I turn on to Kalum at the top of the hill. The Skeena Valley plays out before me, marred only by the crack in my windshield. The mountain tops are white. Below them the lower flanks are blue green. The distances are crystal and clear as far as my aged eyes can see.
The landscape is achingly beautiful, its majesty enhanced by the fact that we haven’t seen a clear sunlit day for five months and the sun we’ve seen since then has been doled out in slivers and shards, minutes at a time.
The denizens of the North Coast appreciate a sunny day in the same way the folks living in the back ends of Norwegian fiords do. We understand better than anyone else how inspiring it is to know that behind the curtain of a grey dreary winter there lies scenery that robs your breath.
The dog rides in the seat next to me, anticipating a romp with her best friend, Chicklet. I pull into Doug’s driveway and watch through the rear view mirror as he stows his gear and leads his dog into the back of the pickup.
There’s a knock on the window. It’s Mark Perrin. I fumble with the buttons, find the right one and roll down the window.
Hey, Rob, says Mark. A guy I work with and three of his friends beached 23 steelhead on the upper Lakelse on Sunday.
Dark fish, I pronounce.
Well, he showed me some pictures, and some of them looked pretty bright.
Really, I say – by this time Doug has displaced Oona and is sitting next to me – Doug and I have been fishing the river for 40 years and we’ve never seen a bright steelhead on the upper river in that time.
Mark is a good fisherman. He tells me that the fish looked new.
Doug and I had our hearts set on a new-to-us riffle on the Skeena. As we drive through town, we know that our plans are bust.
I guess we’ve got to go to the Lakelse now, sighs Doug.
Yeah, we do, I say. We’ve got to test our assumptions – ground truth what we’ve just heard.
We meet a Newfie on our way to the river.
How was the fishing? I ask.
Didn’t get a thing, he responds, but I met a guy who caught 23 steelhead with his friends on Sunday.
He’s making his way to Coldwater, I say after we bid adieu to the gentleman from St. John’s, let’s take the tracks and beat him there. We do. Doug goes downstream I make may way to the pool. As I’m about to make my first cast, a young man with a jet black beard emerges from the bush and greets me.
You go first, I insist.
No, you go, he says. You were here first.
Do you know why I’m here first? I ask.
He looks at me incredulously.
Because you and your friends caught 23 steelhead on the river two days ago and two people have told me that you did since 9 o’clock this morning.
I only told my Dad – and he doesn’t fish – and my girlfriend, he says, with a look of incredulity on his face.
But who did your buddies tell? I ask.
I see by the look on his face that he gets it.
At my insistence, he fishes through the run. When he’s done I make a cast and hook a steelhead. Later I hook another. Both are fish that arrived four months ago. Last year’s fish.
Old fish, I say.
He takes out his iPhone and shows me snaps of last Sunday’s fish. I concede they look bright, but every one is a hold over fish. I tell him that you don’t want to lift them out of the water for more than 10 seconds to avoid damage to their gill rakers.
Oh, we have the cameras at the ready, he says.
He’s a really fine fellow who wouldn’t knowingly do any harm to steelhead, but like so many steelheaders, he has a lot of trouble telling the difference between hold over and newly arrived fish.
Female steelhead, in particular, can be shiny after months in the river, leading anglers to think they are fresh, when, in fact, they’ve been around for many months. A new fish will be gray on top, white on the bottom, have see through fins and be hard as a brick.
As we leave the river we see three young dudes with casting rods. We call to them that fishing that way is illegal now, but they continue to fish over steelhead that have almost no sanctuary in the low winter flows.
It’s really got to be closed to steelhead fishing at this time of year, says Doug.