Written by Bob Melrose.
Steelhead Paradise was the name of the book authored by John Fennelly in 1963 that first chronicled the wonderful Steelhead fishing to be found in the waters of the Upper Skeena drainage. Of course, the locals had known for years of the abundant and large Steelhead in the Kispiox, Sustat, Babine, Bulkley, Suskwa and Morice. Back in the 60's I made many trips from Prince George out to the Bulkley, Morice, Suskwa and Kispiox Rivers and unfortunately like most anglers of that time success was measured by whether you limited out or not. We look back at pictures of Steelhead spread across the tailgate of the truck or the lawn and remark about the "good old days".
John Fennelly's book let out the local secret to the world's angler that here was the promised land for the incurable Steelhead addict. Here was the biggest and best Steelhead fishing in the world with relatively easy access, little pressure and close to amenities. It was both a blessing and a curse. It brought in anglers from all corners of the globe increasing pressure on the resource but also drawing attention to this world class fishery. We soon realized that to protect the fish we needed to bring in some measures to insure this fishing would be there for our kids. Wild Steelhead became catch and release only and single, barbless hook to decrease the hooking mortality.
In a way Steelhead management has worked in that we still have seasons for these magnificent fish but never enough to please every user group. We had some great Steelhead years from 1998-2002 but some lean years since then. This year early returns are above the decade average and that is encouraging news. When you consider the odds of a Steelhead returning to spawn, it is nothing short of a miracle. To be able to escape the drift nets of all those nations that do not have Salmon or Steelhead stocks, sea lice from fish farms, habitat destruction, El Nino and La Nina ocean conditions, commercial and native fisheries, predation from seals, sea lions, whales etc. any return is a blessing and when you consider that some of these fish can go back out to sea and return to spawn up to three times it is truly a miracle.
Steelhead can be taken with a variety of tackle by bottom bouncing, pulling plugs, float fishing, casting spoons and spinners, bar fishing or fly fishing. Most of the visiting anglers arrive with fly rods as these fish seem particularly predisposed to the fly. The ultimate for the Steelhead angler is the dry fly and watching that white mouth come up to inhale your dry is truly heart stopping. I remember one beautiful fall afternoon in 2002 when 13 Steelhead came to the dry. I thought if this is what heaven is like sign me up now.
A Steelhead tag is required when fishing in Steelhead waters at certain times even though you may be fishing other species. Check with your pro tackle shop for all applicable regulations. It always amazed me when locals would not fish in September and October because the would have to buy a Steelhead tag but right behind them could be a visiting angler who had flown in to our area, paid up to $7000 for one week of guided fishing just for the chance at a Steelhead which they then have to release.
Many books have since been written about Steelhead. Trey Comb's book "Steelhead Fly Fishing" is often called the Bible for the fly angler. It is an extremely comprehensive work on the subject and lists the methods, the anglers who contributed so much to the sport, and the rivers that they call home. "Advanced Fly Fishing for Steelhead" by Deke Meyer is another very good book as is "A Passion for Steelhead" by Dec Hogan.
Lanny Waller in the mid 80's made some video's with 3M that are still very relevant and excellent guides for the Steelhead angler. The segments cover some time on our famous Dean and Babine Rivers. Many other videos, DVD's are available on other methods for Steelhead from your local pro shop. WARNING: Catching your first Steelhead may harm your chequebook and future relationships. Should be supervised by another adult or child of like mind who also loves the outdoors and the beautiful country Steelhead live in.
Since my first Steelhead I have accompanied many other anglers as they also experienced their first Steelhead. All were memorable and indelibly etched into life's experience. In particular one very nice couple had got into fly fishing, purchased the complete rod, reel, waders, vest and tackle and watched the Lanny Waller videos and taken fly casting lessons but alas the Steelhead God had not smiled upon them. They had gone the whole season without a fish. At the start of the next season he had come into the shop asking for some help with his roll casting. We arranged a time for the next evening for some practice on the river. Some anglers were on the upper bar so we went to the tailout and worked on their roll casts. There wasn't much light left when he asked "How would you fish this run"? Upstream the other anglers had gone so we walked up to the top end. "Start by making short casts, then gradually increase each cast until you are at your comfort range then step cast, step cast through the pool". "Where would you start" he asked. "Right about here and no more than ankle deep". On the second cast no more than ten feet past the rod tip a Steelhead took the fly. I handed him the fly rod. He looked at me puzzled and I said "Here is your first Steelhead". The chrome doe made two or three jumps and some great runs before coming to hand. She was a beauty doe of about ten pounds. He kept saying "She was so strong, so strong" and his wife was stroking the fish cradled in the water saying "It is so beautiful, so beautiful". Although it was almost dark I could see the glistening in their eyes and I knew how much my first Steelhead meant and how they were feeling. The next morning he came in the shop and said "You bugger, you know I didn't sleep last night". I replied "That's OK, neither did I".