An incredible caster, steelhead legend, conservation activist and whirlwind of energy. Matt Harris meets the hugely talented April Vokey on Norway's fabulous Gaula River.
My first meeting with April Vokey was not an auspicious one.
I'd been invited to take pictures on Norway's fabulous Gaula River by Per Arneberg and Enrico Cristiani at the Norwegian Flyfishers Club, and when I heard April was showing up too, I thought my job would be a breeze. For those who don't know, April has a reputation as a killer steelhead fly fisher, guide, casting instructor, fly tyer, writer, conservation activist and all-round hurricane-sized force of nature from British Columbia in Western Canada. She is a bit of a fly fishing celebrity on the other side of the Atlantic, and word had it that she was not only a great gal and a brilliant fisher, but that she looked like a million dollars too. Stunning river, stunning gal…what could go wrong?
The rumours were true – April really is a gorgeous girl, and she has a disarming confidence and directness that I instantly liked. There was just one problem: when she showed up at the river, she was kitted from head to toe in Patagonia's latest fly fishing clobber – jacket, waders and boots – all in a singularly unphotogenic grey. I don't dispute that grey may well be a very sensible choice for the fly fisher – a stealthy, unobtrusive colour and all that guff – but despite April being one of the loveliest girls I've ever met, I couldn't help but feel that the drab outfit made her look like a smartly kitted-out refuse collector.
I asked my model to fish down the pool while I took pictures, but she could see that I was fast descending into a bit of an artistic tantrum, as I muttered to myself about what a dreary outfit she was wearing. Finally, after trying every creative trick in my photographic repertoire, I had to admit defeat – I was absolutely stumped.
April looked genuinely concerned and asked what was up. Feeling utterly exasperated, I blurted out: “Grey? Grey for chrissakkes! What were they THINKING OF? Which ****ing IDIOT chose grey?”
To which April replied, with a poker-straight face: “I did.”
Apparently, multi-talented gal that she is, she had just designed a whole new women's range for Patagonia. All in grey. Oh dear. We looked at each other for a long moment and then both fell about laughing. The rest of the week was a blast.
In truth, the fishing was tough. The NFC pools are stunningly beautiful, and offer some great holding water, but the big broad-shouldered springers that come charging up the Gaula every June were just a tad late, and as a result, our early-season week, often the very best time to get stuck into a chrome-bright, multi-winter fish, was not a vintage one. There were a few fish caught and they really were stunners – I managed one gorgeous silver beastie of a fraction under 18lb – but for beats of such rich quality, the pickings were unusually slim.
However, fishing trips are often about so much more than the fishing. Per and Enrico are great hosts and, as well as April, I made some great new friends in mad-keen Gaula addicts Charles Barrett and Chris Henshaw, and brilliant and hugely likeable guides Daniel Persson, Per Tronde and Per Heikkilä. The blur of bankside parties, non-stop knockabout banter and relentless laughter more than made up for the slow fishing.
So what can I tell you about April? Well, she's great company and sharp as a tack, with a mischievous sense of humour and the precious ability not to take herself too seriously. She likes a cold beer and can mix it with the boys round the campfire, and she is nobody's fool.
And can she cast? I thought I could Spey cast, but April is singularly one of the most stylish casters I've ever seen. Watching her fizz a long, long Spey cast across the wide waters of the Gaula, well, jealousy doesn't even start to cover it – I was absolutely green.
Anyone as utterly addicted to the big salmon rivers of Russia and Norway as I am is obliged to have a good long cast in their lexicon. I like to think that I can wallop it out a fair way when I need to, but while I'm flexing my muscles and giving it plenty of huff and puff, April's casting is utterly effortless, and, alright, I admit it just looks way, way more cool. One evening, I put down the camera and just watched her fish. When I offered the grudgingly humorous back-handed compliment “Ya flash cow!”, April gave me a big smile, took a swig from the bottle of beer tucked into her wading belt, and then nonchalantly sent her favourite Skagit line rocketing clean across the river with a deft flick that genuinely had me scratching my head and nursing my bruised ego. She really is that good.
Okay, look, April should be good – she's been fishing since she was a three-year-old kid trolling worms with her dad, and she grew up in British Columbia, where everything from sturgeon to salmon infest the stunningly beautiful rivers of this fish-filled wonderland. After growing up in the rough-neck suburbs of Surrey, Vancouver, where most of her classmates were abusing solvents and heading for a lifetime of alcoholism and crime, April was fast getting addicted to steelhead rather than glue. She was driving a truck and fishing on her own by 16, and trading her job as a cocktail waitress for a career in guiding by the tender age of 22.
One night, five years ago, April and a friend were driving to the river for an evening's steelhead fishing when they ran into a drunken partygoer coming the other way in a very big truck. Literally. After more than a few too many, the other driver had passed out at the wheel, and April was involved in a high-speed, head-on collision with a hideous great Chevrolet rig that might easily have taken her life. The images of the smash that April blithely waved under my nose made me realise how lucky she was to survive, although she did suffer a badly shattered foot and was told she might never fish again.
