The expression "winter steelhead fishing" doesn't come close to truly defining a sport that finds you waist deep in river water that is a mere 6° above freezing when you discover that you have on a pair leaky waders.
It is the month of March and while most of northern British Columbia's fabled steelhead rivers are frozen over with winter ice, I am in Haida Gwaii, a small tightly grouped of North Pacific small islands some 80 miles due west of central BC. The reason I am here in the dead of winter is that these rivers don't freeze over and they hold sea bright chrome steelhead that, if I'm lucky, might just take a well-presented fly.
Because it is in the middle of the ocean, even in the driest of years, Haida Gawaii gets over 270 days of rain on average and while snow is considered an infrequent event, there was plenty on the ground when I arrived. It was cold and wet when I arrived and it got colder and wetter as the week progressed with a midweek high of only 46°. But, by the end of the first day, I accepted the conditions as being what they were and pretty soon the weather never really entered into our planning except for one night when a storm packing 70 mph winds and sideways rain, blew out the nearby rivers. Other than that, I was in the rivers every day. As an aside, some of these storms pack such a wallop, the guys wash their trucks by leaving one side facing the incoming storm and then running out mid-storm to move the truck so that the remaining dirty side now faces the storm. It works....
The islands are named for the Haida Nation, the indigenous people that have occupied these lands for many centuries and from what I read, were the equivalent in temperament to our own Apache Indians. In other words, they were ass kickers and thought nothing of getting into one of their huge, 10 man cedar-log dugout canoes and paddling 80 miles of open ocean in order to get to the mainland for some trading, fun, possible warfare and with some luck, a few new women to marry. The Haidas are still here and have lodges and totem poles dotting the islands. Of the 5,000 or so inhabitants, they represent a major portion of the island's population.
These islands are an absolute treasure to explore and experience on foot. The rain forests have an intensity that is difficult to absorb when you first enter them and it can quickly overwhelm your senses with the size, color and density of the flora and fauna. Giant Sitka Spruce, yellow & red cedar, hemlock plus a few conifers have made these rain forests a spectacular environment for the deer, otters and bald eagles that live there. Because of the 250 inches of annual rainfall, mist and fog, these dense forests stretch from the beaches to the mountain tops where you can find magnificent specimens of old and second-growth trees held together by mattress-thick moss covering every foot of ground, large fiddleback ferns and decomposing dead fall. Every tree seems to sport a heavy green fur coat that covers its trunk and branches. Once you step inside, it's just green, green, green and more green. Kermit would be happy here.....
As you can see from some of the pictures, walking in these forests can be a challenge. It is so lovely and dense inside these forests that when hiking down to the river, I fully expected to see Frodo, Gandalf or a few Hobbits jump out from behind a tree. But at the same time, if it were not for walking with a guide on tiny trails, you could get easily lost. Loose sight of the guy in front of you and within a few steps, you would have no idea of where in the hell you are or which way to go.
I've never considered myself a great fly caster and by my second day, I'd reached a new low. I'd put so many flies into the branches that a few of them were beginning to look like Christmas trees. By the end of day 2, my guide Steve Morrow, a mellow and patient fellow, began calling out to me "Hey Steve! ... more river...less trees!" which soon became my mantra. God almighty but I burned a lot of good flies in those branches.
Because the rivers are short, in some cases just a few miles long from where they enter the ocean, the fish that come into these systems are fresh out of the salt and when hooked, are as strong as any steelhead I have ever had on a line. These rivers can hold really large fish, many of them as chrome as a newly minted nickel and weighing well into the middle teens and larger. The smallest I landed was about 6#, the largest about 15#. But, while I did well over all, it's steelhead fishing for sure with one day a bagel because the river was blown out from the rain, another bagel day when I didn't get a grab and yet on another day, with massive pilot error, I landed but one after having 6 hooked. That was a great day.
For those of you who might be interested in this place, check out Derek and Andrea and their crew at Copper Bay Lodge (http://www.copperbaylodge.com). It is a small comfortable lodge that can only take a few people per week (they are limited to just 4 anglers per week) and once there, you will not only be the only anglers on the water, you will likely be the only fly anglers on the island. The guides are
well-educated, articulate men that have first hand knowledge of the local waters and how to best fish them.
In retrospect, if Haida Gwaii was to be the last place I would ever fish steelhead, I would die happy. This was a special place for me and it will remain an uncommon experience that was outstanding in every way. Most of my friends think I'm nuts to subject myself to the phyical abuse these conditions can dish out, but I was a very happy lad for the entire week. Yes, it rained every day but you dress for and get used to it and yes, it is difficult fishing.... if fact, it is really difficult fishing and clearly not for everyone but if you are in reasonable shape, can walk and stumble through heavy woods without getting pissed off, think that wading in water that averaged a few degree's above freezing is doable and don't mind casting under, around and over trees and limbs while loosing a bunch of flies in the process, you'll have discovered a magical place in the steelhead universe and, if lucky, might just find a bright, thick shouldered steelhead waiting to ambush and absolutely pulverize a well-fished fly. Just bring enough Tiger Balm and warm socks and you will be fine.
I had so much fun that I am planning to return next year in the 2nd week in March. There are other parts of BC that will be kinder to your body but this place is just too special to do only once.... or twice. If I can keep myself in shape and don't kick the bucket anytime soon, I figure I have another 5+ years of great adventure ahead of me in Haida Gwaii.
So...that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Cheers // Steve