Searching for Steelhead in Northern Canada’s Fly-Fishing Hub
There are few things capable of instilling both inner peace and heart-pumping adrenaline within the span of a split second. Swinging flies for powerful spring-run steelhead is certainly one of them.
Secluded along the banks of the mighty Skeena River near the Alaska border, Terrace, B.C., is renowned among Canada’s West Coast guides as the steelheading capital of the world. These salmon-size sea-run rainbow trout divide their time between the fast-flowing rivers of the Northwest and the Pacific Ocean. Here, prolific river systems cut their way through snowcapped mountains into the valleys below. Many of the town’s 12,000 permanent residents rely on the seasonal influx of fishermen for their livelihoods.
Late summer and fall are your best bet for chinook salmon, while fall and winter provide the best opportunities to land leviathan steelhead. I came in late May, when I joined Michael Menten, a longtime friend turned Vancouver-based fishing guide, on his 16-hour scouting mission north. (Daily two-hour commercial flights are also available.)
Inexperienced outdoorsmen venturing into this territory alone court disaster—bears roam the riverbanks, cougars, and wolves prowl the forests. Winter anglers must contend with avalanches. What’s more, accessing the pristine waters can be extremely difficult. In many cases, roads are nothing more than fantasy, while the rivers’ torrid flows can make boating impossible to all but the most experienced.
Cue Todd Scharf, a veteran guide and local legend. Along with his wife, Satu, Scharf owns and operates Upstream Adventures, an all-inclusive fishing outfitter that’s become a favorite of the banker set.
Set back from the road on the outskirts of town and partially framed by mature Douglas firs, Upstream’s Terrace lodge is a quintessential fishing base camp: log-built, comfortably furnished with high-ceilinged dining and living rooms (to accommodate the 14-plus-foot spey rods Scharf has on display), a modern kitchen and bar, and three private bedrooms on the upper floor. After a day on the water, guests can kick back in a Muskoka chair on a sprawling cedar deck, or lounge, drink in hand, in the outdoor hot tub, views of the Kalum River valley beyond and the fresh scent of evergreen on the breeze.
Cutting his teeth more than a decade ago on the tributaries of the Fraser River, Scharf moved his guiding business to Terrace in the mid-2000s, bringing with him a wealth of fly-fishing know-how. An impressive arsenal of jet boats, rafts, and trucks and the services of a local helicopter operator allow Upstream’s expert guides access to the best and most secluded waters around—for about $1,000 a day, all-inclusive. Guests can expect meticulous coaching on where to cast, as well as lunch, prepped by the lodge’s in-house chef.
Since Scharf and Menten go way back, we camped on the lawn, using Upstream as a base camp for individual expeditions. An “honor among fishermen” thing. But Scharf’s guarantee remained the same: “I grew up on these rivers—we will find fish.”
When it comes to fishing, specifics are the most valuable currency, and for the first few days of our trip we had none. Scharf was away on business, so we started blind, aside from some general directions from a friendly gas station attendant (plus an admonishment to “nut up or shut up, fishing good” when we called Scharf, nervous about the unseasonably warm weather).
Our initial focus was the Kitimat River, a more manageable watershed by local standards, with a road loosely charting its course making access possible for first-timers like us.
The first day of any fishing trip is always the most suspenseful, and as we donned our waders next to a beat of bountiful-looking water, the apprehension in the air was tangible. Reports of high snowmelt and blown rivers the length of coastal British Columbia had seriously shaken our confidence—the risk of planning a springtime trip.
Menten made the first pass, methodically stripping line off his reel as he deftly propelled his fly out over the current. Two-handed spey casting is the gold standard in these parts, and while Menten was well versed in this technique, I was a complete novice. In an instant, I found myself gift-wrapped in tangled fly line. While I struggled to free myself, Menten’s voice pierced the early morning air: “Fish on!” he yelled, as a flash of chrome scales erupted on the surface.
In a fit of euphoric panic, I staggered back to shore, shouting words of encouragement between curses, still hopelessly tangled in my own line. After a lengthy battle (during which I was finally able to free myself), Menten corralled the fish into a calmer side channel, where I tailed it. We were on the board within the first half-hour of the trip. Catch-and-release being highly recommended, we snapped some pictures; later, Scharf pegged the large, chrome female at 15 pounds.
He Knows a Spot
Over the next couple of days, the action on the Kitimat had slowed since our epic start, as the river continued to rise and dirty from the incessant runoff. In fact, all of the glacier-fed river systems were now thoroughly blown, the Skeena so swollen it had burst its banks in parts. Lake-fed rivers and tributaries were thus the only option, as the majority of their inflow was sourced in gin-clear glacial lakes.
Luckily Scharf was back, and he had something up his sleeve.
The next day, we set out before sunrise. We tailed Scharf two hours north, deep into virgin wilderness, before abruptly turning off the highway onto a roughly hewn dirt track. This was heli-fishing country. We came in the back door—whatever scratches Menten’s truck sustained our tithe.
Within the first hour, it paid out dividends. We had three gorgeous fish landed, “farming” another 10. Initially this was a term foreign to me, but it didn’t take long to learn such lingo: “You farmed another one?” Scharf jokingly needled, as I lost fish after fish, all right off the bite. By his standards, I had amassed an entire barnyard by the day’s end.
One More Morning
Loathe to leave this paradise, Menten and I decided to stick around for another night before beginning the long journey back to Vancouver. Bear spray on hand, we pitched a tent under a grove of massive red cedars lining the riverbank.
Few things can compare to waking up to the soft whisper of world-class steelhead water, let alone landing yet another enormous fish (likely in the 12-pound range) within 10 minutes of dreary-eyed casting. My chipper attitude gave me away before I could start bragging, despite it being five in the morning without any coffee. Menten soon caught up, however, and our last day on the water was spent alternately taking in the powerful scenery and battling fish after chrome fish.
As we exited the river for the last time, our final catch count stood at 22 steelhead, fresh from the ocean and big (seriously, this … big). Not bad for a four-day trip. Steelhead may be known as “the fish of a thousand casts,” but in Terrace, who’s counting?
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