The Source of Adventures
The ‘Mayor’ of Smithers greeted me like a long lost friend. He had been on the Kispiox for the day with friends. They had left early (it is about a 2-hour drive from his house) and were on the water almost at dawn. Consequently they were back in reasonable time. I had got in from Seattle where I had stopped off to see friends before heading north to Vancouver and then Smithers. In Vancouver I had learned that had I flown in from the UK on Air Canada, they have a channel for those with onward journeys in Canada so you can slide off avoiding the main passport and custom’s queue. It makes for a compelling reason to use Air Canada on the way to Smithers or Terrace, the two steelhead capitals of British Columbia.
The ‘Mayor’ is a long lost friend but not actually the Mayor of Smithers, they just call him that. He is an Englishman, living in London but he now knows so many people in Smithers it is impossible to go anywhere without him gleefully chatting someone up. Julian or Jules, generously credits me with what he calls a life-changing experience and still quotes my article about the Sustut from something like 1997. He says it moved him to come to British Columbia in 1999 to fish the Sustut and 18 years, two houses, two cars and hundreds of steelhead on many different rivers later here we are. Ironically 1998 was the last time I was in BC ( I used to fish the Sustut with a team every year) because I had to go and run the Ponoi for a decade and it has taken me until now to get back. Jules fell in love with BC, started coming for weeks at a time, bought a house (Zorrino I), sold it, bought some land and built a fabulous new house (Zorrino II) overlooking the Bulkley river and the town of Smithers with a spectacular mountain back-drop. It was to be my headquarters for ten days while I visited numerous lodges and operators from in and around Smithers and Terrace. Not only that, Jules had somehow managed to buy two retired works trucks which had 300,000 and 500,000 km on them but they worked just fine. Day One in Smithers was hanging out with some of Jules’s guests, going to the supermarket, the tackle shop Oscar’s, the centre of the world for all things steelhead, the car-repair shop etc because the next day everyone was leaving. That afternoon he did show me some spots I could drive to on the Bulkley in case I had time.
The following day Jules headed to the Babine with friends, his guests headed back to the UK via Joe Fortes (there is enough time between the flight to Vancouver and the flight back to the UK to catch the train into town and go to Joe Fortes for a slap up sea-food meal in this wonderful traditional restaurant in the centre of Vancouver!) and I was headed to my first appointment which was to see Bear Claw Lodge on the banks of the Kispiox.
The drive to the right turn up the Kispiox valley seemed very short, the drive up the valley seemed like an eternity but soon I was there meeting Kaleigh Allen and her parents as well as Danielle who works at the lodge. Bear Claw is difficult to get into during the prime of the season (September onwards) but it is a great spot for early season fishing for Kings in July and Chum salmon, Silver salmon and early steelhead through August. It is especially good for families as they have a superb children’s programme which includes riding, rafting, swimming, fishing etc. They are also within two hours of one of the great bear viewing spots as well as, of course, being surrounded by the generally wonderful BC scenery.
It is a wonderful log-built lodge run by one family and for those who return each year it is like coming home. I enjoyed a great lunch in the kitchen with some of the team and then began my journey back to Smithers delighted to have seen Bear Claw and met the Allen family. I know that my guests will be in excellent hands. Two guides on the Kispiox, Tom Lee and Don Williams, once worked on the Ponoi, they were excellent then and I have no doubt, fifteen years on, they are superb now. Kaleigh gave me a couple of spots to try on the Kispiox on my way home but I decided that I had less chance of finding them than I did the spots Jules had shown me so I made for the Bulkley back in Smithers and was rewarded with my first steelhead in 18 years!
My next stop was a longer drive to Terrace where I was due to meet Brian Niska at Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness Lodge. Terrace is about 3+ hours from Smithers and Brian’s lodge is just ten or fifteen minutes shy of Terrace. It was too late to head out fishing by the time I arrived but Brian and I and many of his team (guides, chefs, barman etc (all obsessed with steelhead) had a great evening. He bought the lodge from a German fellow and they have done a great job upgrading it with A-frame cabins really very nice inside and spacious too.
The main lodge is yet to be done as he and his wife Lizzie would wish it but it has great character and is a very friendly and comfortable place to spend an evening. By the time Brian and I had finished two evenings and a day on the water, we had covered everything there was to know about the fishing season in BC. Brian really knows his stuff and I am grateful to him for answering questions so thoroughly which he must get all the time. My time at Skeena Spey was extremely worthwhile, and I do and have recommended it with great confidence not only for the steelhead but also the Kings or Chinook season. The Kings are something I am really dying to do, Brian was candid about the pros and cons but the idea of 40, 50 or even 80lb Kings and the need for 300-600 yards of backing really appeals. There are all sorts of theories about how to land them, some say sustained, non-stop pulling, others say engage for an hour and then attack with the theory that the first hour will have some impact on the fish and that pulling hard from the start achieves nothing! I have a party fishing Brian’s prime dates in mid-July if anyone is interested.
