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Northern steelhead in a land of the giants

3/9/2005
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    The mere mention of their names causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand on end: Skeena, Kalum, Kitimat, Babine, Kispiox, Nass, Copper, Sustut.
    If you're a steelheader, that is.

    If there's such a thing as the Holy Grounds of steelhead fishing, it lies in the remote northern reaches of British Columbia, between Prince Rupert Sound and the Continental Divide.

    It's wild, rugged territory, with wild, rugged fish that carry an almost mythical status among the Pacific Northwest steelheading world.

    "Wild runs of big fish," Buzz Ramsey said simply.

    "The biggest fish I ever caught was 30.4 on the Thompson, but those kinds of fish are caught and released over (in northern BC) every year."

    "There are plenty of those that nobody even hears about. A guy will catch it, release it, and not even think twice about it."

    And that's not an Americanized version of reality.

    The God's-honest truth about the rivers in this part of the province is that they produce some of the biggest steelhead in the world.

    "Well, that depends on what you define as 'big', I guess," said Randy Murray at Northcoast Anglers (250-635-6496) in Terrace.

    "Fifteen pounds? Oh, no, that's not big. We think of 25 pounds as big. I've seen hatchery fish here to 20 pounds, so, yeah, if you think a 15-, 16-pound fish is big, we get some really big fish."

    An upward trend

    The steelhead runs of the Skeena and neighboring systems have gone through boom and bust cycles like many fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, but the Skeena and Nass of 2005 are significantly healthier than the runs of the 1980s, when over-harvest of wild fish pushed many of the rivers around Terrace and Kitimat into a depressed danger zone.

    "About 20 years ago, there were really not a lot of fish," Murray said.

    "They started coming back about 10 years ago, after many of the rivers were put under catch-and-release regulations. The numbers now are much better than they had been historically."

    Wild, wilder, wildest

    The hatchery component that drives most steelhead fisheries in both Washington and Oregon is mostly nonexistent in the northern reaches of BC.

    The Kitimat River hatchery services its namesake system and the nearby Dala and Kildala rivers, but the rivers of the Skeena system are all wild-fish only, where catch-and-release is the rule rather than the exception.

    "We've proven that catch-and-release works," said Murray.

    "A lot of guys up here like to catch a lot of fish in a year, but they know (the fish) won't last if they catch and kill them. We're OK with releasing our fish."

    Such is the nature of steelheading in this part of the province, where the fish are treated with protective care by most of the locals.

    You think it's tough to get the straight scoop from the Olympic Peninsula?

    You've never tried to pry information out of some of the guides who operate out of Terrace, Kitimat, Smithers, Hazelton and the other small towns in the area.

    "The real avid fishermen feel very protective," Murray said. "None of them want to see it return to the way it was 20 years ago."

    Tricky timing

    Washington or Oregon anglers planning a run to the north need to keep a couple of things in mind: Run timing is different than rivers in the US, and some of the rugged inland tributaries of the Skeena (the Kispiox and Babine, to name a couple) are closed from January to July.

    On the rivers most easily accessed via Terrace — the lower Skeena, Kalum and Copper — the best winter/spring fishing starts in March and continues through April and sometimes into late May.

    "January and February are really the only two months when the fish really don't move much in those local rivers," Murray said.

    "Fish will start coming into the Skeena in late February and March, and it peaks around April and into May."

    "You can catch fresh fish into the first part of June sometimes, depending on the water temperatures."

    The summer runs start filtering in shortly thereafter, and by the time the Kispiox, Babine, Bulkly, Maurice, etc., reopen in July, it's time to gear up for the biggest fish of the year.

    "The summer-runs are the biggest fish," Murray said.

    "If you're looking for truly big fish, August, September and October are the best times. It's not uncommon to still get fish over 30 pounds then."

    How, where, why

    Of the streams open for spring fishing, the Kalum and Skeena are the biggest and, generally, most productive, but the Copper and Kitimat runs get cranking around April too.

    Both of the first two are fishable via a sled and drift boat, while the Copper is easily fished from the bank.

    "You can cover everything on the Copper on foot," said Murray.

    "It's an easy enough river to walk, but you have to be up on the regulations. There are parts of it that close in the winter, but there are still plenty of places to fish it year-round."

    The mainstem Skeena is also where you'll likely find the biggest fish.

    "The whole system has big fish in it, and there's really no rhyme or reason to it, but the Skeena itself has the biggest," Murray said.

    "The Kispiox and Babine and all those smaller rivers certainly have their big fish too, but they're not present in the numbers that they are on the Skeena. The Skeena's fish are just big."

    Rules/regs

    Leave the barbed trebles at home. Everything here is single barbless hooks, and you can't fish bait on several of the streams in the area.

    The nuts and bolts of it all

    Unlike the easily accessible streams of lower mainland BC and Vancouver Island, the rivers in the northern part of the province demand some travel.

    Hawk Air and Air Canada both fly from Vancouver to Terrace (it's roughly a 90-minute direct flight), and you can also ride the VIARail from Vancouver to Terrace.

    Don't bother with trailering a boat up — book with a local guide to fish the bigger waters of the Skeena and Kalum, and don't even think about trying to figure out the regulations and access restrictions on the Kispiox, Babine, etc., on your own.


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