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Friday, December 18, 2015

BC Adventure 2015

I had such a great time traveling to Skeena country last fall with good friends Adrian Cortes and Steve Turner, that we immediately began planning a return trip for this year.  Last year's trip produced fond memories of surface steelhead encounters that replayed in our minds throughout the year.
Back in Steelhead Paradise!  Adrian Cortes photo
One of the primary reasons that I started this blog was to chronicle my fishing life so I can keep memories alive of those special moments that I am blessed to experience on steelhead rivers.  This has been an endeavor that I do for my own fun and enjoyment and I have been so honored when my crazed stories are enjoyed by others and when my friends also refer back to these stories to relive the good times we have shared together.

Of course, the fun times that Steve, Adrian, and I had in BC last year produced a series of blog posts and I was blessed when Zack Williams, editor of e-mag Swing the Fly (coming in print soon!), approached me about having an edited version of our story published in Swing the Fly.  The collaborative efforts which included my amateur writing (with excerpts by Adrian), Steve's and Adrian's beautiful photos and even a few of my photos made it to the pages of Swing the Fly.  Zack did a great job of editing my ramblings and he was magical with the layout of the photos.  It was quite the thrill and honor to see our story published.

The past year went by quickly, even considering our levels of anticipation to return to Skeena country.  Last year's trip went so smoothly that Steve, Adrian, and I were able to establish ourselves as a "Steelhead Assault Unit" - a compatible group of fanatics who are able to travel together on a long road trip in pursuit of surface steel without getting on each other's nerves.

The chances of such compatibility seems rather remote when you think about it.  A long road trip is the ultimate test of 3 individual steelheaders' ability to put up with each other in close quarters for a significant period of time.  Annoying character flaws could come to the surface that could ruin a trip, but apparently I've done a good enough job of hiding the worst of mine (or at least Steve and Adrian haven't let on about how difficult I am to get along with).  I had only met Steve last year and never went on a a road trip with either Steve or Adrian before, so they really took a gamble on me.
Speaking of character flaws, Adrian and I came clean right off about how we both snore terribly, just ask our wives, so we ended up sharing a room again (ummm, separate beds of course) so Steve could get some sleep.   The strange thing is I never hear myself snore and I haven't heard Adrian snore so it could all be a hoax, this snoring thing.  Otherwise, it really is a blessing how the three of us get along so well and we just thoroughly enjoy each others' company on the road and on the river.  Our temperaments just mesh together so well and our days on the river are always easy and relaxed.  I couldn't ask for a better set of travel companions for such a trip.
Hotel room shared by snoring steelheaders.  Adrian Cortes photo

Our journey to BC last year allowed us to establish some routines so our plans for this year came off without a hitch with the exception that we made different arrangements for lodging.  We again purchased our fishing licenses online, which is a great convenience.  I realized my passport expired in May so I went into our local post office to purchase the cheaper passport card as I don't anticipate flying (rather than driving) to Canada anytime soon.

Anxious emails and facebook messages went back and forth among us as the day drew near for us to gather at Steve's home to travel north.  Our plan again included a stop to visit Bill McMillan on the way and Bill graciously accepted our request to stop by to see him.

As I gathered my tackle and packed the Steelhead Taxi for the drive north, I pondered my game plan for this trip.  My strategy would be to go with "big rods for big water".  I decided to go back to my bigger two handers - my old Sage 9140-4 "brownie" and Sage 8136 IIIe.  I'd be throwing 54' Delta Speys on these rods and I would be pairing the 9140 with a JW Young 1535 and the 8136 with a Hardy Marquis Salmon 2.  While these setups are not as gigantic as what the Clearwater and Spey O Rama crowd use, I would at least be closer to matching my tackle to suit the water being fished.

