STEELHEAD ARE STEELHEAD ARE STEELHEAD
The river and its steelhead are only described in superlatives: best, greatest, strongest, fastest, brightest, toughest. It’s hard to help the uninitiated—friends, family and acquaintances unfamiliar with steelhead—understand just what it means to fish there. If steelhead were built for the swung fly, these fish broke the mold. Phrases like “trip of a lifetime” are thrown around unironically. You explain, you describe, you implore them to understand what it means to fish a place like this—all to no avail. They nod and say good luck. They turn their lips up in noncommittal grins. They don’t get it.
Even getting to the river is a superlative experience. There are not many reasons for a Cessna float plane that seats fewer than a dozen people to go there. Steelhead and chinook are one reason. Hunting, skiing, and general adventuring are perhaps a few others. An argument could be made that the flight itself is worth the trouble, for how often does one get the chance for fly-bys along 6,000 foot peaks; bird’s eye views of endless glaciers; a flight path that has more in common with the contour lines on a topographic map than the flat plane of the paper it’s printed on.
You buzz. Through the flight and the landing; through the short ATV ride to the lodge and the drinks in the evening; through the several interminable hours between disembarking and dinner and conversation and then sleep (with the river right there, through the woods a ways, untouchable because of licenses and schedules and guides taking some well-deserved hours off); you buzz like a windswept fence line, a jumpy unrest clutching the muscles from just behind your jaw down through your shoulders. It’s excruciating.
The first day on the water comes and, as it turns out, even the greatest steelhead rivers have off days. Or weeks. The water’s been low this year, and the returns have reached a bit of a trough, and in spite of optimism the first day passes with your own fly untouched. Others encounter fish, even land them. But those encounters are abstractions; you listen to the stories, and even replay in your head one hook up that you witnessed that first day. But you didn’t feel the hit, the pull, the fear of disconnection with each jump; you didn’t get the shakes afterward. There was none of the afterglow that permits a relaxed streamside beer on cobbles that feel like clouds.
The next day it happens—at least enough to buoy hopes. A fish hits midstream in a fast run seconds after the fly snaps to attention on the swing; it pulls so hard your vision blurs for a moment, then goes free. For several moments you question reality. Did that just happen? Should I take another pass? Will it eat again? It did, you do, and it doesn’t.
Others find a few fish. Midway through the week, a young kid at camp gets spooled by a fish that exits the tidal pool he was fishing and returns to saltwater with shooting head, running line and backing in tow. The kid is 18 and has never caught a steelhead before. In fact, he’s never really fished for steelhead before. In fact, he’s on his way to college in a state where there are no steelhead for hundreds, if not thousands of miles.
(Though later he gets another, one that, like the first, is intent on a return to the ocean, and which, after hook-up, requires a careful pickup and ride in the jet sled in order not to lose another shooting head and running line. He lands this one. Later in the day he finds the previously lost head, wrapped around a rock exposed at low tide, distinctively devoid of a fish.)
Your next lost fish ushers in the doom. It’s a classic hit: a mid-swing bump; a couple more; then another bump suddenly interrupted by the shrill falsetto whee of the reel. The first run ends, and it’s possible you’ve never been so far away from a fish that you were still hooked up to. And it’s certain you’ve never been left with so much line hanging limp in the current after it twists free without fanfare.
In the moment, you sink hip-deep to your knees in the current. In the moment, you curse your bad luck and think back on the past several months, on the string of fishless days, the days with grabs but no hook-ups, the days with hook-ups but failed fights. Steelhead get under your skin like a tick on a late autumn day; like a tick they can appear from nowhere and can be hard to move. They get under your skin because there is so little that can be done to negotiate the terms of the encounter—which is both their greatest allure and most frustrating aspect.
But in the days and weeks and months to follow, that moment fades—ever so slightly—into the background. What comes to the fore is the stream side lunch with new and old friends. The mama bear with two cubs who gracefully swam across a rapid upstream of you and ambled comically along the opposite riverbank like a family out for an afternoon stroll. The small steelhead that took up a station in the shallows during lunch, which the crew tried to tempt with potato chips—just to see what would happen.
What comes to the fore is the fact that you were fishing for steelhead on a river with no roads, swapping runs with the same group of fewer than a dozen people each day, swinging flies through water that is as hallowed as it gets. Even the third lost fish of the week—a violent grab on the hang down, line evaporating from the reel, a jump and a departure—doesn’t change the sum total.
When you add it all up, they were still the strongest, fastest, toughest fish. They were still steelhead, and you were still steelheading. Steelhead are steelhead are steelhead—even on the greatest steelhead rivers in the world.
WORDS BY: Jason Rolfe
Jeroen Wohe was born in the Netherlands and got his start guiding Atlantic Salmon fisherman on Russia’s Kola Peninsula. When a trip to fish the famous steelhead rivers of British Columbia changed his life. It’s often said that change is the only constant, and not many places on earth is this more apparent than the rivers of BC. Check out what Jeroen is up to in Steelhead country and how he’s “mixing things up” at the Skeena River Lodge.
Winter skagit to traditional long heads, switch to spey, recommendations from our staff and ambassadors on some perfect two-handed season setups.
The beauty of a seven-weight switch stick is that it's big enough for steelhead, sea run dollies, sea run browns and all the salmon species (other than Kingy), yet not so big to completely blow past the western trout game in the Rockies and beyond.
When picking a good winter setup I think it’s important to find a rod that suits what water you normally fish. For instance, I normally fish deeper runs where getting a fly into the strike zone to trigger a reaction is very important. The 8130-4 X is the 'DO ANYTHING ROD'. It bends deep into the cork and has enough power to throw 15' of T-20 along with a huge Musky fly if you wanted it to.
After spending winter and spring fishing sinktips on coastal rivers, it’s a pleasure to swing a waker or unweighted traditional on one of the Northwest’s many desert rivers. Not only are the fish more willing to take a fly higher in the water column, many of the larger desert rivers offer the perfect opportunity to reach out and present flies at a distance. Long rods and long belly lines are incredibly efficient for this style of fishing because they allow an angler to present the fly without having to strip in line between casts. Big rivers are ideal for long belly lines because they offer plenty of room for a large D-loop and have enormous riffles to work through. Long rods are the norm there; some anglers are using rods as long as 17’. I find that the 9140-4 IGNITER offers plenty of length and power to punch a tight loop into the distance while still feeling sporty with a midsized steelhead on your line. I like to fish RIO’s 8/9 Long Head Spey taper and a 12’ hand-tied fluorocarbon leader with a long butt section starting at .025” in diameter. With a density that’s nearly twice that of nylon monofilament, a hefty fluorocarbon leader will provide a little bit of depth to a swung unweighted fly.
HAND BUILT BLANKS
Measure twice, roll once, and bake one by one, always by hand. Bainbridge Island’s climate is a geographic sweet spot—not too hot in the summer, nor too cold in the winter—for building fly rods, and our proximity to the aerospace industry gives us access to better graphite and materials than we could get if our factory was overseas. It’s the perfect recipe for handcrafting—slowly and with intention—the most high-performance fly rods on the planet.
Want to learn more about fishing British Columbia with Jeroen at Skeena River Lodge? Check out the link below for full details.