I left off with my last blog on a great weekend of fishing. After that weekend ended, the rains kicked in pretty good. After a day of the rain stopping, I finally had a window to get out. My flow of choice was one that I had visited earlier in the year without any form of success. If I’m being honest, that was the first time in a long time that I had gone and not at least had a chance at a fish or three. It’s funny that I’d call this canyonous flow one of my favourite rivers on the island, maybe in my top 5. I’ve never landed a fish here, but I’ve hooked well over a dozen. They are spectacular fish – incredibly hard fighting, always very fresh, and normally of good size. Perhaps the main reason I’m so fond of this flow though, is because of how wild it seems. There’s no access in other than from the bottom and a long hike up. It’s got towering canyon walls, waterfalls dumping in everywhere, and there’s never a sign of another angler. There’s no better way to describe it, other than calling it paradise. Really, the fish on this particular river are just a bonus.
I arrive at the river mid morning and start the long walk in. It’s about a 1 km forested walk with tons of downed trees just to get to the river, and then a 3 km walk up the system to where most of the fish start to hold. The elk that have moved in the last couple of years have made the starting forest walk much easier, as there is now a burnt in trail signalling the easiest way down. It’s been cool to watch how this valley has changed in the last two years with the elk. I rarely even saw elk sign in the past, but in the last year especially, we have been seeing elk every single trip. The extreme logging in the surrounding river valleys have now moved two herds into this area. At first we thought the burnt in trails (which started appearing last year) were possibly a sign of more angling pressure, but it became clear quite quickly that the elk were just establishing their preferred routes. It’s amazing what natural changes you can notice when you return to the same area over the course of a decade or more.
I arrive down in the river canyon to find the water a bit lower than I had anticipated, but it still appeared good enough, and the lower levels would only make my movements easier. At it’s absolute prime height, the walking on this river can be tough because you have to go up and over a few sections, rather than wading the edges. I fish through the first 3 km up to the “Sometimes hole” without a nudge (as expected). The “Sometimes Hole” is aptly named – it’s typically the first spot that holds fish, but it only holds them around 50% of the time. It looks spectacular today, but wasn’t holding anything.
I continue up, with my hopes set on the last hole that is before the listed anadromous barrier. I often question if this is indeed the actual barrier – it looks pass-able, and the times we have gone above it, we have found numerous rainbows. That being said, we’ve never seen a steelhead above it, we find steelhead stacked below it almost every trip (and every season), and the rainbows we catch above it appear to be spawning resident rainbows around 6 inches long. One year I need to trek above it during salmon season to see if coho can clear it.
I’m about halfway up to the barrier pool, and I hop up on a rock for a view of the run ahead. I’ve always made a habit of taking casts here and there in good looking water while walking, and of course, I’m always scanning water in between every 10 steps or so. The rivers on the island are so clear that you can often see steelhead hundreds of feet away, if you know where to look. Hopping up on this rock today was a mistake. As soon as I did it, I watched a 10 pound doe go flying up from the tail out of the run to the head where a large rock lies in the middle of the river (there’s great cover there). I immediately take a knee; I’ve often found that in this system (and a few others nearby) the fish typically travel in at least pairs, and sometimes schools. I’ve never seen a fish here, so that doe took me by surprise, and I feel like she could be a lone mover, but my reaction to get low was a good one. I only need to look around for perhaps 10 seconds before I see movement. Sure enough, there was another fish with her, and it was slowly gliding over to me. I watch it intently to see what its next moves would be. The buck didn’t appear spooked, but seemed as if he was looking for his partner that had scuttled away. Eventually he settles not more than 10 feet in front of me. I carefully put my rod together and think about my approach. I’m really not in a great spot, and he’ll surely see me move for the cast, so I cross my fingers that he isn’t in a flight mood. I cast way up above him, and watch my pink worm come downriver. I really couldn’t have had a better cast and depth set – it nearly hits him in the nose, but he doesn’t move. I let the worm drift way past him before reeling in. I attempt another cast, and I really screw up. This cast lands way short, just above him, and only 2 feet from the edge. To my amazement he doesn’t move, but I’m in a bind, because I’m rubbing bottom hard; reeling in downriver will surely spook him. I decide to let the cast fish out, giving it minor twitches as it comes towards me to avoid snagging. As it passes him, the buck charges over the 4 feet and tries to grab it off bottom, but by that time I had no choice but to reel in right in front of me as it came over a huge boulder. I decide to try another in close cast after shallowing up; again he comes charging over and swipes twice but misses. By now I’m shaking. I’ve tried so long to land a fish here, and this one could be the one! One more cast and he finally commits! He goes ballistic around the run. He only jumped once, which is pretty non-typical for fish here (normally they spend more time flying that swimming), but the fight, overall, was a great one. As he slid in towards me, I replayed the images of so many fish in this system popping off at this point. The relief I felt when I tailed him was pretty amazing – 7 years in the making – I had finally checked this river off my list. It wasn’t completely “new” per say, but it was a new one with a fish coming to hand. It was also my 12th river of the season beached.
