… The size and strength of the salmon. He has no peer. Between December and April, the mature winter steelhead return to the rivers of their birth to spawn. Unlike the salmon, they survive the spawning cycle and live to return to the sea; thin, and spent, but still alive. The mortality rate among the young fish is high: they spend the first two years of their life in their home stream, the prey of every finned, furred and feather predator, then slip down to the sea and the fabulously rich feeding grounds of the Pacific. Their growth is rapid, and when they return to the rivers they’re large, powerful, speckled fish in the prime of life. They are renewing their endless cycle of reproduction.
We start our day early on a March morning. The first fish have long since reached the upper parts of the river, and the first eggs already lie buried in the gravel beds, which the females have gouged out with powerful thrusts of their sinewy bodies. Early morning is the time to start fishing; it leaves so much of the day ahead. It is a time for warm clothing and it is a time for excitement. You scramble into your waders and your thoughts are on the river. What does the day hold for you? A full creole perhaps, or the drained emotion of lost fish?
There’s a sharp nip in the air and a scattering of fresh snow up in the hills. Frost lies crisp along the moss on the riverbank, and mist hangs over the black frond of the Cowichan. You are early on the river, but others are earlier and already they’re fast into their first fish. You watch, vaguely envious, but after all its a good omen. But watching is a poor thing when there are fish in the river, and you hurry on, thinking of the pool where you will make your first cast, of the steelhead swimming against the current there deep down in the boulders. Of that first strike, perhaps only minutes away.
We’ll put aside the fly rod until later in the day and joint together a casting rod. Live and powerful but sensitive in the tip so the hands can detect the bobbing of the lure along the bottom, and the first nerve-tingling pluck of a striking fish. On to ten pound test line with numb, cold, reddened hands you tie a spin glow, a popular lure in British Columbia steelhead waters. In steelhead fishing, every knot and every hook must be tested for the fish will soon find any weakness. A half ounce of lead will take the lure down to the bottom where the steelheads strike.
The cast is made upstream; the faster the water, the higher upstream it goes, so the lead can carry the spin glow to the bottom throughout the drift. Bump, bump along the bottom the lure rolling naturally with the current. Cast again, and through the sensitive tip of the rod feel the bump, bump, bump over the boulders.
Strike! Fish on! He runs, and you stagger for better footing. Here’s a fresh run fish, fighting, twisting, running, leaping for his life! Briefly he’s checked. You keep the rod tip high. Now you can take line… slowly…. the fish is strong. Now he runs again, the rod throbs and the reel screams. You must stop him short of the fast water. Now he’s checked again and starting to tire, but still there is fight in him. Now he is spent, and the gaft brings him in. A bright buck of six or seven pounds. There is a special feeling following the moments of killing the days first fish. A warm, drained feeling. The day has not been lost, and much of it is still ahead.
We spy a friend down the river, a chance to exchange some information and relive the excitement of the first fish today, and the fish of yesterday. He tells of us of the big bright doe he lost this morning in the run below the falls, and we tell him of the buck from an hour ago, and then about the trials and the successes and the failures of yesterday.
There was the heavy kelp below the high bank that took the lure down to faster water and left it there, snagged on a rock, so we had to break it off. Then there had been the fresh, powerful fish at the picnic pool, a truly big steelhead that fought with sullen power and taildanced the width of the river, and kept us heart in mouth and awed by its massive strength before it gave a final swirl and left us holding slack line with shaking hands and muttered protests to the gods of the river. And after that, there had finally been success with the silvery little doe that smashed at a spin glow at the foot of the run below the wing damn and churned the water to a lacy forth with its delicate dance before become spent against the strain of the powerful rod.
And now we part, and wish each other luck. Down the trail, and past an old Indian dugout. There aren’t many fly purists amongst steelhead fishermen, but few will deny that the fly offers the greatest challenge and the greatest satisfaction. Many steelhead flies are tied to resemble drifting salmon eggs, but the tradition patterns like the jock scott, the silver doctor, and thunder and lightning are just as effective.
Not all parts of the river are suited to fly fishing, but this run is. There’s room for the back cast and the water is neither too fast nor too deep to roll the fly along the gravel bottom. This is steelhead fishing at its best; the low waves, the relaxing motions of the cast, the line drifting with the current and the fly rolling along without artificial movement, carried where the current takes it. It is a time of contrast, a peacefulness and vigilance, and if you’re lucky, a violence too.
A fly caught fish is a most satisfying fish. The angler has stacked the odds against himself with fur, feathers and steel, and he has triumphed. We reach out into the fast water of the far bank. Strike! And away he goes. The fish pumping the rod, running, the reel screaming. Checked… checked but momentarily, and away he runs again, hard. A wild, leaping fish. The rod bent against the spring sky. Again the line rips out. Now, again, he stops, perhaps only briefly… still with fight in him. And now he is coming in. And now the run is on! Again, he empties the reel; he has the current working with him. And once again he’s checked, and now he is tiring and we work him towards the bank. A quick upward stroke. A fine doe of seven pounds.
Higher up we can look down at the continuation of the cycle that produces such days. Young steelhead playing in a quiet pool; darting at a blossom today, darting at a fly tomorrow. In midstream, a spawning female. She too will be back, bigger and stronger than today.
It’s been a good day on the river: two strong fish, clean and fairly taken; some new knowledge of the river and some new memories to treasure. Truly a day to look back on.