Steelhead Camp

Pull your waders off and prop your feet up by the fire. Steelhead Camp is a collection of adventures from across the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Steelhead anglers are a special kind of crazy, but you already knew that.

John Day River with Little Creek Outfitters

Joel La Follette - Thursday, November 09, 2017

I'm posting a few photos of my trip on the John Day River with my good friends, Marty Sheppard and Brian Silvey. Marty's Little Creek Outfitters run a fantastic camp with all the comforts of home, without the wifi. A drift down the John Day in the late fall for summer Steelhead is the perfect way to see the river and sample this great wild fish fishery. I'll add a full report on this adventure when the feeling returns to my fingertips.

The German/American Steelhead Expedition 2016

Joel La Follette - Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Every once in a while your path crosses that of someone who seems to be an old friend, even though you've just met. My friend Stefan is kind of like that, but it took a day on the water to really figure that out. Our first meeting was brief and relatively anonymous. We shared a few words while rigging up for an evening of Steelhead fishing on the Deschutes. Although we fished the same river, we fished alone. As darkness ended the day I left a business card and a fly on his rental, forgetting the encounter.

The first time we really fished together was not planned, nor expected. I was on the way to the river when my phone rang and it was Stefan. It took a second to figure out who was calling, but the German accent gave him away. I told him I was meeting up with my friend, Mike Duley, at 5:00AM the next morning in front of Gray's Market in Maupin and he was welcome to join us. Doing the math I figured Stefan would have to leave his hotel at 2:00AM so there was very little chance of him meeting us in time. No one is that dedicated. As I loaded my gear into Mike's Suburban I caught a glimpse of a little rental car coming down the road. I turned to Mike and said, "I've got a friend joining us today." And so it was. 

That first meeting was over 18 years ago and since that time Stefan and I have fished many days together in Oregon and British Columbia. We have shared many memorable moments and some incredible fishing. Throughout that time Stefan had never successfully fished for winter Steelhead. The last three February's my good friend has managed to schedule a few days of fishing by extending a business trip to Southern California. His first winter visit coincided with the Snowpocalypse of 2014. That year we faced high water conditions as the snow melted and left us with relatively tough fishing. I was able to coax a hatchery fish out of a small coastal stream, but that was the extent of our success. The following year was not much better as low water and warm temperatures plagued the Northwest. Again, I managed to bookend the trip with Steelhead encounters bringing one nice wild fish to hand on the Sandy River and losing a fish on the Clackamas. Stefan remained determined, but skunked.

The true measure of a Steelhead angler is optimism in the face of adversity and Stefan is the very definition of optimism. He returned again this year hoping to crack the code of winter Steelheading. This challenge could not be left  to amateurs so I enlisted the help of my good friends, Marty Sheppard and Brian Silvey. These two veterans of the winter Steelhead wars are known throughout the west and revered for their exceptional guiding skills. They are the measuring stick against which all Sandy River guides are held to. While it is widely noted that Mr. Silvey has earned the moniker of el Numero uno, Mr. Sheppard is no slouch and a force to be reckoned with. Both men are a pleasure to fish with and although possessing widely different personalities, maintain a close working relationship and friendship. They both also have a fondness for cookies.

Weather is always a factor when pursuing winter Steelhead, but you can't control it nor spend too much time worrying about it. This year the forecast was for near perfect conditions yet as we all know forecasts can be wrong. A persistent rain greeted Stefan's Wednesday evening arrival and seemed to be more enthusiastic than was anticipated. While some rain would be nice to freshen up the rivers, too much would be detrimental to our expedition. As it is often said, you pay your money and take your chances. 

Thursday proved to be a wash in the end as rising water sent fish scurrying upriver, too hurried to grab a fly. Marty had drawn the short straw and it was his lot to be the host as the flow increased 4000 cfs over the course of the day. In addition, most of the guide contingent was plying the water, jockeying for position as the river invaded the willows. While we were drenched by torrents of rain for most of the morning hours, our enthusiasm held true and was not dampened. If anything, we stood more determined and optimistic for the coming day.

Brian was waiting at the arranged location even though we arrived  several minutes early. Eventually we stood in the morning darkness fully rigged and ready, waiting for enough light to navigate the churning waters. While not a task for those lacking whitewater skills even in daylight, running this section in darkness is best left to experts like Marty and Brian. The ease at which both of these gentlemen pass through the raging boulder laced waters is enviable and a confirmation of their talent.

Unlike the previous day, we found the falling river to be more productive and less populated. We experienced several Steelhead encounters and finally in the afternoon Stefan hooked and successfully landed his first winter Steelhead. Soon he followed it up with his second  winter fish and the code was cracked. He was even nice enough to let me maintain my dignity by leaving a willing fish for me to intercept, kindly netting it for me to end the day.