I fished my Cabela's switch rods most of my trip last year and did fine, but another part of the reason for going back to the bigger rods was to celebrate several "firsts".  This year is the 20th year since my first BC trip in 1995 and during that trip I got my first steelhead on a fly which was also my first steelhead on a dry fly and my first steelhead taken on a two handed rod - the 9140 brownie.  This also marks 20 years since I've owned that old Sage 9140 brownie, and ownership of that rod spans the time on my clock as a two handed caster - I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of it!  I was also hoping to get a "20 year steelhead" on the old, reliable 9140.

Adrian and I arrived at Steve's home as planned and we loaded into Steve's F150, again with Steve's beautiful Clackacraft in tow.  As we made our way north on I-5 we realized that we were encountering the heavy traffic associated with a holiday weekend.  It wasn't long before I was regretting the amount of coffee I drank on the way up as my bladder was telling me to plead with Steve for a pit stop at a restroom.  As it turned out, there were no convenient exits with gas stations in the stretch we were crawling through, so I made due with a drainage ditch alongside one of the exits, ahhh what a relief!

We we were running about an hour behind schedule, but when I called Bill McMillan to let him know of our unexpected delay, he was still agreeable to accommodating our visit.  We indeed arrived at Bill's home about an hour late as we had figured.  After warm greetings, we sat with Bill in his den, the "Inner Sanctum" and got caught up with the latest steelhead talk.  Adrian had been tying more classic Harry Lemire flies and he gifted Bill with a couple - a Thompson River Caddis and a Greaseliner.  As Bill looked over Adrian's flies, Bill noted that Harry had given him some of his flies and Bill remarked that Adrian's greaseliner looked just the way Harry tied them.    On a darker note, I offered Bill some of my latest "stinger wangs" and he smiled and accepted those too.

Bill McMillan looking over and commenting on Adrian's Greaseliner.  Todd Hirano photo
Bill offered us cookies and lemonade as we visited and Bill's wife Lynn briefly stopped by to say hello as well.  We carried on about our excitement in returning to Skeena country and Bill recalled stories about his prior trips to Skeena country as well.  He spoke of a friend who raised and missed a number of surface steelhead on a Skeena tributary and literally had a mental breakdown as he swatted the river with his rod in a frenzied fit.  This story was among other fond memories of surface steelheading Bill recounted.  Another story involved the time when Bill, along with Pat Lee, guided former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Roselynn Carter on the North Umpqua in the early 90's.  Bill's enthusiasm for steelheading, especially surface steelheading is still much in evidence to this day, which is so great see as Bill has rode the waves of some of the best and worst times with our Pacific Northwest steelhead runs over the years.

We ended up continuing our visit on the beach looking out on Bill's home steelhead run on the mighty Skagit River.  As we chatted pink salmon would periodically porpoise and splash.  Talk also touched on the current situation with the wild winter steelhead run on the Skagit and current managment.  Bill reminded of his belief that the current management is backwards in that the early winter season should be closed and the spring catch and release season should reopen.  Bill explained that the above scenario would make more sense since the early return segment of wild Skagit winter steelhead is very small due to years of overharvest and intensive hatchery management, but the later return segment of the run is much healthier, in comparison, at this time.

A blessed time spent with Bill McMillan as we sat along his homewater:
  Adrian Cortes photo

Adrian Cortes photo

Steve Turner photo

Todd Hirano photo

Bill McMillan, a great friend, mentor and steelheading icon.  Todd Hirano photo
By the time we prepared to leave Bill's home, we realized that we had spent 3 hours in the great company of a wonderful man and steelhead icon.  We were extremely grateful for the enriching visit we had with Bill.

We got back on the road, survived the border crossing and spent nearly twenty continuous hours on the road as we swigged coffee, tied flies, and traded driving shifts as we traversed north past Vancouver and up the Frasier Valley.
A midnight pit stop for gas, coffee, and taking a leak.  Todd Hirano photo
After what seemed like an eternity, we pulled into our destination the next morning.  We grabbed some provisions in town and we also stopped to picked up Steve's custom ordered landing net, a beauty big enough to fit around any Kahuna sized steelhead we might encounter.  We settled into our living quarters for the week and ate dinner at one of the local restaurants before turning in for the night.

