Pioneers like Herman Buschmann, George Kofoed, and Kolbjorn Eide were running the rocky riffles of the river in wooden boats powered by prop driven outboards two decades before him, but for me the mention of the Gitnadoix will always be associated with Mike Whelpley. Mike had the advantage of a jet leg, a Zodiac and, later, a jet sled, but I doubt that anybody spent more time on, or had a deeper understanding or greater love of the Gitnadoix River than Mike.
You gotta see this river, Mike said to me one March day 34 years ago after he and his dad had spent a weekend there.
It was Mike’s first date with the Gitnadoix. His excitement was palpable. A week later we were there. The river was so low that I had to hop out of the Zodiac on the skinniest riffles then climb on board on the upstream side to save the jet leg, a task made easier by the frozen snow pack that lined the river bank like a white hedgerow.
As we climbed the river it quickened. Wispy clouds that could be mistaken for puffs of smoke hung tight and unmoving against wide, treeless slide corridors burnished by the seasonal avalanche flow.
The air in the narrow river valleys on the left side of the Skeena checks no calendars. It was winter air. It stung our faces, reminding us that the margin of survival was smaller than it was at other times of the year. Just before the spot where Dog Tag Creek fed the flow a cottonwood had fallen across the river. Where it covered the deepest part of the flow it had been neatly and economically sawn. We slipped through, just.
George has a Zodiac too, said Mike.
Things got fast and steep. Mike slowed then picked his way up to a long glide that was all about fish: its tail was filled with large rocks; it had an even gentle flow; it was three to four feet deep.
Mike beached the boat and threw out the hook.
I looked at the expansive valley, at the snow covered mountains turned blue by the cold distances. The energetic rapids upstream and down, louder in the low flows, roared through my ears.
Mike grabbed his drift rod from the boat. I grabbed mine.
No, he said, get your fly rod. He gestured toward the tail of the pool. Put a dry fly through there, he ordered.
Persuading steelhead to take flies from the surface was new and almost unheard of then. By dry fly, Mike meant a surface fly – a waking fly in contrast to one that fitted the narrow definition of an insect imitating pattern that drifted freely. The latter were strictly reserved for the freely rising summer steelhead of August and September, while surface flies, attractors really, were also summer run steelhead lures, for the most part.
I looked at Mike in a way that begged for confirmation.
A dry fly, he said, pointing at the back half of the glide.
I replaced the reel loaded with a sinking tip line with one equipped with a floater, attached one of Harry Lemire’s Greased Liners to the tippet as Mike waited patiently and expectantly, then started in, casting down and across at a 45º angle.
We watched the fly cut an arc across the surface, me not expecting any reward, Mike, fairly confident (as he confided later) that it would.
As I fished perfunctorily near the end of the tail out, a fish rolled under the Greased Liner. We looked at each other to confirm that we’d seen what we’d seen. Mike smiled and pointed to the spot where the fish had risen.
They like to hang deep in the tail, just before the spill, he said.
Still, winter water was running through the river, water that would freeze if it wasn’t moving, water that anesthetizes steelhead, water that makes them stick to the bottom like glue. Yet, a fish had climbed through the water to look at my drab waking fly. I cast again, and again, and again and yet again. On that last cast the fly disappeared. There was no splash, no flash, it simply vanished. I struck because I was conditioned to do so.
The fish was a female. A nice fish about dozen pounds, probably the first and last Gitnadoix steelhead to have been persuaded to take a surface fly.
Amazing, said Mike as he watched the steelhead escape from view after I set her free.
Based on the fishing he’d had the week before, Mike felt there was a strong chance a steelhead could be persuaded to move to the surface. Now he had confirmation. He picked up his casting rod and using a rubber egg cluster, cannonball shot, and a float proceeded to hook and release a dozen steelhead in the same water I had laboriously fished with my waking fly, then, after lunch he released more than that in the pair of runs upstream. It was a virtuoso performance. I won’t forget it.
Continued next week…