Canada Episode III: The Return of the Riffle Tip

Fresh off my first landed Canadian steelhead of 2018, I felt like my luck had changed. I headed upstream to camp with my friend Will for a couple of nights on a smaller river. He has a wall tent set up that's really sweet, especially until about 11pm, when it's still nice and toasty thanks to the wood stove. By about 3am, however, when the fire goes out, it's not so sweet. The way to do it is to set an alarm every couple of hours to stoke the fire, but that's not something that ever happened. Luckily, Will got up earlier than me to stoke the fire, allowing me another hour of shivering time before the tent heated up. This was one of those rare and special campgrounds where the put-in is the campground. That's really a beautiful thing. But since I had gotten off the river late the night before, I had to go into town to get a license, at the hardware store that opened after 9am. This is because, if you want to fish up here as a nonresident, you need to pay for every single day you fish, for a specific river, almost everywhere you would want to fish. Will and his dad Jonathan took off earlier, and I would catch them up.

We were quite high in the drainage, and it hadn't rained for a good three weeks, so our collective optimism was pretty low. Will had been hooking a few fish per day, but I had this deep conviction that we weren't going to catch anything that day. It was sunny. We could feet the rocks under our butts. I just knew it.

Still, it was a beautiful day. I come to Canada for more than just the tug on my line. I come to be humbled by the scale of the landscape, to stare at the blazing hillsides, burning so bright they might as well be a fireplace, and every bit as transfixing. I come because it still feels like wilderness, even though civilization is not far away.

Sure enough, we didn't catch anything that day. It was a long float, and when we were finally done we headed back to Will's tent for some customary hot dogs, which seem to make up about 50% of Will's steelheading diet.

It hadn't rained in weeks. We hadn't caught anything that day, between the three of us. It was time to make a change. We decided (and I will take a good portion of the credit for this) to head downstream and fish a bigger river. Theoretically speaking, if steelhead need water in order to move, and if there hadn't been any rain for a while, they should be parked downstream in higher flows. We didn't know what we are doing or where we were going exactly, although Will had fished a couple of walk-in spots down there. After another night that went from sweating hot to frigid cold in a span of about three hours, we stashed our boats, packed up our tent and headed downstream. I got some work done in the little town we landed in while Will went and scouted the launch. He found something satisfactory, and so we agreed we would be on the road by 7am the next morning. Now, we weren't getting up thatttt early. 6, 6:15 really isn't all that bad in the grand scheme. Some deranged idiots are running and doing yoga at that time the rare times I wake up at that hour in Seattle. But when you wake up early, it's really nice to have a breakfast burrito, breakfast sandwich, breakfast something, to fill your stomach along with your (surprisingly good) motel coffee. We were out of luck. This week, at the only local gas station, there was no hot food to speak of. We loaded up on cheap snacks, 24 oz coffee, a Monster energy drink, and headed downstream. We were on the road by 7 and we were at our put-in about 45 minutes later.

This wasn't the best boat launch in the world. First of all, it required driving over a significant sandbank, out over the gravel, or rather rock, bar, and then backing into a shallow eddy that didn't really get uniformly deeper as you backed in. Will had to reverse the boat at least 50 feet before getting the depth we needed to, with extreme effort, rock the boat up and down against the trailer while pushing it back with every ounce of strength in our legs. This was not a good boat launch. Eventually, though, inch by inch, we did get the boat off the trailer. After a few minutes' warm-up, we were off, zippers up, bracing against the freezing cold air as we made the first few turns upstream at the base of a dramatic crag. Wow, I thought, just more throwaway Canadian scenery. It all kind of just blends together and numbs my brain. The spectacular becomes routine, and the mere beautiful becomes unworthy of mention.

We pulled up on to a long run, with a soft break that went on for several hundreds of yards. "Looks good!", Will said over the sound of the motor. "Yeah, why not?", I said. As he idled down and pulled in to the run, he said, "Oh, this is •••••••". We had arrived at a named run that can be walked to, that Will had fished before. Well, we were there, there was nobody else there, so we fished it. This run was the definition of a long, shallow riffle, with relatively slow water outside and a shallow, choppy, broad break, all of it relatively slow, and much of it extremely shallow. Will had fished this river before, and I had learned something about it from Todd Scharff, so we both started out fishing shin deep. I took the lower riffle, and Will took the slowwww tailout above that. I set up a couple of time lapses, and in the time it took me to do that, Will hooked two fish, neither of which I saw, as he didn't make a bunch of noise.

