In the winter of 2016, my friend Bob Jirsa and I discovered that both of us had a trip to the steelhead promised land of northern British Columbia on our bucket lists. I did my due diligence, researching destinations, and got a very strong endorsement for Steelhead Valhalla from a trusted friend. On a trip to Bozeman, Montana that winter, I met with Jeff Vermillion, one of the owners, and signed on the dotted line for Bob and me.
Eighteen months and much anticipation later, I found myself in the copilot’s seat of a single-engine Otter, flying over the roadless wilderness north of Smithers B.C. After about 50 minutes of bouncing along on a turbulent upper-level breeze, the river came in sight. The steelhead that return to the upper Skeena and Sustut travel over 400 miles upriver with an elevation gain of 2400 feet. They are notoriously strong, aggressive (at times) and some reach weights over 30 pounds. All the fishing is done by “swinging” flies on spey rods. As always when steelhead fishing, you’re hoping to put the fly as close to the nose of the fish as possible and leave it there as long as possible. These more aggressive fish will chase a little farther, grab with a bit more authority.
Our flight terminated on a long dirt/grass runway where we met the outgoing guests from the previous week from whom I picked up two tidbits: 1. The fishing the past week was slow, 2. The party the night before went late and did some damage. I wondered how much bouncing could they take.
We loaded our bags and gear onto the cargo wagons that were towed behind the four-wheel-drive carts. We proceeded down a rugged dirt road that included improvised wooden bridges over the backwaters of the river. I wondered how often the cargo gets dumped on a tight turn. There was nearly no room for error. The guides at the lodge drive these vehicles as well as the jet boats. No room for error is the theme in both situations and for the week that followed, I saw no errors.
Bob and I settled into our wilderness cabin, warmed by the blaze in the woodstove. Our bucket list plan that began a year and a half ago was underway. These steelheads, along with kings and silvers from the Skeena River drainage, migrate into the North Pacific. As I told the guides, we’ve caught a lot of Skeena River fish 300 miles to the west-northwest in Sitka, but I’ve never fished the Skeena. Steelhead Valhalla Lodge is totally isolated from the rest of the world – no roads in, no realistic way to boat in and out. There’s a line up of five or six comfortable cabins for the anglers and a main cabin in which Belinda Miller, who runs the show in many ways, cooks excellent breakfasts and dinners.
On the first night, we got the orientation and there’s a draw for the weekly schedule. The lodge has four “beats” they can fish; there are four groups of three anglers and six days to fish. Each group fishes all four beats, then each repeats on the beats they fished on their first and second day. Our group lucked out, drawing two days on the Skeena beat, which turned out to be the most productive.
Given the low percentage nature of steelhead fishing with a fly rod and the not so rosy reports from the group going out and people I spoke to in Seattle, goal number one for me was not to get skunked. This was accomplished for me in the first hour on the beat directly in front of the lodge. That was my confidence fish. It made me a believer and it took the monkey off my back. The rest of the day didn’t produce a single take for me and the monkey tried to crawl back on, but Bob and Jay Hamilton, the third angler in our group, each caught one – the skunk was gone for all.
Take-aways from the first day:
- It’s cold standing in 40-degree water amidst 40-degree air for a full day. I, the seasoned north Pacific guide clearly overestimated my machismo and under packed.
- This is a low percentage game. I started thinking that doing the same thing and expecting different results isn’t just the definition of insanity. It’s the definition of steelheading. Cast, mend, swing fly until the line is slightly inside of straight downstream, take two steps down current and repeat. Hundreds of casts per take.
- The river and the area are spectacularly pretty. We even had a moose step out of the woods and walk across the river. Our guide Tanner, seemed concerned. Apparently, a big bull moose in rut isn’t to be trifled with.
- Running a jet boat in skinny water is a zero tolerance for mistake game that requires a memorized plot of every rock in the river and what each rock means depending on the water level. Our trip to the upper Sustut on day 3 with guide Adam Hendersen was hair raising, in a good way. Doing 20 knots over 6 inches of water while dodging boulders is a highly developed skill.
These take-aways remained through our days of fishing. The cold part got worse when my waders developed a slow, weeping leak in the crotch on day 3. Looking at the more experienced guests, all brought much more insulated clothing to wear under their waterproof “guide” jacket and waders. Most brought two pair of waders in case one sprung a leak. The trend in waders ran toward those with insulated boats built in as opposed to separate lace on wading boots. The bootfoot waders are warmer.
Over the course of 6 days fishing, I managed to land 10 steelhead, 6 of which came from the two days on the Skeena, all from the same hole. We got a lucky draw getting to fish that twice. Unlike our ocean fishery in Sitka, 10 fish in 6 days was considered quite good – especially in the slow fall of 2017. I don’t attribute this to angler expertise. I felt lucky. There were far more accomplished and expert steelhead anglers at the lodge. Not one steelhead was killed by anyone – this is 100% catch and release for good reason.
For my first three or four days, I wondered why people take the time and spend so much to do this. But, there is something infectious about this game. Standing in a cold river, on a cold morning, feet numb, legs damp and cold, never knowing if I’ll get another bite, it is easy to think once is enough – cross this one off the bucket list. Then, as the fly swings low on its drift, something pulls on it. I wait (like salmon mooching, you don’t set instantly) for the fish to pull the tip down, to feel the weight of it, then I lift the tip. There is a slow, rhythmic back and forth shake, then a fish goes airborne, sunlit water droplets spraying in every direction. It hits the water and does it again. At that point, the concept that all items on the bucket list are to be checked off after doing them once comes into question.