Steelheading in British Columbia – Sept 2019 Trip Report

Farlows Travel Manager, Roddy Hall, goes in search of steelhead in British Columbia on the Nass and Damdochax rivers.

This trip is a long way from home, but the travel is actually quite straightforward. A daytime flight, in my case from Heathrow to Vancouver, arrives in the evening. A night in an airport hotel leaves one fresh the next morning for the flight to Smithers and time to meet the group, relax, have a look at the local fly shop and have a beer in the bar. After a night in Smithers we transferred back to the airport the next morning for the hour long helicopter transfer to Nass River Lodge, Derek Barber’s new operation on the confluence of the Nass and Damdochax rivers.

Derek has guided for many years in B.C. and is held in high esteem by everyone who has fished with him. In 2018 he was given the opportunity to buy a small camp on the upper Nass River beside the confluence with one of its major tributaries, a junction pool he had often dreamed about. The camp had been operated for many seasons as an occasional ‘fly camp’ but was not developed for permanent occupation. After several weeks of operation in September and October 2018, Derek and his team were ready to run a full two month season in 2019 and I was fortunate to be offered two weeks, one in September and one in mid-October.

On the flight into camp we flew over rivers such as the Bulkley, the Kispiox and, of course, the Skeena itself, all rivers fishers fantasise about. Gradually we left all signs of civilisation behind and flew through valleys even loggers can‘t reach until we approached the camp and, after a turn over Home Pool where the departing group were having a last cast before jumping into their return helicopter, we landed at Nass River Lodge.

This is a four person camp and everyone has their own canvas tent on a wooden platform. At first sight rustic, it turned out to be a very comfortable place in which to spend a week with all the essentials taken care of. The fripperies of modern life were soon forgotten. The ultimate luxury was that we were woken up every morning at 6.30am with a pot of fresh espresso in bed and the wood burning stove in our tents was quickly fired-up to take the edge off the chilly air before we got going for the day.

We were looked after by a team of four, with owner Derek also taking on the roles of guide and chief coffee maker, and Scott, a retired fireman and search and rescue diver, the other guide. Bob, who, Derek informed us, was indeed his uncle, looked after everything from boat motors to firewood and general maintenance. His wife, Aimee, cooked us superb meals and gave us samples of the maple syrup products that she and Bob produced when they were not at camp.

One of the great personal aspects of the week was that the team joined us every night for drinks and dinner and we really enjoyed getting to know them and hearing about their adventures in the wilderness. With Derek’s wife Brittany looking after the logistics outside the lodge, the whole operation was very much a family affair and benefited because of that, as well as running like clockwork.

The fishing was similar enough to what we do at home to be immediately enjoyable, but different enough to make us appreciate exactly where we were. The sight of a black bear crossing the tributary upstream when I was watching someone fish, and the frankly astoundingly beautiful backdrops every time we took a photograph were reminders of how lucky we were to be in such a remote location. As were the wolf footprints which were everywhere, including overlaying our tracks one day as we walked back the way we had passed in the morning.

Double–handed rods and floating lines with light tips worked well for our late September week. The group I travelled with, a husband and wife from Hampshire and a father and son from Utah, while all experienced fishers, were all on their first steelhead trip. They found their experience and skills were transferable, indeed one of the beauties of the trip was that the tackle we use at home is equally appropriate there. Derek and Scott were both excellent instructors in casting and fishing techniques and we all learned a huge amount without realising it. Bruce and his son Cale had not fished with double–handed rods before but it only took about a day for them to look like they had been doing it all their lives and there was a real sense of achievement when they landed their first fish on a double–handed rod and a Spey cast.

We were fishing in both the main river, the Nass, and the more intimate tributary. Although much smaller it had well-defined pools and it was, at times, possible to use a single–handed rod, although in places the ability to Spey cast was essential due to heavily tree-lined banks. There is a huge amount of water to fish here and the reality is that you could fish different runs day after day. We concentrated where we thought the fish were holding, using jet boats on the main river and fishing downstream of the confluence. The pools seemed to go on forever and were a pleasure to fish and the bottom was good for wading with water that was straightforward to read. We did, however, have a lot to learn about how steelhead behave and Gary from Hampshire made us laugh one evening when he returned from Home Pool having just landed a fish that he described as ‘very angry indeed‘ – to the extent that it even ‘scowled at the camera’ when they took a photograph!

The steelhead run this season is generally acknowledged to be lower than average and there have not been huge numbers of fish in most of the B.C. rivers. After last season, when the run was much higher than average, it has been slightly deflating as expectations were raised after such strong returns. That said, our week did produce a reasonable number of fish hooked, landed and lost and we always felt like we were in with a chance, except perhaps on a day following torrential rain when the option of sitting on camp chairs by the river bank drinking beer while watching each other cast fruitlessly was undoubtedly the best option!

There are many uncontrollable aspects to any fishing trip and when one travels a long way it is perhaps more galling when conditions are not in your favour. We did struggle with rising and dirty water at the end of our week but the high spirits of Derek and his team did not allow us to feel frustrated. In fact the beauty of the this camp is that the tributary beside the camp does not colour up, even after heavy rain, and following the downpour we could see that although one side of the Nass was coloured there was still a clear, wide strip on the same bank as the tributary running downstream for several miles. Although both rivers did rise with the rain they quickly settled down and the positioning of the camp, with access to both, gives a good chance to fish effectively whatever the prevailing conditions, be it dirty water in the main river or low water in the tributary.

Our adventure was over all too quickly and after an interesting return helicopter flight, in and out of thick, low cloud, skimming high pines and following rivers, we landed in Smithers and went our separate ways. The experience was one which showed us all why the pursuit of steelhead is an annual event in many fishers’ diaries and one that ranks alongside family birthdays in terms of compulsory attendance! One other benefit, as so often on fly fishing trips, was watching friendships being forged as the week progressed and our appreciation for our hosts for the superb way they looked after us throughout the week.

We have secured some great weeks at Nass River Lodge for the 2020 season and will also run a hosted week if you would like to travel as part of a group from the UK. Although we can offer space from mid-September onwards we are fortunate to have the whole week of 11-17th October 2020. The cost is $8950 per rod and there are currently three rods available. We would overnight in Smithers on the 10th October before flying into the camp on the morning of the 11th and fishing a half day that day. On the 17th October we will also fish a half day before choppering back to Smithers in time to catch the afternoon flight to Vancouver.

Please get in touch at [email protected] if you are interested.

Photography by Cale Montrone, Sally Derrick and Gary Derrick.