Skeena River, British Columbia

Seven Sisters Mountains and the Skeena River

Large Salmon, the Sport of Kings

It was a hot, languorous day. Veteran Skeena salmon guide, Stan Doll was anchored close to the Island, working a favoured slot he'd found after years of trial and error. The fishing was decent. The water was good . . . The Skeena offered three feet of visibility. Early in the afternoon, Stan helped his German sport kill a 30-pound Chinook.

The heavy current hissed against the bow of the boat. The rods bobbed rhythmically, in time to the whirring lures anchored a long cast below the stern. Stan and the German took off their shirts, ate sandwiches and drank beer. The German, a doctor, told Stan of the Old World and his appreciation of the New in fluent English.

German tourists ready to attack the Skeena

Dinner time passed. There was still plenty of fishing time left, but both men were hungry. Stan checked the pulsing rod tip for the hundredth time then glanced at his watch. 8:30. He put on his shirt, the first move toward home, when the rod bent violently.

"I believe you have one!" yelled the German.

Fall on the Skeena
The old Silex reel growled angrily. Thirty pound test nylon peeled from the drum. Stan leapt up. The rod bent deeply. Line sizzled through the water. In his career Stan had landed many large salmon - some well over 60 pounds - the muscles in his back told him this was one of those.

Despite it's large capacity, there was not enough line on the Silex; for Chinook giants there seldom is. At Stan's command the German brought up the anchor. The boat started downstream, pushed by the current, pulled by the salmon.

Thirty minutes after hook up, the fish still fought deep. Stan gauged its dimensions by the arc of the rod, the tension of the line, the duration of the struggle and distance they had traveled downstream. The struggle wore on, out of sight of competing fishermen now, a mile below the Island. The great fish began to show some signs of fatigue. Stan gained a little line, lost it, then pumped the rod gaining more than he'd lost the first time.

The salmon breached, too far away for a good look. Stan's arms ached. He was gaining. The rod hummed. The line hummed, as they drifted around yet another broad bend of the river and over another riffle. The fish rolled once more. This time both men got a glimpse of him.

"It's the size of a seal," Stan yelled to the German.

The doctor was so impressed he forgot his English and babbled to himself in his mother tongue.

Mike Whelpley on the Gitnadoix in spring The fish rolled to the surface once more, then streaked for a log jam lying off the mouth of the Lakelse River. Stan tried to break its run by jamming his palm against the outside of the old reel. He hand burned. The fish bore on. He reached the jam. The line stopped.

The German shook his head from side to side vigourously, mumbling something in German. Stan knew only a few words of German, but he recognized the international tone of despair. The line wasn't moving. Stan pulled, then pulled again, harder the second time. The line was unyielding.

"It's no good," he said.

"Ja, nicht gute."

Stan lifted the club he'd used to kill the smaller fish. With a circular motion he twisted the monofilament around it. He pulled. The line snapped. He gathered in the remains, then looked at his client.

"That fish could've gone a hundred pounds."

The German nodded. He had his fish. He had seen a Skeena giant, one of the world's biggest salmon - possibly a world record. Despite the disappointing finale, this had been a great trip. He had photographs to take home along with a grand tale of a grand fish.

Confluence of one of the tributaries

Oncorbynchus Nerka: A Pilot Fishery

Part of the initiative by Skeena sportsmen to save their sport fish led them to push for a pilot fishery for pink salmon and sockeye. The reasoning was straight forward. Pinks, though easy to catch, rely on abundance as a survival strategy. The Kispiox and Lakelse [rivers] will host runs of over a million of these fish during years of peak returns. Almost every small stream is used by humpbacks and the backwaters of the Skeena is plugged with them. Given this fact, there is no chance that sportsmen - especially since they are operating under a small bag limit - will deplete the runs. True, like the chum salmon, pinks tend to ripen quickly after they return to fresh water, but the fish available to anglers favouring the bars of the lower Skeena below Terrace are often in fine shape, many of them still carrying sea lice.

Skeena Steelhead Skeena sockeye are also abundant, and they are notorious non-biters. You would expect that with all the lure fishers, bait soakers and fly casters fishing the Skeena each summer a good number of sockeye would have been caught incidentally; not so. Though anglers fishing the upper reaches of the Babine report that the same fish, red and ripe, bite so readily they are a nuisance, the same fish, when passing the portals of the lower Skeena, seem to have lock jaw. And, again, a limit of one fish per angler per day, advocates of the pilot fishery on the lower Skeena argued, would guarantee minimal impact on those fish.

