ANGLER RULE NO. 1 – NEVER GIVE YOUR ROD TO THE GUIDE!!
Fishing for King Salmon on the Kitimat River in British Columbia
by Justin Maxwell Stuart
Photographs by Mark Wengler
Despite the ravages of jet lag from our transatlantic journey there was a palpable sense of excitement the moment our domestic flight from Vancouver to Terrace took off. No books or films required on this flight. Looking out the window provides an unparalleled visual spectacle and goes to reinforce the feeling that you are entering a very special part of the world; nature in its most raw and striking form. For the next two hours we flew over the Coast Range, an exceptionally rugged stretch of mountains that parallels the BC coastline. Dense forests creep up impossibly steep slopes before finally giving way to jagged saw-tooth peaks, interspersed with glacial plateaus.
Snow capped wilderness – The Kitimat River
This overwhelming sense of enormity is not lost on arrival into Terrace. Although the town is at quite the opposite end of the size spectrum, that cannot be said for other aspects of the area. Huge pickup trucks outnumber regular cars 1:1, gargantuan bits of forestry equipment stand sentinel in lumberyards that resemble small towns, forests stretch in all directions, both horizontally and vertically, all of which jostle for visual superiority alongside the mighty Skeena River. This 'sense of huge' was the reason our small team of four hopeful anglers/friends had made the journey from GB. We were here to tackle the Chinook or King salmon, the largest of all the salmonoids. The average size of a King salmon is a staggering 20-30lbs but far bigger fish run the Skeena, Kitimat, Kalum, Copper and surrounding rivers. 40-50lbs is achievable on a fly rod but the absolute out-and-out leviathans of 60,70,80,90 lbs. are for the most part simply too powerful to tame by fly.
Everything is big in this part of the world - Including the trucks
We were fishing at Nicholas Dean Lodge during the first week of July, one of the prime weeks to target tide-bright Chinook as they enter the river. This same week, a 'mountain range' away, catastrophic flooding was causing chaos in Toronto. Nerves were definitely jangling at the prospect of facing similar mountains of chocolate coloured water, carrying large sections of the landscape down river. On arrival, clear skies and guide reports that the rivers were in good shape thankfully put any concerns to bed. After settling in at the lodge and an analysis of our options on the first evening it was concluded that the Kitimat River offered the best chance of success with the Kalum, Copper and Skeena rivers being either a little high or a little early for the best fishing.
Going into any fishing trip it is important to have expectations that, whilst optimistic, need to be in line with what you might expect to catch. Fishing for King salmon is about relatively 'few' spectacular fish that will change your perception of how hard a fish can fight, and equally how hard you can fight a fish. For numbers of fish a week, the end of July can deliver more than any angler could ask for. I will not dwell any further on the differences as to what one might catch at different times; suffice to say that by midsummer the numbers of mixed species of Pacific salmon lining the banks, away from the main current, can be so great that you to avoid snagging a fish every other cast, assuming that is not your intent, you must flick your fly from the water before it reaches the end of the swing.
On our first day Mark and I fished the middle section of the Kitimat whilst Chris and Nick fished the lower section. Having driven to the put-in point we slid our raft into the river and from there drifted downriver to a take-out point 8 or so kms downstream. The middle section of the Kitimat is mid-sized and very charismatic. We would spend thirty minutes to an hour fishing all the likely looking water wherever we stopped. Despite the fact that the river carried a milky green glacial tinge our guide Scott thought that the river was a little low and too clear. King salmon typically lie just off the main current, usually close to the bottom and preferably in the deeper lies, although that will depend on water clarity. Cloudy/coloured water reinforces the sense of security for a King salmon, even if it appeared impossibly dirty to our team, more used to fishing for Atlantic salmon Then again, flies for King salmon are not subtle. Ghastly orange and purple, fluorescent greens or electric blue all seem to have their place in a King salmon flybox.