While Sunday proved to be a test of patience as bobber lobbers in jet boats cruised over our flies on the Clackamas RIver, we were cheered knowing another day on the Sandy River with Brian lay ahead. We could endure the rudeness of lowholers and classless Neanderthals with guide licenses for only so long, finally retreating to the peace of Woodsprite Lodge and a meal of authentic German wiener schnitzel.  My friend proving that Steelheading was not his only skill. His culinary mastery had remained unknown to me having been confined to the opening of a can of chili or Dinty Moore Beef Stew.

Monday dawned and we again faced the day with enthusiasm and optimism. While the river had returned to its pre-deluge stage, we held out hope for another successful day with el Numero uno. Pushing off in the dark had now become commonplace as rocks and standing waves marked our passage to favorite pools. I hope to make this same trip in the daylight soon so I can photograph this wild place.

This was our final day and although the pressure of scoring Stefan's first winter fish had been lifted, it is not in our DNA to be distracted from the task at hand. So focused was I in covering my allotted water that Brian had to alert me to the black bear swimming across the river  just a short cast upriver of my position. While I fumbled for my camera to record this rare event the bruin gained the far bank and scramble into the woods. A grainy video  from the guides phone the only record.

As the sun cleared the trees  the river was soon awash in a blinding glare. Fishing would be different in the crystal water that now flowed off the mountain and towards the sea. In the second run of the day Stefan came fast to a hot fish that broke through the shimmering glass making his reel sing and heart race. Frantic actions by angler and fish were highlighted by the morning light. Soon this powerful traveler was netted and released, relieved of Stefan's hook and one of an angler perhaps less fortunate. A parting splash to thank us for the favor.

It is not possible to have a bad day on the water when the day is spent with good friends, no matter the weather or fishing success. These days are special and live on in stories replayed over and over in conversations or private reflections. These days make up who we are and remain with us even though our friends are miles away. 



Oregon Steelhead Marathon

Joel La Follette - Thursday, February 19, 2015

Having hosted three long-time friends and anglers on the river this past week, I thought I would have them relate the fishing conditions that we observed thus freeing me from writing the report myself. Due to the turmoil in Salem this past week, Mr. Atkinson was excused from this homework assignment, but made it in under the wire this morning for full credit, Mr Drew and Mr.Tritscher were less procrastic and offer here their timely submitted report. We shall start with Mr. Tritscher's account of the past week. The Editor

“Winter Steelhead?"

After 4 days of serious sleep deprivation and extensive casting exercises on 3 different rivers I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “Winter Steelhead” in Oregon.

They just are a myth - a fictional creature like Big Foot or Sasquatch in the PNW, the Yeti in the Himalaya or the Wolpertinger in Bavaria. Actually, I came to believe that “Winter Steelhead” is just a scam - one big conspiracy by fishing guides and some fly shop owners who want to keep the myth alive in order to extend their season to the winter month. Sure, 15 minutes into our first day I saw what MIGHT have been a wild “Winter Steelhead”: Joel landed a fish that actually looked like a steelhead and we even got some pictures of it, but as we are talking about conspiracy here, I now think it just was a big hatchery rainbow which the guide has brought in a live-well and stuck to Joel’s hook when I was not watching - again fly shop owner and guide working together to keep the myth alive... You see - it all fits together.

Real(?) Fishing Report
Last Friday Joel and I floated the Sandy with Brian Silvey. Water was very clear with level ~10.5’. As hinted above, Joel got a nice fish of maybe 9-pound first thing in the morning - and yes, I actually did see him hook it. The weather was very nice - bright sunny and unusually warm - it felt more like May than mid-February. We didn’t have any more takes all day long, but nevertheless it was a very pleasant day on a very beautiful river with a good friend and a very nice and competent guide. We also saw some bald eagles and the first butterfly of the year and finally there were Kellie’s delicious cookies!

No fishing on Saturday as I joined Joel in the shop. Lots of fish talk with his customers and friends though and also a very fascinating presentation from Jay Nicholas about off-shore fly fishing in Oregon.

On Sunday we left Woodsprite Lodge at 4am to drive to Tillamook. I cannot believe how hard it was to get a coffee early in the morning it took us 4 attempts at different McDonalds to finally get me a coffee and that was not good at all (why can’t Starbuck’s open earlier???). We met Gil Muhleman at 6am on the Trask River. The water looked perfect, a light steelhead green, but plenty of visibility. Well, apparently many fellow fishermen also thought these were ideal conditions and despite the inhumanly early time there was quite some traffic. A lineup at the boat launch and boat after boat coming down the same drift Gil had chosen. Some of the operators also lacked basic etiquette as I literally had boats rowing over my line. We saw a few bright steelhead caught by gear fishermen, and watched a family of river otters, but found no fish interested in our flies. As the traffic got worse, Gil decided to end the drift early and do another drift higher up in the system. Here we had more room to ourselves and Gil put us on some we very fishy looking water. Joel got one very nice sea-run cutthroat and I had one good, heavy grab, but the fish would not come back on subsequent casts. The weather again was very nice and unusually warm. It also looks as if spring has already started on the coast - we saw rhododendrons and other flowers in full blossom. Again, Kellie’s cookies were one of the highlights of the day.

