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British Columbia Fall 2005, by Jack Lundberg © 2005
British Columbia Fall 2005

A River (and Big Fish) Runs Through It

  The documentary, Grizzly Man, premiered mere days before I was to leave for northern British Columbia, an astounding, modern day wilderness of dense, virgin forests and rugged snowcapped mountains, a landmass encompassing an area larger than the state of California hallmarked by the incomparable Skeena River. This region is one the world's last remaining, enduring strongholds of Ursus horibilis, in Latin, "Bear horrible". In the film, director Werner Herzog compiles compelling video footage taken by self-styled, hippie-cum-naturalist Timothy Treadwell who, during five-years of brief Alaskan summers, lived amidst these magnificent yet sometimes savage creatures of the wild, protected only by the nylon walls of his tent and as now seems likely, naive bravado. Treadwell and his then visiting girlfriend never returned from their last sojourn, both succumbing to the survival needs of a rogue male bear as it instinctually prepared for winter's coming onset.

  This being September, with winter just round the bend and bears preparing for its onslaught, it was with some trepidation that I headed north. I had no desire to live amongst these denizens of the trackless forest, their shaggy fur coats silver-tipped from which they derive the familiar name "grizzly", neither was I traveling intent on the sighting of one. I was going instead to stalk, commune with and, mighty Zeus be willing, capture an altogether different sort of animal - a fish - for which this region is justifiably famous... Monster steelhead! Armed with a three shot canister of bear repellant and holster, an impressive quiver of Spey rods, flies and lines of every conceivable stripe, waders, boots and other regalia, my trip took me far into the north where I entered the heart of darkness.

  For those lost, forlorn souls not yet initiated into the fraternity-or sorority! - and rites of steelheadingdom, these wily beasts are best described as a blistering combination of sea run, rainbow trout on steroids and demented rodeo bull, a primitive genetic cornucopia far beyond the most-vivid musings of Darwin and his ilk. When hooked, dozens of yards of line are instantly ripped from the fisherman's reel in long, repeated, drag-searing runs. Testing the mettle of knots, angler and equipment alike, their aerial displays make the most accomplished and graceful of acrobats or ballerinas seem stilted and Marionette-like in contrast. All too often, the angler is witness to the parting of line and fly-with an audible "crack" - signaling yet again, the victorious departure of this pernicious piscine over even the most skillful pursuers. Like a timeworn, 42nd Street junkie, we, who have fallen prey to its seductive Siren call, simply cannot get enough of the espresso-like jolt of excitement, the challenge of, and yes, the regular helpings of humiliation this regal fish doles out with impunity! It is a heady, intoxicating elixir that leaves an aftertaste reminiscent of the finest brandy and has us craving more.

  From roughly mid-September to the end of October or so, the mythical, legendary rivers of northern British Columbia become engorged with brutish-sized fish, a number of them upwards of 30 pounds or larger, and are the biggest strain found on earth. While an average sized "chromer" elsewhere may weigh in at say, 5-8 pounds, not so in the hallowed waters breathlessly whispered Kispiox, Babine, Sustut, Bulkley and Skeena. A fish of this stature is a veritable minnow...a meal for a cruising buck or male steelhead! In the realm of these north woods, a fish hasn't a prayer of laying claim to being "Big Fish on Campus" without topping the 20 pound (or larger) mark! In fact, the current fly-caught world record was a fish that weighed in at an astounding 33 pounds while the conventional tackle record is 36 pounds, both of which were pulled from the Kispiox River.

