DISCLAIMER: The steelhead fishing in Canada is well documented, with dozens of lodges, including some of the most fancy and famous in the world, and hundreds of guides promoting its many rivers. I will not reveal a single name in my blog—not a river name, not a town, not even a province (except Saskatchewan, I'm writing about Saskatchewan). My goal in this blog is to share with you how OPST products work, to give you an idea of how to approach different types of water, and to share with you some of my experiences, some of which might actually be humorous. If you recognize a picture, it's because you've seen it before. Even the towns themselves have signs like "steelhead capitol of the world" and "steelhead paradise" and such. None of what I'm writing about is a secret.
It was go time. It was late summer. Leaves were just beginning to turn. A certain steelhead count index showed that, in the mid summer, 2018 was the best year in over a decade. Of all years to make the 14 hour drive north, this was the one. I sequestered my beloved sea run cutthroat gear, loaded my camping gear, clothes, about 14 different rods, ranging from 6-weight switches to 8-weight single handers to a 13'8" 8-weight which I probably won't use. I bought several floating tips from OPST to round out my kit. I was now more fully outfitted with OPST products, including five reel cases, which for some reason I thought I needed, than I had ever been. I had to go to work to print out a couple documents, so I didn't reach the border until about noon. If you've never tried to drive over the Canadian border, especially as a young male with a car full of gear, consider yourself lucky. You might as well have stamps from Iran, Afghanistan and Syria on your passport for the CSI-level investigation they give you. These Canadian border agents do not mess around. They cross examine you as thoroughly as any defendant on law and order, rattling off questions so fast that you eventually crumble and break eye contact, at which point they divert you inside to sit there all alone in a sterile office while desk agents somehow manage to ignore and glare at you simultaneously. Half hour to hour long searches of your car are common. They will search your phone and your laptop. If you've got any incriminating text messages, you had better delete them. It's amazing how they can make an innocent person feel so self-conscious. Alas, I had an easy time this go around, as I maintained eye contact and had my answers at the ready. The hard part now over, I crossed the border and started trying to adapt to km/hr speed limits as cars backed up behind me. Maybe I'm overly cautious, but I'm disinclined to speed in a foreign country. I was now looking at about a twelve and a half hour drive to my destination—Saskatoon, yeah. I stocked up on two red bulls and an A&W Chubby Chicken sandwich. The dominance of A&W is something I find amusing about Canada. In the US it's maybe the 8th most common fast food chain. In Canada, from what I have seen, it's number 1. Try the Chubby. It's simple but amazing, kind of like the BK Original Chicken Sandwich, but I digress.
If I have a seriously long drive ahead of me, I prefer to do it all in one shot. Honestly, it is partly an excuse to drink copious amounts of Red Bull, something I couldn't bring myself to do in ordinary circumstances. As it got dark, I penetrated deeper into the interior of Canada. I find this part of the world awe-inspiring and romantic, and more than a little creepy. The idea of breaking down out here, out of cell phone service, tens of even hundreds of miles away from any sort of town (where everything is closed in the middle of the night, even gas stations), as temperature falls below freezing in late September, gives me chills. Around about midnight I got a text from my girlfriend. I looked down at my phone for a couple of seconds, then looked up, and RIGHT THERE THERE WERE TWO DEER IN MY LANE. I had barely enough time to brake, and honk at these deer that I surely would have hit had I texted while driving. Which I don't do. Don't text and drive. I could have died or had my entire trip ruined had I texted back to my girlfriend. I probably shouldn't have looked at her text at all, but I'm not perfect. A couple of hours later, a big black bear crossed the road and made it to the other lane by the time I got there. It's one thing to hit a deer. It's entirely another to hit a bear. The prospect of having a wounded bear attack my broken down vehicle is enough to convince me not to text and drive.
I got to my destination at 4 in the morning. I had made arrangements to stay with my friend William Widdicombe in his wall tent for the night and for a number of disparate nights after that. But Will wasn't there that night; he had driven about two hours away to pick up something from a buddy. Still on a caffeine high from a pint-sized Monster energy drink and a coffee that I had picked up on the way, I wasn't read to head to the tent, which at that point was about 29 degrees. So I did what any Canadian would do and headed to the local Tim Horton's, which was supposed to open at 4am, but didn't actually open until around 4:50. I had a croissant breakfast sandwich and then headed to the wall tent to shiver for about 4 hours until an OPST and fishing license dealer, where my friend Sam works, opened. I had to be somewhere downstream that afternoon, but with the prospect of a world class steelhead river running right through town, I couldn't resist fishing, even if it would make me late. Sam said he would shuttle me after work, and he pointed me toward a local spot where I could put in. I set off and floated. My confidence was extremely high. The last time I had fished this river I had caught between two and four steelhead every day for several days in a row. On the OP I hope for a bite. Here, I expect one. Well, I didn't get so much a a look on that float, but I worked out the kinks after about 5 months without touching a steelhead rod. My go to rod for this trip so far is an 11'6" 7-weight and a 375 grain Commando Head, with our 12 foot Commando Tips. Even though I didn't hook anything, I saw some beautiful scenery, and I was so grateful to be back in Canada.