On Monday Joel’s good friends Jim and Jason joined us for a day on the Sandy with Marty Sheppard and Brian Silvey. Again, a bright sunny day with temperatures in the mid-60th. The river had dropped quite a bit since Friday and was crystal clear. We watches some wildlife - bald eagles, osprey, cormorants, saw a big 4’ sturgeon and even saw a few big steelhead when we pushed them out by floating over their holding stations. However, despite the concerted efforts of our guides who put us on very good looking spots, neither of us had any takes. Marty tried to drown me by having me wade down a huge rock pile in a place he appropriately called the “swimming hole” - well, I made it through without falling in, but only barely! BTW, coffee from McDonalds in Sandy is decent and the guides loved Kellie’s cookies...

On Tuesday we fished for half a day with Rob Crandall on the Clackamas. Rob took us to some very good looking spots with his jet boat. We fished classic steelhead runs and some little pockets and on every cast I expected us to have a grab, but the steelhead simply didn’t want to cooperate. Again the weather was really warm and sunny - not really what you would expect in Oregon in February. Oh before I forget - did I mention that Kellie makes very good cookies? Rob’s cinnamon rolls were delicious too!

So I fished for four days on some of the most beautiful rivers I have seen (amazing that you can find these within less than 2 hours from downtown Portland) and although I did not catch any of these mythical “Winter Steelhead”, I had a wonderful time with good friends, excellent guides and nice weather (probably a bit too nice for catching steelhead)!
By the way - Happy Birthday, Joel!!!
Humbly submitted by Stefan Tritscher, Munich, Germany  

My buddy, Jim Drew, also contributed to this week's report with this observation....

It is not very often in our lives when we get perfect weather days in February to fish NW rivers, but it paled in comparison to the day on the Sandy with best friends and great guides. The setting for the West's premier fly shop owner's birthday trip was a cool and clear launch at Dodge Park at 6:30-ish. Marty Sheppard and Brian Silvey were the hosts for an honored world traveling German, a respected movie making former state senator, myself and the above mentioned Fly Shop Guru. 

 Despite losing 2 feet off  the tip of my switch rod after two casts, the backup spey rod with an updated Skagit setup proved to be perfect and offered a great opportunity to learn to throw the new line. Even being a holiday the river was surprisingly absent of the endless flotillas that were expected with only two others seen all day. We were put on great water, very clear great water after days of nice weather, and felt no pressure to move rapidly to find fish. The early hours didn't produce any grabs, but the anticipation of an imminent hookup kept my interest level high. Occasional warm upstream breezes seemed as though the heat pump had been turned on and soon the outer layers were being stored. 

I had not met Stefan, Joel's long time fishing buddy from Germany. Knowing him only by reputation I got the opportunity to jump in the boat after lunch with he and Marty. What a gentlemen and steelhead enthusiast! Fishing was slow, I only caught one foul hooked sucker fish all day, but the time with new and old friends, and a great stream-side lunch was worth the drive and early hour. The switch rod will be back, repaired in a few weeks. It's return will remind me of this and other Birthday trips with a best friend, and a couple of new friends. Thanks Joel, Marty and Brian!!
Submitted for publication by Jim Drew, AKA WaterDog

Mr. Atkinson was more into a freestyle report and provided this recollection of the day.

Heard but not seen

The following are excerpts from Joel’s birthday float:

Marty: “Hey, want coffee and a cookie while Stefan fishes this bucket?”
JAA: “Ya….these taste familiar”
Marty: “Kellie made um.”
JAA: “Does Stefan know about these?”
Marty: “No”
JAA: “Then I’ll have two more and carry the rest in my waders.”

Brian: “See that sturgeon?”
Joel: “Yes”
JAA: “Give you a dollar if you jump in after it.”

Marty: “What are you fish'n”
JAA: “This orange Silvenator”
Marty: “that won't work.”

Joel: “ I want a team photo”
Everyone: “Smile or Simms guide cool”
Joel: “guide cool”
Then Joel smiles in his own picture.

The only thing that wasn’t heard was because of what wasn’t seen.
“Fish on.”

To round out this week's report and to drive home the fact that there are winter Steelhead, I offer this short email received from Gil just a few minutes ago...

