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Words from the West

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"God hates a coward!"

A typical small west
coast steelhead river
Those were Sean's words as he set off down the ridge and plunged into the thick forest in search of the river that we could hear but apparently not reach. It could be the steelheader's motto, because I have yet to visit a good winter steelhead water on the west coast that doesn't require a good deal of courage.

Did I say west coast? That should be wet coast. After a totally dry summer, the rains have come with a vengeance. The salmon that have been waiting in the estuaries have been moving upriver for the last few weeks, and so are the steelhead that provide such excellent sport.

At this season, timing is everything. The rivers that drain the craggy mountains rise and fall quickly after each deluge. The Englishman River on Vancouver Island, for example, went from 1.5 metres to 4.5 metres in 24 hours last week, and dropped back by 2 metres the next day, so anglers are watching the forecast with an eagle eye and visiting websites such as Environment Canada's hydrometric site (see below) to find out how much water is in any given river right now.

Difficult Conditions

The fly has drifted through
the run and is swinging
across the current.
Concentration is the key
Many winter steelhead anglers eschew the fly and fish with "gear", bottom bouncing artificial roe and coloured yarn, or with a spoon, and they have a point. Summer steelhead take a fly fairly readily, but the winter fish are harder to entice. On many rivers, when fishing a wet fly, there is also a problem in getting it down to the bottom, where the steelies lie.

Takes are tentative and easily missed, and keeping in touch with the fly without causing it to come to the surface is an art in quick, deep currents. The ideal water is 3 to 5 feet deep and moving at a walking pace, but such water may not exist after heavy rain.

Rod, Reel and Line

A 7- or 8-wt rod is about right for smaller waters, but large rivers and large fish call for a 9- or 10-wt. The reel is all important, as steelhead fight hard and the water can be moving fast. A good disc drag is essential - one that can apply sufficient braking to slow the fish but takes off smoothly when a run starts.

A fresh, bright steelhead,
hooked on a popsicle.
Photo: Courtney Ogilvie
The shooting head or sink tip needs to be matched to the river conditions, but sometimes you will want to get down quickly and a heavy line is the order of the day. A short leader, even as short as a foot, will help to keep the fly close to the bottom. Winter water tends to be coloured to some degree, but if it is super clear a longer leader might be wise. An 8-lb leader is the minimum that you'll need.


When I last signed off I was setting out to retrieve my rod and reel from the bottom of a lake - not! But first let me tell you how it came to be there. On a nearby lake, trout anglers have come close to being scarred by bald eagles that try to take hooked fish as they're being brought to hand - one friend had one taken from his canoe! These are big and impressive birds, and I was determined to get some pictures of this phenomenon.

A bald eagle takes the trout
- and the fly with it!
Sean and I went out in the float tubes, Sean hooked a fish and, sure enough, in came an eagle. I took some great pictures, finning and spinning the tube around to catch the action, but when I had put the camera away and was ready to carry on fishing - no rod!

I had elbowed my favourite rod and reel over the side in what turned out to be about 40 feet of water. Twice I went back and tried trawling the bottom with a weighted hook, to no avail, and a good friend went diving for it, but couldn't find it in the silt.

If, like me, you've ignored the advice to attach your rod to the float tube, you might consider taking that advice. It could save you a lot of money.

Environment Canada's hydrometric site:

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