Kispiox from Bridge II, by Jack Lundberg © 2005
Kispiox from Bridge II

  Amongst the steelheading cognoscenti and of all the rivers in the world harboring them, it is the Kispiox that conjures up apparitional visions of larger-than-life steelhead, causing grown men and women to salivate copiously or blithely shuck careers at the prospect of wetting a line within it's confines. With headwaters formed by Swan Lake, the river runs over one hundred unchecked miles before finally joining the mighty Skeena below the First Nation's or native village of Kispiox, some twelve miles north of Highway 16. A well maintained gravel road roughly parallels the waterway, allowing for relatively easy access to many of the named pools along the way, such as Bread and Butter, Airport and Grandma Love's. One downside, however, and owing to its well earned reputation for producing gargantuan fish, is that with the turn of summer foliage into autumnal hues the number of anglers plying their wares and talents grows precipitously. If a true wilderness experience and fishing are what you seek the Kispiox would not be the river of first choice. The river also periodically "blows out", namely, becomes discolored and is accompanied by high water levels-and therefore, un-fishable-after even slight rains; it's called a spate river. All that aside, the steelhead of a lifetime, a potential world record, could be yours, presuming, of course, you offer up the necessary spells, chants and incantations allowing for good fortune beforehand!

  A wee bit further north and running roughly east-to-west, lies the magnificent Babine River, a waterway combining both true wilderness and fish of behemoth proportions, though they are smaller, arguably, than those found in the Kispiox. It begins its journey high in the mountains at Babine Lake, the longest natural lake in British Columbia, and from there gently cascades ever downward to the point it too, joins the Skeena, the junction of which, some 35 miles north of the town of Hazelton, can be accessed via a graded, though pothole-ridden logging road. There are several renowned lodge operations located directly on the river, all of which lie wholly within the protected 85 kilometers-long boundary of Babine River Corridor Park. Established in 1999 by the Provincial government, the park insures that pristine wilderness conditions will exist for generations while providing untrammeled habitat for area wildlife deemed critical natural resources.

  The lodges here operate on an extremely limited basis, typically hosting just eight weeks of fishing activity that coincides with the steelhead migration and which are closed the rest of the year. Access to these camps and the vast majority of the river is had either by jet boat or preferably, via helicopter. Due to the river's fairly remote location and near absence of human contact, it's not at all uncommon to find yourself sharing the river with eagles, otters, wolverines or a mother bear and her cubs, especially when the steelhead run is in full swing since they relish the fishing as well!

  Further north still-and by far the most remote of the notable Skeena tributaries - lies the primordial Sustut River, far from the nearest civilization and isolated from the encroachments of the modern world. It is here the grand splendor of the north is fully revealed and which must be experienced firsthand by would-be fishermen. And, as if absolute privacy were not enough, the fishing is simply beyond compare since there is such little angling pressure put upon the fish calling the Sustut their home. A grand total of two lodges operate here, both of which can only be reached via floatplane, typically, a DeHavilland Beaver, the aerial workhorse of both Alaskan and this region's bush pilots. While the number of steelhead migrating to this waterway are slightly fewer than in the Kispiox or Babine, with most arriving some two weeks later than their southern brethren, they are unaccustomed-and therefore, highly susceptible-to a drifting fly slowly swung through a likely run!

  If sheer numbers of steelhead are the order of the day, look no further than the meandering, bucolic Bulkley River. It begins near Houston, runs northwesterly past the refreshingly small, sturdy town of Smithers and then finally, dumps into the Skeena at Hazelton. Some forty percent of all the steelhead entering the Skeena watershed each year, many of which also tip the scales at over 20 pounds, arrive and reproduce here in her crystalline waters. Characterized by numerous long, gentle glides flowing alongside farms and ranches, it is easily navigable by novice anglers.

Terrace BC Chinook, by Jack Lundberg © 2005 
Terrace BC Chinook

Then there is the mighty Skeena itself, North America's third-longest free-flowing waterway and migratory thoroughfare for all five Pacific salmon species (chinook, pink, coho, chum and sockeye) and steelhead alike. Starting in late-May to early June, the arrival of the Chinook salmon or "Kings" (of up to 90-pounds), signals the beginning of a long processional of fish arriving to spawn and reproduce, all of which enter the Skeena at its mouth near the quaint port city of Prince Rupert some one-hundred and ten miles or so west of Terrace. The city is so named for the naturally terraced hillsides upon which it is situated, is home to multiple outfitters and guides and which serves, along with Smithers, as a jumping-off point for arriving anglers. Due to the Skeena's considerable size and length, the hiring of a knowledgeable, skillful guide is de rigueur and which will save countless hours of searching - usually futilely - for the quarry in such a massive watershed.