Oregon's North Coast Rivers are becoming low and clear. This past week has been magical with fantastic weather and lots of fish around. Boat pressure on the common drifts were as crowded as I have ever seen them though fish were found by nearly all. I preach knowing when and where to be in these rivers and now is the time folks. Great tides are still bringing sea lice fish daily regardless of the low water. The good news for us fly anglers is that many of these fish have moved rapidly into the upper reaches and away from the crowds. Yesterday we found excellent fishing and solitude up near Jones Creek on the Wilson. These fish were predominately chrome bright with just a couple fish showing color. On sunny days (unusually common this year) look for shaded runs. In low water most fish are found at the head of runs with appropriate flow or in longer runs with plenty of large rock structure. Good luck out there!!!  Gil Muhleman, Water Time Outfitters

State of Jefferson Road Trip

Joel La Follette - Wednesday, February 04, 2015
I've asked my good friend, Jason Atkinson, to write a guest post for the Steelhead Camp blog this week after our visit to a river that is near and dear to his heart. I have refrained from expounding on the fishery in an attempt to secure an invite back to this little slice of Steelhead heaven and leave the telling of the adventure to him. If it seems generalized and cryptic it is for a reason known only to Steelhead anglers. 

You can tell a lot about the character of a person by how they describe the weather. If it needs to be sunny and warm they fall into one camp. If the threat of rain causes concern or a frost warning changes travel plans, then another. If winter weather causes you to pick up your smart phone every 30 minutes to check the river level and you own more GoreTex than neckties, you my friend are probably a Steelheader. 

It’s a small family, we who like bad weather and the thousand casts between stone cold Steelhead who don’t want to move to a perfectly presented wad of feather offerings, but then again most cousins all stem from the same DNA.

This time of year, the wiles of Northern California’s classic Steelhead waters call for the strong willed and cold blooded Spey chuckers who can’t think of anything they’d rather do. I’ve had the sickness a very long time, and last weekend I enjoyed spreading the germs to Joel.

For mid-winter between rains, we did well. Fish down there are shorter and more shouldery than their North Umpqua and Deschutes cousins that make for electric experiences. Certainly, Joel connected with nearly every sliver of silver and red that graced the runs as you might expect. However, unlike so many other tales ours also involved lunch at a yacht club, landing the largest fish at dusk with a mile of river and a class three rapid yet to float, and the hindsight knowledge that seven spey rods, 50 mph, and magnets don’t really do well in the same committee.

All aside, its winter and time to download and study your river levels. There is no better way to catch winter Steelhead than to know your home water- or call a cousin.

Jason A. Atkinson served 14 years in the Oregon Legislature and has just produced the national documentary “A River Between Us” and the book Inside Out (available at Royal Treatment). He is a Rodel Fellow with the Aspen Institute, a commentator and speaker on a wide range of issues. For more: and

Skeena Bear

Joel La Follette - Saturday, November 07, 2009

The bear awoke from a short nap, the sun filling his eyes and warming him. He was hungry but not as hungry as he had been. The small salmon had returned and he had been there to greet them. He had eaten his fill and now rested in the wood near the small stream that fed into the big river. Soon the big salmon would come and again he would eat. He hoped it would be soon as winter was on the wind and snow would soon cover the ground. He wished to be sleeping those cold winter days away in his den up the hill from the river, far from the sounds of man. He had shared the river with man and he did not trust them. He did not like the noise they made. He did not like their smell.

He rolled onto his feet and walked to the edge of the high bank overlooking the big river. Man, there in his river. He carefully walked down a fallen log to where the river had been but all that was left was a small puddle and a few dead fish. The ravens were fighting over the remains but the bear was not interested. The river now ran low and much of his fishing grounds were nothing but stones. Where the river was, there was man. What was he doing in the river? The bear moved slowly so that he would not be seen. 

Back up the log and onto the high bank the bear went. He found a well hidden sunny spot and sat down against a tree to watched the man. Overhead an eagle called and an Osprey answered. The bear could see the Osprey high over the river just upstream from the man. Suddenly the bird dropped from the sky crashing into the water. The bear watched  to see what he had caught but the Osprey flapped its wings unable to gain flight. Drifting toward the man the bird was trapped to the river by the weight of a fish too large to lift. Finally after several failed attempts the bird released its catch and regained the air. Moments later another dive with better results. The Osprey flew off with a smaller fish leaving the bear to watch the man.

What was he doing? The man waded to the shore and walked to where the Osprey had lost its big fish. The bear could see the man bend over to look at something in the water. What was he doing?

The man stood and started to walk toward where the bear was sitting. In his hands he carried a salmon with blood running out of the talon marks in its’ back. The bear did not move. He was well hidden on the high bank and was sure the man could not see him. Still the man walked closer. 

