As September rolls around each year I can start to feel the chill in the air each morning, causing my mind to drift to another place: fly fishing British Columbia. A place where big, wild, trophy steelhead are lurking in the cold, clean currents of one of BC's finest steelhead rivers. The Sustut. This jewel of a river produces some of the largest wild steelhead in the world. Fish average roughly 15 lbs. with multiple fish in 30 lb. range being caught each fall. We (Rick, Stu, and myself) fish this fairly unknown remote tributary of the Skeena river system for a week each mid/late September. Due to its remote location there are only 2 small lodges on the river: Suskeena Lodge (9 anglers) and Steelhead Valhalla (11 anglers). The two lodges do not overlap water and have exclusive outfitting access to 20+ miles of fishable water (the upper 80+ miles of the Sustut and the Bear River are closed to fishing year round). With no road access for almost 100 miles the only access is via small plane to a tiny gravel runway hidden in the bush a few miles from the river, because of this anglers can’t reasonably fish the Sustut on their own. The opportunity to fish this amazing lightly pressured river in style at a lodge with hot showers and delicious home cooked meals is a humbling experience.
Location and getting there
The Skeena river system is one of the most prolific steelhead systems in the world, hosting such namesake rivers as the Kispiox, Babine, Bulkley, Morice, and Sustut, as well as countless lesser known waters that are equally amazing. This region is a last strong hold of these wild and amazing fish, often referred to as the “Sacred Headwaters”. The Skeena system supports wild annual Steelhead runs ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 fish. Most fish enter the system in late July and August working their way upstream reaching the majority of the tributaries by mid to late August, with the majority of the fish in the rivers from mid-September to mid-October. These anadromous fish will then hold over in the deep runs of the rivers or in lakes at the heads of the tributaries to spawn in May and June. The eggs remain in the gravel redds for 2.5 to 3 months with the fry emerging around August, the fry then spends 2 to 4 years in the freshwater river systems before heading downstream with the spring runoff to the ocean. The maturing fish then spend 1 to 3 years at sea gaining substantial weight for their return back up into the fresh water systems to repeat the process. Steelhead are unique in the fact that they can return to the ocean again and then become repeat spawners. This does tend to be less common but a possibility.
The first order of business is getting to Smithers, a small town that serves as the center for the surrounding area. A quaint but lively town offering great outdoor recreational opportunities of all sorts. Smithers is on Trans-Canada Highway and an airport that has a few commercial flights per day allowing for fairly easy access to the entire region. We stay a night at the Hudson Bay Lodge on the edge of downtown and the next morning the lodge will pick us up and take us to the airport where we will weigh and load everyone’s gear and supplies going into the lodge. As this is a bush plane you need to be conscious of the weight of your gear and size of bags. I always use 2 med sized bags rather than one large bag and keep it to 50 pounds or less. Once the pilot has weighed and stowed everything evenly throughout the underside of the plane we climb on board for the 45 minute flight to the north. Once air born the roads and houses quickly
disappear giving way to high alpine peaks and glaciers surrounded by deep broad valleys with steelhead rivers meandering their way towards the Skeena. As the Sustut comes into view flowing from the east the plane makes a hard banking left hand turn towards the small gravel landing strip cut into the forest below. After a smooth touchdown we exit the plane to greet our hardworking guides for the week. Dom, Paul, and Wil. We all work to get the plane unloaded and into a trailer towed by an early 90’s model Ford Explorer that was brought in by the logging company back when the railway was in working order. After the manly hugs and solid ego ribbings we make the roughly 15 min drive to the lodge. Welcomed at the lodge by B and Chris we take our choice of one of the 4 private cabins lined up next to the main lodge overlooking the river. We hustle to throw our bags down in our cabin to head back to the lodge for some still warm cookies made with love by B. Once we have had more than our fair share of fresh baked cookies we begin to ready our gear.
I generally travel with 3 spey rods for Steelhead, two 7 weights and an 8 weight. The Sustut is a medium sized river and not especially windy so you don’t have to go too big with your rods, but bear in mind the fish are big and strong. You want enough backbone to turn over large intruder style flies with medium to heavy sink tips as well. Depending on the year and the water levels that appear when I get to camp I will rig one 7wt with 7 ½ feet of T-11 for general use and the 8 weight with 10 feet of T-14 for heavy/deep runs. The other 7wt is sometimes set up with a floating tip and dry fly or just kept as a backup. I have broken multiple rods on fish here so come prepared. I usually have all my rods lined with Skagit heads and then attach tips for the conditions at hand. My tips range from floating lines for skating dry flies, light sink tips (T-8) for swinging lighter traditional flies suspended in the water column, and medium (T-11) and heavy (T-14) tips for getting big flies down deep. The tip lengths range from 2.5 feet up to 12 feet to cover a wide range of water speeds and depths.
