Bear neccesities

This week our columnist Rob Brown talks about the elusive Lakelse River summer steelhead

Jim and I drove to the lower end of the Lakelse River via Remo Road and Whitebottom Main a couple of weeks ago. Though I didn’t expect to find many had entered the river with the water being as low as it was, I had a faint hope of killing a coho.

Karen and I had travelled to southern Alberta when the sockeye were racing up the Skeena, so I missed the opportunity to kill some of those fish and stick them in jars for winter. A couple of cohoes would make good larder replacements  for the sockeye.

Jim had no killing intentions. He wanted to look at the river, take stock of the pink stocks, catch a few trout, but, most of all, he was keen to hook one of those elusive and rare Lakelse River summer steelhead.

Last September, he and Andrew Williams had been fishing the middle reaches of the Lakelse. Andrew was looking to catch a coho and Jim was intent upon trout, and was using a light outfit for that reason.

After lunch, Jim had a take from a large fish that came unstuck before he had a good look at it. He had seen enough of it to know it wasn’t a coho. It was too big to be a either a cutthroat trout or one of the river’s hybridized rainbows. The fact that the fish had taken a small fly fished just under the surface of the river, led Jim and Andrew to conclude that it must have been a summer steelhead.

The coho fishers who bounce jigs along the bottom of the lower river report hooking steelhead in September too.

Every fall, Doug Webb and I share the paths into the middle reaches of the Lakelse River with the grizzly bears. The bruins are after salmon. We’re after cutthroat trout and char. Because fishing trout with the kind of rod that can handle a steelhead is less enjoyable and unsporting, we fish small trout rods and light leaders. And, every year we have one or two instances where we hook and lose large fish we suspect are early run steelhead.

Twenty-five years ago, Eddy Chapplow and I were fishing the run just upstream of White Creek, the piece of water that I call the Hammock Hole inspired to do so by Mike Whelpley, who used to hang a hammock near it to rest from a morning of arduous spring steelhead fishing on the nearby waters many years ago. Again Ed and I had trout in our cross hairs, but because I was fishing a large, hairy nymph built of burlap and buck fur, I was forced to use a heavy leader to cast it.

The fly was working well. I’d released a lot of Dolly Varden and some nice cutthroat when a large fish hit. After an exciting battle, I brought a dark steelhead to shore. Its colour suggested the fish had been in the river for a while, and this was in the first week of September. Catching a Lakelse steelhead in August would provide real confirmation that the river has true summer runs, but nobody fishes the river then as it’s usually plugged with pink salmon.

The majority of Lakelse steelhead begin entering the river when the ripened crimson coho are frantically digging redds in the upper river. The peak of the return falls in mid- to late-November and begins to taper off in mid-December. There are a few fish still entering the river in January, provided a cold snap hasn’t closed up the upper river and all but dewatered the remainder.

A few of these rugged fish settle into the few relatively deep pools while a few others spend the winter under some of the river’s many log jams, as was confirmed during radio telemetry programs back in the 1980s. It’s generally assumed, but by no means proven, that the majority of Lakelse River steelhead spend the winter in the almost two kilometre long, slow moving, reedy stretch of the upper river between Herman’s Point and outlet of Lakelse Lake. Steelhead caught by ice fishers in and near that area prove that some fish over winter in this spot, but I suspect that they use the entire lake and that, contrary to popular theory, some of them do not drop back into the Lakelse River to spawn, but are intent on spawning in all or some of the creeks that feed the lake, Williams Creek being possibly the most important of those. In fact, Williams Creek may be the target of those September steelhead.

Streams that host summer steelhead have canyons and are lake headed. The Zymoetz and Dean exemplify this. The shorter, glacial or ground water fed streams on our coast have winter fish and later winter (also called spring) runs of steelhead. The Lakelse has these features.

Jim and I were discussing this while pulling on our waders when a large white truck came bouncing down the road into the Powerline Run.

…to be continued next week…