At the base of the fallen log the man lay the fish then walked back to the river. The bear watched as the man waded into the river again. Overhead an eagle called and the Osprey answered. The ravens were fighting over old fish as the bear took the salmon back up the high bank to his sunny spot near the tree. He did not trust the ravens, and he did not like the way they smelled. 

German/American Steelhead Expedition 2008

Joel La Follette - Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The anticipation of a steelhead trip is a lot like Christmas morning when you were a child. As you step into the icy water you wonder what the day will bring. Will it be that bright red bike with the chrome fenders or underwear from your great grandma.

 This year my trip to BC started out like a real Fruit of the Loom Christmas. We’re talking tighty whities. I couldn’t buy a fish with a pocket full of Loonies and with the Canadian dollar dropping like a stone those Loonies were loosing ground fast. I needed some help.

Now I’m not a superstitious person by nature. I step on cracks in the sidewalk, walk under and around ladders, I’m not afraid of black cats and I’ve broken my share of mirrors. I will pick up a penny when I spot one though, as long as it’s laying heads up. But for this steelhead trip I needed something a bit stronger. I need my purple handkerchief.

 Years ago Kellie bought me a collection of handkerchiefs for a trip to Christmas Island. They’re handy for keeping the sun off your neck and the saltwater from running down your back. I noticed when I got home that photos of big fish also included a purple handkerchief. Over the years that handkerchief kept showing up. Steelhead, Barracuda, Bonefish, Travalley, it didn’t seem to matter, the purple handkerchief had some serious mojo going for it. So just to be on the safe side I always packed it along on fishing trips.


Last year when Stefan and I visited BC for our annual Steelhead trip I had the hot hand. Fish were knocking each other out of the way just to eat my flies. Stefan on the other hand was having a tough time finding a fish. Finally on the fourth day I loaned him my purple handkerchief. Of course I required that he return it as soon as he had landed his first fish. Sure enough, fishing the first run of the day Stefan broke the ice with a nice 14 pound buck. Before he even had cleaned the fish slime off of his hands I had my purple handkerchief back around my neck working its mojo.

 Like I said I’m not a superstitious person. Just because I tore the house apart looking for that lucky purple piece of cloth doesn’t mean anything. Kellie even helped. When it looked like a lost cause she bought me a new one. In fact she bought four, it never hurts to have backup. So even though I had a good selection of lucky handkerchiefs packed I was a bit apprehensive as I arrived in Smithers for this year’s trip.

Well as I said before the first few days of the trip it was clear that the replacement handkerchiefs didn’t work. Oh sure I landed a few fish, but Stefan was red hot. Every time I looked around he was fast into a fish. I was getting depressed. I was ready to raise the white flag and sulk back across the border to lick my wounds. I decided to hang on for a few more days and at least take some photographs of Stefan with all his fish. It was least I could do.

On the fifth day of the trip we left the Bulkley River and the town of Smithers behind and headed to the Kispiox and a chance at a fresh start. Arriving at Helmut and Andrea’s Kispiox Steelhead Camp mid morning we found the river in great shape and the air a bit cooler. We dug into our gear for warmer layers and started getting ready for an afternoon drift. I pulled out a wool sweater that I’d been saving for the cooler days and pulled it on. Something in the chest zipper pocket of the sweater was balled up and lumpy. I unzipped the pocket to find my purple handkerchief. The one with the good mojo. The faded one that has seen giant steelhead, monster barracuda and gear busting Travalley, that one. My lucky one.


Like I said I’m not a superstitious person but I felt a wave of confidence roll over me as I tyed that faded purple hanky around my neck. There was no fish on the planet that could stop me now. They’d better look out, I was armed and dangerous.

 Needless to say the rest of the trip went pretty well. I kept pace with Stefan the fish vacuum and even brought a few nice big fish to hand. Stefan I think was relieved that I’d found my lucky purple handkerchief and knew that if he got himself into a slump I’d loan it to him. Well, maybe for an hour or two. I’m sure I was a bit easier to live with too with a few fish on the score board.  

Attitude is everything and now I really started to notice what a beautiful place we were fishing. The sights, sounds and smells flooded my senses and cemented the experience into my soul. I became part of this place and it a part of me. I cherished each moment and noticed even the smallest of details.

One afternoon I was fishing through a nice bit of water when I noticed a young coyote on the far bank. He was all fluffy and prancing around like all young pups do. Soon his mother came out of the woods looking like she was on the trail of their evening meal. The pup paid little attention to this and ran round her grabbing at her tail and jumping back when she scolded him. Suddenly their dinner leaped into the air in the form of five fat grouse. The thunder of beating wings sent the young pup running into the woods with his tail tucked between his legs. His mom stood and looked over her shoulder no doubt thinking she had her work cut out for her in training this young hunter. Soon the pup reappeared, much more subdued and ready for his next lesson. Off they went looking for dinner.

