When I decided to move my winters to Australia, part of me knew that I was sacrificing my love for one of the most special fisheries in the world. British Columbia’s winter steelhead migration was more than just recreation for me — it was a way of life. For as long as I could remember, I’d planned my work, free time, living arrangements, conservation efforts, even my relationships, around when and where the fish would be. It seemed unfathomable to miss a week of the season, let alone all of it.
I found comfort knowing that I still had summer steelhead available to me for the other six months of the year, but for so long I had defined myself by the persistence and patience it took to pursue their cold-weather counterparts, that fishing for summer-fish almost seemed like cheating; no suffering in snow-drenched gloves, no sink-tip loop-to-looping, no purple lips waiting to be thawed by a steaming dark roast. But I knew it was either sacrifice or divorce, so winter steelhead took a backseat to my vows, with the compromise that I would visit them every second Christmas.
As published in Trout and Salmon magazine.
I steadfastly refused to troll for gamefish. An avid steelheader, the idea of casually lounging in a gas-guzzling mini-yacht, trusting deckhands to help me catch fish, all while sitting in a chair that I suspect my dentist designed… I was beyond disinterested.
In my mind, bill-fishing was for one of two sorts of people: the fat, rich kind who need their egos stroked, and IGFA record-chasers desperate to see their names in print. I felt about as much connection to either party as a magnet does to plastic. So, in my travels to saltwater destinations, I instead chose to stalk permit, bonefish, and other species on the flats. Flats fishing seemed to be the saltwater equivalent of steelhead fishing. The patience of a hunter is a necessity. You need an awareness of subtle movement and a willingness to work tirelessly for a single shot at success. Loud engines and a team of people relying on my coordination just didn’t seem to fit the bill.
As seen in Salmon and Steelhead Journal:
I felt my temper flare just slightly. My oars dug a little deeper, my raft pushed a little faster, and my polite smile began to look forced. My dog Colby just slunk behind me in hopes that we would be back to our homestretch soon.
It was September on the Bulkley River, and I was technically the new kid in town. As I rowed past anglers who’d launched earlier in the morning than I had, they picked up their pace with the assumption that the over-anxious angler pushing by them was in a hurry to “poach” their upcoming water. Hell, I just wanted to go home.
I counted fifty boats that afternoon. More than that, there was a person at the head of every run, anglers forced into spots that don’t hold fish, illegal guides chucking spoons, and illegal guides chucking flies who still had the nerve to frown upon the gear guys. Not a single one of these guys was smiling. Myself included. As heads turned toward the sound of my rapid rowing, I soon tired of explaining my intentions. Instead, I wished for a fluorescent sign tacked to the front of my boat reading “done for the day (and forever if it stays this way).”
*Note – after posting John’s podcast last week (Part 2), I received some great questions about our hatchery discussion (find it here www.aprilvokey.com/podcasts/ ). John responded to me with some point-form notes that he wished he’d mentioned during our initial conversation (which took close to two and a half hours… close to midnight). I asked John to send me any clarification he wanted to share with all of you, and he kindly sent me the below message/text. We hope it helps to answer some questions! It’s such an interesting subject!! ~April
From John: “Ok, after listening to the podcast I realize I was all over the place in the discussion and that some statements were confusing. Most of that stemmed from me not defining that there are two types of hatcheries, and then often realizing – half-way through a topic – that I was using terminology that people might not understand. This is one reason that the hatchery issue, which is terribly complex, is difficult to discuss without being able to show data. So, I really appreciate the opportunity to provide clarification, because it is important for people to know what I was saying and to help others understand the main points of the discussion. To that end, I outline what I think are the six biggest take-home messages on steelhead and hatcheries, and how we at TU seek to try to solve the debate. Again, all references are only to steelhead unless otherwise noted…
I always knew I’d split my year between two countries — I never figured that one of them would be Australia. Born and raised in British Columbia, Canadian winters and I have always paired as pleasantly as a wingless pigeon in an off-leash dog park. So, every year in November, I fled to warm water destinations in hopes of finding both sunshine and saltwater species.
In 2013, I’d been in the process of pricing out coastal homes in Roatan when I stumbled upon my (now) husband during a Norwegian fishing trip. His tan radiated beneath blue eyes, his Aussie accent lessening whatever appeal North American men may have ever had…
Ironically, it was when the river pushed at my knees that I felt the most grounded; when the road lead me to mossy overgrowth that I felt the safest; when I’d forgotten where I was that I felt the most found. In those days the mornings never came soon enough, and only the black of night stopped me from leaving the house any earlier. Even that may not have been enough of a deterrence, if it hadn’t been illegal to fish for salmon and steelhead before dawn.
My love affair with the sport wasn’t nearly as romantic as one might like to think it should be for a fly-fisher. Starting as a bait-fisher, I would rely on the use of treated eggs to tempt fish to bite. Bits of crusty roe nestled themselves into the curvatures of my thumbnails, and I would habitually grate my finger tips down the leg of my waders in an attempt to fade the cerise stain of pro-cure and borax from my hands. It wasn’t until several years, fishing buddies, and books that I came to own my first fly rod and box of handmade flies. But equipment does not make the angler and it wouldn’t have made a difference to me if I was fishing a dew worm, or a Victorian-era featherwing. I was there for the fish, not the methodology. The “fish”. Just the simplicity of the word seems to cheapen the significance of an animal many of us devote our lives to pursuing.
My first guiding job was hardly glamorous.
A sturgeon and Pacific salmon guide on the Fraser river, I spent my summer mornings motoring through swirling back-eddies, and gaffing floating, rotten salmon.
I cringed at the soft, furry flesh that tore under the dulling prong, the light meat plump and glistening with water-bloat and bacterial rot. Sticky roe balls wrapped in women’s nylons were almost appetizing when compared to such “salmon stink-bait collections,” as we called them.
Throwing carcasses into the bow of my boat, I let their pungency thrive and flourish in the heat of the sun before baiting bits of them onto a hook and assuring my clients that the smell would, “grow on them — not literally, though it might feel like that by the end of the day.”
Promises of winter steelhead trips kept me in the game, after several seasons of Fraser river guiding under someone else’s license (which is the professional way of saying “thumb”), as many guides do, I left to begin my own company as an independent outfitter.
I’d gotten used to the vacant expressions and slow polite nods.
An unsure, “hmm” or furrowed brow conveyed an utter lack of understanding — not only for my occupation, but for the person I defined myself to be.
“A fly fisher?”
Through the years, uncomfortable silence hung off airplane tray tables, taxi headrests, and restaurant chandeliers. I left a morbid trail of stillness everywhere I went, and had come to accept that while fly fishing was my world, the sport was mostly unfamiliar to everyone else’s.
As a teenager, on one of many solo river explorations, I pushed and ducked my way through a game trail — partaking in a tiring retaliation of ‘slap’ with branches that struck at my limbs, and I at theirs. Alone and wary, my imagination ignited as it did so often in the untamed forests of British Columbia.