My love for BC spey fishing started in Port Hardy on Vancouver Island many years ago. This is why my road trip had me leaving the Skeena watershed to be among the great North Island rivers of my past. I packed my Subaru, picked up my brother, and made my way to the ferry. Our destination was Sayward Junction on the beautiful Salmon River. Upon arrival at Sayward Junction the rivers were very low. The upper parts of the Salmon had my brother asking me why were we here? I replied, “I timed our adventure to the rains”.
That night we planned our Salmon River float trip. It was going to be a float trip that would reignite my passion of the North Island. At the White River bridge we dropped our raft and parked our car at the Cable Cookhouse (where the hospitality and fresh coffee was greatly appreciated). The walk back to the raft only took 17 minutes yet the float experience was a day trip in itself. The steady, cold rains started and to make this the perfect North Island day we found ourselves picking off giant slugs that tried to reclaim our boat. We entered the White River and I told my brother not to fish the river because I didn’t know if it was open.
We began swinging flies below the highway on the main stem of the Salmon River. It was PERFECT! Everything had fallen into place. The upper river was so low that the Steelhead were confined to deep holes on the main stem of the Salmon River. I was warned by my good friend Larry Weber that the lower parts of the river had the odd jet boats flying through but fishing mid-week had its benefits. We didn’t see another soul anywhere, it was perfect! Armed with a treasure chest of shrimp flies, my brother and I worked each deep pool.
While sitting shotgun as my brother manned the ores, I spotted a fish boil the water. I whispered to Chris, “They’re here! Bring the boat to shore.” As we looked at the pool we could clearly see massive Steelhead milling about in the water. Due to tree overhang my brother knew he was outgunned and could not properly cast the distance required to present his fly. So he let me make the first cast (which in my books was very admirable). As my cast began to swing I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere in else in the world at this very moment. We were immediately engrossed as a monstrous wake and boil that inhaled my poor fly. I did it! I hooked into that unparalleled North Island jungle chrome. Tail walking and back flipping -my fly line backing went into overtime. I yelled, ” I need you to help me chase this bad boy with the boat”. Chris quickly back paddled and navigated the raft as I desperately maintained constant pressure on the fish. After an epic battle I managed to bring this beautiful chrome Steelhead to hand. WE GOT IT! Within seconds photos were taken and the fish was released.
After hugging my little brother I asked to see our photos. Little did I know, while attending to the boat’s position Chris’ hands got wet, went numb and he experienced excruciating pain due to the cold rains. He started flapping his arms and blew warm air onto his fingers. Concerned at first, I looked at his “rosy” face and said, “Welcome to the North Island! I only held the rod but you maneuvered the boat and landed the fish for me. Nice boat handling!” Chris Karol replied, “This is one huge river and it’s time for a warm-up break.”
After our refreshing break on shore, we crossed the river and started to fish the same pool. My second fish jumped and fought like a Thompson River Steelhead. Most of the fight was in the air. For a second time I went deep into my fly line backing, it was complete craziness! We anticipated possible escape strategies, chased it with the boat and landed it on a gravel bar in the middle of the river. Unlike the previous hot fish, this hen was in spawn mode and our mood dramatically changed. With an immediate release she swam right back to where she took my fly. I said, “Thank you” to the river, washed my face and told my brother, “Let’s go and leave the tailout section alone”. Chris replied, “I understand. We shouldn’t ask for anymore.”
We continued our float down toward the Sayward Road bridge, commenting on the site’s beauty and future potential. Pulling up our boat onto the bridge and up to the parking lot of the Cable Cookhouse, the cook told us that their famous, hand made burgers were on the grill. She said, “from what I see you guys looked tired and hungry.” The smoke from the grill filled the rainforest valley with a bewitching aroma. We left the raft next to the car and ran in for lunch. While eating this homemade grilled fare, locals started to reminisce about the ‘olden days’. With fresh coffee in hand, the atmosphere grew to be electric. Stories of logging, fishing, times of boom and bust had me going and lost in a total day dream -wondering, what steelheading would have been like back then. “The hamburger was to die for!” I found myself saying it out loud. The cook joined in on the conversation and told us that she cut the meat and ground it herself. I told her, “It’s moments like this that create life long traditions. I’ll be back every year to fish Sayward’s steelhead and eat at the Cable Cookhouse” At that moment an older gentleman got up to go home. I said, “Goodbye and thank you for sharing your wonderful stories.” He looked back and said, “It was a gift” and continued to walk out the door. Pausing for a moment, I looked at my brother and said, “This is why we’re here. I will miss this place a lot.”
While taking photos of the Cable Cookhouse, the cook told us that the building was made completely out of old recycled and abandoned cable and logging camp materials. It is a true gem of the North Island and will shine on as a beautiful example of Canadian folk art. It will be also remembered for serving the best burgers on Vancouver Island. We started our road trip in search Steelhead but found North Island love and hospitality instead. If you truly love steelheading and epic road trips I recommend a Sayward Junction float trip on the Salmon River. Visit the Cable Cookhouse as soon as you pull your boat out of the river. Within a stone’s throw is hot coffee and wicked swing water. This river’s natural gifts are not a secret but mid week you’ll find that perfect moment around every bend.
This will be my last steelhead blog for a while, I’m off to live in Nepal and fish Mahseer for the entire season, deep in the Himalayas. Good bye coastal BC I will miss you.. A Very Special Thanks too Larry Weber at http://leisuresuitcharters.com for always having my perfect vintage of scotch after a misty and wet North Island day of fishing. Thanks for everything Larry..