On day one, we floated one the the popular stretches, one that we went through on our first day last year as well.  We stopped at familiar spots with great expectations.  I started to get my casting ironed out with the longer rods/lines and when I was lucky, I'd even get a decent cast out every now and again.  It felt good to see the "long" line roll out on the big runs we fished.
Every now and then, I'd get a decent cast out
Adrian Cortes photo
This stretch of river was fairly busy as it is one of the more popular drifts.  It appeared that a couple guide sleds were out, but it was all good, as there was plenty of water to go around.  We remembered regretting spending too much time in the upper half of this float last year so we made better time in getting to the lower section before dark.
We saw these beautiful creatures every day.  This spectacular shot was taken by Steve Turner  with his Nikon DSLR, 400mm f/4 and 1.7x teleconverter, right Steve??

Another beautiful shot by Steve Turner.  Adrian firing line out with a spectacular fall BC backdrop.
There was a particular run that I remembered from a prior trip and I was hoping we would be able to stop and fish it.  When we were fishing one of the other runs, I realized we were just above the water I had in mind, but before we got done fishing the run we were in, I had seen two sleds stop at the run I wanted to fish by the time we were ready to move on.   As we got into the boat, I saw that the run I had my eye on was vacant.  I suggested we fish it anyway, despite the prior commotion from the other parties who had already stopped there.

I walked down,  taking the bottom third, Adrian took middle, and Steve took the top.  I moved through quickly since this is a big. broad run where steelhead could be sitting just about anywhere.  As I was starting to make my way down, a fellow in a pontoon was floating by and yelled over and asked me if I was fishing some foam skater that I had designed and I said yes and the fellow mentioned about meeting me on the North Umpqua at some point in the past - small world.  Unfortunately, I didn't remember who the guy was.
Steve making some great casts up high in the run.  Todd Hirano photo
As I continued down, I heard Adrian holler and I looked back to see a hot, bright steelhead putting a good bend in Adrian's JM Reid Summer run cane rod.  This steelhead had given Adrian some strong runs and surface thrashing and I was surprised when Adrian got the beautiful steelhead to the bank with the help of Steve and his new net and found the hen to be of only "average" size.  Regardless, this was a good start to the trip.
Fish on!  Todd Hirano photo

Adrian validates the Thompson River Caddis.  Todd Hirano photo

Headshot.  Todd Hirano photo
Adrian's Thompson River Caddis.  Adrian Cortes photo

Adrian explained that he had been fishing a riffle hitched Thompson River Caddis and raised the steelhead but didn't hook it.  Adrian then unhitched the "TRC" and went back through and the steelhead grabbed his fly in the film.

We continued through the float with no other action and with being near the end of our drift as we fished our last run, we were comfortable pulling into the take out close to dark.

We spent our second day fishing through the float that was most productive for us last year.  We stopped at all of the runs that were loaded during our prior trip.  Our anticipation for surface grabs were high.....but we found none.  The three of us did not raise a single steelhead this day.

Misty morning awesomeness.  Adrian working through prime real estate at first light.   Todd Hirano photo

Steve and Adrian starting the day.  Todd Hirano photo
Steve's custom engraved Hatch reel sitting on his Burkheimer.  Photo by Adrian Cortes

Adrian captured this image of me with my favorite fly silhouetted against the river that has captivated my soul for the past 20 years.  Adrian Cortes photo
We spent day three fishing an upper stretch of river that none of us had ever fished before.  Improved put ins and take outs are few in this part of the river.  Being that we were in a hard boat we were left to use a put in further upstream than we would have liked and this involved Steve mostly rowing through the upper half of this float.  Steve is such a gracious host that he only let me row for a total of about 15 minutes the whole week!
Got Mud??  Leslie Flint photo