Finally, sportsmen suggested to fisheries personnel that the possibility of catching a fish to eat - something that had been severely curtailed in recent years - would remove some of the pressure from steelhead and coho. Reluctantly, the DFO managers agreed to free up those species on a trial basis to sportsman, despite deafening howls from commercial fishermen, who, with a minimal understanding of the up river fishery, imagined hordes of sportsmen descending on the river to fill sacks with sockeye. The fishery has been a resounding success. Fishers who formerly employed bar fishing techniques pulled on waders and took to the water with lures and flies. Pinks came readily to the fly, as they always had done, though few anglers knew it, since only a few fished the big river with fly rods. The sockeye, as expected, continued to turn their noses up at almost everything shown them. Gradually, however, reports of small catches began to circulate as anglers discovered water where one was more likely to hook one of these silvery little torpedoes, and lures that caught their attention more readily.

Lower Skeena

Over a three year period, it became evident that the best catches were going to fly fishers, which led to increased sale of fly tackle and resulted in spin casters replacing the lures at the ends of their lines with flies. Veteran Skeena fly fisherman, Ed Chapplow was one of the first to solve the riddle of Skeena sockeye, and has caught them consistently and well since he unraveled that knot.

Kitsumkalum: Winter

In Skeena, winter is the season on monochrome and mist and flat light, a time when everything but time moves slowly through stiff landscapes. The river is lower, slower and muted. The surrounding land is silent for long periods, making the sounds that punctuate the quiet - the clatter of moose hooves over the cobbled bottom of a shallow riffle, or the wing beat and the fanfare of a flock of swans, or an ice shelf calving - louder and more startling.

Exploring some of the Skeena Creeks

There is an abrupt shift from the frantic tempo of fall, with its thrashing salmon, prowling bears and bickering birds, to the somnolent pace of the cold months. In winter they may be a few char, or a stray cutthroat to catch, but winter steelhead, rare, and hard as ice, with bellies as white as the snow and backs as gray as the leaden winter sky, are the true fish of winter. These are fish built for cold weather, not bottom fish but fish of the bottom - slow to bite, fighting the slow fight.

The Kitsumkalum is a good place to find winter steelhead. During summer the river has no beaches and its water is full of glacial flour, but when slashes of red and yellow begin appearing on the hillsides the water begins to drop gradually. By October the Culver, Glacier Creek, Lone Cottonwood and a few less upper river runs are getting thinner. By November their bones are sticking out. By Christmas the water has cleared and the river is clearly defined.

In winter the summer steelhead that slipped into the system during the summer and fall months are distributed through the higher reaches of watershed, namely the Cedar and Beaver Rivers, Red Sand, Mud, and Kalum Lakes, and the ten or so miles of river above the two canyons. Joining them are the newly arriving winter fish. Members of this pale race of stocky steelhead enter the river throughout the winter months. In fact, the spring run of Kalum steelhead are probably members of this same strain of winter run fish. As late as May a few of these brilliant creatures are still arriving.

Winter Fishing

Author Rob Brown Ice rattled against the rocks protruding from the shallows. Farther out patches of the surface were glazed. Under the water white slush was attaching itself to the rocks. A spill in the river might prove fatal this far from the truck. I waded slowly with short steps thankful that, because of the long rod [15-foot Hardy], there was no reason to wade past my knees. I made a short cast, then a longer one. The sinking tip I'd fastened to the double taper carried the hot pink prawn imitation I'd dubbed "Seafood" down far enough that I felt it bump against rocks as it swept through its arc. A few casts later it stopped. A steady pulse was transmitted down the line as the first fish shook its head from side to side. After a short, dogged fight, I slid the fish through the slush to shore.

A small male with a hint of pink on its side, newly arrived, stood out brilliantly against the dark gray rocks. After extricating the hook, drying my hands and slipping them back into the woolen mitts, I started in again, and again a fish took hold, a larger animal, it turned out, a female, white and gray and shining with no hint of colour and translucent fins. So it went for the remainder of an afternoon when the Kalum would prove more generous than it had been before or has been since.

I'd never before - not even fishing warm summer water for aggressive summer steelhead - brought a score of steelhead to the fly. I thought about the situation as I made my way through the woods and across the frozen beaver ponds at dark. Clearly, I'd had the good fortune to intercept a fresh run of winter fish slowed down by the chill. I fired up the truck, listened to the diesel rattle and complain, drank black coffee, and waited for the cab to heat up. This, I thought, was as fine as steelheading gets: tranquility, solitude, a hint of danger, and confirmation that a newly acquired strategy, learned after much diligent practice, would open new and exciting angling opportunities in the demanding, uncluttered surroundings of winter. ~ Rob Brown

Skeena River For a MAP of the Skeena River, click here.
For the FLIES for the Skeena River click here.
To ORDER Skeena River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From the Skeena River, part of the Great River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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