For leaders I keep it real basic. These fish are not leader shy so I will just take about 4-6 feet of 15lb mono, like Maxima. Tie a Surgeons Loop one end for easy replacement when needed and then always use the Non-Slip Mono knot to attach my fly of choice. Both knots retain a high level of the lines rated strength.
When it comes to flies we can compare notes and argue late into the night over what color, size and style the fish prefer. So with that said my go to’s are large style intruders or bunny leeches more often than not in black or purple, but I have been known to throw pink. Given the chance skating a dry can be an out of body experience well worth the devotion.
The bottom line on how you set up your tips, leaders and choose your flies is to do it with confidence. If you swing a fly by a fish that is in a taking mood it will grab it regardless of color or where it is in the water column if they can see. If they aren’t in a grabby mood it won’t matter what you do, they won’t eat it. I’ve seen fish move over 15ft to grab a fly and I’ve seen fish get out of the way of a fly that would have literally swung into their mouth. So make your selections based on your confidence in the rig and what info you can gather from your guide and fellow anglers. Then cover the water methodically until you hopefully cross a fish that is in the mood to take.
Arrival Day Fishing:
With our gear all organized and setup we get wadered up and head for one of the runs that is close to the lodge for a short afternoon warm up to knock the dust off our casts and if we’re lucky find a fish. Each year the first step into the water is an amazing feeling here, it truly is steelhead paradise. One thing that Wil, Dom, and Paul instilled in me from the very beginning was start short. Never walk into a run and start bombing casts to the other side of the river. I’ve caught a large number of steelhead over the years with the tip barely out of the rod. That first afternoon was no different starting at the very top of the run I made the first cast with only about 10 feet of line out. Then with each cast I lengthen the amount of line I throw by about 3 feet. Patiently and consistently swinging the large black and red leech across the run until it dangles below me along the edge. Always allow the fly to “dangle” at the end of the swing for a few moment as steelhead following the fly through the swing very often well take the fly at the end on the dangle. Once I had worked out to the amount of line I need to effectively work that particular run I take 2 normal steps with each cast.
Each cast should be made across or slightly down stream with a large upstream mend made immediately to properly get the fly down in the water column and well presented to the fish. This allows me to work down river in the most consistent way possible blanketing the run as effectively as possible. If there is a fish that is willing to grab my fly I’ll get it in front of them. Cast. Swing. Step. Repeat. With any luck you won’t have to repeat many times and you’ll feel the tug of Steelhead on your fly.
It’s worth mentioning that if you get a grab or pluck and don’t hook up then take 2 steps back upstream and swing through that water again. Even wait a few minutes to let the fish resettle or change your fly to show it something a little different. They don’t always come back but there is a good chance they are in the taking mood and will eat it again. With Stu on the opposite bank working down the other side of the run and Rick below me having started about half way down the run I was feeling confident that one of us would get a fish covering the run so thoroughly. It wasn’t long before that feeling came true. At the tail end of a swing Rick’s rod lifted into a large arc with the line tight downstream, he was hooked up! I quickly reeled up to go help him land what would hopefully be a trophy Sustut steelhead. I could see it was a hot fish taking line downstream at a breakneck pace. As I joined Rick he got the fish turned and was regaining some line. His face was covered in a grin from ear to ear. It didn’t matter if he landed this fish or not, the tug is the drug! A fish hooked in the first 30 minutes of fishing is an amazing confidence boost. After another solid pull of line from the fish Rick steered the fish towards slower water where I was able to tail the fish for him.
When landing wild steelhead (or any fish for that matter) never drag the fish into the rocks or shoreline. Always keep them in the water and handle them with great care. This fish was a beautiful chrome wild hen (female) of about 10lbs. Not a big fish, but a strong fish, and more to the point a fish. You can work run after run, hour after hour, even sometimes day after day and not touch a fish. Steelhead are wily creatures that way then all of a sudden BOOM fish on. Personally I love the searching, the waiting. After removing the barbless hook from the corner of the fish’s mouth we release her back into the free flowing currents so she can continue along her path to hopefully producing more wild steelhead that will one day grace the same water. We walked back to the lodge feeling damn lucky to be where we were and having had the opportunity to touch such an amazing creature.