That night I showed up downstream to meet my partner in OPST, James Iwase. We had booked four days of fishing with Todd Scharff of Upstream Adventures, one of the premiere guides in the whole region. Todd is one of the most "dialed" guides you will encounter, and he takes fishing seriously. There is no leisurely breakfast with Todd. He picks you up in the dark, and you don't get back to your hotel until twelve hours later. He's the first guide on the water, the first fisherman for that matter. And he really knows what he's doing. Unfortunately, on this trip, conditions could hardly be worse. It hadn't rained in well over a week, all the rivers were low, and sun was forecast every day. But, those were the cards we were dealt, and we had to play them. The first morning we got an early start, as per usual, and launched Todd's extremely low-drafting, inboard-outboard jet boat for a trip up a medium-sized river. Todd's boating skills were immediately evident, with not only his steering and his line choosing but with his adjustment of the throttle at critical points when going up and down rapids.
Spawning Chinook salmon were splashing around here and there as we set up on a riffle that blended into a long, gradually slowing run. James took the highest point and our friend Dick set up somewhere in the middle. The sun glow illuminated more and more leaves, which were just turning colors. The temperature climbed into the mid 40s. And we kept swinging. Eventually I stepped into the run and, as I was stripping in, my line stopped. Hmm, sort of unlikely that this is a steelhead, I thought. After some modest thrashing around, I landed a small, bright coho, a beautiful fish that threw the hook before I could grab it for a picture. Ok, my first fish, I'll take it. Maybe a half hour later, Dick comes tight below me. I see a tail thrash the surface. It looks like a nice one. Dick keeps good pressure and cranks down on the fish, and Todd skillfully nets it at the first opportunity. Oh yes, it was a nice one indeed. In fact, it was one of the nicest steelhead I've seen in real life.
I continue following Dick down the run and eventually get bit on the hang down. I can't remember what fly I was fishing, but there's a good chance it was a purple egg sucking leech with a pink cone head. After a fairly lackluster few seconds, I get a series of rod throbs that tell me it's probably a bull trout, and sure enough it was.
A pretty nice bull trout, actually, but not a steelhead. Ok, now I've caught two non-steelhead species. I genuinely like both bull trout and coho, but they're not what I drove 14 hours through the night. We fished some really nice water over the next few hours, but Dick's was the only steelhead we caught. I had another smaller bull trout on for about ten seconds, and that was it. Tired after a long day, we all retired early in preparation for an early wake up.
Todd picked us up a little later this day so that the light would be a littler higher. We needed that light because of the special nature of our transportation: a helicopter. A major first for me. I truly never thought I would do a heli-fishing trip.
Our destination was another large river. We flew for about an hour, maybe a little less, over wilderness, some of which had been logged. I am always truly amazed at the staggering amount of lumber that has been harvested out of this part of Canada. And they still have a bunch left, although probably not that much old growth. We saw a big grizzly bear from the air, and touched down at the first relatively expansive run. James took position up above me, and Dick above him. I felt that I had the best position, at the top of a relatively shallow riffle. Where my fly hit the water was probably three feet deep, and visibility was about a foot, meaning that fish should feel safe in shallow. This was undoubtedly a place for a Riffle Tip, and I chose a 132 grain Riffle for my 11'6" 7-weight and 375 grain Commando Head. In fact, I started out fishing a Run, and I snagged up on every other cast. I neglected to switch for a while, and I probably didn't fish the top part of that run as well as I should have, which would come back to bite me...
I fished my way down, and near the end of my swing, got a pull. It was a light pull so I made a quick decision to set the hook. The hook struck home, and I got a few head shakes in response. Hmmm, doesn't feel quite like a steelhead, I thought. I was thinking bull trout. Another bull trout, greeeaaattttt. No, it turned out to be a sockeye, which, somewhat embarrassingly, I had trouble identifying. Hen chum and hen sockeye really do look a lot alike, and in my defense I didn't have that much time to look at it before releasing it. That fish brought the total of lifetime sockeye that had actually taken my fly to about 3. So that was cool. But this sockeye was not a steelhead, and I really wanted a steelhead, so that was not that cool. For what it's worth, that sockeye took a Jonathan Farmer Craft Fur Fly, which you can see being tied here.
Well, if catching that sockeye wasn't entirely cool, things were about to get a lot more uncool. A few casts later, the quiet rhythm of my cast-step-swing was interrupted by the tinny scream of an English reel that was manufactured in the early 20th century. I looked up to see James frantically palming his reel, his rod corked as a bright fish cartwheeled out of the water. All of this was taking place in a spot I had just fished. Yes, James had picked my pocket. Son of a $*%^#!!! I reeled in quickly and scrambled upstream to film James and Todd land a beautiful hen steelhead, really as nice as a steelhead as you could ask for. This fish took an orange and white OPST Prawn tied by Jonathan Farmer (we don't carry that color-yet).
