Canada Wars Episode V: Ben Awakens

Well, all good things must come to an end. Over the past couple weeks, I've had to wait on some people. Not going to name names, but let's just say there was a lot of down time. I sort of started feeling like I was wasting my time up here, but I didn't want to go home. I knew I had a couple of good days left in me. I've been staying with guide Darren Bisson, who just finished his guide season. Darren runs a fairly sizable guide operation, with five guides. His lodge is nice and comfy, and can house sixteen guests. I'm unguided, so I was pretty much on my own as far as fishing is concerned. But the chef, Kevin, offered to take me out to fish one of the local rivers. I had fished this before and caught my first 2018 steelhead on this river, but I had been floating. This time, we would be fishing from shore. We got a late start and drove upriver several miles before coming to a beautiful vista with a nice looking run. Kevin had seen someone land a fish there a few days before. We thought we might as well fish there.

Confidence was fairly low. Usually, when you leave at 10, it's not a sign that you're in for a great day. This is a heavily fished river, and it's possible that this run had been fished twice before we got there. Still, it was a nice looking run, the sun was off of it, and I had nothing else to do but fish. I did the usual, blah blah blah, started high, stepped down, etc. And, to cut right to the chase, I got a nice, solid, greedy grab. I had switched from my spey rod with a click pawl to my switch rod with a reel with a drag, and I let the drag take care of the hook set. I just let it happen. The fish rolled out there and the tail looked pretty big. It looked like a colored up buck. But this one was not going to come in easily. I took five feet, it took ten. I took ten feet, it took twenty. I was a good ways in to my Pink Lazar Line. This went on for quite a while, until I swam the fish upstream and grabbed the 18 Pound Megastrong Fluorocarbon tippet. Again, this tippet, in this strength, makes landing fish so much more comfortable. You also don't have to be afraid if the fish makes a little spurt. Several times on this trip I have just said "no" to fish when they've tried to make another run. Just grabbed the leader and whipped the fish around. It's really hard to break 16 or 18 pound Megastrong. It's better for the fish and it's a lot less nerve wracking for you. So, I landed the fish and I was 1/1. Some people don't regard colored up fish with a lot of esteem, but I think they are beautiful. And just because they're colored up does NOT mean they don't fight. This buck was seriously tough.

It was a pretty good sized, thick fish. I was stoked. We fished a couple of other runs before calling it an early day. One steelhead in a day is plenty for me. The plan for the next day was for me to fish with Darren on a smaller river, actually couple of rivers. He wanted to be there at first light, so it would be an early one. I set my alarm for 5:15, and we were on the road by about 5:50. I tried to catch some sleep on the way, but an extremely bumpy ride, combined with some truly horrendous hip hop "music" prevented that. I'm not trashing all hip hop, and I certainly can appreciate quality rap like the Wu Tang Clan, but some hip hop is just awful. It took a pretty good hike through some bushes and along some slick rock faces to get to the pool in question. Actually, the pools Darren wanted to fish were occupied by other anglers, which he said is very rare. So we hiked further downstream.

This was classic pool fishing, and could not have been any more different than what I have been d0ing on most of this trip. The water and the swings were slow, and you had to penetrate to depth to have a good chance of hooking a fish. That being said, I left my 132 Grain Riffle Tip on. In slow water, with a coneheaded fly, I was easily getting to depth. I know I'm sounding like a broken record, and I don't want to suggest the Run and the Bucket tips are useless, but I have used the Riffle probably 95% of the time on this trip. Darren's confidence in this pool was sky high, and he knows. He went through first with a classic fly, I think a Black Doctor, which dates back to around the 1920s I believe. Googling that fly doesn't ring a bell, so maybe this isn't actually a Black Doctor. Whatever it is, it's pretty nice looking. It made my pink and purple cone head leech look a little bit shameful.