Back at the lodge B had prepared a home cooked 5 star meal for us to enjoy. In 5 seasons at the lodge with B cooking dinner I have been blown away by every meal. She is top notch! The main lodge has a small sitting area with couches and chairs along with a long dining table for meals. A large stone fireplace heats the lodge very nicely. In the back is a nice sized and well equipped kitchen and storage area. The cabins are very well appointed with private attached baths with on demand hot water for showers. Two twin beds on either side of the entry door and a small woodstove for heat. For being such a remote location it is amazing how nice the entire setup is.
After a solid night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast from B we headed out to join Dom for the day. We are started on the lower beat, which has the most classic swing water on the river. Big long sweeping bends that produce perfect swings. After the roughly 15 minute jet boat ride down stream we hit the water on the last run before the Sustut dumps into the Skeena, Lookout. As I worked down the run I enjoyed the company of bald eagles and a resident mink. Everything screams wild here and the only thing that brings my attention back is the need to make another cast. Even though we all fished within a few hundred yards of one another few words are shared as we soaked up the solitude of the wild free Sustut River. The silence was finally broken by Stu with a short yell, fish on! After a good fight he landed his first steelhead of the trip, a very healthy 20+ pound buck (male). Success!
By and large when steelhead fishing if you land one fish a day you are stoked. That can ring true on the Sustut as well. I have had my fair share of days getting blanked both by the river and by my own power of not executing properly. When you only get a chance to shine every so often you better be on your A game or that opportunity will only be a distant memory of regret. The Sustut can produce big numbers as well though, I have had days where I hooked around 15 fish and landed roughly 10 of them. Days of that sort are very special indeed and should not be forgotten! Regardless whether it was a day of could haves or a day for the record books a glass is raised and a respectful thank you is said in honor of the river and the wild fish it harbors.
As we continued through our first full day on the water we received a few grabs and hookups, enjoy a thermos of delicious soup paired with a sandwich and coffee while warming ourselves next to a riverside fire. The clouds settle in and the rain starts to fall, this is steelhead weather. With hoods up we work the afternoon runs with confidence and hope. The fish are there we just need to cross paths at the right time with them.
As the day neared its end we stopped to fish Surprise, a long deep run with consistent current from bank to bank. The top of the run is pretty wader friendly but the gut of the run you need to wade deep and bomb casts to reach the fishy water. Stu has had the pleasure of sticking some very big fish in this run in years past and today was no exception. He had a monster buck smash his black and purple intruder midway through a swing. A solid battle ensued giving Rick and I enough time to join Stu and Dom for the netting of this behemoth of a fish. Stu quickly hoisted a true Sustut river trophy from the water just long enough to snap a photo before sliding it back in the water. Pushing 40” and 30 lbs. it was the one you are always looking for but rarely get lucky enough to see. Such an awesome sight. By days end we had all hooked fish but Stu was the lone man to have had 2 fish grace the net.
Arriving in camp Chris has the cabin stoves blazing with warmth to welcome us back. A hot shower followed by a delicious dinner is a welcomed event after a long day standing in the river chasing these magnificent fish. We drift asleep to the sound of continued persistent rain.
The next morning we roll out of bed to the sound of rain. Thoughts of rising water levels and dirty water start as we peer out the window towards the river. I pull on my rain jacket and head to the water’s edge, brown and a foot higher that yesterday. The Sustut will usually clear and begin to drop faster than most steelhead rivers because of the minimal logging impact in the remote region. Depending on the weather you can figure a day or two at most for the river to become fishable again. It’s the guides call on whether we go out, and the verdict is let’s get after it!
We are headed to the upper river with Paul, my favorite stretch. A good portion of it is through a sharp canyon filled with deep heavy runs and lots of structure. We started at the top where the Sustut and Bear join forces. The junction pool is very angler friendly and generally fish friendly as well. With little more than 6 inches of visibility expectations were low for the day so with each swing that yielded no results we didn’t feel too bad. As we were finishing lunch I stepped up in the back of the boat and made some short swings through a seam. On the 5th swing only about 20 feet from the boat the line stopped. Set the hook it was solid and heavy, so heavy it didn’t move. Bottom, damn. I couldn’t get the fly loose so had to break it off.