April talks about that incident as a watershed moment and it was evidently a “Road to Damascus” life-changer. April was galvanised to live every day as if it were her last. She set up her own guiding operation – Flygal Ventures – and threw herself into spreading the fly fishing gospel with an almost maniacal fervour, teaching Spey casting, working to conserve the stocks of the fabulous rivers on her doorstep and doing her level best to recruit more women to the sport.
April became a Federation of Fly Fishers Certified Casting Instructor and started to travel far and wide, hosting casting clinics and fly tying tutorials. Her steelhead flies are exquisite and ingenious, and when she showed me her brilliant, unique and largely self-taught ‘stacker' tube fly tying techniques, I was, once again, left feeling ham-fisted and clumsily masculine.
April started to use the forum of the fly fishing media to publish her strong and often outspoken views on steelhead fly fishing and conservation. She became a member of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association and is the Canadian field editor for Chasing Silver magazine and the steelhead columnist for Fly Fusion magazine. Her works and photos can also be found in a host of stateside magazines, including Fly Fisherman Magazine, Salmon Trout Steelheader, Field & Stream, Canadian Fly Fisher, Flyfishing and Tying Journal and any number of other international fly fishing publications.
Recently, April persuaded an old friend of mine, John Blackwell, to let her run his legendary Blackwell's Camp on perhaps the best and most celebrated steelhead fishery of them all, the fabulous Dean River. What a coup! I've been to the Lower Dean and it is a magical place. I don't even need to tell you what April does on her days off. Steelheaders are infamous for their ardent, quasi-religious passion for their quarry, but few are more rabidly zealous than her. She is the quintessential steelhead nut. Don't get her started on the Dean's legendary fish unless you have an hour or so of spare time on your hands. When I playfully suggested that the big Atlantic salmon of Norway and the Kola Peninsula could tow a Dean River steelhead backwards, I got a death-ray stare and genuinely wondered if I was about to get a black eye…
Like many of the world's great fisheries, the Dean is under threat from any number of environmental dangers. April, along with other steelhead luminaries like Jeff Vermillion, is spearheading the campaign to limit the wretched and indiscriminate coastal netting which local government officials bafflingly allow to threaten the future of both the Dean's legendary steelhead and all the international fly fishing dollars that they bring flooding into the local economy. I pity those that try to stand in her way. April's tireless efforts are doing much to help publicise the plight of this peerless sportfish, and she recently set up her Flies for Fins charity, which has raised over $25k for conservation causes.
Did I leave anything out? Well, needless to say, April sits on the board of directors for the Steelhead Society of BC and the BC Federation of Fly Fishers. She is a Pro staff member for Hatch and Loomis and she also somehow finds time to be a fly fishing ambassador and, of course, women's clothing designer for Patagonia.
Don't think that April's some kind of fly fishing square or goodie-two-shoes – she really isn't. She's got a twinkle in her eye and a big dash of maverick ‘bad-girl' mischief about her, but she is an absolute whirlwind of energy and can-do.
And in case you're thinking that she might be a one-trick pony who can only catch steelhead, she's caught a million species on fly in both fresh and saltwater, including the ultimate test of a fly fisher's mettle, the elusive permit.
So, is there anything April cannot do? Well, she's not great at navigation – as bad as I am, in fact – if a hilarious and extremely protracted “weren't we here half an hour ago?” drive around the Norwegian countryside at 2am in the morning as we vainly tried to remember where we were staying is anything to go by.
And poker. Despite her proud boasts and big talk prior to dealing the cards, I did beat her 6-0 at poker. And I'm rubbish at poker…
Oh, and one other thing. Shmores. Do NOT on any account allow April to make shmores.
For those that don't know, shmores are a stateside delicacy that involve toasting marshmallows and then sandwiching them with a big hunk of chocolate between two Graham crackers. After a long day stood up to my crown jewels in the icy waters of the Gaula, they sounded great. April offered to give me a “masterclass” on how to make one, but having impaled her marshmallow on a convenient stick, she promptly set it on fire. Numerous further attempts also went up in a blizzard of smoke and laughter and then, finally, in trying to shake out the flames on her umpteenth marshmallow, April sent the whole gob of lethal, sugary molten napalm looping across the campfire, narrowly missing our host Per and a trio of normally fearsome-looking Viking fishing guides, who were now all cowering nervously and backing away towards the river. Some masterclass…
Other than that, despite existing in an environment that is, for reasons I've never fully understood, almost exclusively dominated by men, April really does seem to be able to do just about anything. I'm ashamed to admit that prior to meeting her, I had secretly harboured chauvinistic suspicions that April might just be a very pretty girl who had got by on her looks in a fly fishing world that is sorely in need of a little glam. As soon as I saw her elegant, effortless casts whistling across the river, I knew I was a long way wide of the mark. Sure, she is a big splash of colour in a fairly monochromatic landscape. But make no mistake, April Vokey really is the real deal: a hugely talented, world-class fly fisher and committed and influential conservationist, whose limitless energy and confidence can only be good for fly fishing.
And she is anything but grey…
April Vokey guides and hosts trips on the Dean River and further afield. She is a great casting and fly tying teacher, and an all-round great girl. I'm proud to call her a friend. Her website is www.flygal.ca
April's conservation charity is at www.flies4fins.com