I walked up to the barrier run after landing that buck to give the doe I had spooked in the run a break. To my surprise, the barrier run wasn’t holding a fish today. It definitely looks to have filled in and changed a little now that I can see into it well, but it still looks more than adequate to hold a fish or two. I guess only the years ahead will tell. As discussed in a previous blog, this system gets a very limited run that all come within a very short window. With that in mind, this is probably going to be my last trip of the year here. I was simply pumped to have seen a couple fish show up, and it held true to my general experience on the season – the fish did show up 2 weeks late. On the way down I tried for the doe, but it seemed as though the buck had put her into hiding for good. No matter, today was a fantastic day, in an incredible place. Words cannot describe how lucky I feel to have these places within reach, and how grateful I am to be able to experience the things I do.
The next day that I had out was another long awaited success. It’s another canyon river in the same general vicinity of the last one, so I knew it should have some fish. In past years, this particular flow has been one of our absolute favourites. For a few years, we really only new about access into 2 or 3 runs, but those runs were incredible and had fish nearly every single trip in. Three years ago now, we had an extended low water period that gave me the opportunity to explore a bunch of canyon systems from the bottom up, to find access in to various sections from the bottom of the canyons. This particular river was one that I had taken advantage of, and it was absolutely incredible. We realized there was only one other way in besides coming up from the bottom end, and that access is so incredibly sketchy that I’ve still only used it one other time. The other take home we got though, was that this was one of those rivers that was a sure thing in low water periods. It was almost better to simply fish it when the water was low enough that you could wade it top to bottom.
Now, this river isn’t one I’ve had struggles landing fish in. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – this river has always been good to me and I’ve often considered it a “give me” even before the season starts. Last year though was a wake up call. I fished this system on 10 different occasions last year – all in ideal conditions, after rain bumps, and throughout the season. Over the years I’ve also become incredibly knowledgeable on where the fish spawn. I fished 9 trips that year without touching or seeing a single steelhead, and there was no evidence of spawning activity on any of the major spawning locations. The fish were gone. I eventually saw 1 single spawning pair spot checking for REDD’s on a day where I had nothing better to do in mid April. That area with the single spawning pair had 1 other REDD, and those were the only 2 REDDs in the entire 8 km of system that I could observe. I was worried about this river big time, and the long anticipated return to it was now here to see if this year had fared any better.
I decide to start high in the system, and the first “give me” run is void of fish. Normally this run only has 1 or 2, but not even seeing one here is definitely cause for some concern (it’s also a major spawning location, and no REDD’s are present). I go down to the next run, this one is always a sure thing if fish are in the system. I climb down our rope and stare into the emerald green water as I set up my pin rod. Before my first cast I see 3 fish. They aren’t sitting in the normal area at the head, and so I change over to the spoon rod, as the area they are in is great for swinging into. As expected, these fish were aggressive. I end up missing beautiful does on two subsequent casts before hooking and landing the one beat up buck that was with them. I never did take a picture of him, but river number 13 is now in the books.
I head down to the lower river next and do the walk up to the lower falls. A lot has changed here, and I barely recognize it in section. A couple of my wades have also changed for the worse, and I almost didn’t do the first one without the help of a large cedar stick to lean on. The first 3 runs were empty, which wasn’t a great sign, but over the years, we’ve found a majority of our fish in the top 3 runs anyway. I approach the first of the three runs, one we’ve named the 100 yard drift after Mike hooked a fish from the head of the run down in the tail out a few years back; he was trying to bother me, and let the drift go a good 100 yards to be funny, and ended up hooking one just before reeling in. I go to the middle section of the run, which is where I normally see the majority of fish. I scan the water closely, and eventually see a small doe right where she should be. I take a little phone video of her in the run, and then put together my spoon rod. First cast she came darting out and grabbed it. I tail her and take a short video and say, “you can barely call this one a steelhead.” She’s only around 3 pounds, but she’s in great shape, and as I’ve said before about this year: a fish is a fish. I let her go and continue up.