As I was starting to re-rig Stu stepped up and started to swing laughing at me for having broken off and leaving the door open for him. On about his 5th or 6th about 22 feet below the boat his line came tight. I looked up and laughed as he set the hook thinking he was on the same rock. Before I could give him a hard time the water boiled and the tip of his rod was bouncing with the weight of a fish. He could hardly reel because he was laughing so hard. 2 more feet. I missed an opportunity by 2 feet. But with the lack of clarity 2 feet might as well have been 100 feet. It was all good. “Stu you’re the man!” Given the conditions we were more than satisfied at the conclusion of day 2. Stu had again brought a steelhead to hand, I was finally on the board with one late in the day, and Rick was still clinging to the first afternoon’s fish with not so much as a grab since. On the ride home we rounded a bend and spotted movement on the bank. Paul slowed the boat to an idle and we drifted up on a large black bear routing around in the rocks on the bank in the last rays of sunlight. He caught wind of us and quickly run up the hillside with long powerful strides until he was just a shadow in the trees.
On the morning of day 3 we rushed to the river’s edge to check visibility. To our excitement it was back in shape. Working the middle stretch with Wil was going to be a good day. After a good push of water you always hope for a fresh movement of fish into the system and it gets the ones in the system to move off their comfort zone. Working the water hard was again the name of the game. Wil dropped me on river right of Amel’s. River right is a touch game in this run. Is some of the juiciest looking water but you’re going to pay for it with treacherous wading and very limited cast room.
After loosing track of casts I finally hooked up only to lose the fish within seconds of coming tight. A few dozen casts later the line tightened again. Fish on! It took a hard run and broke the surface with a huge jump while it thrashed the air. I watched the fish in amazement as my hook comes loose and recoils back towards me. ARGH. The A game was not in affect. I stopped and took a break to check my knots and hooks and have a cup of coffee while sitting on the bank hoping to regain some confidence in my skills.
I got back in the game working down the run while wading nipple deep trying not to go swimming, butchering cast after cast with no room to make any kind of D loop, but the fish are down there and they are in the mood. I heard the sound of the jet boat coming from downstream where Stu and Rick have been fishing different runs. I reeled up, time to go join the crew. As I sit silently in the front of the boat weaving down river I can’t shake my disappointment. As we pull into shore where Stu and Rick are waiting the give me the look of “Anything??” I responded with only one word, “Farmed’em” They look at each other and back at me to only burst out in laughter. There is only tough love in this group, you don’t get off easy about anything. That’s why I love fishing with these guys. The day ends with Stu top angler, again. Me, head tractor driver on the farm team, and Rick with another solid goose egg. Morale was still high though as we have 3 solid days of fishing left. And as we say, “It only takes one” and you’re back in the groove.
Dom and Wil rotated stretches so we were again with Wil back on the lower, which meant I was going to hear about how bad I sucked yesterday and how many fish I farmed. All solid confidence boosters. With the sun out most of the day and warmer temps it was a more than comfortable day to enjoy the river. It was Rick’s day. He busted out of the slump with 2 fish landed and another 2 hooked. I came in with a fish to hand but was another solid day of losing fish and Stu continued to ride the wave with 2 nice fish in the net. A solid day on the water with active fish, couldn’t ask for much more. After 4 hard days of fishing the only thing that hurt was my face from the continued smiling and laughing with Rick, Stu, Dom, Wil, Paul, B, Chris, and the other anglers we shared the lodge with.
On day 5 we were back to the upper with Paul. Paul has spent his entire guiding career on the Sustut, upwards of 30 years I believe. He knows every rock and wave it has to offer so burning up river in a high power jet boat with him is a hell of a lot of fun to say the least. With the rain subsiding for the most part of the last few days the water was in top form to do a bit of sight fishing in certain areas. If you have never had the pleasure of spotting 20+ pound fish and then site casting to it then you need to add it to your bucket list. On multiple occasions the Sustut has allowed me to do this and whether the fish just turns on the fly, chases, or eats it is a very cool experience to watch such a large fish reacting to the offering.
