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.

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. 


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