British Columbian steelhead
Matt Harris heads to British Columbia's Dean River to try his hand at notoriously challenging steelhead and discovers what all the fuss is about.
I'm a numbers man - I don't mind admitting it. I like a bit of scenery - don't get me wrong - but when I go fishing I like to catch fish, or at the very least, I like to feel as if I might.
Once the scales are tipped from "probably will" to "probably won't", I get restless and start fidgeting, tinkering with flies and so on, gobbling up precious "fly in the water" time. I don't mind fishing hard if there's a chance of something special, but long hours of inactivity tend to make me despondent rather than stoic.
Perhaps, then, I'm not cut out to be the archetypal steelhead angler. For the uninitiated, steelhead are rainbow trout that have run out to sea - the Pacific Ocean - to grow disproportionately large, whilst terrorising the local baitfish and shrimp populations, before returning to the rivers of their birth to spawn, much like our sea-run brown trout. Unlike our sea-trout, they are mainly caught during daylight hours, but they are similarly fickle and perhaps even more infuriatingly hard to seduce. Oh, and they fight. A lot. American fly-fishermen revere the steelhead above just about everything else: this is in part for their exquisite beauty and their heroic anadromous feats, in part for their mythical, elusive quality, but mainly, I suspect, for the fact that they really do cause reels to smoke, rods to splinter, and 20 pound leaders to pop like cotton.
For a long time, these fish remained well down my list - I've tussled with some huge sea-run brown trout in Tierra del Fuego, demented leaping bruisers up to 25 pounds that are obligingly easy to catch: how different could it be?
My interest was kindled on the banks of one of my favourite rivers - a little bubbling stream that enters into Lake Te Anau in New Zealand and is full of big, brawling trout eager to wolf down a well-presented dry-fly. Stopping for lunch after a fabulous morning, my guide, the irrepressible Dean Bell was his usual laconic self, until I mentioned steelhead. Suddenly, he lit up like a schoolkid - babbling excitedly about his week on the Dean River and his first exhilarating encounter with one of its legendary fish. He left me in no doubt that I had to go.
Of all the steelhead rivers, the Dean is without doubt the most cultish. Whereas most of the other hallowed steelhead streams of British Columbia are tributaries of the mighty Skeena River, the Dean flows straight into the sea. This means that rather than having to battle up miles of heavy water before they reach the fly-fishable waters of the Babine, Kispiox et al, the Dean fish arrive in the river with all of their wild, river-running strength intact. This makes them the undisputed kings of the steelhead hierarchy - the hardest-fighting, highest-leaping specimens of an already titanically strong genus. True, the Dean does feature a rugged canyon just a short way up from the sea that unquestionably takes a little of the edge off of their savage strength, but hook a steelhead before it has reached the canyon and you will be fastened to what is rumoured to be the wildest anadromous fish that swims. I had to put a hook in one.
Flying into Blackwell's Lower Dean River Lodge is the only way to get there, short of an absurdly long boat ride, and the flight is one of the most exhilarating trips imaginable. As pilot Nick Hawes deftly wove his way through the astonishing peaks of the Kimsquit mountains, we suddenly came across the river.
The Dean is an astonishing sight, a turquoise serpent snaking its way out from under the extraordinary massifs of western Canada's coastal range, before discharging itself into the magnificent fjord of the Dean Channel.
Nick coasted the little floatplane expertly onto the shimmering waters of the fjord and I clambered out and helped unload the gear. As I turned round to take in the view, I saw a face I recognised - George Cook, who featured in all the steelhead bibles I'd been using to 'gen up', the inventor of the hugely effective popsicle fly and an authority on fishing for steelhead, particularly on the Dean. I asked how the fishing was and George was blunt. "Well, I've had two for the week and we had nine altogether," he said without inflection. "Between six of you?" I stammered. "That's right," nodded George. Sensing my thinly disguised misery, having just travelled around 7,000 miles, George offered some advice: "Get down deep as you can and dredge - you'll get one."
Five days later and I felt I should have asked for George Cook's promise of a fish in writing: despite fishing myself to an exhausted standstill every day, I had only a few small pink salmon, taken on the dangle, to show for my efforts. I'd dredged all right - a 15 foot, leadcore sink-tip and a weighted bunny leech had looped out over the water an infinite number of times. My snake-roll seemed to be improving day by day, and there are worse ways to spend your time than perfecting your loop in one of the most majestic environments on earth, but I badly wanted a fish. Just one. My guide, Dave Chamberlain, an excellent fisherman and a great guy to sink a cold beer or two with in the evening, was philosophical. He'd never seen the Dean like this - in a good year, an average angler can expect to hook around five fish a day, each one promising the kind of hair-raising mayhem for which the Dean River steelhead have become singularly famous. This season had been uniquely poor - our party of three anglers (we had three late cancellations due ostensibly to work commitments but perhaps influenced by reports from the river) hadn't had a fish all week. Yet Dave was sure - absolutely sure - that I'd connect with one, and he urged me to keep fishing.
By four o'clock, on the penultimate day of the trip, I was working my way mechanically down the legendary Cut-bank pool, wondering sacrilegious thoughts about abandoning what was surely now a forlorn quest and perhaps trying to persuade Justin to fly us out to one of the innumerable streams, stuffed full of salmon, on the far side of the Channel for tomorrow, our last day of the trip. I wrestled with the idea - I really could have used a fish or two - and yet I've caught salmon - lots of salmon - and I'd never hooked a steelhead, let alone one of the big silver legends of the Dean River. I decided to knuckle down. I swapped the leadcore for a T-14 tip - a tungsten sinktip that sinks at an astonishing 14 inches per second. I tied on the most seductive looking popsicle I could find in my box, and went right back to it.
