Canada Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

So, I was 0 for my last 5. Well, to be accurate, I was 1 for my last 5. One of those fish came off at my feet after I easily could have netted it, after I had grabbed the leader. I just didn't get a chance to tail the gorgeous hen, which would probably have been my biggest fish of the trip. As I mentioned in my last post, I was questioning everything at that point—my hook, my reel, my rod, myself. Was I putting too much pressure on the fish? I really don't think so. Was I fighting them too lightly? I really don't think so. Was I gillnetter in a past life? Most of the fish were getting off in the first minute or so of the fight, and that is no time to horse them in. At this point I was fishing scared. I expected fish to get off. That's no way to fish. It's almost like fish can sense your fear, feel your desperation transmitted down through the line. And it gives them extra confidence.

Well, Oliver showed up on Sunday and we made the drive down to our motel. Our routine this week would be the exact same as last week. Monday was a wet day, which was a welcome change. Still, we wondered if a little bit of precipitation would change the game down here for the worst. I ended up hooking a fish that got off. So now I was 1 for 6. I was feeling pretty down on myself. How could I not be? I had some encouragement from people online; one guy said he once went 0 for 12. I can't even imagine that. A couple people said they had gone 0 for 5. I just met someone who said he lost seven in a row. So I was not the first person in the world to go through a slump. I had a couple more grabs that didn't materialize and that was it for Monday. At the end of the day, I picked myself up by my boot straps and leveled with myself. I had lost a few fish. It wasn't the end of the world. I would land another fish. Maybe the next one, maybe the one after that. But I would land another one. I didn't have a dark cloud hanging over my head. And come the next day, I wasn't going to fish scared.

The next day, at the first hole I had a grab almost immediately. It was a series of light pulls. The fish flopped and was gone. Damnit! That could have been the one. But no, it wasn't meant to be. I continued down the run. This was a long riffle, with two breaks up at the top. It becomes deceptively slow, and stops fishing well before you think it would. I was getting down toward the bottom, and was within three casts of stopping when I got a pull. It was a solid grab and I got a good set with my fingers. Now there is an energy in the air whenever a steelhead is hooked. It's not like hooking a trout. It's not like hooking an average specimen of any other fish. Unless you're an off duty guide or someone who is around steelhead getting hooked every day, it never becomes routine. It certainly wasn't routine for me, at 1 fo 6. After a couple of head shakes it was clear that this was a nice buck. That was a change from last week, when I had caught only hens. I brought the fish in and leadered it thanks to 18 Pound Megastrong Fluorocabon Tippet. There is absolutely no reason to skimp on tippet size for steelhead. These fish come from the ocean, where they have seen no fishing pressure their entire lives. Yes, if they are sitting around in an upstream river they may see some flies, and may become somewhat leader shy, I guess. But I was fishing for moving fish, fish that had most likely seen zero flies and zero tippet. For these fish, and for any steelhead, you should use the heaviest tippet that you can get away with. You should put as much pressure on these fish as possible to land them as quickly as possible. This is important for the survival, as you will see below. So, I leadered the fish and landed a beautiful buck.

The Slump Buster. So sweet.

Ok, I was 1 for 1. It felt amazing. Later that day, we fished a new spot. It was a very subtle break, almost imperceptible, which is why we drove by it for over a week. Will fished the tailout above, and I took the slowwww riffle below the break. There were a few exposed rocks on a little bank above the riffle that I stood on. As I was getting ready to cast, just stripping out about 15 feet of total line, including my tip, and tossing it out there, I got a grab, and another pull, and another, and aggressive little spurt in the span of about 1.5 seconds. At that point, my rod tip was still up in the air. I was completely not expecting a grab. Oh well. I kept stripping off line and worked my way down the run. In this extremely low water, it was important to toss it straight across the current and let a belly form in the line, so as to keep it off the bottom. Had I made the typical upstream mend, drop it in approach, I would have snagged up. When I got about 100 feet below where I got that first little grab, I got a solid pull that connected. My day was about to get better. I fought and landed another nice buck. As I tried to land this one, I grabbed the leader and the fish didn't just lay flat for me. It made several attempts to spurt away, but my pulling perpendicular to the fish's head I was able to control it. This is a type of situation where strong tippet, like Megastrong Fluorocarbon Tippet, is particularly important. I landed the fish and my slump was doubly over.

On both of these fish I fished black and blue. If I haven't caught a bunch of fish lately, and I need some confidence, it is difficult to impossible for me to move away from black and blue. I was still fishing out OPST Swing Hooks. We continued fishing, and through the course of the day I did lose another fish, which unfortunately was a really hot one that made a really strong grab. I thought it was on for sure. This one got off in a manner I could understand, however. It streaked away from me, jumped, and then came right back, thus creating slack. That's a loss I can take. It's when the fight is totally stable and they pop off when it really hurts.

Later in the day, Will fished his favorite tailout, where we had caught those fish the week before in super shallow water in the body of the riffle. Since then it hadn't been so hot, but he still had faith in it. I made the looong hike upstream and fished the tailout above. I had only fished this spot once before, and I had thought I had a grab, but I wasn't 100% sure. The whole bottom 100 yards or so looked prime, but, true to form for this river, it wasn't until the bottom 20 yards or so that I got grabbed. I hooked the fish and found myself connected to another nice buck.

That was my day. I really didn't need to hook any more steelhead that day. Three is a lot in my book. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from hooking and especially landing a steelhead. Satisfaction and wonderment at the probability of it all. Of that fish's egg even being fertilized. Of that fish surviving as an alevin and a fry, avoiding trout and kingfishers. Of making it to the smolt phase, and surviving diving birds and myriad other predators in the ocean. The chances that that fish traveled across the deep and dark Pacific, they say perhaps all the way to Japan. And the chances that you'll encounter that fish on one of the best days of your life and hook it on a fly you tied yourself. Others have been more poetic in their description of the steelhead, but if you're and fisherman and you're not a bit moved by all that, you're in the minority.


