Steelhead fishing – British Columbia

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Matt Harris travels to British Columbia where he discovers that wedding photography can have its upsides.

As a professional advertising photographer, specialising in photographing babies, I've suffered more than my share of humiliation. Surrounded by a blur of assistants waving feathers on sticks and singing “The wheels on the bus” for the umpteenth time in an attempt to draw a smile from our model, it's tempting to wonder if perhaps I might have chosen another, saner path in life. While our six-month-old subject stares back stony faced, I think of the burly South African photographer upstairs, who specialises in photographing gorgeous young women wearing not very much for sun-cream and lingerie ads. These same stunning girls sometimes knock on my door by mistake and flirt outrageously until they realise they've got the wrong photographer, at which point they abruptly turn on their heels and leave.

But it could be worse.

If I have it tough, pity the wedding photographer who is under so much pressure to deliver; the subjects, not of his or her choosing, are often nervous and with a million other things on their mind, and then there's the frequently “well refreshed” and boisterous cast, and absolutely no chance of a re-shoot. Why would you want to put your neck on the block like that, week in, week out? I wouldn't do it for the world.

steel_head_colombia_2Or so I thought. Out of the blue, a couple of great mates called me up to say that they were getting married... and guess what? They'd love me to come… all the way to British Columbia…oh, and would I take the pictures? Inwardly, I groaned. Suppose I mess up? Suppose I erase all the images by mistake? Or get everything out of focus? Or... “Snap out of it!” my gorgeous and eminently sensible wife butted in, “You'll be fine.”

I wasn't so sure. It's a long way to western Canada, and I wondered if I should cry off – I was very busy after all, and there must be plenty of good wedding photographers out there... and then the bride reeled me in with one very simple sentence. “Hey, babe! Don't forget your rods – the steelhead will be in.”

Steelhead. Sea-run rainbow trout. A fish with a cultish reputation for being one of the toughest fighters to swim in freshwater, and a fish I've had a long, torrid and rarely consummated affair with.

I spent a long week on British Columbia's supposedly peerless Dean River. The fishing was terrible and everybody else left fishless after four days, but through sheer bloody-minded tenacity, I managed to hook two fish in the last two days. The first plodded around and did nothing to convince me that these fish are worth travelling halfway around the world for. And the second rocketed down the river in a series of eye-popping cartwheels that I would travel any distance to see. About an hour before it was time to head home.

steel_head_colombia_5Seven years later, I was asked to shoot images on the Kispiox – a tributary of the mighty Skeena that is reputed to hold the largest steelhead anywhere in the world. I was commissioned to shoot my great friend and tarpon fisher supreme Andy Mill catching steelhead. Again, the fishing was slow. Despite having another good friend of mine, Jimmy Allen of Bearclaw Lodge – one of the very best steelheaders on the planet – as our guide, Andy struggled to pull out a few fish for the camera. The weather was savagely cold, the fish were dour, and it really was tough. I was itching to have a crack at these legendary fish, but I knew that I should do the right thing, be professional and stay behind the camera the entire week.

Finally, we got some action and a few fish images in the can. On the last day, with Andy safely packed off back to Florida, Jimmy urged me to do some fishing. Flexing the crisp Spey rod while the soft autumnal mist crept over the pine-clad mountains and eagles soared overhead, I was spellbound. 

My guide, the excellent Brian Skerrit, was just telling me about the great spot around the corner when BANG! The reel was fizzing and a stunning chrome silver hen was bouncing off down the river, while I stood open-mouthed in amazement. The fish was a beauty – a regulation 14lb steelhead that danced around the pool for an indecent length of time before finally succumbing. As Brian scooped her up in his net, I found myself gazing in awe at this stunningly beautiful fish. Deep silver flanks, peppered with black spots and flushed with exquisite iridescent magenta and violet hues; there are few fish more beautiful than a fresh-run steelhead. “Too bad you're leaving tomorrow,” grinned Brian, “looks like they're just coming on.”

Too bad indeed.

I left BC with a heavy heart, having once again had an all too brief taste of what steelhead have to offer. This time would be different, I swore, as I boarded the red-eye to Vancouver. I kidded myself that I was flying out a couple of days before the wedding so that I would be nice and fresh on the big day, but in truth, I had a much more selfish motive: my old pal and Kispiox guide Jimmy Allen had said that he had a day free and would I like to fish with him.

steel_head_colombia_3What a day it was! I hooked-up with the groom's best mate, an affable Aussie named Rob, and we hit it off from the start. Jimmy took us out early on the Kispiox the next day, and when I had a solid pull on the third cast, I knew the day would be special.

