Steelhead fly fishing at Smithers BC
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British Columbia Bulkley River steelhead fly fishing

bulkley river steelhead fishing
Steelhead fly fishing preparation

Readying for a British Columbia steelhead fly fishing trip starts weeks or months ahead, bookings travel and hotels, rods and lines to check out and flies to tie, here is some good advice. Lists of provisions, gear for various conditions, clothing for hot or very cold weather, there are few trips more perishing than a pre-dawn 30mph upriver jet boat dash through the swirling mists at minus something degrees Centigrade to find a holding pool. On arrival at our Smithers motel we attend to the important things, planning and preparing for tackling up in the darkness of a pre dawn morning. Chatting to other anglers, asking where and how the fish are being caught, adding up the evidence and dividing by the credibility of its contributors. Did they really get them at the Golf Course with dry flies? Are those enormous leaches any good? Where is everybody going tomorrow morning and at what time? Well some questions are best not asked! Sportsmanship may be substituted by gamesmanship, one up-man-ship, stolen advantage. The only sure way to learn from steelhead anglers is to watch what they are doing, believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see. If you really want to know where the hot spots are just miss out some early morning fishing, quietly observe the river and you will find the best casts occupied by the “experts”.

Steelhead anglers have adopted double handed Spey and Skagit lines rods to enable them to reach distant current seams and cover lies that are impossible to reach and fish satisfactorily with a single handed rod and overhead cast. Many steelhead are caught on deeply fished flies, in fact popular opinion is that they can only be caught on flies that are either close to the bottom or near to the surface. A trait that steelhead share with sea trout is that of reverting to freshwater behaviour. The longer they remain in the river the more they adopt the habits of resident trout, including taking insects and other naturals more frequently. Perhaps the biggest mistake I made during my first attempts at steelhead fishing was completely misunderstanding their chosen lies. My mistake had a profound effect on my first steelhead adventures, I caught nothing because I waded through the prime water and cast far beyond any self respecting steelhead lies. With the eye of a salmon angler I completely misread the river. Particularly if they are not disturbed steelhead will lie in comparatively soft water less than three feet deep along the inside seams of even the largest of rivers like the Bulkley.

Eventually I realised why my steelheading friends used sink tips instead of full sinking lines. Sink tips can be adjusted by using different densities and different lengths of tips to fish at depths of up to six or eight feet. Casting the line square across the river with reach mends ensures that that tip sinks before the fly starts to swing and the problem of controlling a deeply sunk fly in slower currents is neatly solved. Colours for deep sunk steelhead flies are usually black, purple and pink and they can be really big. Huge, water resistant flies are not easy to cast, especially with a fast sink tip, fortunately it’s not often necessary to reach long distances for steelhead and nowadays Skagit lines make the process much easier.

Ally Gowans with a steelhead
Ally with a Bulkley River steelhead

Simplicity is a feature of some very effective flies, well summed up by a Smithers angler who holds the view that if a fly contains four materials, that’s one too many! Shrimp and prawn flies, purple, red and black are also favourites, especially those based on the GP style of dressing.

I never enquired of my contemporaries as to how steelhead take a fly; I was to learn that in fact they can be damned fast. Occasionally as my fly swam around following the drift of the line I would feel light tugs or pulls, like a brushing leaf or a pecking parr or so I thought. Harry Lemire came wandering by and whilst exchanging pleasantries he observed my beginners efforts and picked up on a couple of flaws in my steel heading technique. “Hey Ally, if you don’t hold your line tight you’ll never feel these fish taking, they take softly most times and you gotta strike ‘em”. Ok so then I held my line ready to strike or at least tighten in response to any punctuation in its drift. When the line swung into the slow water I started to retrieve. Again came the voice “Hold on there and let it hang for a bit, they often take when the line is right below you”. Harry’s words worked wonders, it was amazing how a little sensitivity transformed the touch of a leaf or tiny parr-like bite into leaping silver steelhead and flies that hung quite dead in the water suddenly came alive and exploded into fighting fish. Steelhead fishing page 2

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Copyright 2007 Alastair Gowans AAPGAI and FFF Master and THCI, APGAI. All rights reserved.