Going down the river.  Leslie Flint photo
When we reached the lower half of the float, which actually would have been our preferred area to put in if it had been possible, we slowed down and stopped to fish at runs that looked good.  As it turned out, there were plenty of runs that looked good through here.  It seemed that great looking water was continually strung together as we floated down.  We would fish a nice run formed by a gentle bend in the river and when done, we'd float down and find another nice run formed by another gentle bend, and so it went until we reached the take out.  We got aced out of a few runs by other fisherman, but it didn't matter as the great water just kept going, leaving ample options available.
One of many beautiful runs strung together on this float.  Adrian Cortes photo

As we stopped at each run through this float, our hopes ran high with every piece of water looking so good.  I fished my foam/hair creations with supreme confidence as I watched them skate though fishy looking seams throughout the day.

The day was uneventful, steelwise, until were about 3/4's of the way through the float.  We came to a run with some nice structure in it as we noted boils formed by big boulders.  Steve was coming through with a freshly tied muddler gifted to him by Mr. Cortes.  Steve was also going "retro" on this trip as he was fishing an old school Sage 6126-3, Delta Spey line, and classy, brand new Hardy Taupo.  Steve was fishing his muddler damp in the film when he got a solid grab halfway down the run with a great fish solidly hooked and running.

Steve with a bruiser on the line.  Todd Hirano photo
The steelhead gave Steve some powerful runs with his Taupo making a sweet sound and putting a deep bend in his classic rod.  From the flashes and surface thrashes we were seeing, it appeared that Steve was tied to a mid teens steelhead that was pretty bright and appeared to be a hen.  Adrian had Steve's Kahuna net in hand and the steelhead came close to netting range a couple times.  The last time the steelhead got close to Adrian, the hook pulled out.  When Steve reeled in, we found out the cause of the lost steelhead - the hook on Steve's muddler got straightened by the great fish.  We took a breath, high-fived, and toasted to the blessed excitement that steelhead provides us.
The end game of Steve's encounter with a crazy, angered steelie.  Todd Hirano photo

A Toast to Steelhead Blessings!!   Todd Hirano photo
Steve taking five after battling the hook straightening steelie, unwittingly getting photobombed by my foam skater to the left of him.  Adrian Cortes photo
 We continued through the float with no other steel encounters.  After taking out we headed back to town and talked of how this stretch of river would best be fished in pontoons or in a raft where improved put ins are less critical.  We talked of plans to use pontoons next year to better take advantage of fishing this great stretch of river.  There we go - always scheming for "next time"!

On day four we again floated the "2014 loaded run" stretch of river.  We had the chance to speak to the fellow we referred to as Jet Ski Ed that we ran into last year.  We had chatted with him at his camper and found him to be an interesting, yet opinionated fellow.  He talked of Echo and Sage rods as being "clubs" and that all one needs is a riffle hitched buck bug to catch steelhead on this river.  However, Ed also generously gave tidbits of information on some of the runs we were about to fish and he spoke about fishing into the very bottom section of a run he described to us.

When we got to "Ed's run", we certainly found Ed's advice to be sound.  The lower section of said run didn't look like much when we had passed by it in the past, but on this day, we put our lines in the water there and found the lower section to be very fishy.  Unfortunately, we found out too late that we didn't fish the run far down enough.  After we had fished as far down as we thought we should have, we got in the boat and continued floating through.  As we floated past where we had stopped fishing, we noted several steelhead, including a nice big one, laying just above the lip of the tailout, in water we assumed to be too shallow to hold fish.....wrong!