The end of the trip came far too soon for me. I wasn’t ready to leave, yet it was time to say good-bye to Helmut and Andrea and the Kispiox and head back to Smithers. Stefan and I have one tradition that lay ahead so I knew I’d have one more chance at the Bulkley.

 Several years ago on my first visit to BC to fish steelhead, Stefan and I fished the Kispiox in the morning of the last day and then drove back to Smithers. I was scheduled to fly out the next morning so Stefan came along to say good-bye and pick up a few groceries. He insisted we give the Bulkley one last shot. I was done fishing by that time and really didn’t want to spend another twenty-one bucks for a classified water permit just for a few hours of fishing. Stefan insisted and we headed for a run near town. I grabbed my floating line rod and one skater fly. Stefan insisted that I would need my big rod and sink tips. I told him he could fish tips behind me, I was fishing a skater. Well that started what has become a tradition with us right down to the insistence that I need my sink tips, even though I’ve hooked at least one fish every year. Most years I’ve hook two!

When we got to the run there were two anglers working through the pool. Being close to town the place does get a lot of pressure. We waiting at the top of the run as the two interlopers worked their way down river. The sun was still above the mountains so we had plenty of time. Would this be the year that the Bulkley denied me my last fish? I fingered the purple hanky around my neck, calling on all of its powers.

 I started casting and working my way down river. Slowly the sun dropped below the mountain and the light started to fade. My fly skated across the surface without drawing attention from any steelhead. Our new friend Karl stood on the bank keeping pace with me and we talked about the fishing, fly rods, flies and the economic troubles the world found itself in. Suddenly a nose appeared and made a grab at my fly but missed. Karl had missed it too. I described the take but I could tell Karl was doubting me. I worked on down through the run and we continued to solve the worlds problems. Again a nose appeared followed by a back and then my line went tight. The reel sang a very short song then the line went slack. Karl missed that one too. I cast again describing the previous encounter to Karl. As the fly skated to the spot where the fish had made its grab again a nose appeared. This time the hook found home and I was fast into a very aerobic steelhead. When finally brought to hand it was the largest fish I have ever taken on a skater.

 A few photos and a careful release followed and much back slapping. Tradition had once again been carried on and now the memories flowed back of this trip and ones before. Memories of the first steps into the icy river on the first day, of bright leaping fish, fiery yellow trees, young coyotes, bear tracks, bugling elk, good friends old and new and red bikes with chrome fenders. 


Bulkley River Moment

Joel La Follette - Thursday, October 02, 2008

The trees are on fire along the Bulkley River, yet no smoke fills the evening sky. These flames have been lit by the season and the cool night air. Bright yellow and orange they burn, the intensity increased by the setting sun. The building storm fans the flames and they dance and flicker.

Now as the light fades the storm winds lift the embers into the sky. Swirling like mad bees they gather in clouds rising up and up. The wind stops to catch it’s breath and these glowing embers fall to the river. The water does not extinguish the flame and now the river flows like molten gold.

A fly cast upon these waters can not find passage into the depths with the surface on fire. I sit to watch and photograph with my mind, burning the image into memory. Film can not capture this moment, only my eyes and heart. It is truly a wonder of the season and of this place.


German/American Steelhead Expedition 2007

Joel La Follette - Friday, October 12, 2007

Everyone should have a place where fishing is what you do and all you do. No sight seeing, no museums or fancy dining, just fishing. Every waking moment is spent with a fly rod in hand in search of trophy fish. Every evening is spent reliving the day’s adventure, sharing special stories and dining on good hardy food before grabbing a few hours of sleep and starting the whole process over again. You wear the same clothes for days, shaving is forgotten and a hot shower feels like a little bit or heaven. For me that place is Smithers, BC and the rivers of the Skeena system.

Ten years ago I met an angler on the Deschutes who was visiting Oregon from his home in Germany. We shared a brief conversation and parted ways, only to become good friends. Five years ago my friend Stefan invited be to join him in BC and we have been chasing big steelhead there ever since. Each year I look forward to the long days and short nights that this type of fishing requires. I also look forward to renewing a friendship that has come to mean so much to me.

The Skeena River in north central BC empties a vast watershed of trophy steelhead streams the names of which are spoken with reverence and awe. The Bulkley, Babine, Copper, Kispiox and Skeena rivers are legendary and so are the fish that swim there. Wild fish of extraordinary strength and size challenge even the most skilled angler. These rivers and their fish bring anglers from all over the world. This past week they brought two friends together again.

