Winter steelhead in Haida Gwaii “are for the hardcore anglers who revel in a little pain,” according to Epic Waters Angling (http://epicwatersangling.com). Having just spent a week at their Copper Bay Lodge on in Haida Gwaii, I can vouch for that sentiment.
Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, is an archipelago about 80 miles west of Prince Rupert, Canada. “Haida Gwaii” means “Islands of the Haida People.” The Haida people make up at least half the population. There are two major islands, Graham and Moresby, and at least a hundred smaller islands. The industry of the islands is mainly logging and commercial fishing. In 2015 Director Charles Wilkinson’s film, “On the Edge of the World,” explored the issues facing these islands as a result of cultural and economic clashes. It is a must-see for anyone wishing to understand the precarious balance of this very special place.
The islands are considered to have a subpolar oceanic climate, similar to the western coast of Scotland. The weather on my trip in March was relatively mild, about 4 degrees C, but there were pockets of snow in sheltered areas, and there was some rain almost every day. Logging has claimed many of the forests, but the rivers we fished lie deep in forests of Sitka spruce, cedar, hemlock, and alder. In many places there are still seemingly mystical stands of primary growth spruce that were inaccessible to logging because of the marshy conditions. Moss coats everything, and trails and paths are hard to find. Eagles and ravens abound, shrieking inhuman cries on the river. There are known to be black bears, but more frequently you will see the small but chubby Sitka black tail deer.
The Copper Bay Lodge is a small but comfortable lodge on Moresby Island right on the water. The Lodge is easy to access with a direct commercial flight from Vancouver once a day to Sandspit, just a few minutes away by truck. The Lodge hosts four to six anglers a week, typically two per guide. Meals were over the top fantastic, and one can watch the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean from the common room window. The beach below the lodge is perfect for morning or evening walks, although the wind can be bracing. Typically, each day half of the anglers head out on Moresby Island to fish the Copper or Pallant Rivers, while half take the ferry across Alliford Bay to Graham Island to fish the Yakoun, the Tlell, or the Mamin Rivers. Those who take the ferry often have a few minutes to admire the totem poles and canoes on display at the Haida Heritage Center on the way home at the end of the day.
Many of the steelhead runs on these rivers are accessible only by challenging hikes through muddy, snowy woods, although some are but a scramble down a slippery hillside. Short spey rods or switch rods with Skagit heads are most frequently used, as casts must be short and accurate. The rows of pink reverse marabou streamers dangling from tree branches across the rivers taunt anglers as reminders of snags and failed casts. It’s all about getting a heavily weighted fly down and deep fast, with T14 and skilled mending. We sightfished at times, but visibility can be challenging as the rivers are tea stained from the spruces and cedars. The rivers are also cold. Be prepared for cold feet and stinging fingers. Pale light filters through those tall trees. Photos require longish exposures and clear eye protection works better than shades. No need to worry about “steelhead rules” on runs here; there are just no other anglers to share runs with.
The steelhead are mostly three and four salt, so they are big and strong. The Copper River fish in particular are fresh from the sea with the incoming tides and are chrome bright and feisty. Landing these fish from any of the rivers is always a challenge, so much so that conversation back at the lodge is often just about the take. “It hammered it.” “I thought it was a rock.” There are not a lot of trophy fish photos. One take or two or none a day can happen, or, like my fishing partner, one can land five beautiful fish in an extraordinary day.
On the edge of the world, indeed.