Not your average flybox!! – Mark Wengler...in front of the camera for a change
Fishing methods for Chinook are really no different from any swung-fly fishing. It did not seem to be a prerequisite to attempt herculean, ego-massaging casts to the far side of the far bank. For the most part presenting your fly so that it landed in the main current seemed the most effective tactic. If a bite came as it swung from the faster water into the seam, just off the main current, this was almost always a King salmon, whilst a take towards the end of the swing in the slack water was usually that of a Chum or Pink salmon. If your fly was hitting the bottom every 5 or so casts it meant that for the most part you were fishing the right sort of depth; better to risk losing a fly or two as opposed to fishing too high. King salmon like the fly presented on their nose and unlike Atlantic salmon will not typically rise to a fly. To that end we always had (correction…our guide always had) a pack of fast sinking T14 tips in 6, 9 or 12 ft. lengths, ready to change depending on water depth or speed of current. Although using fast sinking lines and heavy flies can fill unacquainted anglers with a sense of dread, when fished on a Skaggit shooting head the weight almost magically disappears.
Although the Kitimat is wide in places as a rule it is not a requisite to cast a huge line
Results at the end of Day 1. Zero for Mark & myself whilst Nick and Chris on the Lower Kitimat had a field-day, hooking eight silver King salmon fresh from the sea. Over and above 'outright skill', conditions on the lower Kitimat appeared to be more favourable as the river carried more colour. It also reinforced the point that it was not necessary to stretch your line to the backing. Both Chris and Nick would freely admit to grappling with the 'new-fangled' techniques of spey casting, snap T's or some aberration of both.
Eight hooked fish by anyone's books is a great day's king salmon fishing, made all the more rewarding by a personal best (PB) for Chris with a fish of around 30lbs and another significantly bigger lost at the bank. The net result of this failure/success was that as a group, for the rest of the week, we remained hooked to the Lower Kitimat. That is not to say there were not opportunities to be had elsewhere, but when you have had a taste of monster fish that break all expectations on the opening day, it becomes hard to find the precious time to gamble with another untested location.
Chris battling a good fish - Nik & Chris with A King Salmon of around 30lbs
Fishing rivers in BC does require a slightly different stratagem to those used when fishing private water with rotating beats etc., especially on a river like the Kitimat, where outboard engines are thankfully not allowed. From the raft put-in point you are on a one-way trajectory down river until the pickup point, wherever that may be. On the face of things it makes for an interesting battle of wills as if you make too firm a base camp on an upper section you risk losing occupation on the lower pools if too many rafts pass you. Alternatively, if you decide to shoot down river to a favourite bar, then you do not have the option to retrace your steps if things turn out not to be as productive as you would hope.
Like counting cards you can also count rafts and gauge the likely availability of pools below, but you may then miss some dawn risers (and there are a few) although this can be offset by counting vehicles left at the put-in point. But vehicles, whilst they may equate to boats in the water, do not tell you if they are fly or gear anglers. Gear anglers tend to fish from their boat and by and large fish clear of fly anglers, preferring different spots and anchoring up as they drift down off the faster water. Throw in a few jokers, such as anglers from the limited foot or quad bike access points and you face quandaries at every gravel bar you fish or choose to pass.
Sounds complicated…do not worry. First off is the fact that you are fishing for running fish and an empty pool one hour may be full of porpoising fish the next. Secondly, we pretty much caught fish wherever we fished; what was a great pool one day with lots of moving fish may be quiet the next. Thirdly, as we discovered, although fly-anglers would normally choose to fish from the open-banked gravel bars, considerable success could be found on the opposite steeper-sided banks. Finally, but maybe most importantly, offering up a little river etiquette and asking if you could share a particular spot is never out of place. At the end of the day there really is no shortage of space, and, for that matter, fish.
