Fighting Steel on the Dean River

British Columbia

by Justin Maxwell Stuart

Destination: British Columbia

Holiday: BC West Lodge

"Steelhead – pound for pound the hardest fighting sea run fish". Bold statements such as this are repeated time and time again, applied to any number of different species of fish and used over and used repeatedly in advertising bumph and over zealous fishing reports. Rather like a prized card in a game of ‘Top Trumps’ everybody will have his or her favourite fish that they wish to champion however the reality is that outside of a comparable environment such discussions or claims are relatively meaningless, albeit entertaining for those looking for a good piscatorial argument.

During a fishing trip to the Kanektok River in Alaska Dec Hogan, the resident expert had mentioned that in terms of strength the King Salmon and Steelhead of the Dean River in British Columbia took some beating. Having been confronted with the simply staggering strength of fresh from the sea King Salmon on the Skeena and its tributaries I was suitably intrigued. It would take something serious to unseat these contenders; having successive fish take 200 yards of line from a reel with a drag wound up to the last notch is not an experience you forget in a hurry!

The explanation as to the strength of King Salmon and Steelhead on the Dean was based on straightforward Darwinian evolution. Not much more than one and a half miles from the river mouth it passes through a fearsome gorge. The force of the water is so powerful that the migrating fish are unable to run the gorge until late June and even then it still represents a formidable obstacle. The result; a natural genetic selection where only the strongest and most powerful salmon and steelhead make it to the upper reaches of the river. Their progeny then inherit their strength and traits.

If the fish face an unenviable marathon in a sense so does the casual angler wishing to fish the Dean. The staggeringly rugged surroundings and terrain mean that access is restricted to either floatplane or helicopter. This prevents ‘day trippers’ and limits river use to anglers who either stay at one of the fixed camps or lodges or who get dropped off in the headwaters to raft downriver. Throughout British Columbia rivers are open access to anyone with a license so it is the location and accessibility that determines exclusivity.

Flying to the Dean is an experience quite unlike any other fishing lodge I have travelled to!

Travelling to the Dean by floatplane from Bella Coola is an experience in itself. The trip is absolutely mesmerising as you fly over vertical snow covered peaks which precipitously drift away to sea level, raked by scree, forests and glaciers. Coming in to land in the saltwater fjord close to the lodge the perspective is dramatically reversed and now in every direction the ragged mountains claw their way skywards into the clouds. As we landing on the mirror like surface of the fjord signs of watery life abounded. Splashes rippled across the surface and approaching the smaller inlets sockeye salmon streaked every which way, staining the area red in the areas of highest concentration. Black bears along with their cubs patrolled the shoreline, for the most part oblivious or rather unconcerned as to our arrival.

BC West Lodge is located a couple of minutes drive from the landing jetty where we dismounted from the floatplane. Vehicles are landlocked to the limited network of forestry tracks and other than a couple of additional lodges on the Lower Dean road traffic is restricted to the handful of anglers at the lodges as well as the occasional bear making its way from the dense forest to a favoured fishing ground. For most anglers this feeling of solitary wilderness is beautifully comforting. At BC West Lodge the fishing is divided between the Lower and Middle Dean stretches. On the Lower Dean the river is wide and powerful, the water having been channelled and accelerated downwards through the gorge. Access is by foot along the bank or via the lodge jet boat. On the lower Dean anglers benefit from the lodge guide whose assistance ranges from one to one help to rapid response if help is requested via radios issued to anglers when outside of immediate ear-shot or eye contact.

The 'Smokies' - Floatplane on BC West lodge landing strip

Steelhead are revered in a comparable way to Atlantic Salmon. An equal degree of mystique surrounds Steelhead although the basics skills required are broadly comparable. On my first run down the lower Dean I fished a long steeply shingled bank. A skaggit line with its heavy front end made casting the fast sinking tip with a typically gaudy intruder fly relatively painless, no different from techniques used fishing for Atlantic Salmon during the early season or in high water. The speed of the water on the Dean is however disarmingly powerful. Although I was fishing over the penultimate week of the season at BC West (on account of its location on the lower section of the river) I had been assured that fresh fish would still be moving though the area even if they probably would not stop for long.

The long sweeping run on the Lower Dean - The Gorge in late August, not an easy hurdle even in low-water

Late August means that the King Salmon will have come and gone however fresh Steelhead will continue to arrive with the tide along with the first fresh runs of Coho / Silver Salmon. Despite the powerful current an angular cast and the fast sink tip ensured that the fly was pulled down to where I was told it should be. Every so often the fly would hit the bottom, the current quickly snatching the free loop from my finger in that ever so enticing manner. Initially the heart stops and you anticipate what will follow. As realisation dawns that this is just the bouncing snag like jerk of a fly fished deep with time complacency sets in.