After another delicious lunch Paul took me to the start of a side channel with a large pile of logs pushed up on the head of the island. From atop the 15ft high pile we could look down into the tail out of a big deep slow run. The water was maybe 6-7 feet deep and we could see the bottom clearly. It was hard to see the fish holding in the tail out, slowly drifting back and forth in the current. We could see 6 fish, 2 of which were definitely larger than the rest. He stayed on the perch to direct my casts and clambered my way down to slip into the water above them. When sight fishing to steelhead on the swing it is not as simple as sight fishing a dry fly to a rising trout. You have to take into account how much time you need for the fly to sink and then the trajectory and speed of the swing. You are always best to come up short on the first cast because if your short and the fish is aggressive then the fish will move for it. I pulled about 40ft of line off the reel and made the first cast and waited. Paul hollered, “Your short” and then immediately followed up with “LEAVE IT!” A fish was on the move and tracking the fly through the swing. “Nope turned back” Paul said. So I pulled another 5 feet of line off the reel. As the fly plopped down Paul yelled “Your right in the middle of them, get ready! They are running into each other trying to get it!” I was on point waiting for the grab, because I couldn’t see anything at this point because I was waist deep 45 feet up stream from them. The fly was half way through the swing when I felt a light pull. Then all of a sudden as Paul is yelling at me while the line was getting ripped from the reel. I lifted the rod to set the hook, and felt the weight of a big head shake. The fish headed upstream towards me and the deeper water and then made a hard turn towards the opposite bank where the line suddenly went limp. I stopped reeling and started stripping but after 4 or 5 big hard strips still nothing.
The fish was gone so I reeled up to let the remaining fish resettle and we decided to walk back and get Stu and Rick to go to the opposite bank and show the fish a different angle of swing. As we walked up to the boat Stu looks at me and said “Sounds like your back in the fields farming up there.” No mercy. We hopped in the boat and quickly slide over to the opposite bank. Rick and Stu encouraged me to take the first shot. Okay maybe a little mercy. I waded out and pulled some line off the reel as I walked down the bank to look for the fish. On my first cast the line went tight. I set the hook and boom and very respectable 34-35” buck come leaping out of the air. This time I was able to keep it together and land the fish with the help of Paul. The day was made and everything else would be gravy the rest of the afternoon.
On our final day we were back on the middle stretch with Dom. The water was in good condition and we were all in a groove. I had one run on my mind for that day and wanted to get redemption at Amel’s. We worked a number of different runs throughout the morning with good success all around. We opted for lunch back on the porch of the lodge so we could enjoy some fresh baked cookies still warm out of the oven. After lunch Dom asked if we had a preference on where we fished. Normally we don’t give a hoot as we just enjoy being out there and know that every run has potential. But this time I asked if I could go get dropped in Amel’s. I wanted to fish the entire run top to bottom. They all looked at me and just laughed, and off we went.
Dom dropped me river right and took the others down river to fish elsewhere. I knew the fish were there it was only a matter of casts. As I methodically worked the run I took in my surroundings. Total silence and solitude is such a great feeling. It is also something that is getting harder and harder to come by in today’s world. After 20 minutes I was starting to think perhaps the fish weren’t so grabby today but I kept working. Cast. Swing. Step. The sound of the jet boat faintly appeared from far down stream, and as Dom came into sight downriver and motored up the opposite side of the river I felt a solid grab on the fly, then another, the line tightened so I lifted the rod. Dom killed the engine and gave a holler. Redemption! Unfortunately the fish had other ideas and the hook pulled loose…gone.
Dom yelled across the river “Switch flies and back up swing it again!” Disappointed I shook my head and just continued my routine down the run. He shrugged and started up the boat and slowly ferried across the river upstream of me. I watched over my shoulder as he grabbed his rod, “You mind if I fish to it?” he asked. I shook my head, “Heck no! Get him.” So he started swinging working his way down into where I had hooked the fish. I continued down the run below him. It didn’t take him too long to get his swing into about the same place and BOOM he came tight on a fish. As I watched back up stream giving him a fist pump and thumbs up, I could see his smile and pure joy on his face. Dom had just taught me a valuable lesson. Whether that was the same fish or not it once again proves that if it’s a taking fish then it doesn’t matter, it’s a taking fish. I was throwing 10ft of T-11 and a large heavy fly, Dom was throwing a classic wet fly on a very light tip. So we were fishing completely different levels in the water and completely different flies but that fish was in the mood and hammered them both. This is only one aspect of what makes steelhead so great, albeit unpredictable. The preparation, anticipation, and patience to get one steelhead one the fly is beyond worthwhile. The love and respect that I have gained for these amazing fish is deep rooted in me now and I thank mother earth for each one that makes the incredible journey from the river into the ocean and back again.
2015 on the Sustut was another amazing year spent with great friends, in a sacred piece of paradise. Even though I spent most of the trip blowing the opportunities I was given you can bet I’ll be back next year. For those interested in fishing British Columbia and the Sustut please contact us at Montana Angler for more information. There is a waiting list for prime dates but cancellations do happen.
Enjoy some more eye candy...