The Bulkley River is home to one of the largest summer steelhead runs in the world. This fact, paired with timing, creates a unique opportunity to swing at these fish in a multitude of conditions. As with any species, steelhead are directly affected by what’s happening with the water. River bumps up from the rain? Time to swim upstream. Cold snap? Time to hunker down. Being on the river for the entire season allows me to learn the signs by which I develop my daily guiding program. I spend every day in a certain section of the canyon, and the daily repetition of fishing the same few miles of the river can either be a dream or a curse.
When I talk about creating a daily plan for myself, I’m taking multiple things into account. I’m even taking some information directly from the previous day’s experiences. This can range anywhere from where exactly it was that I caught fish, where I saw fish moving, what the water felt like it was doing, and how many actual encounters I had. This is vital information, but without doing the other easy research, it could end up being completely useless. Using my cellphone to search for weather forecasts, I look for pressure changes, temperature trends, and forecasted precipitation, which are essential pieces of the plan. Now, I’ll walk you through the stages of formulating a plan using these pieces of the puzzle to create the bigger picture.
The date is September 15, and the water feels warmer than the previous three days of being in this exact same stretch. The weather has warmed up eight degrees, and the sky is partly cloudy. The river has risen by three inches and has gotten a hint of colour from the snow melt. Using only this information, I could tell you that the fish will be more active because of the warmer water. They will most likely be in a moving mood, so I will be floating lots of tailouts and keeping an eye out for rolling fish, because this could be a sign that a push of fish is beginning to move through the stretch of water. I will make sure to hit my productive main runs, but I will also fish a lot of ten-cast riffles and small depressions, which fish use as travelling lanes. My philosophy is that if there is an active steelhead around, it will bite any fly that it sees. Being that the water temperature will still most likely be in the 50’s, I know that these fish could be looking up. This means starting with dry flies and working deeper as the need for a fish increases. Now, if you use this as a base plan and spend the day gathering these important bits of information, you can begin to formulate future ideas of fish movement and enhance your ability to go out and hunt for steelhead, rather than just go fishing.
If I see a fish show itself, that’s a sign to me that we need to work this run very well. I preach the saying that you should never leave fish to find fish. Now, obviously you can’t live and breathe this to the maximum, because sometimes the fish just won’t bite. But more times than not, if I see a fish roll in a run, we can have an encounter either the first time through or the second. Having two clients is an asset, as you can cover the entire water column with four different presentations if you work through the run twice. My favourite trick is probably floating the runs in my jetboat. If I create a theory about what the fish are doing, I want to solidify my thoughts by spotting fish in areas where I expect them to be. Every day I end up floating every single run that we fish, plus other various spots all along the way. I’ve had this save days of time for me when my theory was wrong and the fish were actually somewhere else. I was able to switch my plan mid-day, and then began having success immediately. I’ve also had my theory be correct, and we have a banner day.
I’m still quite young and still learning greatly about these fish, but someone once told me that the difference between a fisherman and a scientist is that a scientist records everything. Ever since that day, I’ve kept logs of my days on the water with all of the information I alluded to in the first paragraphs. Now I can look back and formulate trends, which can be major assets for future seasons. Run size, water levels, water temperature, and where exactly I caught fish throughout the three main phases of the run (running/ moving, sitting/shuffling, and living). I think this is what makes the Bulkley so special, as your tactics need to adapt weekly, and how you fish the runs needs to be altered as well. I gave the example about mid-September but what about late October? With the colder temperatures and unavoidable weather patterns, things could feel very out of your control, and finding fish can be a struggle. This is the time to really try different ways of getting your flies to the fish, whether it be getting a different angle out of the boat or using technical skills to work your fly down into a seam, and then slowly bring it across, even though it’s in a spot where you caught many fish swinging greaseline flies three weeks earlier. This seemingly short time line can be the difference between fishing at active steelhead or targeting fish that are hunkering down for the winter.
To me, this is the biggest attraction to the Skeena tributaries run of steelhead, and specifically the Bulkley fish. Every day is a learning experience, and if you really commit to this idea, your knowledge of the way steelhead operate will begin to grow—and that is truly exciting