Every Montana fishing guide worth his weight in IPA dreams up some sort adventure after the season; call it a closure to the rigors and pains, glories, and utter defeats of a long season on the water. All of us need that something to keep us smiling and hanging in there through the final days, knowing adventure waits. Well, my group dreams big.
Steelhead enter the coastal rivers during mid to late summer, slowly making their way upstream to their spawning grounds. Some rivers are hundreds of miles upstream of the main arteries, such as the Salmon river in Idaho, and this journey takes months for these fish to make it into these waters. From the Columbia to the Snake confluence, then up the Snake to the Salmon, and up that long canyon of No Return to the upper reaches where we target them throughout the winter, my local steelies run somewhere near 900 miles inland to their final destinations.
So back to the adventure. Chris, Alex, and myself decided this would be the year to visit the North country, the land of endless rivers and mountains: steelhead country…BC. I’ve been there twice, some 15 years ago earning my stripes as a young fishing guide. I traveled with seasoned veterans, swinging old school shooting heads on mono running lines with single handed 8 and 9 weights. Nowadays we throw the spey primarily with various tips, but the single hands still have their moments.
On November 2nd, thirty hours north and west of the Bitterroot, we struck our first camp on the bottom of the Morice river near Houston, British Columbia at about three o’clock. We’d traveled over fifteen hundred miles through the previous day and night, traversing most of Montana and BC, including the Banff and Jasper Provincial Parks and Jasper Ice fields Parkway in the dead of night with a foot of snow covering the roadway. We set up a 15×16 foot wall tent for cooking and partying, as well as personal tents to sleep in so as not to be hearing your neighbor snore, or be mauled by the local black bears breaking into the wall tent for our food.
With my nephew’s little motorbike as our shuttle, we toured the wild Morice for a few days up from camp. Only knowing point A and point B, everything in between was a mystery. Oh what amazing steelhead water! It was hard to pinpoint anything particular as everything looked and felt beautiful on the swing. We connected on fish, me striking first and Alex next, with Chris hooking more but landing none, stuck in the shithole. We could have spent weeks exploring the Morice and expecially the Bulkley, flowing some 90 kilos north of our camp into the Skeena, but we have only so much time.
Kispiox. That was the final destination on this journey. I have old time connections to friends in that country, and sure enough, that phone number from over fifteen years ago still worked. With a point to start and some old memories, we found my old stomping grounds on the Kispiox and began a day of fishing the classic runs. We found fish and decided the rest of our time would be spent there, knowing world record steel come to that drainage. A long drive back to the Morice and a last camp night, breakdown at dawn, and on to the next adventure.
So another week we spent in an epic camp on an epic beach on an epic steelhead river, throwing down in a wall tent with propane heater, cook stove, lantern, tables, two fly tying vises occupied at all times, the other guy(me), filling beer orders and heating dinner in the pot, prepared and vacuum sealed back in Montana. Swing runs were out the door, which we’d start or end on sometimes at dawn and dusk, one last effort to find the tug you hadn’t had in days. We found fish, but suffered mightily as well. I went many days without a tug, beating myself into a madness: skip food, water, definitely have beer, swing, step, pile into boat, repeat on next run. Repeat for days.
As our trip drew towards a close and the BC late fall weather started to crank up, we started thinking of heading south. Our last couple days of swinging were our best, finally figuring out the runs and feeling like fresh fish had come into the river. Classic runs that had kicked our asses for days started to produce beautiful chrome fish, hot and wild and eager for the swing. We stayed as long as we could, but he time had come. Two weeks in the wilds of BC was all I could ask for from my real life, and I’m damn thankful for that, so we rolled up the tent and packed er up for the land of milk and honey, Montana, 2200 miles and 30 hours away.
I, we, will be back. Other destinations are already in the mix for next year, we’ll see what shakes of them. Skeena country is magical if you are of the steelhead type, endless tribs as big as our Missouri in places, and most easily the size of the Clark’s Fork or Bitterroot. Wild steelhead are all that roam there, no supplemental hatchery fish, so every basin is as it was and how it shall be forever and amen.(Minus the occasional gigantic Canadian mine/pipeline…don’t get me started.) Give a nod to British Columbia and their efforts at preserving wild steelhead runs and the habitat that supports them, many and most rivers untracked and roadless to their headwaters. So many options, from helicopter drops on uncharted waters to DIY dirtbagging at the K’San campground, steelhead will take you there.