But that wasn't to last. Darren is a dedicated fly guide, yes, but he's someone who doesn't readily take no for an answer. If the fly fails, he has no qualms about busting out the gear. In this case, he produced a Dick Nite spoon, which he swung on his spey rod. Sure enough, before long he had a fish. The action of that spoon, wobbling this way and that, even in slow water, is irresistible to steelhead. I have heard of people doing it, and I've swung Dick Nites for coho, but this was the first time I've seen it done on steelhead. He went through the pool again, and got a second fish. So, we had both gone through at least once with a fly, and he follows us both through and pulls two. Yeah, gear works, people. There's a reason people fish gear, especially for steelhead and salmon. It's downright destructive. I didn't really care. I had caught a fish the day before, and I didn't feel the desperation that I sometimes do. We made the hike back to the truck and went to a different, even smaller river nearby. The run we came to was one of the most perfect looking steelhead runs I've ever seen. Everything about it was prime—depth, current, structure. The only irregularity was a little shelf that jutted out from a peninsula, but if you fished far enough below that, it was no problem. The appearance of the run, combined with Darren's confidence, made me pretty certain I was going to hook a steelhead in this run.

I fished halfway down the run and got a solid grab. Just one of those yanks that you know is going to lead to a hookup. With my drag, it was a little easier getting a hook set as I didn't have to second guess everything I was doing or play with tension on the line. This was a hot fish. It jumped several times and ran up and down the pool. It was still pretty early in the morning, but I was well and woken up.

After a spirited fight, I landed a beautiful hen. So now I was 2/2. Alright! I was very pleased with the hook placement on this fish. Even though a string leech rides hook down, the hook, as has happened numerous times on this trip, twisted up and got her almost through the nostril, through a big chunk of meat and bone. This fish was not about to get away.

I started stepping out of the run to let Darren in, but he said "no, go ahead," so I kept fishing. A few minutes later, in the mili second when I started stripping in on the hang down, my line came tight, really tight, and I inadvertently got an excellent hook set on a steelhead. This one was a smaller buck and came to hand a little more easily, but we certainly appreciate him all the same.

We switched spots, again to a gorgeous, maybe six to eight foot deep run, about the speed of a (I can't think of anything right now, a sit down lawn mower, if that's even what you call them?). Anyway, the perfect speed. The only problem with this one is that there was a tree across the river about a quarter of the way through the run, at the spot that looked the most promising. So, we started really short, with our heads barely out of the rod tip.

On one of my first casts I snagged and lost my purple conehead (I'm resisting calling it egg-sucking) string leech. I blame Darren for a lackluster attempt on retrieving the fly. He was down there, he offered, he gave up. Kidding people, kind of. I switched to a four hackle, white, pink and lavender UV fly that has been sitting in my box, I believe for years. I hadn't fished it because I kind of questioned how much the hackles would move, since they're fairly short. But it turned out, the fly moved very well. And as it turned out a fish ate on the hang down as I was deep into the body of the run. I was surprised it was as shallow as it was, or rather that it was in a spot that was both relatively shallow, three feet deep or so, and fairly slow. The fish bulldogged away, thrashed, and then ran down to the bottom of the pool and jumped. "Is that your fish?!, said Darren, which is always a sign of a good time being had. I landed the beautiful buck, and you can get a look at the fly from the picture:

By now I was pretty ecstatic. I haven't landed three steelhead on very many days in my life. On the OP that would be truly phenomenal—but it does happen. I would hook two more steelhead today, one of which we leadered and I consider landed. Another, one that I'm bummed I lost, took a fly way out on the far end of the swing, which is always exciting. It felt like a pretty good buck, and I saw the tail. I don't think it was huge. I don't think there are many if any huge steelhead on this little river. But that fish got off. Oh well, as we have seen, it happens. That puts me at five for my last six. To write it in numbers, 5/6. That's pretty damn good, a hell of a way to end the season, which I must. But a note on numbers. Now, I think most people want to catch more than one steelhead. Some probably object to it on ethical grounds. Indeed, I set myself a four fish limit on this trip. After catching four, I was going to stop. I broke that today by hooking five. I'm not going to lose sleep over it. But the thing about numbers, and one of the reasons I fish with a fly, is that with a fly, in my experience anyways, catching steelhead never becomes routine. Every fish is special because you don't catch them all the time. Without question, if chum salmon were as hard to come by as steelhead, people would fly all over the world just to catch them. It's the rarity of steelhead that makes them special, and it's that rarity that sears each fish into my memory. I can remember a very high percentage of every steelhead that I've ever caught. In many cases I can remember the take, where the fish was holding, what fly I was using. Now I haven't caught thousands of steelhead, and I am sure those memories  will start to blend together over the years, but for now, it's the vivid experience that I can almost grasp long after the fact that makes steelheading such a rewarding experience. And to be honest, I can't really distinguish between my third and fourth steelhead today. I know one ate on the hang down and I know one ate on the swing, and I know one went pretty postal, but that's about all. So apart from the satisfaction of another notch on my belt, and a memory of a brief adrenaline rush, not much really remains of the experience of catching those fish today. I'm not saying I want to catch fewer steelhead, but I do think that I more fully cherish the experience of each fish caught on days when I catch only one or two. That, along with ethical considerations (not every steelhead should be caught. And really, how many do you need? Ten? Twenty?) is why I am going to limit myself to four fish in the future. I broke my own soft rule today, but give me a break, I've lost a lot of fish this season.