Maybe it was the 20th time, possibly the 50th but although the feeling was similar moments later, mid-stream a silver streak went airborne and the beautifully clunky clicker of my Loop Classic Reel shouted its tune. Fifty yards of line later there was another plume of water, now close to the far bank and the fish checked its progress, the full force of the current now weighing heavily against the thick diameter of the Skaggit line. With elation starting to build I looked around for a place to lodge my video camera but as I did so tension vanished followed by that sickening feeling that can only come with a lost fish. The length of line out still exerts a pull on the line and flickers of hope remain. Winding back in at speed the remaining tension in the line dissolves and with it the grudging acceptance of the facts. My first Dean Steelhead has emerged the winner. Nevertheless contact had been made, confidence inspired and a taste of the power of a Dean Steelhead experienced.

Licensing laws in BC mean that whilst anglers can fish wherever they want lodges are restricted to a specific number of days that they can field a guide on the river or specific zone in the case of the Dean. In practice for anglers at BC West this means that for the most part the fishing on the upper section of the Dean above the gorge is unguided. The four anglers who fish this stretch are provided with quad bikes to access the river via the forestry tracks and various connecting paths. Although initially this lack of guidance can be somewhat daunting on the other hand it is also quite liberating, knowing that you have total freedom to go where you want when you want. And when things go right it is hugely rewarding.

The upper river although still powerful feels more intimate than the lower river and the pools are closer to what you might expect rather than the larger more turbulent section in the lower river. It also offers more classic Steelhead water and certainly from mid July onwards floating lines and classical wet or dry flies become more widely used. Spey rods are popular but a good number of anglers will also fish with single-handed rods. It is usually accepted that fishing deep will produce more fish even if the purists will gain greater pleasure from rising a fish to a dry fly. This being my first major Steelhead expedition I opted to try and maximise my chances with additional finesse a reserve for subsequent trips.

I was not to be disappointed. Within twenty minutes an astonishingly aggressive take followed by a furious initial run resulted in my first Steelhead. Although no more than 8lbs it tore line from a stiff drag in a manner that I had rarely encountered from a migratory fish. Pictures taken and ecstatic with success invariably I headed straight back in and was rewarded with another slightly larger fish shortly after. Defiantly pleased with my ‘expertise/luck’ I should say that this fish was more demure although being no less of a silver bar. My suspicion was that having just run the gauntlet up the gorge it was unsurprisingly less energetic even if it still felt aggressive enough to take a swiftly swung fly.

A steelhead from the first main holding pool above the Dean River gorge

Pontoon boats are strategically positioned to allow access to the opposite bank where appropriate. In the bulk of fishing lodges that I have visited boats, rafts and associated means of crossing the river are under the sole control of the guide. As with the quad bikes, the option to fish where you want, return or depart to go fishing when you want as well as having use of individual rafts is wonderfully liberating. You really are the master of your own destiny and whilst having a guide provide a watchful overview of your every movement is very comforting the feeling of self satisfaction when you unlock the puzzle for yourself makes the experience that much more memorable and exciting.

If one of my fish maybe did not live up to the stamina that the Dean fish were reputed to have, the eight others that I caught over the course of the week certainly did. Some took the fly in water that to my eye looked unbelievably fast and could never be considered as holding area for salmon or steelhead alike. Faced with water conditions unlike what I had encountered before it became important to trust the instructions given by the guides as to where the fish may hold, even if meant overruling my instincts on occasion. Large boulders abound as do submerged trees, sometimes the strength of the water camouflaging the lies beneath. It goes without saying that when you do hook a fish in such a powerful river you need to hang on as a fish can clear a hundred yards of line from your spool in no time, and beyond that range it is all to easy to loose control of the fish. During June when the King Salmon arrive straight from the sea fly fishermen struggle to land fish much above 20-25lbs without the assistance of a guide and or his boat to follow them as they head back to the ocean.

Keep your head down whilst fishing the Dean or else visual neck-ache comes as standard

Regardless of where you fish, upper or lower Dean, all the time you are reminded of the enormity of ones surrounding. The weather is always variable in this part of the world and when the clouds descend, surrounded on all four sides by mountainous rock walls one has the feeling that there is a roof over ones head in something akin to a giants cathedral. The trees that cling to near vertical slopes smoke with but when the sun shines and clear skies pervade you have to crane your neck to see the snow peaked skyline. BC West lodge is nested amidst the woods above the river with guests staying in simple but cosy wooden cabins. Every day we were treated to delicious three course lunches followed by a welcome siesta. Fishing hours are only constrained by your stamina but it paid to conserve fishing effort to the hours when the river was not basked in the midday sun.

I have no doubt in my mind that the Dean is one of the most spectacular rivers I have fished and the fish deserve their reputation. Eight landed steelhead in a week felt like a good tally along with an equally strong Coho on my last evening. The Dean does require a slightly higher degree of self-confidence if you have been used to fishing with a guide however the bulk of guests at BC West are regulars and are only too willing to pass on their knowledge. Invariably they will have been a recipient at one time or another and as a lodge the feeling was one of being part of a team. To fish the Dean is something of a privilege. Openings are quite sporadic and it may require some time on a wait list but the rewards, visual and piscatorial are well worth the wait.

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