A guy can only take so much.  When little branches start catching your D loop, it's time to bust out the pruning saw!  Adrian Cortes photo
Ms. Vickies - chips of champions!  There I go passing on the bad habit of eating junk food on fishing trips.  Adrian Cortes photo
 We continued floating down and stopped at the "Treasure Island" run.  I was fishing behind Adrian and as we got into the lower third of the run, I was half asleep from going without surface action for so long, when I was awakened by a loud "slurp".  The steelhead's rise was noisy enough that Adrian even heard it from his position below me.  When I came to my senses, I realized that a steelhead had attacked my #4  charteuse/purple Little Wang skater as it came into the shallow near shore water.  I lifted the rod and the steelhead was on the line.  This was not a super hot fish, it looked to be a hen in the 26/27" range.  After a few short runs, I had this gal close to shore and was anticipating getting a head shot as this would be my first surface steelhead landed of the season.  However, my thoughts were too far ahead of reality as the hook pulled out at that moment.  Oh well, at least I didn't have to get my hands slimy on the release, but of course a little bit of  fish slime wouldn't' have bothered me either.
Greaseliner tied in-hand, streamside by Adrian Cortes.  Steve Turner photo

Streamside fly tying jam session.  Look at this guy's intensity - lighten up Adrian, it's just fishing!   Steve Tuner photo
We hit another run that was loaded last year and no one home this day.  The remainder of the float didn't produce any further action as well.

As we were approaching the take out, we saw a group of anglers gathered on the bank alongside a large, walk in run.  Just as we got past this group of anglers one of them yells out "Adrian??"  We realized this was Peter Pettos and his friends.  Pete is a steelheader/fly tyer from Ontario who has been communicating with Adrian via Instagram and Facebook.  Also in the group was Larry Halyek, also of Ontario.  Larry is a fellow I've communicated with through Speypages and Larry had contributed to my blog with a story on Dry Fly Steelheading in the Great Lakes.  Also in this group was Allison Oliver, a California native who is currently a resident of BC, and Pete's friends PJ and Stevie.  Steve Turner pulled back on the oars and we were able to pull in about 50 yards below and we then walked up along the bank to meet up with Pete and company.

PJ had just gotten himself a CF Burkheimer 15'2" 8wt before coming on this trip and he kindly allowed Steve and me to test cast it.  Steve fell in love with the rod and planned to purchase one before returning to BC next year.  I loved the rod as well, but with the meager earnings of a Child Welfare caseworker, all I can do is dream of owning such equipment.  Luckily, I'm content with my array of "cheapskate" gear.

We later met up with this group at a local establishment for dinner and drinks that evening and we had a great time visiting and talking dry fly steelheading.  Like Adrian, Pete is a dedicated fisher of the greaseliner.  However, Pete has a different take on going after steelhead on the comeback.  Pete related that if he raises a steelhead to a greaseliner and the steelhead won't comeback to the same fly on the next couple casts then "too bad, the heck with em" and moves on.  No multiple fly changes in seeking the comeback for Pete.

PJ bought us all a round of shots before dinner, and not being much of a drinker, I downed my drink and my throat burned and my face got hot for a few seconds as I regained consciousness and went back to jabbering about surface steel.   We had a great time visiting with this group as we marveled at the unique niche of people us steelheaders are.

On day five, we fished the same stretch of river yet again.  We had the boat in the water just after dawn and we hit the first run we come to just after the put in.  This had been the most generous run we fished last year and thus far it had not given up a single rise.  As I fished through the lower half of the run, I kept hoping that today would be the day when a few steelhead moved in to the holds we found them in last year.
The fresh start of a new day.  Adrian's D loop caught by the lens of Steve Turner.

