Destination Trip Report: Skeena 2013 on the Swing

By Reid Baker

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Reid Baker swinging his fly in anticipation surrounded by the beautiful backdrop of Skeena country.

With the end of fishing season 2013 on the horizon, I took some time in early October to head up to Northwestern British Columbia to target wild Steelhead on the world famous Skeena River system.  The Skeena system is on an ever dwindling list of completely wild stock and undammed steelhead fisheries in the world, and in particular one of the best places to target these sea run fish on the fly utilizing swinging techniques. Rightly referred to as the fish of a thousand casts, steelhead fishing is certainly not a numbers game and many variables come into play in order to catch these large anadromous fish.  Throughout my years of fishing for these elusive fish I’ve had plenty of heartbreaking, frustrating, fishless and even unfishable days which would make many sane anglers promptly put their spey rods and Skagit lines on eBay the second they got home.  However for 2013 the river gods smiled on me and I feel very fortunate to say that many variables fell into place and made for one of the best fishing trips I have ever taken.

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Strong, powerful, elusive and stunning, steelhead bring magic to your hand if you are ever fortunate enough to catch these sea run fish on the fly.

Steelhead fishing relies heavily on a handful of crucial elements, some of which we can control, some not.  First of all, these sea run rainbow trout have to actually be in the rivers as they make their way out of the vast Pacific Ocean into the very rivers they themselves were born in to stage for their spring spawning.  Secondly, and often the hardest element, weather and river conditions have to be favorable.  The Pacific Northwest is known for rain, and the fish rely heavily on water levels in the river to influence their upstream migrations.  Not enough water and they will hunker down and perhaps not even be in the river to begin with.  Alternatively, you get a string of heavy rains (as so often happens in this coastal region) and rivers blow out, visibility goes down and/or water temperatures drop.  These elements which are out of our control as anglers can make the difference between successful days filled with fish to sitting in your hotel room tying flies and drinking beer because of unfishable conditions.

Given so much relies on these elements that are out of our control as anglers, it becomes extremely important to have a good handle on the factors we do have influence over.  Namely, these are 1) Knowledge of the fishery and ability to read its water to find where these fish are 2) Good working equipment and tackle to target these strong and dynamic fish and 3) Preparation and proficiency of the technique points of casting, presenting flies, hooking, fighting and landing fish.  Mix these with favorable conditions and large amounts of patience and luck, and you can dramatically help ensure your steelhead trip (or really any day of fishing regardless of targeted species or area) maximizes your potential and gets the most of your time on the water.

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The author utilizing a spey rod and sustained anchor cast. Though for many years anglers targeted these fish with traditional single handed rods, today many find 2 handed rods more beneficial for their castability and ease of line control.

Despite the ever-present possibility for bad luck, I rolled the dice and headed northwest with Freestone Outfitters former Head Guide Mark Shamburg, who moved to Seattle after the close of the 2012 season (to chase these fish on a full time basis).  Mark and I have made several trips up to the region throughout the years, and for Mark, this is always an annual pilgrimage.  Though there are no shortage of world renowned fishing lodges and guides in the area, we have always opted for a do-it-yourself approach.  We have become more and more familiar with the various rivers and how to best read them and over the years the quality of our trips have dramatically improved as our skill sets and experience has increased.

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Impressive is an understatement. Mark Shamburg with a buck weighing in easily over 20 lbs.

Conditions for our trip ended up being overwhelmingly favorable and the fish were there, they were grabby with flies, and they were big.  The Skeena system is especially known as a haven for steelhead anglers who prefer targeting these fish utilizing swinging techniques as opposed to nymphing setups.  Very common and often times more effective, dead drift indicator nymphing techniques, very similar to your standard nymphing setup we use in Colorado, work for steelhead.  However, especially for me, swinging for steelhead is a very exciting way to target them because it comes with longer casts and exciting grabs of your fly.  Essentially, an angler casts directly across stream and utilizes the downstream current, a tight line and mends to pendulum, or swing, the fly directly downstream of them. Fortunately for both Mark and me, all our fish on this trip would come to hand utilizing a downstream swinging presentation.

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Skating dries with the Orvis Helios 2, Mirage V Reel and Hydros Switch Fly Line. Easy to handle, yet exceptionally powerful.

This year, I used two handed rods from Orvis and Sage.  For dry flies, light wet flies or nymphing I used the Orvis Helios 2 11’ 7 and 8 wt switch rods with Hydros lines on Mirage Reels, and for larger weighted flies on sink tips I used the Sage Method 12’6” 6 wt spey rod.  A well rounded quiver of rods lent itself to fishing a wide variety of water types and fish moods.  In particular, the Orvis H2 Switch rods were unbelievably light, handled as easy as single handed versions yet had the power and punch to get long reaching casts and cover water effectively.  Stay tuned to our Blog over the next couple weeks as we post comprehensive gear reviews on these fantastic pieces of equipment to get you geared up for your own steelhead adventures. Whereas once spey and switch rods were overly lengthy, clunky and cumbersome, these companies have begun using higher quality graphite and components that allow for putting the power of 14 and 15’ rods in a much more compact, user friendly, yet equally powerful package.

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Having migrated hundreds of miles upstream from the ocean by the time the author caught her, this hen steelhead put up an exceptional fight and shows how amazing and strong these fish have to be to survive.

Ultimately, our 2013 trip to the Skeena System ended up being a hugely successful trip.  Yet while I am still coming down from the high of these dynamic and elusive fish, I am excited to be back in Colorado and finish our fall season with all our great customers and chasing trout in my homewaters. We’ll see you out on the water!

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Author with a trophy male, or buck, steelhead.

Photos by Mark Shamburg and Reid Baker

Questions or Comments? Email Reid at reid@flyfishfreestone.com

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