H2O Magazine

British Columbia. From pioneers to modern skagits

The discovery of steelheads in British Columbia and the evolution of fly fishing in these territories from the late 1800s to the present day

The British Columbia

British Columbia in Canada, especially the basin of the Skeena River with its tributaries, has always been the ideal destination for fishermen looking for the big steelheads that populate the area. The number of lodges, guides, and accommodation to host fishermen from all around the world is constantly increasing. Considering the vastness of the territory and the many streams, lakes and rivers, whenever I go there it is like visiting a new place, even though I have often been there a lot of times. I am always enthusiastic about discovering new pools and at the same time I wanted to know more about this place and its first fishermen-explorers venturing towards north in search of this fascinating fish.

The pioneers of steelhead fishing in British Columbia

One of these was certainly Reverend Daniel M. Gordon, who was on an expedition on behalf of CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) to the north of Vancouver, and was among the first to mention fly-fishing on the tributaries of Skeena. His book Mountain and Prairie: A Journey from Victoria to Winnipeg Via the Peace River Pass, written in 1880, is a description of his travels.  At the end of the 19th century  J. Turner-Turner also went up the Skeena River through the Babine Lake, penetrated the water basin of Fraser and narrated his adventures in Three Year’s Hunting and Trapping in America and the Great North-West.

It took Turner-Turner’s group of fishermen a good part of September to make their path from the Metlakatla settlement on the ocean to the Forks of Old Hazelton, up the Skeena River. Turner-Turner wanted to winter in Kispiox, but the natives didn’t allow him, as they feared that he was a land surveyor aiming at taking possession of their land. He went back to the Forks and built a hut on the promontory delimited by the Skeena and Bulkley rivers, which became his home until he took up his travel again the following June. In September, while he was going up the Skeena, he noticed the abundance of salmons and tried fishing with a spoon and with a fly, but he didn’t catch anything. He didn’t catch any salmon, but he described a fish that he called a big trout; he was among the first to talk about steelheads. The record catches of steelheads on the Kispiox in the early 1950s, drew attention to this area, and the fly fishermen who lived under the 49th parallel flocked in masses to the Kispiox, Morice and Bulkley rivers.

The first steelhead fly fishing techniques

The first steelhead fishing techniques were mostly based on British Atlantic salmon fishing techniques brought to British Columbia by men such as general Noel Money, Roderick Haig-Brown and Tommy Brayshaw. The flow of Americans to the Skeena area in the 1950s and 1960s deeply influenced fly fishing in those areas. Fishing was dominated by short rods and flies of American origin. The Members of Vancouver’s Totem Flyfishers and Victoria’s Haig-Brown Flyfishers reintroduced double-hand rods and spey casting. The first rivers where these techniques were used were the Dean and Thompson rivers in the 1980s, and then double-hand rods became popular in all the communities of fly fishermen as far as the Washington State. Today it is easier- Skagit rods and tails as well as intruder and lech flies, make you confident with fishing in a very short time. Catches have increased a lot compared to 15 years ago, thanks to no-kill politics and these new fishing techniques. However, let’s think of the time when you went into the water with a greenheart 18-ft. rod and a silk tail, when boots were made of oilcloth and flies had gut eyes, and when there were no well-informed fishing guides. You also went on an expedition walking for hours among bears without updated maps…..it is definitely better today.

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