When you cross the Skeena toward town on the older bridge you will see a swath of deciduous growth on Terrace Mountain.
When those trees leaf out, said Gene Llewellyn, the steelhead will be in the Lakelse River.
Gene confined his steelheading to three rivers, the Copper, the Kalum, and the Lakelse. An embarrassment of riches. He knew better than anybody that the little Lakelse River hosted steelhead in all but the summer months, but what he meant with his dictum was that when the leaves appear in late April and early in May, silvery spring steelhead enter the river and co-mingle with the darkening fish of the year before.
Those new spring steelhead are less numerous than those that enter the river in the previous fall and winter, but they, and the chance to fill more sample vials of DNA, are the reason I’m off to the river on May Day.
At the far end of the swamp, we take the Fern Pickers’ Path under ancient trees to the Junction Pool.
Yesterday, there was frost in the morning and a cold wind blew all day. The water was cold enough to make me thankful to still be wearing long underwear. Today, the river had risen a few inches and a few degrees, the verdure has exploded, there isn’t a breath of wind, and the weather app on my cell phone puts the temperature at 21 degrees.
When the sun beats down on a river, it’s akin to switching on all the lights in a darkened room. Steelhead, creatures that spend much of their lives in shadowy depths of rivers under cloudy skies, can get skittish. The Confluence Pool is lit up. I drift a fly through it spotting two dark fish in the process, but neither grabs hold.
Half of the long unnamed run below us is shaded by a grove of old cedars and spruce. It’s water that fishes well when the water is higher. I lean against my staff and bounce waist deep across the river and start casting to the shade. A few casts and maybe a dozen steps later, a steelhead glides past no more than a few feet in front of me. Two more fish spook then dart off downstream as I wade out to more effectively fish the slot near the far bank.
The sun rises. The shadows shorten, bringing an urgency to my exertions. If the run has changed in the last 30 years, those changes are imperceptible. Each feature – the overhanging pair of alder, the small inlet that entrains a little of the river and leads it down a narrow side channel to a reentry point past the log jam below, the quick tail race where Mike Whelpley hooked two bright steelhead on successive casts on the cool, clear March day many years ago when the two of us walked from the Power Line to Mink Creek – is still there, natural memorials to fine fishing of the past.
Just ahead of the inlet (and just about out of shadow) my line stops. A steelhead takes to the air at the bite of the hook. I’m relieved to see that it’s bright. I wrestle it to shore, take a snip of adipose, then let the creature go. I slide the sample into an envelope.
Oona growls as I gather my gear.
She probably smells a bear that’s excavating skunk cabbage shoots in the swamp behind us, I think.
She barks. I look in the direction she’s facing and see a cow moose standing tentatively on the far bank next to the Junction Pool. After considering the situation for a while the moose trots upstream and reenters the bush.
We walk in the same direction intending to take the middle channel to Gledhill’s Pool. I smell marijuana. Two fiddlehead pickers are taking a break to smoke some dope.
You sent a moose our way, says one.
Dog spooked her, I say.
We pick our way through the tangled swamp, past giant cottonwoods gnawed at their bases by beaver eager to wear down their teeth, through devil’s club, and over bunches of fiddleheads about to sprout. As we near our destination, we are forced to clamber over a log jam, and as we do I think about the giant stone flies, and how I haven’t seen any shucks or a hatch of the humming bird-sized insects in a few years now. Then, as if summoned by my thoughts, one rises awkwardly through the air, then another, and another. Soon the air is full of them.
I sit on a downed cottonwood to absorb the sun and eat a sandwich. There are a pair of steelhead hovering over the sepia gravel below me. I unscrew the top of my thermos and inhale the aromatic vapour of the ginger and lemon scented green tea then take a sip. I give the dog an ankle bone bought from the butcher at the Thornhill Meat Market.
Happy May Day, I tell her.