As previously published in Fly Fusion Magazine.
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.
Upon reaching camp, I found solitude while sweeping my deck. As evening approached, the voices funnelled downstream until the river was in the same quiet state it was earlier that morning when I’d sipped my coffee on the riverbank.
It took me a few days to get the motivation to fish again. My friend Cat LaFlamme and I sat atop the large Yeti beside the campfire discussing our options.
“We could fish higher. Nah, it was crazy there two days ago.”
“We could fish earlier. Nah, the jet boats will just get there before us.”
“We could just launch the jet boat. Nah, would just add to the problem or upset the guides.”
“We could fish differently. Yes, we could… by going somewhere else.”
And just like that we were on a mission — what turned out to be a successful mission too. I did a lot of contemplating that week. My time exploring various rivers throughout northern BC was rewarded with quiet days, fresh fish, and a remembrance that the exploration had always been more fun for me than actually catching fish.
I wondered if other anglers had forgotten this as well, so in a cheeky social media post I mentioned the entire Bulkley parade. The response was as one might expect: a healthy percentage of people who felt the same way I did, and a less healthy percentage of people who blamed me for the loss of solitude on rivers worldwide, the influx of anglers who have taken up the sport in the last ten years, and basically for world hunger and the war on terror.
Of course the humour in the “you make the bed you lay in” cliché was due to how busy the Bulkley was before I had ever stepped a foot in it. It’s a well-known, highly publicized fishery that’s had its bouts of pressure even before I was born. I scoffed at the accusations, but, nonetheless, I couldn’t help but ponder certain aspects of the debate.
I’m not ignorant enough to believe that a busy day on the Bulkley is because of me, or even that an article such as this one will have people excitedly booking trips in DIY fashion. I’m also not ignorant enough to deny that my advocacy to grow this sport doesn’t have its downfalls. There has been a large growth spurt of anglers in the fly-fishing community over the last ten years or so. Social media and the Internet have opened our means of communication and the secret is out — we have the best sport in the world. However, I have always been able to justify this growth with an understanding about the benefits such participation brings.
One wonderful thing about fly fishing is that once the passion develops roots into an angler’s core, for many it remains nested there for life. Even when that same angler cannot leave the house to indulge in a day of fishing, such passion remains. Cold winter? Newborn child? Easily upset spouse? Busy working overtime? For many, it is still the fantasy of a day on the water that so often keeps their “off-water delays” manageable. Why does this matter? Because while the angler may not be able to immediately fish the waters they dream of, they are still oftentimes at the forefront of the battleground when such fisheries need help.
For me, I’d always seen the time I spent growing the sport as an investment. One with a relatively low-risk cost, yet a huge return. Never before had I associated it with destruction. Should I have?
The question was too broad, so I looked to narrow it down to the Bulkley. I’d filmed on this river several times. I hadn’t done much writing about it, but I’d done my share of television and social media posts about my newfound home. Why then were half of the anglers I was passing on my way downstream the good ‘ol boys who’d been fishing this river since the 80’s? These anglers were kind, incredible sources of knowledge who were content being out on the water. Indeed, the crowds bothered them, but for now they were just happy to fish a river where the gravel was fine and the current was gentle on their knees.
As I bushwhacked through blackberry shrubs, avoided being mauled by grizzlies, and walked my raft around whitewater obstructions, my passion for the sport was reignited and my soul felt alive again. That had been the initial purpose of my post—to inspire others like me who had lost the desire to stand in queue, to get back to remembering how exciting it was to fish a river and feel as though you were the first one to ever step foot in it.
Laying topographic maps across my deck, old highlighter marks flashed fluorescent at me, reminding me of the days when I sat at my parent’s kitchen table, tracing the lines of rivers I thought might hold steelhead: gradual gradients, ocean access, forgotten logging roads… I’d made these marks before Google Earth and phones with GPS, when I barely had enough gas money to go out and explore. Now, staring at these same maps, it was all too clear. None of these rivers were easy to get to and many required hours, maybe even days, of driving. Most would require floating and a well thought out shuttle system. All of them needed a dog for safety. Most importantly, they all guaranteed both adventure and uncertainty.
Curiosity got the best of me, and I couldn’t help but Google the name of each river with the word “steelhead” to see what I could find. A small part of me wanted to find a glimmer of hope that steelhead frequented the river I was searching. A smaller part of me wanted to find no mention of it at all. What popped up on my browser was to be expected: the occasional guide service desperate to sell something different, the common Internet forum with some ego-driven blowhard spouting off about his discovery, and lastly, sad reminders from outdated government reports about which runs of steelhead used to exist.
But what if the majority of people who loved to explore these rivers were just like me, willing to die before divulging any names and obeying the “no camera, no mention” rule? What if these men and women were no longer with us, or could no longer find the physical strength to invest such time off-road for only the hopeful mere glimpse of a fish? Did that mean these rivers weren’t worth fishing?
Over the years, as a guide, I’d met some of the most independent and hardcore anglers on the planet. Now with age, many of them were limited to lodges with jet boat access and easy wading, but their eyes still lit up when reminiscing about their younger days — their days of mapping, planning, hoping, not knowing.
Then it hit me. Maybe this was all part of a cycle. A cycle where the youth put in the work to fish difficult, technical rivers that are home to smaller runs of fish, all the while creating memories, appreciation and experience while doing so. As a reward for the effort put forth, as they age, perhaps the cycle entitles them to fish the famed rivers like the upper Bulkley with steadier substrate and more predictable migrations.
For me, before being spoiled with the Bulkley, the Dean, the Kispiox, the Copper, and the rivers we’ve all grown up dreaming about, it was the rivers I believed held fish that rewarded me with the richest satisfaction and most valuable learning experiences (especially when I ended up being right about them).
Today, in my 30s, I still crave the adventure hidden in the rugged BC and Albertan mountains. They call to me with an unexplainable urgency, a reminder that my feet should be used for walking more so than pressing pedals. I can only dread the grief that will overcome me when Mother Nature decides that my body is better suited for less physical exertion and therefore limits the places I can fish. Worse yet, I fear the time when I have to compete with capable anglers for a spot because they’re unwilling to venture off the beaten path. A path that I know would be good for them to take, but one that I can’t suggest without sounding like a bitter, selfish nag.
Naturally, this is a topic dependent upon each individual angler, and yes, the room for debate on this subject runs deep. So while it’s true that there are many things I am unsure of, there are several things I do know for sure: some anglers fish for numbers regardless of their age, some fish for camaraderie with fishing buddies, and some fish just to get outside. But we all fish to learn, to feel like we’ve figured a part of nature out, to be proud of ourselves when we succeed in our pursuit.
The other thing I know—we all get old and none of us are that excited about it. So while you will occasionally see me on the Bulkley fishing the easy water and sizeable steelhead migrations, when you don’t see me out there, I am lost somewhere in an adventure nestled in a forest with a river that I will never tell you about. And one day, when I’m unable to bushwhack through the unforgiving landscape, I’ll be the little old grey haired woman who is giving you shit about being in my water.