An hour later, we came across a long run where the river divides around an island. Jimmy dropped me on the shallow flat above the run and took Rob exploring downstream. As I waded towards the deep run along the far bank, the sun came out, and I saw hordes of pink salmon in the shallows. There were dozens of them; rank upon rank of the ragged fish, clearly spawning. The bright orange eggs could be seen drifting downstream and, as I watched them tumble over the bar and into the deep run below, I saw something astonishing. Steelhead are anadramous, like salmon; once they come into fresh water, they don't eat anything. Really? Tell that to the 10 pound buck I'd just watched swim purposefully up into the surface to gobble down a cluster of eggs. There he was again! I didn't need any more clues. Off came the big black intruder fly I'd been fishing, and on went a classic: the egg-sucking leech. This pattern is designed to imitate a leech making off with a steelhead or salmon egg and thus provoke the fish into eating it in order to protect its young. Or, in this case, its dinner.

First swing, the line went rock-solid, and that gleaming 10lb buck came barreling up into the warm sunshine before tearing off downstream in a wild blizzard of spray and rage. The rod buckled over hard and we were well and truly off to the races. I pulled five fish out of that run, sight-fishing three of them as they hung in the cool, clear water. It was utterly exhilarating fishing and every fish fought like a tiger. Rob was spitting obscenities at my luck and I couldn't resist dubbing him Sir Les after Barry Humphries' notorious Australian cultural attaché, Sir Les Patterson. I needn't have worried – Rob is what the Aussies call a great ‘fisho', and he was soon in business too. We had an absolute blast, enjoyed two double-headers, and even encouraged Jimmy to have a bash. Our guide rose a whopper on a dry fly within minutes, and we were all in dreamland. What a fantastic start to the trip.

steel_head_colombia_4The wedding was two days later. I don't mind admitting that even though I've been shooting pictures professionally for 25 years, I was more than a little nervous, but the whole thing went without a hitch, and was a privilege to attend. The bride looked stunning, and despite being an Aussie, the groom managed to scrub up too.

And I even managed to get the shots in focus.

The next morning, one of the bride's friends, Will, took Rob and I fishing. Will is a brilliant Speycaster, fly-tyer and all-round steelhead nut, and he was hugely generous, taking us to his favourite spots, talking us through each run, and furnishing us both with his own exquisitely tied flies.

The next few days were magical. The Bulkley is a beautiful river. Bigger and more challenging than the Kispiox, it doesn't throw up the huge, 30lb beasts that the Kispiox is capable of, but it has a big run of cracking, chrome-bright fish that are particularly partial to skated dry flies. Over a riverside dram to celebrate Rob's 14lb hen, Will pressed a big dry fly into my hand and urged me to give it a swim. 

I fished the dry fly hard. Despite the cold weather, it brought a number of fish up to have a slap at it, but none would actually commit. I persevered with if for a long while, but the sight of Will's rod doubled over 500 yards downstream had me reaching back into my box for a weighted string-leech.

steelhead_colombia_mhThree casts later, and my little 7wt double-hander was bending to the cork as a sparkling, ocean-bright buck went careering into the misty morning air. That same leech fly served me well over the next few days, catching me a clutch of stunning fish and earning me a lot of high-fives in the local tackle-shop. But try as I might, I couldn't get a fish on the dry fly.

And then, on my last afternoon of the trip, I felt the cold chill go out of the air. The sun came out and threw the far bank into sharp relief, the reflected golden colours of the early fall sparkling on the Bulkley's beguiling mirror. NOW was the time for the dry fly.

I looked downstream and saw a classic dry fly run, glassy and slick, and crucially, in the shadow of the tall stand of pine trees that lined the river on my bank. Half a dozen casts and then, from nowhere, a moment of unalloyed magic. As the fly skated over the golden waters, a big, silver torpedo of a steelhead shot up through the surface, nailed the fly and instantly set off on a greyhounding run that was as astonishing as it was sudden.

It was a moment that I will never forget.

The rest of that day passed in a blur – I hooked three more fish on the dry fly in rapid succession and Rob, seeing all the commotion, came down to join me. I set Rob up in the right spot, and 10 minutes later, my new-found friend was grinning from ear to ear as he held up his first steelhead on a dry for the camera. I wandered downstream where I soon stumbled across another mirror-bright glide that was made for the skated dry fly. I swung my fly over the gleaming water and was instantly rewarded with a belting silver hen that pounced on the fly and then leapt around like a lunatic.

Too soon, the magical afternoon was over.

Rob drove me to the airport the next morning and we laughed all the way. As my plane climbed high into the clear autumn skies, I looked down onto the waters of the Bulkley, and receding into the distance, the mighty Skeena. Magical rivers, every one of them. I knew it wasn't the last time I'd see them – I'd finally caught steelhead fever with a vengeance.

As I hit the recline button, I thought of all the demented mayhem waiting for me: the moment my feet hit the tarmac at Heathrow, I had another job photographing babies for a big advertising agency. As I pictured a long week of “Wheels on the bus” and feathers on sticks, I had a sudden moment of clarity. Wedding photography isn't all that bad.

 

Contact:

Matt Harris will be hosting a week of steelheading in BC in 2015.
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