a spoon. Her first cast, as I’m walking back up, a nice sized steelhead comes flying out from under the tree and explodes onto her spoon in shallow water, but doesn’t connect.
After seeing that, I pretty much beg her to let me take a cast through next. It’s not often I actually get excited and want to catch one, but it’s a new place, and I always like to get that first one out of the way. She agrees that it’s my turn, and lets me hit the head of the run again. I’m not exactly sure what I was doing wrong, but I couldn’t for the life of me get this fish to bite my 4 inch worm despite Kitty having 2 chances in as many casts behind me. I decide to go to a 6 inch worm and fish a good 5 or 6 casts with nothing. I’m about to admit defeat and let her toss her spoon in again, but decide on one more cast. It’s the same story as always – a true testament to making sure you’re always changing up. I moved my float up 6 inches, and the very first cast after doing so resulted in a good float down and a clean hookup. My fight wasn’t nearly as exciting as Kitty’s. It really only did one jump and came in rather quickly, but it’s a nice one (condition wise anyway), and my first ever out of this system, so it’ll always be a memorable one!
My doe ended up being the last steelhead we saw, which surprised me beyond words. The water couldn’t have gotten better condition wise, and the fish we hit were definitely fresh arrivals. I figured that once we had found them, that we’d be into a decent school throughout the entire section, but it just wasn’t the case. Realistically it looks like this river will probably take a lot more leg work to figure out. I’m assuming that it’s just a small condensed run with maybe not so many fish left. I’m happy anyway that we’ve each had an opportunity to encounter these special fish, and I actually really like this creek. Overall, it’s easy to fish and has very nice water in a very nice setting. The up side is that although we haven’t hammered them, we have encountered at least one fish a trip now, and the cutthroat trout are fairly plentiful and keep you pre-occupied. It’s very much so another one to add to the arsenal for high water conditions in the future.