We started our 2007 German/American Steelheading Expedition on the Bulkley River with a drift from Telkwa to Smithers. In 2006 we were unable to do this section of the river as the Telkwa River was out, reducing the Bulkley to a glacial flow. This year with the Skeena, Kispiox, and Babine blown out as low level snow melted, many anglers were trying their luck on the Bulkley. We had plenty of company on the Bulkley on this lower drift. We also had trouble connecting with any fish. I did manage one hook up with a short line release on a very hot fish. Stefan checked the water resistance of my two-way radios. Good thing we both carry spare dry clothes. A tough start to the trip, but things would improve.

The next few days we drifted sections higher up in the system and found fewer anglers and a few more fish. I even had some success with dry flies skated on the surface. The Bulkley’s fish are very surface oriented and fishing a skater will bring exciting grabs. Water temps were in the 42-44 degree range but fish still came to the top for my Skate’n Fool. Air temps were not much warmer. With the wind and occasional rain the old JetBoil got a work out making hot soup and tea for lunch.

The low level snow that I mentioned earlier was a constant threat to our visit to the Kispiox as it melted and brought that river up. When we arrived at the bridge that crosses the river near the village of Kispiox our spirits dropped, but the river hadn’t. We continued on to our camp and learned that a small creek that feeds the Kispiox was responsible for the level and off color flow. We decided to try a short drift above the offending creek. We should have returned to the Bulkley. The flow was too fast to swing a fly in most of our favorite drifts. We retreated to the Kispiox Steelhead Camp to plan our next move.

We decided to try a drift on the lower Bulkley below China Creek. Several other anglers had decided the same thing but we still managed a good day of fishing with Stefan finding a fish of 38” and me pulling one from deep cover of about 37”. Stefan also landed a smaller fish. My fish came from a deep slot under a blown down fur tree on the far bank while perched on a very small patch of gravel. With no room to move and few options to land the fish, I was very lucky to bring him to hand. One air-born display with only a few feet of line off the tip of the rod was most spectacular. In the end the big fish joined me on my ledge for a quick photo and then continued on his way.

The following day with the Kispiox still too high to fish we tried our luck on the main Skeena. Visibility was not too good and the Colombia sized river was not interested in sharing her fish with us. We would have to find some other place for my last day of fishing.

 Lucky for me the colder weather brought the Kispiox down and although it was not perfect, it was fishable. We planned a short drift on a favorite section before heading back to Smithers and a last shot at the Bulkley. The flow was still high on the Kispiox but she did give each of us a nice fish and I had another good fight with a big fish before the hook came free. It was time to leave.

In years past it has been a tradition with us to fish a long run on the outskirts of town. Stefan fishes sink tips and I fish a dry fly. Stefan always suggests I bring a tip line, and I always say “I’m fishing one skater only!”  Each year I’ve been lucky to hook at least two fish no matter what the water conditions are. Now I don’t always land these fish, in fact I’ve only landed two now, but it’s fun to fish the skater knowing win or lose it’s tradition. After I released the fish this year Stefan said he liked traditions that involved him landing a fish…

And so ended another adventure in BC. Stefan returned to the camp on the Kispiox for another week of fishing and I returned to my motel for pack for the flight home. As the plane flew up the Bulkley Valley I could see places were the Bulkley had shared her treasures. They looked different from the air. I had thought about that one morning as an Osprey had been watching me fish. I wondered what I looked like from his perch. Could he see a fish holding just outside the reach of my cast? Was my method of fishing interesting to him? He seemed to be intently watching me. Did he understand what I was doing?  I now looked down and spotted the nest and the resting bird. He was just a small speck below, but I knew what it was. We had shared a morning on the river and we were now friends. Much like Stefan and I. Good friends who enjoy sharing special places and building good memories. Memories that will hold us until we meet again on the banks of a steelhead stream.

German/American Steelhead Expedition 2006

Joel La Follette - Saturday, October 14, 2006

If you look up the word optimist in the dictionary you’ll see a photo of a steelhead angler. If you look closely you’ll see he’s fishing a dry fly. That’s an extreme optimist…

When heading off to far-a-way locations to fish you never know what to expect. All the planning in the world can’t change the weather or make the fish bite. Like I always say, you pay your money and take your chances. Even the worst fishing trip can provide wonderful memories if you leave home with the right attitude and expectations. In fact, with the right attitude there’s no such thing as a bad fishing trip.

Returning to Smithers, BC after last years trip I had no expectations and was just looking forward to spending time with my good friend Stefan. Good fishing partners are hard to come by and I’m very lucky to have a few very good ones.  By now everyone knows about the big fish I caught last year and I had no illusion that I would be that lucky again. I was just looking forward to eight straight days of fishing.