So that summed up my season. 5/6 baby. It was a real privilege to spend time in Canada, and to get to share my experiences with the readership, which might even be more than ten at this point, who knows? I consider myself really lucky that I have an activity that I can dream about, that completely clears my head in the moment, and that creates memories that sustain me for months and enrich my soul for years. Thanks for reading.

-Ben Paull


6 Responses

  1. John Houghtali
    Nicely written Paul. I can read between the lines that you care about these sea run fish. All steelhead are special. That summer hen doing cartwheels above my head was as special as the 19 lb. colored winter buck on a green butt skunk that I caught after twice going back to the car to melt the ice in my guides. Started with the fly rod as a kid thanks to my grandfather who showed me how to tie flys. Got addicted to salmon & steelhead on the Kalama, Green, Cowlitz, Toutle & Green back in 1976 when building power plants in Oregon & Washington. Loved casting to steelhead on a shooting head or sink tip with a single handed rod for many years. Have had my two fish landed days but not many. Even jumped six in one day on Thanksgiving morning, but only only once, and lost all immediately since cast was too long and rod too soft. Actually my average is one landed in 3 days. If I Get the tug & it head shakes or jumps my day is made. A simple SRC makes my day. Now I am into my 4th year converted to Skagit. While I came to know the rivers in SW Washington fairly well before and after mount St. Helens, I find the coastal rivers of the OP absolutely awesome. There, Steelhead & Salmon are literally out of control when fresh from the sea, hatchery or wild. My two handed Skagit rod significantly adds to the locations I can fish and delivers my sinking flies & intruder the distance without back cast room. Retired now and playing with redfish in the New Orleans area when not taking my twice a year month long escapes to the OP rivers conveniently clustered around Forks. Best Regards, John.
    • Ben Paull
      Hi John, Thanks a lot for your comment. It sounds like you have had a wonderful history chasing steelhead and I wish you many more fulfilling days. Yes I have had very few two steelhead landed days, and I've never jumped six, even in BC. Not yet anyway. As you say it takes far fewer fish that that to make for a great day. All the best, Ben Paull
  2. Ben B
    Thanks for sharing these Ben, I've enjoyed reading as I anticipate my 3rd and final trip to northern Wisconsin for the year. The OPST line has entirely changed the way I fish and experience my time on the water. Our fish are a bit smaller here, a 30 incher is a 1 in 100 fish, but there's a legitimate shot at 26"+. I have been having a great time launching little intruders with a 275 grain commando smooth, 10' tip, and my single hand 7WT spey rod. This works great for that close in work you mentioned, that we should not forget to show our fly to. This past summer was great using my 5Wt to shoot a 200 grain head off the dock for bluegill and bass. It occurred to me then that the S in OPST could be sunfish. This may or may not be endorsed by the Center for Skagit purity, but was a heck of a lotta fun! Glad you had a great trip to Canada, and thanks for turning me on to Skagit fishing. Ben B
    • Ben Paull
      Hi Ben, thanks for your comment. I am really glad to hear that our products and tactics have had a positive impact on your fishing. It seems like more and more people are realizing that swinging is fun and effective in the upper midwest, and that is great. It sounds like your steelhead fishery is a fun one- those are fun-sized and manageable fish- it's nice to be able to fish on relatively light tackle. I'm also glad to hear that you've been fishing the Commando Smooth. I would be using that line too. Thanks for reading the blog and thanks a lot for your support of OPST! -Ben Paull
  3. Jeremy Rohrlich
    Good thing Miller wasn't there. He's soooo not dialed.
    • Ben Paull
      Hahaha if Miller were there the steelhead would have swum back to the Pacific, never to be seen again.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *