It's been a few years since I last went steelheading in October. We typically reserve our trips for earlier in the fall and in the spring. However, the October trip dates lined up for us this year and we decided to give it a try. Going later in October carries its risks, it is colder than the beginning of September, and often the weather is much more unpredictable.
There was a hum amongst the steelhead community that the fishing was a little slow, and the escapement charts certainly didn't reflect an amazing return. Despite all that, day one, run one, cast ten, Ben managed to bring in a nice fish. We weren’t quite sure if this was pure luck (probably), but it set a nice tone for the trip. Water levels this year were higher than we had ever fished, which made figuring the river out a little more difficult. Some of our go-to runs either did not exist or looked and swung very differently. Having not caught a fish in the first ten minutes like Ben, my confidence was feeling a little shaken with how different the river looked. It wasn’t until about day three that I started to feel like we were fishing productive water and putting flies in front of fish.
Figuring out where we wanted to fish forced us to go back to the basics, and instead of just working on autopilot in our tried and true runs, really look at the water and figure things out. One thing that has always surprised me is the depth in which you can commonly find steelhead. Often in the shop there are hoards of customers buying T-14 for their trip to steelhead country, but truth be told I never fish anything faster than a Type 6 tip, and more often than not only have a Type 3 on. I’ve seen the majority of the fish caught (with exceptions obviously) holding in nothing deeper than knee-to-hip depth, and walking-paced flows.
The first two days jetting around really helped us to hone in on the spots we wanted to fish, and solidified the benefits of spending a day or two familiarizing yourself with the water. In my mind once you have done this, not only will you spend less time fishing where they don’t live, but you'll also feel more confident in where you are swinging, which translates into more effective fishing. On that note, I’d like to touch on the idea of flies. Personally, I find changing up your fly all the time does not inspire confidence, which again curbs the effectiveness of your fishing. To draw from Dec Hogan’s Passion for Steelhead (a must read for any avid steelhead angler), steelhead will eat a set of keys if you swing it long enough. I hear guys swear up and down that they would never fish a bright pink fly above Smithers on the Bulkley, but on almost every one of my trips fishing there I have seen Ben catch nice hot fish on bright flies. When it comes down to it, swing a fly you are confident in, and don’t change flies every 5 minutes. You aren’t doing yourself any favors.
Most people I know who spend time in steelhead country stay either in lodges, hotels, or AirBNB’s. However, being broke university students means that Ben and I spend the majority - if not the whole trip -sleeping in the back of my truck, steelhead bummin’ it. In the beginning of September this often isn’t an issue, but if this is your kind of thing, do not underestimate the value of a night or two in a hotel on bad weather days to dry things out.
Through a long (and often uncomfortable) process we have learned what things are crucial if you are looking to bum it in steelhead country. Some of my must haves include: leak-free waders (bring aquaseal!), lots of extra clothes, good food, lots of coffee, and a chainsaw. When it’s cold and wet out, nothing beats a roaring fire to dry things off and keep warm. Taking a day to head into the woods and cut some wood (with the appropriate permits of course) is definitely time well spent on an October trip sleeping outside! And making endless hot coffee on the boat helps to warm you up after wading through that last icy run.
Overall, the trip was another amazing one (like they all are), and only left me wanting more time up there. But that is part of the steelhead experience, planning what you want to do next year before you’ve even made it home. There’s something amazing about these fish, and something oddly satisfying about being a steelhead bum for a few weeks a year.
If you’ve ever got questions about bummin’ it for steelhead feel free to swing by the shop and chat or message me on Instagram @nickverlaan. I’ve spent 5 years figuring it out and would be more than happy to share some more tips.