We moved spots, driving upstream and looking for more shallow riffles and tailouts. We found some, fished them diligently, and kept them in mind for later. We eventually moved upstream to a fairly classic run, with a fast outside and a softer inside. I had a black Bulkley Leech on. This was a really typical steelhead run, not the shin-or ankle-deep run where we had been hooking fish, but I felt a good yank about halfway through my swing. About a 12 pound hen made a short run, jumped, and then turned upstream and started running straight at me. After a few seconds, it was over. Well, that was the first fish I had really hooked on this river, so I took some confidence from it. I met up with Will downstream and he said he had hooked two, landed one in the tailout far below me. We went to one more spot that day, and Will landed one nice hen of about 12 pounds or so, way high up in a riffle. At this point we were both fishing light type 3 sink tips, with me fishing our OSPT 132 Grain Riffle Commando Tip. We finished the day feeling good about our decision to come downstream. We had hooked fish on new water in a new river. Our hopes for the rest of the week were high. Will had hooked five and I had hooked one. I didn't love those numbers, frankly, but Will confirmed what I was thinking: one day doesn't mean anything. I would see how I did at the end of the week before getting down on myself. That night we had some pretty suspicious Chinese food. Will took one look at the "chow mein," a nearly sauceless, bland pile of light tan noodles with what we had to presume was chicken shavings on top, and ordered a burger, which wasn't much better. But our options in town were extremely limited, so we really didn't have much of a choice.

The routine was the same the next day. We were on the road, ready to go by 7. Snacks and coffee only. It was cold. I don't remember the temperature but it was ice in the guides cold until at least 10. I usually don't do ice in the guides, but I guess for pristine, wild Canadian steelhead I'll make an exception. On this day our first couple of spots were blanks. Eventually, we headed back upstream to the run where I had hooked my fish the day before. I worked my way down this fairly classic run, and when my fly was swimming through some chop over some basketball-sized rocks in about two feet of water, it got yanked. Almost the exact same thing happened as the day before; the fish made a little spurt away, then jumped and turned around, and got off. In that circumstance, there really wasn't anything I could do. But at this point, I hadn't been fishing so hot over the past week. I had landed one, yes, but I had lost or not connected with several more. I find that it's at these critical moments, when you lose a fish, or have a disappointment, that your attitude really makes a difference. If you get down on yourself, and get negative, thinking you won't get another chance, you will almost certainly fish worse, and you might not catch anything else to redeem yourself. But if you keep your head up, and recognize that everybody loses fish, often you'll get another shot. That is exactly what happened to me here. I kept fishing, and I tried not to sigh, or shake my head. I am here to have fun, so I decided I was just going to have fun. Right when my fly got to where a tree had fallen down over the bank, the same place where my fish had grabbed the night before, my fly was moved about a foot by something that was definitely not a rock. She looked like a hen as she made a low elevation jump away from me. I felt like this one was not going to get off. Reeling frantically, I caught up with the fish and held tension, and a few minutes later I had a beautiful bright hen of maybe 11 pounds.

If you don't get down on yourself you will do much better.

Size 3 Swing Hook getting the whole maxillary

I met up with Will downstream. He hadn't touched a fish all day. So, in my competitive self conscious, I had to note that the count was evening up. Everything was fine. Same crappy Chinese food. Same wake up, same drill. By now it was Wednesday, and we felt like we were falling into a groove, getting a good sense for how this fishery worked. It was becoming abundantly clear that the fish in that river, at that time, held in water far shallower and more featureless than anything I had experienced back home. On our first run on day three, Will chose an extremely shallow, slow tailout above my extremely shallow riffle. As I was fiddling with some camera gear again, Will hooked a steelhead on his first cast. A couple of casts later, he caught another one. A few casts later, he hooked a third, big one. He called me up. "This is my third fish in about ten casts!" he declared. "Wow." It was clear that the fish he had on was well above average. As he fought it in about a foot of water, I could not, absolutely could not believe how shallow this fish had been hooked. After a few more rounds of back and forth, Will landed one of the nicest bucks I have ever seen in real life. This fish was easily 15 pounds, really all you could ask for. It took a black, blue and purple single stage ostrich fly tied on a tube, fished on a type 3 sink tip.

If there's a more graceful fish than a steelhead, I haven't seen it yet.

That would have made the week, but we weren't done.

Will had now hooked three steelhead in this slow shallow tailout. He offered to let me step in, and he took a spot above me. I cast my fly straight across the current, with no mend, trying to let a belly develop to hopefully keep my fly off the bottom. My confidence was high, obviously, although I hoped that Will hadn't caught them all. It didn't take more than a few casts before I got a series of modest pulls on my line. The belly in my line was being pulled upstream by an obvious steelhead, which made about four pulls before my drag engaged and hooked the fish. It felt like a heavy steelhead, and as it rolled about 75 yards our there I saw it was completely black and white. Superb. I fought the fish back in, swam it upstream of me, rolled its head back and grabbed the leader. It's at this crucial stage in the fight, when it is almost over, when you can see what you stand to lose, when high quality tippet material is a must. I use 18 pound OPST Megastrong Fluorocarbon, because it is absolutely NOT going to break from the head shake of any steelhead I could conceivably catch. I feel completely safe fighting steelhead on this tippet. And of course, since it's fluorocarbon, it's thin enough, and clear enough to not be noticed by fish. It's also extremely abrasion-resistant, which matters when you're talking about the teeth on a steelhead that could reach 30 pounds. Landing a steelhead is always exciting. But landing one in cold weather is a little bit bittersweet; your sleeves get soaking wet, and in the cold weather, they stay that way all day.

