Fishing for steelhead on the Skeena River in British Columbia was destination number four for me in “my year of steelhead.” A spot opened up at “The Steelhead House” (www.steelheadhouse.com) in Terrace, B.C. this August … and it took me less than a millisecond to jump for it.
The Skeena River is the second largest river that is entirely in B.C., flowing about 350 miles from its headwaters to the ocean. This is a big river in places, but in August the wading is relatively easy. All five species of salmon can be found at various times in these waters, along with several species of trout, squawfish, and steelhead.
There are a number of fishing camps/lodges to choose from on the Skeena. I was fortunate to be invited to stay at The Steelhead House, owned by Darren Wright and Missy Macdonald. Their log cabin style lodge is very comfortable and beautifully decorated and landscaped, with two guest bedrooms and baths. Missy is an amazing chef with incredible attention to detail, while Darren expertly handles the guiding. Dinners featured moose ribeye and halibut fish and chips. They also own the smartest dog I’ve ever seen. Just watch River close the screen door behind her, something I was never able to teach the humans in my family.
An 8WT two handed rod with a Skagit head and 10-12 feet of T11 or T14 was the go to gear for these conditions. The first evening Darren taught us how to rig a 20 lb leader with a spider hitch, something I had never seen before but will definitely use in the future. Wading was easy, but Darren added some studs to my boots for added stability.
Our fishing trip unfortunately coincided with record breaking heat that caused significant snowmelt from the mountains. The runoff caused the water clarity in the river to decrease to a chalky murkiness. We did everything we could to increase our chances of hooking up steelhead under these conditions, using a slow swing to give the fish a good look at the fly. Since steelhead tend to follow sockeye in the river, we targeted areas where sockeye were evident, and looked for moving pink salmon to find a line in the river that might be used by steelhead. Any tug in steelhead water tends to get one’s heart racing, but after that first tug it’s pretty clear whether one has a steelhead or a pink. We actively tried to avoid targeting pinks, but just keeping pink salmon off our lines was a bit of a challenge.
Getting into a good casting rhythm on the river still allows one a lot of time to enjoy the spectacular scenery and wildlife. Eagles and black bears are not uncommon sites, but for me, seeing a black wolf in the wild was a first. We did not often take breaks, but when we did, Darren provided a much appreciated sun umbrella on the boat for shade during lunch, and Missy packed every kind of treat we could want.
The Skeena Tyee Test Fishery provides historical and daily data for numbers of sockeye entering the river, with numbers of other species, including steelhead, extrapolated from that number. This data is especially important for commercial and conservation groups, but can make anglers crazy, from asking “Why am I not there right now” when the numbers are big, to “Why am I here right now” when the numbers are smaller. We could see that there were indeed steelhead entering the river daily, although the bigger numbers occurred earlier in the summer. We each got a couple of grabs but landed no steelhead during our time on the river. We did see other anglers land a fish now and then. That’s just steelhead fishing.
Darren had us out the door by 4:30 AM every day to get a prime spot on the river. Despite the somewhat slow fishing, even for steelhead, there was plenty of competition amongst anglers for better fishing locations. At this time of year the steelhead are moving, so theoretically one can just stand in one spot all day and wait for a fish to swim by. Just standing still is hard to do, so most people cast and step through a run. We were a bit surprised when a boat stopped and unloaded two anglers a cast length downstream from us, which lead to some heated words on their part. Apparently “steelhead rules” were not part of their upbringing. We moved on, as conflict has a way of ruining the day.
The Skeena River is not only a spectacular recreational fishing destination, but is also one of the most important commercial sockeye salmon fisheries in Canada. The river and its tributaries are under constant threat from overfishing and development. Management of this unique resource is politically charged from many sides. The Skeena Wild Conservation Trust (skeenawild.org) has launched an initiative for their view of what responsible development looks like for the communities in the Skeena watershed and Northwest B.C., a good place to start to learn about what the future might hold for this river, and what we, as anglers, can contribute to its conservation.