After checking in to the Stork Nest Inn we wandered over to the Alpenhorn for dinner. There we met up with a few friends from Oregon who had been fishing the area for a few weeks. The report we got was not encouraging. The Telkwa was blown out and dumping slit into the Bulkley. The Kispiox was up and out of shape and those two conditions were blowing out the Skeena. In addition the Babine was out. Most of this was caused by the melting of about a foot of snow that had fallen the week before. It didn’t sound good. We decided on a plan that provided for a late start allowing for getting licenses, fuel for the JetBoils and a daylight look at the river conditions. No sense rushing into this.

The Bulkley was very low and clear above the Telkwa but un-fishable below. We decided to make a short drift from Quick to a private campground above Telkwa. Fishing was slow. I had one fish on in the morning and raised another to a dry fly in the evening and that was it. Most of the rest of the week was the same. We fished above the Telkwa in clear low water occasionally hooking a fish or at least raising a fish to a skater. I will say that even with the slow fishing I enjoyed fishing the skating fly and having fish come to the surface after it, even though I didn’t land too many of them. We fished hard, we enjoyed the beautiful fall colors, then we headed to the Kispiox.

There we found high water with a little color to it and very poor fishing reports. The river had been out but was falling back into shape. With the forecast calling for clear and cold weather over the next few days things were looking up. If we could just find some fish…

We launched late and again planned a short drift. Most of the anglers on that stretch had launched earlier and would be well below us. Stefan took a nice fish right at the put-in while I had drifted down to the first pool. We hooked five fish that day, each landing one. Back at camp the word was not good with the other anglers. Fishing was still slow. Stefan and I kept quiet and planned the same drift the next day. We didn’t touch a fish all day. Water temps had dropped down to 38 and the fish were hanging deep. T-14 and type eight tips helped but fishing was not red hot. On the third day I took a nice hen in the morning and landed a 41 inch buck in the evening. We had hooked other fish but not landed them. Stefan also took a very nice buck out of the last pool of the drift. 

The last morning on the Kispiox was probably the best day of the trip weather wise. The river had dropped and was almost perfect. In the same pool I hooked my big fish last year I hooked and landed a very respectable buck of about 16 lbs. It was a nice way to end my visit to this special river. We pulled out early and headed back to Smithers.

Although fishing had been spotty at best, we had a great trip. It was good to spent time with Stefan and hear about his family at home in Germany. His son Tobias is growing like a weed and has become quite a soccer star. He’s also becoming a talented fly angler. Before long he’ll be replacing me on these trips to BC. Stefan will have a new younger fishing partner. I’m sure they’ll let this old guy tag along. Sometimes it’s more about the place, the friends and memories than it is about the fish. And after all, there’s always next year…. Check out the photos and you'll see why we do it...

The North Umpqua

Joel La Follette - Monday, August 14, 2006

The North Umpqua has always been one of the truly great rivers to cast a fly for steelhead. Some of the earliest pioneers of the sport found their way to this hallowed ground and left their legends etched in the very bedrock the river flows through. The names they placed on the pools and riffles have been passed down over the years and still inspire hope and faith in modern anglers. Fishing the Camp Water at Steamboat is like fishing in church.

One can stand in the cool waters and gaze up at a towering pallet of lichen, moss, stone and trees more inspirational than the grandest stained glass window. Fog, clouds, rain and snow add to the artist’s brush strokes. Occasionally a deer grazes across the rocky face. This is a living work of art that changes with the movement of the sun and the changing of the seasons. No two moments are ever alike, each is special, and each is different.

Miracles abound here and they too change with the seasons. Life blossoms and is born from the gravel washed for centuries by cool waters. Born travelers return hundreds of miles from far away seas to pass on their history, their purpose. Some live on and again make the journey. Others die and become part of the river. Some life travels only a few feet to break the surface tension and spread their wings. Their dance a testament to the purity of this place. Their birth a sign of the season.

Anglers, poets and dreamers also travel great distances to visit this place. Seeking inspiration and things that simple words can not express. It is not just for the challenge of the quarry that brings the angler, although that does call to us. It’s for the refreshing of our hearts and rebirth of our souls. This simple stream can rinse away the burdens we carry to its shores and leave us free to dream of the deeds we will do, the words we will write and the love we will share. It is a place of peace, hope, faith and inspiration.

As I wade the same water as great anglers have; I feel connected to them and the history they made. I feel part of that history and part of the river. One day perhaps anglers will look at this place in time and see a future that was made possible by the work of those who cherished the past and remembered it. For if we had never known of its greatness would we have held it so high as to make it a cause? Would it have just passed into memory? I know the river will always remain, but what of those things that make it special?

My hope is they too will remain. My faith in my fellow anglers’ efforts to protect and preserve this extraordinary place is an inspiration. Hopefully the river and the ghosts of her past will find continued peace. Peace in the cool green forest.

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