Great expectations

Angler has something to say about supposed spring Steelhead bonanzas west of Terrace

I was in YXT waiting for my plane to YVR. Next to me was a fellow with a ruddy face and a red beard. Tucked under his arm like a parade marshal’s baton, was a green tube. Been fishing? I asked.

Yeah.

Get any?

Oh yeah. Lots.

Steelhead?

Steelies, cutties.

Kitimat? I asked, because the Kitimat River was a place where a guide might have taken him  for those species in the last two weeks in April.

No, he said, we fished the Skeena mostly and the Zimmy too.

It took me a few seconds to realize that by “Zimmy” the man was referring to the Zymacord River, that pretty little stream, too vulnerable to be worked by guides.

Before I had to enter the little room to be frisked for sharp objects and toothpaste, my new acquaintance filled in some of the details of his exploits with Skeena steelhead. He said that he was flying back to San Francisco, where, shortly after returning, he would be booking another fishing junket to the Skeena Valley.

Cutties, dollies, and steelies on the Zimmy – As I answered the boarding call, I wondered why so many fisher folk like to use a diminutive when referring to Steelhead and Cutthroat. Nobody I know calls Chinook Salmon, Chinookies, Sockeye Salmon, sockies, or Chum Salmon, doggies. Hunters don’t speak of hunting moosies. It’s a small thing this, but an annoyance as it seems to me to diminish the importance and majesty that those creatures have.

The other thing that struck me in our short conversation was the San Franciscan’s description of the steelhead fishing. They caught shiny new steelies, he said. We caught fish every day, and not just one or two per rod, but sometimes more than that.

I congratulated him on his good fortune. I can’t remember exactly what I said in response, but it was one of those noncommittal evaluations like: Gee, most people don’t do that well this time of year.

Embellishment is commonplace in Anglerdom. I placed the Californian’s tale of epic fishing in the exaggeration file and flew to Vancouver. But, upon my return there were more stories of extraordinary steelheading, all of them from reliable sources, all of them played out on the lower reaches of the Skeena approximately mid way between Terrace and Rupert.

From a veteran guide, I heard of a party that had so many days of prodigious catches they switched to surface patterns and still caught fish.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time fishing the Skeena below Terrace when the buds are just opening, when the river is clear as air on a windy day, and its water as cold as ice fresh from the freezer, and I can tell you that I’ve never experienced days so extravagant. In those conditions, when I’ve landed one fish I’ve patted myself on the back. The days when I’ve fought two or more are so rare they’re all readily recalled. And, I’ve taken a skunking more often than I’d care to admit. This lean spring fishing isn’t confined to me.

One mild winter and spring, I watched one of the best steelhead flyfishers on the planet work the Skeena day after day. He was fishing water best fished during other times of the year. I was catching a fish here and another there, as usual, and I wondered how he was doing. One day, on my way downstream, I saw his girlfriend standing beside his pickup downstream of New Remo while her beau fished the Remo Riffle. I pulled over.

How has he been doing, I asked.

We’ve been at it for over a month without a single fish, she said.

It made sense. When the water is low the fish are harder to find and harder to catch when you do find them. They spread out in the expansive tail outs much like they do late in the fall. When the salmon are running in summer, the steelhead are too. The high water pushes them nearer to shore where they are easily covered. All of them are bright and vigorous and more likely to bite in the warmer water. The late winter steelhead are the only new arrivals to the river in the spring. They are far less numerous than their summer run cousins. The rivers of the lower Skeena all have winter and late winter (or spring, if you want) steelhead, but none of those rivers have large runs.

In the Internet Age there are no secrets. Word of last year’s hot fishing on the lower Skeena was out in nanoseconds. Anglers from away booked trips. The boat launch at Andesite had six trailers when I went to Rupert recently, and the fishing reports are lousy. Last spring was an anomaly. This year is a normal year. It’s tough fishing with few rewards. The river is stingy. The fish are sluggish. It’s nice for those of us who have endured it to be out after a long harsh winter, but it’s not fishing you want to spend a lot of money getting to.