Having someone pull a fish from behind you is something no fisherman wants to experience. But it will happen. If it has never happened to you, you have probably not fished with other people that much. It's disconcerting, for sure. But when you start thinking about it and breaking it down, you should reassure yourself that at some point it's inevitable. I mean do you really think you catch 100% of the fish in any run? Like you're a vacuum cleaner? Most of us would concede that we're not. So why would a fish take someone else's fly and not yours? Dozens of possible reasons. Perhaps it was the color of the fly. Perhaps it was the speed of the fly, whether a mend was made or not made. Maybe you took an extra step or missed one, and your fly was just a foot, even six inches too far away from the fish to elicit a strike. The list goes on. In my case, I was snagged up during a lot of the early part of that run, where James hooked that fish. My guess is I either spooked that fish or just didn't present a fly to it. But even if I did put a fly by it, I'm not going to lose sleep over it. In a trout stream we make dozens, sometimes hundreds of drifts past a particular trout. In steelheading we usually make one cast and then move on. There is a huge amount of chance involved. Still, it hurts.
That was all the action on this particular river, except for the pack of wolves we saw. They really didn't seem to care that much about the helicopter, and didn't flee but sort of just stared at us. We flew back to town and ate some pretty decent Indian food.
Day 3 started at 5:30 for me. I quickly assembled some camera gear and had two cups of Keurig hotel coffee, which I have to say was pretty good. Our destination on this day was a float of a fairly small river. We would float in Todd's raft, which comfortably carried four people. It was still dark as Todd slid his raft down a rocky high bank. By the time we pulled up to our first run, it was light enough to make out the fall colors of trees on the hills across the river. Todd had a thermos of hot coffee, as usual, as well as a variety of snacks.
Our second run was a really nice high bank, with a short width of moderate flow for fish to take refuge against a fast current. The bottom consisted of boulders, most of which were the size of soccer balls to dutch ovens. It was overall a fairly swift run, about 2-4 feet deep. It was a perfect spot for our Run tips. I worked my day down the run, confidence pretty high. My casting was in the zone. I was ON. James watched me fish. Todd told him to step in above me. James didn't want to. "If there's a fish in there, Ben will catch it," he said. Todd scolded him and made him step in above me. Well, sure enough, not long after that I hear his Hardy screaming again, only to look up and see a thick buck make two cartwheeling jumps above me. AGHGH$(%*@#&$!!!! Once was ok, but twice? Not cool. Not cool at all.
So now I'm feeling a few different emotions. Pissed, for James having done this to me twice. Doubtful of how I'm fishing, what fly I'm fishing, the tip I'm using, how many steps I'm taking between each cast. I'm wondering if I'm really as good a fisherman as I had thought. But, in reality, everything I said in the paragraph above still stands. There is a tremendous amount of luck in fishing, and I do not expect to catch 100% of the fish in every run, even 100% of the fish that are potentially willing to bite. So I took it in stride. And I actually was happy for James. A few runs later, I hooked a fish that made a solid grab into a modest run. Clearly a steelhead. I fought it back upstream, and it obliged. As I was in the "turn its head, roll it back downstream" stage of the fight, or a little before that, it made a run and popped off. What are you gonna do? Todd said that that fish was black and white, i.e. extremely fresh. I would put it at about 12 pounds. Bummer. James lost another fish, Dick had a grab I think, and I had another grab and that was it.
So, this brings us to our last day with Todd. We would jet boat a big river. This post is getting long, so I won't belabor it. Bottom line, shallow, choppy riffles proved really important on this river. At one point I chose a deeper, slower, juicier piece of water, while James took the shallow tailout below me. Well, he hooked two fish and I got nothing. So, it may sound like I'm a broken record, but our Riffle Tip came in really handy. James' hot streak continued, and I think he went 1/3. I had a maddening thing happen. I had made about 100 nice casts into this tailout, and just as I got to the very end, on the strip, I feel a faint, bull trout-esque pluck on my fly. I didn't really have time to make the judgement of "no, it's not a steelhead", but that's where my head was going. I was already lifting my rod, and just as I did that a nice steelhead flopped its tail out of the water. You have to be kidding me. I cast for hours on end and then a steelhead finally takes on the strip?! Sometimes life just ain't fair.
Dick finished the day with a "suicide hen" of about 12 pounds. As I hurried downstream with the net, I fell flat on my face and badly bruised both knees, adding injury to the insult of being the only one on this trip not to land a steelhead.
I think I'll stop it here, because this post is now long. Just know that I did not accept defeat. And more has happened since this post. But you will have to wait and see.