I love fly fishing. Whatever, whenever, wherever... I just love it. But there is one species that absolutely consumes me, the first I ever went fly fishing for, that has frustrated and rewarded me more than any other fish I've ever targeted: steelhead. I've fished for steelhead in a t-shirt and hot sunshine, in layers of fleece in -15C temps. I've been drenched to the bone for hours on end in the pouring rain, slept in the back of a truck for days at a time, and have driven hours to fish for a day. I've gone through slumps and hot streaks, missed takes and landed fish I shouldn't have. I've spent more time pursuing steelhead than any other species by far, with arguably much less success, and am happy for it.
There are no steelhead in Calgary. Epic trout fishing, yes. Chrome, sea-run fish, no. This is the first winter I haven't spent focused on winter runs, and it's been driving me nuts. I didn't realize just how much until I took that first step back into the cool winter flows a couple weeks ago. Brian Niska contacted me last fall to ask me to do some fly tying at the Whistler Flyfishing/Pieroway Fly Rods Cast & Blast event in Squamish, and I arrived a day early with enough time to fish for a few hours. It was warm and raining, and the river was in beautiful shape. That first glimpse of the river made my heart clench, and honestly, I nearly teared up. "This is where you belong" said a little voice in my head, and my entire soul agreed. I didn't touch a fish that night, but I didn't care. It felt like my whole body was soaking in my surroundings, reveling in being back on the west coast.
Cast & Blast is a three day event at Sunwolf in Brackendale, just outside of Squamish. Free to the public, the days were full of presentations from the likes of Stuart Foxall, Aaron Goodis, Bob Hooten, Scott Baker-McGarva, Brian Morrison, Mikey Orlowski, Scoot Mason, Geoff Pieroway, Francois Blanchet, Tim Arsenault, Pat Beahan, Harrison Perrin, Tom McHugh, JM Reid, myself, and, of course, Brian Niska. The Iron Fly fly tying competition was held on Friday evening, with Kirk Gilchrist stealing my title away with a rather unconventional fly. Saturday night was the Homegrown Fly Fishing Film Festival, with five incredible films premiered for an extremely enthusiastic crowd. It was an exceptional event, with a few beverages consumed, fantastic friends, and non stop entertainment. If you didn't make it this year, I highly recommend that you don't miss next year's event.
I stuck around for the week, as I was hosting a screening of IF4 in Abbotsford the following Friday, and planned on attending the M&Y Spey Day the next day. I fished a few days, losing a fish on an incredible river I'd never had any success on before, mostly because I was entirely unprepared to hook it and kinda stood there like an idiot while it cartwheeled on the end of my line. This river is not easy to fish, nor is it very generous to those who don't know it intimately, and I was beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to spend some time getting to know it better. Hooking a fish was a huge bonus. Towards the end of the week I was able to get out on the Vedder with Ben, who I love fishing with, and watched him hook hook and land an absolutely incredible chromer.
Friday we had a great screening in Abbotsford of IF4, and Saturday saw a couple hundred people gather at Gill Road on the Fraser River for the annual Michael & Young Spey Day. This was the first year I wasn't actually working the event, and was able to run around and catch up with old friends and customers, and spend way more time casting than previous years. Brian and Frankie had the Pieroway competition rod on hand, and a bunch of us took turns casting the big set up - a lot of work, but crazy fun. After a brief rain storm mid day, the sun peeked through the clouds and rewarded us with the most incredible golden light in the evening. I'd left my memory card in my computer, and had to watch enviously as Paula, Josh and Aaron captured some amazing casting photos. As the sun went down the remaining group gathered around a bonfire and enjoyed some drinks and conversation.
Originally I'd planned to head home the following day, but some very good friends twisted my very twistable arm, and I stuck around for the next week. Of the following seven days, I spent 5 very full days on the water, and two half days. It's been a few years at least since I fished that hard for winter fish, and the steelhead gods were not being kind. Cast after cast, some of the hardest wading I've every done, rain, sunshine and wind. By Friday I still hadn't hooked a fish, and I know well enough at this point that it's not that I was doing anything wrong, so it's tough to get angry or frustrated. Sometimes it just doesn't happen. I was pushing myself as much as ever, casting as far, wading as aggressively, covering water, fishing the right flies... I was so incredibly happy to be fishing for steel again, but just at a complete loss as to why I couldn't hook up. Luckily, I had one more day to fish, and Shane and I headed out super early to beat the weekend crowd. What followed was one of my personal best days of winter run fishing with a buddy, as far as hook ups go. Within the first hour I threw a long cast, and before my fly had gone 5 feet my line tightened up and blinding chrome was erupting on the surface. After a good run, some more violent surface thrashing the hook popped and I stood there, body shaking and heart racing. It doesn't matter how many steelhead I hook, or how often, each and every one leaves me in awe. By the afternoon I had hooked and lost one more, and Shane had lost three, two of them right at the beach. Chrome, wild, aggressive... my sleep deprivation, aching muscles and leaky waders mean nothing when compared with that feeling of standing in a coastal river, spey casting with the chance of hooking one of these irreplaceable creatures.
Sunday I headed back to Calgary, but I left my heart on the coast, amongst the evergreens and rocky banks of the rivers that are home.
Thank you to all the amazing friends who I was able to spend time with - April, Greg, Nick, Paula, Josh, Lisa, Brian, Mikey, Pat, Scoot, Stu, Scott, Sarah, Dave, Kirk, Bobbi, Frankie, Craig, Yos, Harrison, Ryan, Dave, Smalley, Paul, Landon, Jordan, Rick, Ross, Ben, Mat, Stevie, Andrea, Roger, Matt, Catherine, Vanessa, Justin, Tim, Aaron, Lawrence, Geoff, Mike, Chris and Shane - I love you all and miss you more than I can say.