I spent the next few days visiting various lodges and camps up and down the Skeena valley meeting the Who’s Who of the steelhead world, getting to know them and their operations. I managed one more morning of fishing and caught one more steelhead from Jules’s hotspot but that was it. Most important, I now feel that I am fully ‘in the know’ to advise Frontiers clients wanting to experience either the steelhead or the King salmon of this area as well as all the species in between so try me! I even know the best fly-tyers to talk to, some are in the UK but know BC better than I do.
The Actual Adventure
I proudly rattled my way to the airport to pick up my team the afternoon I completed my research only to find the plane was three hours late at best. Seeing Dom, Patrick and Barrie would have to wait, one more night having supper at Jules’s on my own. It was nice to see them the next morning, I was due for some company from people I knew well. We breakfasted at the Stork’s Nest and then headed over to the Canadian Helicopter Office. It was a beautiful, cold morning and the snow had crept further down the mountains overnight. We anticipated a stunning flight into the Nass/Damdochax system.
It was about an hour’s flight over frosted snowy fir trees and snow-capped peaks and then we swept into our valley, which seemed expansive, but we landed in a small gap in the trees. It looked like a Christmas scene, our small camp for the week nestled amongst towering, ancient fir trees where hardly a glimmer of sun could get in. It was cold, it was very cold, in fact it was -13 cold! The camp looked cold, the occupants, though jolly, looked equally cold! They were acclimatized, we were newbies coming in from civilization and we were feeling it!
We had lunch with the outgoing team and waved them goodbye and then began to focus on the reality of getting comfortable in our new home. Just as well I had insisted Dominic buy some outdoor shoes. He had not read the pre-trip at all and was wandering around in his slippers until a few hours ago! He had also been told to bring a sleeping bag but he ignored that too so our hosts had to dig one out for him. We had been advised to keep weight to an absolute minimum and for me that meant a real minimum because of my cameras. I would be utilizing every bit of clothing I brought to camp!
It was not a case of having lunch while the staff cleaned and prepared our tents. It was a case of the guys leaving walked out and we walked straight in. Our sleeping bags were to go over the bare foam mattresses provided on the rustic beds. We had a bench between the beds and some hangers. Barrie and Patrick had a piece of metal furniture so the mice could not chew it. We had been warned it was basic! Our hosts were our guides Carl (the manager) and Jack, and Yoder the chef who had rather limited ingredients because we were the last visitors of the season but his cooking and what he prepared out of seemingly nothing was wonderful all week.
Carl gave us the talk. Wear bear spray at all times even going to the long-drop outhouses. The showers are frozen so the only water of any sort is in the river or the giant pot under the fire in the middle of camp. Once you have visited the outhouse, put sawdust down it and burn the toilet paper with the lighters provided. Do NOT remove the lighters but do warm them up while visiting as they take a while to work due to the cold. Do not leave stuff outside the tents, wolves like to steal wading boots and chew waders. Fish whenever we like, from dawn to dusk but keep watch for bears.
Then we got into the whole tackle discussion and what we needed to use. I was using a McKenzie Atlas 6-piece with an Einarsson reel (available at Fin and Game) loaded with Rio Skagit iMow tip system which seemed very complex. It wasn’t, it was superb and worked a treat. The rod cast as far as I wanted it to and more so the set up was all I needed. My 13ft 9 weight never left its bag. We had ordered flies from Stuart Foxall who knows these parts very well and he tied us a selection. We actually arrived with what we needed to use. How often does that happen in a fishing camp?! We were adequately equipped for waders, boots, wading jackets and layers with the Patagonia Nano Puff being a core ingredient. Where we were lacking was on our bottom halves, we needed the Patagonia Nano Puff Pants. These would have stopped the numb legs for at least half of each morning and afternoon.
Finally, we headed out for our first afternoon. The Nass was in great shape and had good numbers of fish so our focus was there. The water was on the low side for the guide’s liking but the fishing was perfectly pleasant with a good stream. Dom and I headed out with Jack and we went downriver, the others stayed at Home Pool and drifted down after us. We went to a beautiful pool which was thankfully in the sun so we could warm up a little. Dom kicked my proverbial behind having been slightly confused by being invited to fish behind me. This is often the steelhead way with one rod trying one depth and the other another. Dom’s first ever steelhead was a 16lbs hen which he was obviously delighted about and his second was more typical of the Nass/Damdo fish at about 11lbs. Both female. That was our afternoon, spent amongst stunning scenery, beautiful wilderness water, catching a couple of steelhead. What more could one ask for but a 15 degree rise in temperature!
We headed home delighted and enjoyed a great dinner cooked by Yoder. Even the big wood stove was struggling to keep the kitchen warm but when we went to bed, it was a bit of a shock. We basically wore everything we had been wearing fishing except the actual waders and we were still cold. We piled the logs into the wood-burner with the predictable result; being we cooked ourselves and finally fell asleep once we had cooled a bit only to wake up two hours later with frost in our nostrils again. In our tent Dom was always pretending to be asleep, in the other tent, Patrick fell asleep so deeply and Barrie was such an upstanding, responsible individual that he got to do the fire all week!