Hope runs through Adrian's line...............  Steve Turner photo.
By the time I got through the tailout of the run, something told me to just keep going down through the shallow riffle that formed below.  This seemed like low percentage water, running maybe a foot deep over a cobbled bottom, but the inner voice said to move fast and just keep covering water.  I figured with the overcast weather and slow fishing, it couldn't hurt to cover as much real estate as possible, even some in between, marginal stuff.
Covering water.   Steve Turner photo
After getting about a 100 or so feet down into this riffle, I was making about 80-90'(when lucky) casts with my 8136 and 8/9 Delta spey as I went for "greased line" type casts to present my stinger wang broadside in the shallow, choppy, but even flowing riffle.  On one of these casts, I was watching my skater coming across when a steelhead came up with a cross stream launch at my fly.  I simply did noting and the steelhead came tight and was off and running.  After a few runs that produced that classic Hardy scream from my Marquis, I had this little buck near shore and by that time Steve had arrived on the scene for pics and landing of the steelhead with the Kahuna net.  This was my first surface steelhead to hand since last November and it felt great!  This was also my first steelhead taken on the stinger wang.  After some minor celebrations, Steve, Adrian, and I returned to our stations and I decided to just continue on down in the water I was fishing to see if any other players could be found in the "marginal" looking water I'd been fishing.
Finally, a surface steehead to hand for me.  Steve Turner photo.

Keep em' wet.  Steve Turner photo

As I continued down, I found that the water deepened as I came to a corner down low in this run.  I noted that this section swung really well and I felt like steelhead could hold down there, even though we had never seen anyone stopped there fishing before.  As I contemplated the potential of this water, I realized that I had made my way pretty far from Adrian and Steve and it was just then that they arrived in the boat to catch up with me.  I apologized for getting so far away from them and when they arrived I described how I felt like this water could hold steelhead.  Adrian agreed and we decided to continue fishing through this water.
New Found Water.   Todd Hirano photo
Adrian headed a ways downstream below the boat and Steve would be walking above to start back through the corner.  I decided to just continue on from where I was.  I figured to switch up my equipment so I grabbed my old 9140 and gave it a go.  I had just started back in with my normal casting length out and was chatting with Steve when during one of my casts, a steelhead came up to my skater with a quick rise and was on immediately, just as I said to Steve "there he is".  This steelhead fought similarly to the one I had just landed and as I was playing this fish, I realized that I got my wish as this was my 20th anniversary steelhead hooked on the old 9140.  As the steelhead got close, I noted it was also about the same sized as the other two steelhead I hooked into, in that 26-27" range.  Steve again stood by with the net and just when the steelhead got somewhat close in, the hook pulled out.  This was another "slime free" release, but I was Immensely pleased to find more surface steelhead action, anyway I could get it.

Steve and me celebrating hooking my "20 year steelhead" on the ole 9140.  The steelhead escaped the net, but raising and hooking them counts for me anymore.  Adrain Cortes photo.

Chartreuse and Purple Stinger Wang did the trick.  Adrian Cortes photo
Big rods for big water.  Todd Hirano photo
When Steve came back through the water I just fished, he also hooked up on a surface bug.  Steve had tied on a yellow/orange wang that I had given him last year and the bright fly did the trick in bringing another steelhead to the surface.  This steelhead gave Steve a spirited battle but it also escaped human handling as it got off the hook after several good runs.  Steve then decided to try a damp Thomson River caddis in the film and quickly hooked into another steelhead not far from where his last steelhead came from.  This steelhead also gave Steve a strong fight and also managed to escape the Kahuna net.
A view from the office.  Todd Hirano photo
We watched Adrian fish the lower section of this water and we were surprised that Adrian's water didn't produce a rise as Adrian later reported that it looked good and fished well.  We were greatly pleased that we had sniffed out a "new spot" on our own.  Our only regret was that this was our last day in paradise and we would have to wait til next year to try this water again.

We continued through the float with no other steelhead action and Steve finally allowed me to give him a short 15 minute break on the oars as we neared the take out.  As we loaded the boat, the familiar feelings of saddness in ending a week in paradise came over us, yet we felt so greatly blessed for being able to enjoy a week chasing after surface steel in the midst of God's glorious creation.
My 15 minute shift on the oars for the week.  Adrian Cortes photo

Overall, we experienced slow fishing on this trip, but being with great friends on a great adventure to steelhead paradise was more than enough to leave us with great memories of wonderful times fellowshipping on our favorite steelhead water.

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