By Dana Sturn
In a truck camper beside a tiny steelhead stream, The Bechman hovers over his Regal vise and leans in close. The early morning autumn light eases through the blinds, but eyes dimming with age make soft light and eyeglasses troublesome. For close work, the glasses come off and a headlamp comes on.
He’s tying a steelhead fly, a daily ritual. Usually some variation of the Lady Caroline and usually in the early morning, often accompanied by freshly made espresso laced with Baileys.
While the espresso brews on a two-burner stove, The Bechman puts the finishing touches on a smallish Caroline. An hour from now I’ll swing this fly through a smooth tail-out in a place with a name I’ll never mention. A bright steelhead will stop it halfway through and tear downriver.
But that will be later. For now the fly is carefully finished with half-hitches and a drop of super glue and stuck in a small piece of Styrofoam that sits on the table beside an open fly box containing several neat rows of Carolines.
Poul Bech—aka The Bechman—is one of those figures in fly-fishing who few know but everyone should. He’s the Dark Knight of British Columbia steelhead conservation—doing what needs to be done without regard for personal cost or recognition. While others prefer to operate in the limelight, Bech is content—actually prefers—to work in the shadows.
“I’ve always been sort of a backroom guy,” he says. “I want fish and rivers to be the focus, not me.”
Pushed for specifics, Bech shifts the conversation to the good work being done by fishing clubs, biologists and grassroots conservation organizations. The details probably don’t matter much: It’s enough to say that much of British Columbia’s best steelhead-conservation efforts would have Bech’s bootprints all over them if he wasn’t so good at hiding his tracks. Despite his low profile, in 2009 Bech’s work was recognized and honored by the Steelhead Society of British Columbia with the prestigious Cal Woods Award.
His approach to conservation advocacy mirrors his approach to fishing. He travels the highways and gravel roads keeping to himself, staying off the grid. “Camping has always been part of the experience,” he says. “Motel or lodge fishing is kinda like fishing indoors.”
Bech began fishing at the age of 5. He grew up reading Roderick Haig-Brown, dreaming of wild and far-off places where steelhead finned in riffled tail-outs waiting for the swing of the right fly. His first job was at the renowned and now long closed Vancouver tackle shop Harkley and Heywood. Weekends in the fall he would hop a bus in a Vancouver suburb and step off in the small town of Lytton (a 31⁄2-hour journey) to spend the day fishing.
“We’d get in around two in the morning,” he recalls, “so we’d walk down to the river and start a fire. We’d wake at daybreak shivering and covered in snow, but we’d just brush ourselves off and go fishing.” Tired of the bus, he bought a POS Datsun 510 and ran two sets of emergency brakes to both rear wheels—cheap positraction in case he got stuck. Years later, after studying forestry and working as a fisheries technician, a new gig as a union representative offered a salary that upgraded his camping supplies. Today he pilots the Bechmobile, a nondescript 4×4 with a camper chained to the box.
Like its namesake, the Bechmobile is full of practical surprises—a Leatherman on wheels. Once we were bumping our way into a remote lake when our progress was halted by a tree across the road. A few minutes later Bech had a bow saw and a come-along in hand, and in 30 minutes we were on our way. It’s not uncommon, especially in the middle of a day on the water, for Bech to disappear inside and reappear moments later with martinis in hand saying, “Fishing’s tough work; you need to stay hydrated.”
While “out there” his adventures are the stuff of legend. One night while he was parked at a pullout overlooking the headwaters of a summer steelhead stream, a nearby natural-gas pipeline exploded, sending earth and rock tumbling through the air.
“I was asleep,” he recalls, “and I awoke to this sound that I thought was the side of the mountain coming down. Then stuff started coming through the walls!”
Another time he got seriously stuck—“up to the axles; it was bad”—while four-wheeling into a remote spot on the Skeena River. “Took us a couple of hours to dig out. Luckily we had our waders!” And at another remote camp he returned from an evening’s fishing to find a family of black bears had stopped in for a visit. Several unsuccessful attempts failed to persuade the sow to take her cubs elsewhere. Thinking better of negotiating in the dark with momma, he spent a cold night floating around a lake in a Metzeler inflatable raft. In the morning the bears were gone—along with most of his camp.
Bech takes such things in stride, all part of the experience. Like his devotion to conservation causes.
“If you care about something,” he says, “you’ll want to protect it. There are always challenges. That’s part of the deal. But there’s some self-interest in it too. Most places I used to fish in my youth have been more or less destroyed, so it’s important to look after what’s left. I’m running out of secret spots.”
A sudden hiss from the stove alerts us that the espresso is ready. The Bechman pours, and then tops off our mugs with Baileys. Pushing his glasses back onto his nose, he takes the fly from the Styrofoam and holds it to the light.
“If I had to fish one fly, this would be it,” he says. “I’ve been tying and fishing Lady Carolines for 40 years. Haig-Brown listed it in the Western Angler and said it was a good pattern. He was right.”
As he reaches for the fly box, he hesitates. “You don’t have any of these, do you?” He snaps off the headlamp and hands me the fly.
The gathering light and slowly warming camper are reminders that a half-hour walk, a river and the promise of bright fish are outside waiting for us. We finish our coffee and ready our gear. As I shoulder my vest, it occurs to me that this river is one that Bech worked on that would have been lost without his efforts, and I’m here enjoying the benefits without the backbreak. He gives; I take. Like so many of us.
Before we leave, The Bechman takes the fly box and runs a finger along the rows. True to form, he says, “Here,” handing me another elegant Caroline, the best of the bunch. “Now you have two.”