There are no noisy jetboats on the Kitimat – Only Rafts making for a very peaceful experience
Over the following week everyone had their chance of a fish or two that defined their trip. Some days were slower than others and of course inevitably there were a good number of opportunities missed. With the exception of the first day when we experienced a brief but hard shower followed by an instant blast of humidity, we enjoyed bright sunny skies, even if that was to the disadvantage of the fishing. We fished around log jams, explored opposite banks, snoozed on the dingy seats (Chris), tempted eagles with fishy morsels and tried most variations of bright and gaudy flies that we had available.
Everybody had their share of big fish action…everybody that is except myself. Master of Jacks (small Kings), the biggest that I could bring to the bank was a meagre 18lbs. Were we fishing for any other salmonoid/migratory fish, a completely credible size, but we were not fishing for any other fish…we were fishing for King salmon which should average 20 lbs. or more. As the most travelled and experienced of our group I was happy to wait patiently for my moment of reward where the dedication and perseverance would pay off with a 'fish so large that even I would not need to lie about it'. As the remaining days dwindled, and whilst my tally in terms of numbers caught and landed grew, the size did not. As any fishermen will attest when faced with 'perceived failure' as often as not it drives one on to longer and longer hours for fear of leaving a foot of water uncovered.
King Salmon will not respect you if you play them gently - Maximum pressure need to be applied
On day five I found myself in a predicament. We were fishing the bar that had proved so successful for Chris and Nick on day one and I had just received a very firm pull in the exact place where a 'significant' fish had showed a few minutes previously. I suppose in such situations handing over one's rod is the last thing that would cross a sane fisherman's mind. However, alongside the privilege of fishing in such a wonderful area and the hope of a 'big one', I also wanted to ensure I had captured the best angles and shots for my WWMF film of the week. Soft morning light, a particularly interesting background root stump and snow capped mountains was too good a shot to miss out on. I called over to Dustin, our guide, and asked him if he would not mind having a few casts whilst I filmed him.
It only took six casts, the first four of which I filmed prior to lowering my camera. Those who have fished with me know that I am very particular about my Loop Classic Reel. The noise it makes as a hot fish disappears is deafening but what should have been an alarm call to my companions was now assaulting my eardrums from the wrong side of the rod handle. It was very obvious from an early stage that this was an extremely big fish. Dustin with 20 years of guiding is no amateur when it comes to King salmon and he defiantly gave it no quarter. I am fairly certain that had I been playing it I would have been so enthralled by the power of the fish that it would have been 200 yards away and still accelerating back to the sea followed by inevitable freedom.
As the fight came to a conclusion Nick, who had never even seen a salmon half as big as what was now confronting him, was given instructions to man the net as I tried to maintain focus through the viewfinder. Dustin, alongside a running commentary of events, would punctuate each sentence with a, "I wish it was one of you guys who had hooked this" or "I feel really bad about this" which, it has to be mentioned, was said in a totally contrite manner…not the sort of tongue-in-cheek effort that I might have mustered. After a few false starts and a few stern instructions not to net the fish from behind, as the fish would simply power its way out, Nick deftly and expertly slid the fish into the net.
Nick struggling to fit the huge fish into what would otherwise be considered an oversize net!
How big was the fish? I cannot tell you with any accuracy other than to say that Dustin considered it to be "pushing 50", "one of the ten biggest Chinooks he had seen taken on the Kitimat" and "one of the bigger fish he had caught on a fly rod!" I guess when you have been fishing for Kings all your life, as he has, and have seen a great many in that size and indeed much bigger, it really was quite academic to him as to how big it was compared to the urge to get the fish safely back into the water. The photograph of the magnificent fish, complete with sea-lice, may not do its size justice. No clever fish-eye lenses are used to stretch the dimensions and it is not helped by the fact that Dustin is a huge individual, 300lbs and 6ft 5inches tall. Call it 40…call it 50…it was a great fish!
What about me…what did I learn? One simple important lesson - never hand your rod to the guide, your friend, your partner, unless you are able to accept that they may end up winding in the fish of your dreams!
Dustin with his huge King Salmon estimated at 50lbs