Story and Photographs by Greg Thomas
One of the risks we take when fishing DIY in super-remote areas is losing or breaking an essential piece of gear early in the trip.
I had prepared for that scenario prior to visiting northern British Columbia’s most remote islands—an archipelago called Haida Gwaii that rests eight hours by ferry from Prince Rupert, a two-hour flight from Vancouver and just several miles south of Alaska—but I hadn’t expected that event to occur just an hour into the trip.
But there, just outside of Port Clements, I’d cast across the Yakoun River and caught my fly in a birch tree. When I tried to pull it free, my brand-new line snapped where the shooting head met an integrated running line. The entire head slingshotted across the river and wound itself around the limbs. With just a quick glance upstream and down, I realized that crossing the river, which was high from recent rains, would be very risky and maybe impossible. And this: If I couldn’t cross and retrieve the shooting head, I’d be down to one outfit for five days of bushwhacking through Haida Gwaii’s notoriously thick rainforest.
Fortunately I was able to tippy-toe across a tail-out, with water almost swamping my waders, and pitch a large branch into the line. Sheer luck brought the line and limb out of the tree and into the river. From there it was a track meet between me and the Yakoun, and this time I won, making it “game-on” again for some of the most remote steelhead on the planet.
Haida Gwaii and its largest river, the Yakoun, don’t rest in the steelheader’s mindset like many of British Columbia’s other fishy offerings, such as the Thompson, Skeena, Kispiox, Sustut, Bulkley, Babine and Dean rivers, to name a few. But the Yakoun provides the same kind of opportunity, with an average fish weighing seven to 12 pounds and many brutes pushing the 20-pound mark. Each year local anglers whisper about 30-pounders.
There are good reasons to keep those voices down. For one, it’s the nature of anglers to want the doors closed behind them. Second, tourism on Haida Gwaii is on the increase. Surfers, bikers, hikers, native-heritage visitors and plenty of anglers are discovering this place and wanting to get at it before it changes. Those factors, coupled with a cult-like surge in West Coast spey-casters, give rightful cause for worry.
Local anglers and the lodge owners who service Haida Gwaii’s waters, however, have a few factors to give them promise. First, Haida Gwaii is a DIY trip that can’t be taken lightly. There are no fly shops on the islands, so you need to bring what you need and hope it lasts. If you break two rods and they are all you brought, that’s all she wrote for your fishing. In addition Haida Gwaii’s largest islands—Graham on the north end and Moresby to the south—have plenty of quaint towns and infrastructure, but getting to some of their streams, including portions of the Yakoun and Mamin rivers, can be daunting. Here’s why: There are several places to rent vehicles, but that opportunity often includes travel restrictions—Haida Gwaii’s labyrinth of forest roads can eat tires, and active logging operations make each bend in the road a potential disaster. Even so, there is plenty of steelhead water available within easy driving of the islands’ three hubs: Masset, Queen Charlotte City
and Skidegate. But once you reach the river you may have to beat through heavy brush and navigate massive downed trees and stumps to reach the water, which is exactly why you should bring more gear than you think you’ll need. Overall, a DIY trip to Haida Gwaii is a serious undertaking, with plenty of logistics to shake out before you arrive. But doing so is well worth the effort.
I visited these islands last winter joined by my fishing pal Randy. We staked out at Port Clements and rented a quaint beachfront house called Adele’s. We’d rented a four-wheel-drive Dodge Ram pickup in Masset, and with it we could reach the lower Yakoun in five minutes and the upper Yakoun and the Mamin in a half-hour to an hour, depending on which sections we chose to fish. We bought our provisions at the Masset Co-op and additional food in Port Clements, and we cooked our own meals almost every morning and evening. This allowed us to fish from early morning until dark, when we would drive back to town with high beams on, typically through the rain.
The rain. Early in our trip conditions were ideal, meaning the Yakoun and other streams were dropping after heavy rains. This is the ideal situation for finding grabby fish. When the water drops or is stable, the fish find comfortable places to rest and seem eager to hit flies. When the water rises, steelhead move, heading for upstream spawning grounds or just to find a place to hold in high flows. At this time they don’t like to eat. At least that was our experience, which fits into the steelhead model wherever I’ve fished.
You might hook a fish that’s as bright as a freshly printed nickel and wants to take you to the end knot in your backing.
But man, what a glorious few days to start the trip . . . before the rain set in. We found steelhead in four-to-six-feet-deep bankside slots, with birch limbs hanging over the water, offering the security the wary fish desire. We found them in eight-to-10-foot, inky-black, mid-river or bank-tight buckets and often in the slick water above rapids. On smaller streams we sight-fished to metalheads lined up along the banks, often hanging alongside a downed tree or submerged limb. We found steelhead in the deepest holes under and downstream from bridges, and we even caught a couple in small slots on the far edges of rapids, where our flies landed and were grabbed immediately, making me believe we could have taken some of those fish on skated flies, even through water temperatures were quite low.
Each of these fish—all wild, because there aren’t any hatchery steelhead on Haida Gwaii—tore up the water. On several occasions they ripped so far downstream we thought we might lose them to logjams or root wads. We lost plenty in other ways, but we landed a fair share too. The smallest steelhead, dime-bright, weighed about six or seven pounds. The largest fish (that we landed) weighed perhaps 16 pounds. (She slipped from my grip before I could stretch a tape along her length.) Here’s the thing: We saw fish swim past that would have weighed 20 or more pounds. And those are the fish—the ones we didn’t get—that make me so eager to return.
The rain arrived midway through our five-day trip, and the rivers spiked. There was some fishing to be had, but all the runs we had so painfully located on the Yakoun were blown. We fished them—fished them hard—but where we’d turned steelhead in the days prior we found nothing willing to bite. Even when we cast at fish we could see, we couldn’t get them to take. That’s the steelheader’s misery and the reason why Randy and I have discussed a return trip—this time earlier in the season, this time for a couple of weeks minimum, so that we get as many days of prime conditions, preferably as the rivers drop, as possible. And so we can check out more of Haida Gwaii’s most remote streams.
Haida Gwaii’s steelhead season begins with early arriving fish in late October or early November. The run builds through winter before subsiding in late March or April. I have heard compelling stories about the November timeframe but have fished the area only in February and March. By that time some of the steelhead are on their spawning beds, but fresh fish still push in. This means you might catch a fish that’s been in the river for a month or more and is painted deep red. Or you might hook a fish that’s bright as a freshly printed nickel and wants to take you to the end knot in your backing. Either way they’re all wild, and each is a treasure.
Fishing on Haida Gwaii doesn’t have to be such an adventure. There are several lodges that can host you and take care of the details—including transportation and meals—and independent guides are available. This isn’t a bad route to take, if you can book a date. (Lodges hold limited “rod days,” and when those are gone, they’re gone.)
I don’t know if I’ll ever fish Haida Gwaii from a lodge. For me, wandering around the forest on my own, trying to figure out a tricky river, reminds me of my youth in western Washington and Southeast Alaska. But now in western Washington (really, wherever steelhead are found), the rivers often are crowded and dominated by hatchery fish. Southeast Alaska remains a gem for steelhead, but it’s a little farther up the coast than Haida Gwaii. So here on Haida Gwaii, in this magical place with its deeply silent and cathedral-like forests and purely wild steelhead, it still seems like the good old days. And that’s worth hitting, either guided or DIY, in case the floodgates finally open.