The morning brought porridge, wonderful eggs and bacon, toast, honey and hot tea but no temperature rise at all. We all had our first frozen long-drop experience. I chose ‘the room with a view’ which has no door and looks out into the forest and enjoys visitors in the form of squirrels from time to time.
I could give you a blow by blow of how the week went but that would be dull. I am a great believer that with a bit of luck, some good observation, a willingness to learn (on both sides from guests and guides) a week’s fishing always develops for the positive. Our first full day was equally cold but sunny giving us some respite from the deep coldness for a few hours with the exception of our legs. We honed our skills and improved our patience. I say that because steelheading in general requires a much slower fly.
You do fish water which looks similar to Atlantic salmon water but the interesting parts where the fly must be fishing at its best are the parts inside where you might find an Atlantic salmon and, particularly in the cold weather, you need to let that fly swing and swing and swing until it will swing no further. That required great self-discipline from me especially because I am a fast salmon fisherman. The fish will not only follow the fly into much shallower water than you might otherwise expect to hook a salmon but they can lie in shallow water too which is less likely for Atlantic salmon although I wonder if we push them out banging about. Not enough people fish a pool from the bank avoiding speycasting before they even put a toe in the water. Another big debating point for me was fishing an entirely dead-drift fly. Jack was like a bossy schoolteacher watching me like a hawk telling me off every time I even twitched the flyline. On our first morning I sent him off to guide Dom to get some peace and quiet and went back to my figure-of-eighting (admittedly slowly but something to do while I waited the eternity for the fly to swing in to the bank as required). Soon I hooked a steelhead which took firmly in mid-stream of steelhead water. Then another. I decided that I could now justify my ‘line fiddling’ as Jack called it. As the week developed I got on to a bit of a winning streak and Jack, who fished from time to time behind us, was caught figure-of-eighting! Not good for his street cred!
Day two, the weather warmed a fraction but the wind came and so did the snow! Soon we had snow on the ground which of course froze at night. Now the camp was almost white. That did not stop the fishing. In fact, the fish were getting used to the cold and we were getting better so the fishing got better and better. We actually had a double hook-up in the snow!
Memorable moments for me were cracking Home Pool, both the top and the tail which had been tough to deliver for a few days. Jack and I then hooked seven and landed five of them in about 80 minutes. Some were hooked in the dark Rio Grande-style with the wonderful scream of the reel, the inverted slosh as the steelie leaves the water, the momentary silence and then the wonderful slooosh as the fish lands and you can see the white water telling you where the fish is. Jack and I also witnessed a wonderful take in the pool above the Home Pool, a truly beautiful, mouth-watering steelhead tailout. Slowly the fly swings but as the swing is coming to an end the water begins to speed the fly up. A bow-wave appeared and streaked across the surface and hit the fly at speed followed by a violent battle.
Then there was Dommie’s return to his favourite spot where he caught his two fish. This time I was on the other side of the river but again, two fish for Dommie. Patrick had a struggle catching fish in Home Pool but cracked it the last morning. Carl encouraged me to try a lovely little spey hackle fly tied by Stuart and it caught the biggest fish of the week at 18lbs. Dommie had a tussle with his other favourite spot which was actually his nemesis. He hooked fish after fish there but none stuck. Catching Jack figure-of-eighting was highly amusing too. On the last morning we were let loose on our own. I just had to try a lovely little nook that Carl kept agreeing with me looked good but would not let me fish because he assured me it was too shallow. I tossed an 18-year old fly (recommended by Carl) into the spot and bang, first cast 16lbs!
We ended the week with 44 fish which the guides said was the best of the season. It is extraordinary how enduring something together, in this case the weather, with a sense of humour (what else could one have stuck in the wilderness for a week in the freezing cold!?) ends up making the week what it was. It is equally intriguing how one does acclimatize and adapt and start to work out the best ways to handle things. I remember the same from my days of living at Ryabaga Camp on the Ponoi, one adapted and became a cardboard rat storing anything that would burn well or light fires. We saw moose, tons of bear and wolf tracks including through camp. It was a magical time and the company got better and better, the craic the same. Carl, Jack and Yoder were top boys and we had a very memorable week. A great deal of the evenings were spent with crazy stories of monster King salmon and how to play them as well as the need for 400 or even 600 yards of backing. That is something I really really want to do soon. To hook a 60 or 80lbs mint-bright King would be a hoot!
In summary, would I go to the Nass/Damdochax again? The answer is absolutely. Plans are afoot for camp improvements, which will make the experience even better but those wilderness rivers are very special and if you go prepared for what you will experience, or could experience, your chances of a trip of a lifetime (water and weather conditions permitting) are very high. We flew back to civilization much closer for the experience having, with hindsight, loved every minute of it and all agreed we would do it again immediately. Fishing in the BC wilderness is one of the great fishing experiences, to be out in the middle of nowhere amongst the huge expanse of forest filled with wildlife with such defined seasons is a truly magical experience. Each area and species has its prime time and one needs to be sure to be in the right place at the right time for best fishing and even then, things can go wrong with nature but what an expeirence.