A hell of a way to start the day.

Ahh, glorious, I was one for one this morning. Will let me continue down the run. Not too many casts later, I feel a tug, and I see a seal-sized boil near my fly. The tug relents, and my fly continues swinging. About a second later, I feel another tug, then nothing. Two seconds pass, and I feel a third tug. Never in my life have I been closer to setting the hook. But I did not, and eventually the fish came back and hooked itself. This one was even hotter than the first, and it ran way out into the run multiple times. My sleeves were now wet for the duration, so reaching down to tail this fish was a little less painful this time.

Both of these hens were about as perfect as I could imagine. I was elated. I could easily have taken the rest of the day to just reflect and enjoy what had just happened, but it was only about 10am. Interestingly, some shore-based anglers came in above us, and hooked fish behind both me and Will.  And they didn't appear to be the world's greatest anglers. So, again, keep things in perspective if someone pulls a fish behind you.

We fished a couple of more spots with nothing, until we got to the evening. We fished a tailout that lipped over into a very shallow riffle. Will went through it first. Now, this is a place that did make some sense; I can see why fish would hold there on any given river. It didn't take long for Will's rod to double over, and for him to land a nice hen.

He kept working his way through the tailout. When he got to the very very lip, where the tailout spilled over into the actual riffle below, his line went tight again, and whatever was on the other end went zinnnnnnggggggggg! We had a live one on our hands. This fish went up and down the riffle, all over the map. Will had to move downstream to his right to land the fish in a soft shoulder. It was a spectacular hen, literally all you could hope for in a bright, perfect hen steelhead.

After Will landed this fish, after landing his amazing buck earlier in the day, I said "you lucky bastard". Which was partly true. Luck plays a huge role in all fishing, and especially in steelheading. But Will isn't some noob who just showed up on day one and landed the perfect steelhead couple. He's one of the most dedicated and skilled steelheaders I know, probably one of the most serious steelheaders in the world. He let me step in below him. Knowing how the theme of the week was going, I let my fly swim down into the actual, choppy, riffly part of the riffle. Normally I wouldn't even consider fishing this part of a river. But, the water really wasn't that fast. On big rivers, everything is relative, and just because a piece of water looks choppy doesn't mean it's too fast. Well, I was well into the riffle, and making my first strip in on my hangdown, when my line came tight. I stripped into something heavy. Unlike the previous week, when I had made an unprepared, awkward rod raise only to see a steelhead flop away, this time I set the hook by stripping. My line stopped dead and I felt a head shake on the other end. I secured the little line I had on the reel and braced myself for what would happen next. The fish took off maybe 20 feet of line, stopped, and then popped off. Damnit, I thought. That's not how it's supposed to happen. Keeping in mind my sentiments from above, that things usually turn out ok if you keep your head up, I kept working my way down. At this point, I was standing in the chop, and my fly was probably swimming in 10 inches of water, literally. A few casts later, about 3/4 of the way through my swing, I feel two strong tugs. I don't set the hook, but rather just let what may happen happen. I hooked a beautiful bright chrome hen that made several strong runs up and down the riffle. As I grabbed the 18 pound Megastrong leader, I realized that this day was probably equal to my best day of steelheading ever. I had hooked four steelhead, and landed three phenomenal hens, all of them as fresh as if they had just swum out of the ocean minutes before.

Perfection

That was the highlight of that week for me. After that point I went on an 0/5 streak. The daily routine was the same, and some would say it was rather boring. We fished the same water day after day. And I kept hooking fish. So did Will. The difference was, I just kept losing them. I questioned my hook, my reel, my rod, the string leech design of my fly, the "Bulkley Leech". For example, the hook hangs down in a string leech- was I hooking fish in the lower jaw, and that was why they were getting off? As you can see above, I hooked fish with that same fly in the upper jaw as well, so it couldn't be that simple. Was it the OPST Swing Hook? I doubt it, because Todd, and multiple other lodges and guides in Canada, use this hook exclusively, to my knowledge. If the hook sucked, they wouldn't use it. So why did I keep losing fish? Well, there's a lot of chance in fishing. I would say the fish has at least 50/50 odds of getting off. And, if you flip a coin, sometimes you get tails five times in a row. In any case, by Friday my confidence was pretty shaken, and I was ready for a break. Will landed a couple more fish. That mint hen in the tailout would be the last fish I'd land for a while. On this next week, we had hired Oliver Sutro to document my success of failure... Stay tuned.

Stay tuned for next week, when I may or may not find redemption.

-Ben Paull, GM, OPST

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