The next run up that I’m heading to is the one I’m most excited for. The day we first found it, it put out 5 fish for us. For the first couple years, it was a steady producer, and one that really inspired excitement every time we approached it. Many good memories have been had here, and many great fish have been landed.
As I come up to it, it’s quite clear that the huge flood has created substantial changes. It’s incredible the amount of rock that has been shifted or outright blown out. If I’m to compare it to the picture above, there’s really no way to match it. There no flow anymore on the left side of the photograph (looking up) and the entire left side is filled in with tiny pea gravel. That huge rock in the middle is gone. The log on the right, and the rock right beside it in the main flow are gone. The whole river has pushed right, and is now pretty much one giant chute. There is no longer a drop, just a fast chute and no holding water. The run is gone, and will only be remembered by pictures now. It would have been ridiculous to see this going at full volume – throwing rocks around that are that size would be no easy feat. Incredibly, there are now 2 new runs just above the old falls (it use to just be cascades as far as the eyes could see), and a brand new set of “falls.” I go up and briefly hook and lose a 10+ pound doe in the tail out of the run just above my old favourite. The new falls looks a lot more gnarly than the old one, and I watched 2 fish trying to jump it – one badly beat up. I do wonder if any are making it up to the top spawning grounds, but then again I did see 3 up there earlier today. It makes sense to me why the buck was so beat up now. Hopefully this doesn’t create passage issues in the future.
On the weekend, I decided to do another small river with Kitty that I figured would be good on the drop (we had gotten rain Friday night). We arrive early morning and hike into what we call the access pool. The main access run wasn’t holding anything, but it was a bit too low. The run below us looked fantastic though, so we scuttled down towards it. I haven’t been here yet this year, and it’s also changed (like much of the river has), but it still looks good enough. After a dozen or so casts, nothing had happened. We were about to leave, but decided on one last depth change. Kitty right away starts rubbing bottom, but lets the drift go and her float gets smashed under. I’m positive that it was a fish, but she isn’t so sure. She decides to shallow up just a bit, and 3 feet further into the drift she gets another good grab. Kitty ended up missing this fish 5 times (and having a pink worm torn completely off) before finally pinning it. The thing was suicidal. Once she got it to hand though, it was clear to see why: it was a stunning doe that had probably come into the lower system as recently as last night. Another positive was that this fish was the first one on Kitty’s brand new rod. I got exactly the picture I was looking for with this one – the blackout combo next to a black and white fish.
After that we headed in to our favourite creek confluence hole. With the water a bit lower than last time I was here, this run looks even worse. Kitty does miss one right in the head under the white foam, so I guess there is still hope that they may live in here. We decide to head down from here next and see the changes, since I haven’t looked at this section since the flood. Again, as expected, the changes are substantial. Many of the fish holding runs don’t look the same and likely won’t hold fish. We didn’t touch a single one through the whole section, where we would normally get at least one or two. Only maybe 2 of the six runs appeared to be as good as they had once been. Hopefully the lack of good water won’t effect these fish too much going forward.
We decided to end the day by going up towards the falls. I tell Kitty that it’s very unlikely that the falls will have anything based on what I saw last time I was here, but she wants to see the changes. I did, however, have incredibly high hopes for Mr. Steelhead run. Sure enough, we get to Mr. Steelhead run and Kitty hooks up a fish instantly. She goes on to land the small buck.
After landing that fish, we go back up to Mr. Steelhead run (that little buck took her downriver a run – he had spunk for a little fish!). Kitty manages to hook a much larger, equally clean fish next cast, but it goes on to break her off. We get to the falls, and the lower water made it look even worse than last time I was here, and it was completely void of any fish. I really don’t think this is going to hold much going forward unfortunately. Despite only having chances at four fish, I still consider it a successful day, and Kitty got to check off another river. This season may not be fantastic numbers wise, but it’s looking much better than it had started off, and it’s definitely keeping me interested at this point! In all honesty, I’d much rather encounter 1 or 2 fish a day consistently on remote small rivers, than find big numbers of fish on busier rivers anyways. It’s been a very enjoyable journey up to this point!