Winter fishing normally conjures up visions of snow, ice and frigid cold, however the mild, coastal climate of Vancouver Island means that pursuit of winter run steelhead and resident winter trout is not only possible, but also enjoyable.
One such winter fly fishing adventure happened last February on Super Bowl Sunday. I’d agreed to drive for a golf tournament and decided to fish the Cowichan River. The weather was more suited to fishing than golfing anyway – overcast, cool and calm.
The Cowichan River is home to wary brown trout with diving, head shaking fights; opportunistic cutthroat, ready to make a mad dash with your fly; and finicky rainbow trout, known for their spectacular aerial show. Aside from the Cowichan River, the most productive Vancouver Island rivers to fish for winter trout are the Qualicums and and Campbell-Quinsam, though most coastal rivers contain at least some cutthroat trout.
I prefer a 5 weight fly rod with a quad tip system and a 5-8lb fluorocarbon leader. Essential winter trout flies to have are egg patterns (conservatively sized pale orange with a touch of red); small tungsten bead headed nymphs such as the flashback pheasant tail and prince nymphs; Wooly Buggers and leeches; stonefly nymphs; and minnows and fry patterns.
Steelhead are sea run rainbow trout, curious and powerful, with Vancouver Island fish weighing 5-25 lbs. There are 2 distinct runs, a summer run July through October and a winter run December through April. Steelies are bright silver in salt water, with the trademark pink lateral line and darker colour developing when they move to freshwater to spawn.
I fish an 8 weight fly rod with a quad tip system and a 10lb fluorocarbon leader. Must haves in my steelhead fly box include: Winter’s Hope, Intruders, marabou flies, egg sucking leeches and egg patterns. Top Vancouver Island steelhead rivers include the Stamp/Somass, Campbell-Quinsam, Quatse, Gold, Salmon and Big Qualicum. Of note is that though wild steelhead exist in many systems unmentioned here, areas with fragile populations are best left alone – fish the rivers with healthy runs.
I’d checked the water levels online at http://www.wateroffice.gc.ca and the Cowichan River depth was 1.8m at Duncan. Almost too high for a 5’5” walk and wade angler. Steelhead fishing is a lot about the right timing. Despite your best laid plans, Mother Nature may decide otherwise, sending winter rains to blow out the river, leaving it raging, muddy brown and unfishable for days.
I’d fish my 6 weight Spey rod with a Scandi head to help with the tight backcasting conditions. From experience on this river, I know flow was heavy enough at that location to justify my heavy sink tip with a 10lb fluorocarbon leader.
Arriving at the Cowichan, I made my way to the bluffs on the lower river. The river was a perfect milky blue colour, on the verge of blowout. In these high, fast conditions, the fish would be sure to be holding close to the bank. Completely alone on the river, I walked slowly, watching for a steelhead run of uniform depth with a walking pace current or a fishy looking tailout. Finally, I spotted a silver flash surface at the top of the water near the bank, just ahead of me.
I made my way upstream of the fish, then scrambled down the bank to present my offering, a large pink and black Intruder. Vancouver Island steelhead seem to prefer pink, though other colours will also entice a bite. I tossed my fly to just the right spot, drifted past where I thought the fish to be… nothing. Reeled in and up rose a big bright steelhead 15 feet away. Odd behavior, being that winter fishing brings icy waters which should make the fish less responsive to offerings and even less likely to move more than a couple inches to a fly. Usually, the fly needs to get right down in front of the lethargic winter fish’s nose.
I cast a couple more times, then downsized my fly to a Showgirl. Perfect cast, soft landing, flawless drift, silence. Reel in, another flash of silver. A couple more casts and a new fly, the Davey Street Hooker. Over the next hour, the fish must have risen 20 times. Each time I was ready to give up and try elsewhere, I saw a flash of silver and cast again.
Finally I tied on a fly I like to call the pink spey, and hoped for the best. As soon as my fly hit the surface, the fish burst out of the water and smashed my fly. The line screamed off the reel and before I could exhale, I was in my backing. Hastily, I managed to get some line back onto my reel and the fish exploded out of the water again. I struggled to keep my rod tip high and line tight as she flipped and leapt, widened my stance on the slippery rocks and dug the end of my rod into my right hip to settle in for an intense battle.
After an epic fight with plenty of air time, she was ready to land and release. I gazed in awe at the size and almost iridescent silver colour of this magnificent wild fish and cursed myself for forgetting my net. I wet my hands first and then grasped the base of her tail with one hand, her belly with the other to calm her and keeping her in the water, tried to estimate her size – she was longer than my entire arm and weighed at least 9lbs.
Crouched precariously on the wet rocks, I kept one hand on her tail and used the other to fish my phone out of my pocket for a picture. Camera shy, the mighty fish bucked, almost tossing me into the water and like a silver phantom, she was gone.
This fish of a thousand casts is the epitome of why I’m lost to the chrome.