It was early in March, said Mike. He and Fred launched at Exchamsiks then, and instead of powering downstream and across the Skeena to the Gitnadoix, as they regularly did, they jetted upstream.
Winter keeps an icy grip on the river valleys on the Northern side of the Skeena. The snow atop the avalanche chutes hadn’t begun to crumble and rumble down to the valley floor. Any melt was miniscule.
In high water, passage through the rock garden in the lower river is possible – in slow, low, glass-clear winter water it’s not. Mike cut the ignition and let the inflatable belly up against a boulder. He pulled down on the motor and the prop came free of the water. He and Fred slid over the side. Waist deep in water, they wrenched the craft over the rockery. In a few minutes they were off again. Cold air stung their faces. The whine of the engine supplanted the nearly silent rush of the river in the narrow valley.
There are never many steelhead. In winter rivers, there are fewer still. In those cold rivers finding fish is special because of that scarcity. The experience is intensified by the places winter steelhead inhabit – spots at the heart of vivid, frozen landscapes. Finding winter fish is an event on par with spotting a lone wolf, or the first lustrous black bear of spring.
The men checked out some likely spots with no success. They shot some pictures and decided over lunch they would rest the engine and drift down river, hoping to spot fish on their way.
After ensuring there were no lunch leavings left, they pushed off, gliding silently over pools, riffles, and glides, peering hawk-like into light and shade through polarized sunglasses. Here and there a log or rock assumed the form of a fish, but for miles there were no fish. Not one. Then Mike spotted something. Small white things, in fact.
There, he said to Fred, as he pointed to the centre of a long placid pool.
Fred squinted to see. The white things were attached to fins. The fins were attached to fish.
Dollies, said Fred, I think they’re Dollies.
Mike looked more closely and agreed. They were Dolly Varden Char. The bottom of the river was carpeted with them. There might have been fifty. There might have been a hundred.
Dolly Varden weren’t the target. Mike and Fred made no motion toward the rods. They watched, for a long time, fascinated, looking for a hint as to why those fish were where they were.
Were they waiting for salmon fry to hatch? Dolly Varden are fish eaters. They gorge on little fish, the flesh of fish, the eggs of fish and each other. True, they will devour a navigator shrew on those rare times when the rodents lay themselves bare when crossing a river, but, in the main they are piscivorous.
What was the attraction of this particular glide, a stretch of sandy bottomed river in no obvious way distinguishable from the many runs Mike and Fred had floated over on their way to it? Would the next stretch host as many char. They pushed off. The giant school trembled as they did.
The Zodiac slipped through the next riffle into a deeper pool at the toe of a slide chute. A few large rocks that an avalanche or slide had left on the bottom made viewing harder but not impossible. Fred and Mike soon convinced themselves there were no fish there. And so it went all the way to the Rock Garden.
A few years later, Fred had a similar experience on the Kitimat River when he and Greg Knox donned their diving gear and swam a long stretch of the river to do an inventory of the cutthroat. In higher flows more swimmers would’ve been required to do adequate count, but Greg and Fred were dealing with low flows.
To their surprise, they saw nothing for miles. At their predetermined take out, the Second Washout, it seemed that there were cutthroat everywhere. As they climbed out of the water, a fisherman drove up and climbed out of his car. He asked Greg and Fred what they were doing.
When he was told they were counting cutthroat, the fisherman ventured that they must have see a lot of trout in the pool before them. He knew this because he’d killed quite a few there. One of the best spots in the river, he said.
Like a lot of fishers he was probably drawn to the place because it’s next to the road. Like most casual fishers, he can be forgiven for thinking that some of the barren runs Fred and Greg swam earlier contained some fish, and that lots of runs downstream are as good as the Washout, and that many more have decent number of trout. Sadly, he’s dead wrong.
Continued next week...