Almost immediately, a huge silver fish leapt around 50 yards below me, and despite the presence of the odd chum and chinook salmon, I knew instinctively that I had just seen my first steelhead. I worked my way very gradually through the pool, the increasingly mechanical going through the motions mentality of the last few days replaced by an intensity born of knowing that your quarry is in the vicinity. I held my breath as the fly swam back across the spot where I'd marked the fish's leap and felt... nothing. Another step, another cast and I was about to return to my torpor when... crash!!! After 40 long, hard hours of fishing, I was suddenly attached to the big bundle of violence that is a Dean River steelhead. The next five minutes passed in a blur - those first few neurotic seconds as I scrambled to get the line onto the reel, the heart-stopping instant when the fish exploded into the sky, followed by a stubborn tug of war with a head-shaking maniac that constantly threatened to spit the hook. Then, abruptly, the sight of the fish, too full of rage, charging prematurely up onto a shallow in a furious, thrashing frenzy. I saw my chance - I dashed across the shingle and literally fell onto my prize, pinning it to the rocks until I could grasp the wrist of his magnificent, speckled spade of a tail and lift it into my arms.
I'd done it - this bright, bullet-hard rainbow, dripping with sea-lice, that had swum out into the vast, wild waters of the Pacific Ocean and somehow found its way back home, was finally mine. I hollered in vain for my guide, Dave, who was attending another angler somewhere way downstream, but the rushing waters of the Dean drowned out my cries, and I was eventually forced to settle for measuring and photographing the fish, before nursing it back into the water to continue its epic journey upriver.
No sooner had I returned the fish than Dave Chamberlain came racing up in the jet boat - I waved triumphantly to him and as he drew closer, I held up my digital camera for him to see. We grinned and shook hands. Dave reckoned - as I had - that the fish would have weighed around 13lb, but when he asked about the fight, I faltered: it had fought hard, no doubt, and yet I knew that Dave wanted to hear all those excited superlatives that the Dean is famous for. In truth, the fish had been tenacious and fiercely powerful, but the reel-smoking run and the ten foot leaps I'd heard about just hadn't really happened. I almost felt guilty as I described the dogged rather than spectacular fight and Dave conceded that sometimes a fast-running fish - particularly a cock-fish - won't scrap with quite the intensity of one that's had a breather or two.
The next day, as I fished down the Cut-bank again, I met a wild-eyed young fanatic who had obviously fallen hook, line and sinker for the Dean. "We come here every year," he said through a perpetual, high-on-life grin, "but we've never seen it like this - you're normally into plenty of fish all week long and they fight like nothing else." "Will you come back next year?" I asked, and without pausing, he shot back: "Oh, yeah, I'm a 'lifer'."
I watched him wander a long way upstream and start to put out a beautiful long line, and I wondered, a little smugly, whether perhaps west-coast steelhead fishermen had just never caught a red-hot Russian Atlantic salmon or a big, fresh Rio Grande sea-trout. Maybe they just needed to get out more. Then it happened - my fly stopped in mid-stream, I lifted my rod and all hell let loose. A big gleaming hen leapt into an insane cartwheel, crashed into the water and turned into a wild silver flying machine, ripping off downstream in a devastating, knuckle-crunching run, punctuated by relentless sky-rocketing leaps that gave the impression of the fish not so much swimming as bouncing down the river. The huge Tibor Gulfstream, a reel designed to deal with big saltwater brutes like sailfish, trevally and tarpon, fizzed furiously as backing seemed to melt off its huge spool at an impossible rate and suddenly I was over a hundred yards away from the fish. The steelhead kited towards my bank and suddenly everything was gut-wrenchingly solid, as the leader jammed under one of the huge rocks that litter the river-bed. An enormous savage thrash and the fish was gone. Shaken, I reeled back the endless yards of backing and finally saw the hopelessly frayed leader glinting in the sunshine. "Now that," I thought, as I sat down on one of the colossal Dean River boulders, humbled and exhausted, "is what all the fuss is about."
John Blackwell and his family own and run both Lower Dean & Moose Lake Lodge. If you don't have the patience for steelhead, then go to Moose Lake, as I did last year, and catch an absurd number of Pacific salmon and large, wild rainbow trout. If on the other hand, you don't mind grafting for your fish, then the experience of a red-hot Dean River steelhead will live long in the memory.
The notion of hooking five of these fish a day, as you expect to do on a good year on the Dean, would put the fishing right up there with any fly-fishing experience you can imagine.
John's son, Justin, and his lovely wife, Kim, are in charge at the Dean River Lodge: the delicious, home-prepared food and the warm, easy-going company at both lodges is as good as anywhere I've ever been - leave your Atkins diet behind, and, unless your willpower far exceeds mine, expect to come home a few pounds heavier!
I travelled with Air Canada which flies regularly from Heathrow to Vancouver - the in-flight service was excellent and made the long-haul extremely bearable. John Blackwell organises the connection from Vancouver onwards, taking around an hour.
I'd consider a steely, reasonably fast-actioned double-handed rod like the excellent Guideline LPXe 15ft 10/11 weight the best choice for throwing the big flies and heavy sink-tips employed on the Dean. The use of Rio's Skagit fly-lines - effectively a short, heavy-bellied shooting-head - makes casting extremely easy, and you'll soon forget you have a 14 ips sinktip and huge, waterlogged fly on the end. A serious, heavy-duty reel like the Tibor Gulfstream, with an excellent drag and a huge quantity of gelspun backing is the most important part of your kit, along with razor-sharp hooks and abrasion-resistant Seaguar fluorocarbon. The guides (Dave Chamberlain was really excellent) can supply flies, but the main patterns in use on the lower river are big popsicles, bunny leeches and Ed Ward's Intruder styles.