So that was it for day two of week two of fishing this river. The next day we returned to the spot where I had gotten my second fish the day before. Again, I started high up on a shelf, with a few exposed rocks to my left. This was an extremely slow swing, and I knew from the day before to start short. Lots of people don't start fishing until they have all of their head out, and I think that's a mistake. I know you want to catch a fish on a proper cast, but sometimes wading conditions dictate that you have to start short, and sometimes, as in this case, it pays to start one pull of line at a time. I knew that fish held extremely close to me at this spot, at least some of the time. So I stripped out maybe half of my sink tip and threw it out there, lengthening my cast by one strip per cast. When I had about three quarters of my head out, I got a nice firm tug. Fish on. It was a little fish, probably an upstream fish, that I landed pretty easily. A pretty fish though.


At this point, my confidence was pretty much soaring compared to where it had been just a few days earlier. I had landed steelhead on two consecutive days. The skunk was really off. I knew what I was doing, at least to some degree. My gear, my hook, my fly, they all worked, and I could fight fish, at least some of the time. The rest of the day was fairly slow, but really, all I'm asking for in a day of steelhead is one fish. Really, one encounter, because if you put your fish in a steelhead's mouth, you've done your job. What happens next really involves a huge degree of chance. But if you consistently put flies in their mouths, sooner or later you will land them.

Later that day we went downstream to look for some new water. We weren't exactly bored of the water we were fishing, we just knew there had to be more out there. The river changed character a bit, and became more enclosed with more big boulders. Based on what we had seen upstream, it didn't look all that promising.

We fished a couple runs without touching a fish, and then we headed downstream, and as we were pulling into a run we smelled the distinct odor of fish. That was interesting, because we hadn't smelled that at all on this river. Thinking not too much of it, we split up to fish a little, and Oliver and I did a little video about our Megastrong Fluorocarbon Tippet, which I credit with giving me a lot of confidence when landing fish. I had started walking upstream to check out the water Will was fishing when I came upon a massive dead fish. Holy cow, that's a steelhead.

One side of it was eaten away by crows, but we turned it around to find the other side almost totally intact:

I remembered I had a tape. We measured it as exactly 40 inches. So if someone starts throwing around numbers like 42, 44 inches, be advised that that is a very, very large steelhead. This thing was so massive Will could hardly tail it. Landing a fish like that alone would be a scary proposition. Which brings us to a possible reason this fish might have died: exhausting from a fight, or banging its head against rocks as someone tried to land it my him or herself. This is a reason why I have been going on about using stout tippet. It's also important to use a rod that is meant for northwest steelhead. A 6-weight single hander doesn't cut it. 7- or 8-weight spey and switch rods should be a minimum. It's also best to bring a net if you can, although I know that isn't always possible. And don't drag a fish like this, or any fish, up on the bank. If you do have to shallow it, shallow it, don't beach it. There is a way to subdue a fish like this without it banging its head on the banks. Anyways, who knows why this fish died. It's just suspicious, because a big fish like this in the prime of its life doesn't usually just drop dead.

So that was the end of day three. We went back to the motel and had some more 4-star Chinese food. At the end of a cold day of fishing it really wasn't bad, but man, in the grand scheme our food options were really poor. Since this little intimate shelf spot had produced fish two days in a row, the next day we decided to start there. Will took the upper tailout as usual, and I took the lower bit below "the reef". I started short again, but didn't get anything in close. I worked my day down a good ways, until I started to consider maybe stepping out, and I got railed. A super hot fish streaked away from me, stuttered, and then continued just ripping line off my click pawl reel. Will and Oliver came to watch as the fish was way into my Lazar Line, which at this point was green.  You know a fish is hot when it is way away from you, and it does something scary. This fish was so far away it looked tiny, and when it was way out there it made a spectacular dolphin jump. All I could say was "ooooooooo". It was pretty obvious that this fish was a hen, as they usually fight more spectacularly. Sure enough it was, a hen of about 12 pounds, give or take.

I was elated. I had now landed steelhead three days in a row, and on this day I would go 1/1. Will landed a fish too, but I think we only got video of that one. That summed up the fish catching for the week. On Friday I got several grabs that did not materialize, which was kind of painful. I don't know what I could have done differently. Maybe give them some line I guess. But I am of the school of thought that you should just give them passive resistance and let them hook themselves. At some point, there is going to need to be some tension if you want to hook the fight. In any case I saw one fish flop away after grabbing, and that was rough. Will got a couple smaller fish, and that was that for Friday. On Saturday the river came up substantially, actually it had been coming up on Friday too. I stupidly left my camera intervalometer, the thing I use to make time lapses, on the river bank, and in the time it took to make one 30 minute time lapse the river had come up and swamped it. So Saturday we fished a couple of holes with minimal confidence and that was that.

Overall, it had been the best two weeks of steelheading of my life. Had I landed every fish I contacted, it would be been spectacular. I feel proud that I kept my head up, fought my way through a slump and started landing fish again. It would have been nice to finish on a high note, but what are you gonna do? I was impressed by the quality of fish we caught, and really amazed at the kind of water we caught them in. This experience is going to make me totally rethink my approach to the Skagit. I feel like I might have been missing all kinds of fish by looking for long, medium-depth runs instead of shallow breaks, riffles and most of all, tailouts. I would also like to thank Will, whose boat made this whole experience possible. Thanks for reading.

-Ben Paull

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