  Accessing the region is a relatively straightforward affair, there being several regional airlines such as HawkAir, Central Mountain Air and Pacific Coastal Airlines with flights originating from Vancouver, British Columbia's South Terminal. An easy two hour jaunt over the Strait of Georgia (lying between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland) and later, the coastal mountain range, has you touching down in Terrace or Smithers. Of course, traveling via private, corporate or charted jet hastens the journey ever more so, though Canadian and U.S. Customs must be negotiated regardless.

  Equipment should be of the finest quality with rods and lines ranging from 8- up to 10-weight, either in single-handed or preferably, double-handed Spey rod configurations due to the scale of these rivers. A full compliment of floating lines and interchangeable sink tips of varying densities will allow one to cover most every conceivable fishing scenario, along with several spools of leader material such as Maxima's(r) Clear or UltraGreen in 15-, 20- and 25-pound test strengths; these fish are not leader shy! Rounding out the list of needed gear are waders in either neoprene or breathable Gore-Tex(r), felt-soled wading boots (no cleats or studs necessary) and absolutely essential, a superior quality rain jacket. Throw in some fleece, a sweater or two, your favorite fishing hat, some flies (big, dark and light streamers, Speys, and a handful of dries) and you're set to begin your angling adventure!

  My adventure was going on four days now with fair results: 7 steelies, three brown trout and a Dolly Varden. The afternoon rains of day five foretold of rising, stained water so I again entered the Kispiox. Tying on a size 4, Green Butted Skunk, I cast slightly above the submerged boulder defining the head of the Rodeo Ground pool and mended the line, causing the fly to sink more quickly and drift weightlessly through the slot. The current picked-up the line and swept it downstream, straightening it as it went. I let the line hang downstream for several seconds, taut in my hand. And then it happened...an ogre snatched the fly with an explosion of water, causing a cannon-like retort to echo in the still air. Racing downstream, we began a primitive dance, each trying to dominate and subdue the other, the rod throbbing in my hands with every giant shake of the fish's head as line poured out of the reel.

Steelhead beauty, by Jack Lundberg © 2005
Steelhead beauty

  Keeping a steady pressure, I slowly began gaining line back, the task helped by my stumbling along the river's banks, keeping pace with the prize. Now, some two hundred yards downstream and thirty minutes later, the fish inched into view with it's hugely kyped jaw displayed, the mark of a mature male, and well over forty inches in length. As I reached out to grasp the base of its massive tail, the creature found a renewed sense of purpose and raced off into the depths, this time so straining the leader that it snapped, failing me at the critical moment. Dazed, I could only marvel at the immense power and strength these fish possess and the robust genes he would now pass to his progeny.

  With the trip's end now at-hand, I had not so much as glimpsed a bear on the Kispiox, the Babine or the numerous other streams I had plied, though tracks, large and small, and scat had been everywhere. As the sun slowly drifted downward over the craggy, uneven mountain ridges, I was wading toward shore when I spotted him...a swaggering, confident fellow exiting the woods intent on crossing the river toward me some forty yards away. As he entered the water though, the bear was suddenly swept downstream, caught amidst a sizable rapid. With only his head visible above the frothing whitewater, he soon regained his footing and was then onto the long, wide expanse of the gravel bar separating us with me nervously palming the repellent. Approaching closer still, he paused purposefully to sniff the air and then aggressively swiped at a motionless mass lying at his feet...it was a salmon that had just concluded its ancient reproductive ritual.

  Grasping it firmly in its jaws, he lifted a now-lifeless carcass, so large both tail and head smacked wetly against the river-hewn stones as it hung down, the bear ambled leisurely over to a snag of gnarled, water-tossed logs and proceeded to gorge himself as I sat transfixed on the timeless spectacle unfolding before me. Imperceptibly, an ever- widening grin replaced my scowl followed by a muted yelp, now in appreciation for the success of the fellow angler with whom I briefly shared this wild, magical place called British Columbia.

Text and photos by Jack Lundberg © 2005

Visit Jacks website for more info on what his fishing travel agency can offer: www.epicfish.com
Epic Fishing Odysseys, LLC
Ohio, USA


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