First Encounters – A Steelhead Story

Chasing wild steelhead has always been on my bucket list, but to be honest I was intimidated and thought of it as more of a pipe dream. When I found myself working in Northern British Columbia during the summer of 2019, my dream of catching a wild steelhead suddenly seemed more attainable. I had been transplanted into a foreign watershed where the possibilities seemed endless, yet difficult and I felt totally out of my element. I knew that this opportunity had happened for a reason. I committed to picking up a spey rod and slowly began learning about the elusive anadromous fish that inhabit the streams of northern British Columbia.


Originally from Calgary, I didn’t grow up fly fishing. My family dabbled in spin fishing when I was a kid, usually a past time on backcountry camping trips, but nothing as serious as my passion for fly fishing is today. It wasn’t until I met my now fiancé, that I picked up my first beginner fly fishing set up and committed to learning the totally new style of fishing to me. I remember when we first met, I used to sit on the bank and watch Garrett fish, eventually becoming bored and asking him to teach me. I’m forever thankful for his patience and desire to teach, as we both grew more and more obsessed with the sport and fish, which have now become a part of both our careers. Fast forward to today, he works as a fly fishing guide on the Bow River and me as an aquatic biologist.

In the fall of 2019, Garrett and I both committed to a steelhead trip. I was already working in the area and it only made sense to spend my days off searching for a wild steelhead right? We rolled up with a rooftop tent, which I’ll admit was nowhere near as luxurious as our good friends and mentors Colin and Allison in their wall tent. With new spey rods in hand and the desire to figure out what the hype was all about, we started on this new adventure. Sure enough, on Garrett’s first day he hooked and landed his first steelhead. Boom! Just like that, he was on the board. I spent the next 9 days without a single bump, and then finally catching what was likely a “morice fish” aka a small steelhead or possibly resident rainbow. To me, it was a success, but it wasn’t the encounter I was hoping for or expecting. I learned a lot on that first trip. The emotional ups and downs, trying to remain confident and persevering because you’ve been told, “Steelhead aren’t hard to catch, they’re hard to find”. I was hungry for more and after seeing Garrett fight and land a beautiful 36” buck on the last day of our trip, I knew this had just become an annual trip for us.

Just like the steelhead run up the river every year, we found ourselves running back to the Bulkley Valley this past fall for another shot at a wild steelhead; this time with a few newly acquired adventure tools. With a jet boat in tow, a wall tent, and hopefully improved casting skills from a winter spent practicing on the Bow River, we were ready for round 2.

Our anticipation and excitement were somewhat tempered with a slow start for the first few days. There was a lot of talk around “steelhead camp” as we call it, about how low the fish count was and “where have all the steelhead gone?” At steelhead camp we’re the new ones, fishing amongst unknown legends, some of which have been fishing the river for 20+ years. The conversations around the fire quickly become my favorite part about this newly discovered annual adventure. Everyone comes from a different place with a different background and a story, or two, to tell. Ultimately we’re all there for the same reason, hoping to encounter a wild steelhead and share those moments with new and old friends alike.

The morning I caught my first real-deal steelhead started the same as every other morning at steelhead camp. The alarm went off at 6 am, we threw another log in the wood-burning stove, made some coffee, and wadered up; our dog Horto raring to go as usual. We walked to the jet boat through a thick layer of fog, which usually covered the river valley each morning. We were barely awake, but optimistic for another day and another opportunity at a steelhead. We ripped down the river, all of the sudden wide awake with the cold blast of wind in our faces. We parked at a run that had been productive that past few days. After talking to Garrett we agreed that Id take the top of the run and he’d work the tail out.

It was early and we had a shot at catching fish on the dry. We both walked to our respective spots and started skating small bomber like patterns across the water. After about 45 minutes as I was nearing the boat, I thought to myself, darn, another run with nothing. I made another cast and halfway through the swing, a boil…or was it a boil? I had never risen a steelhead on a dry fly, so at this point, I wasn’t even sure. I took two steps up and cast again, hoping the fish would give me a second chance. Sure enough, it did… but no solid hook up. Everything went quiet. Meanwhile, I was freaking out inside, internally screaming HOLY SH!#, was that a steelhead? I cast one more time.. nothing.

I decided to finish off the run, making my way to the boat and grabbing my other rod. I yelled to Garrett “I think I had a fish boil for my dry”, he yelled back “well you better get up there and try another fly or throw a tip”. You don’t leave fish to find fish, right? I walked back up to my landmark on the bank and decide to throw a small black and blue streamer. I made one cast and as my line straightened out, halfway through the swing, boom, it happened. Hookset and off the fish went, screeching my reel into the backing in what felt like seconds. I yelled out to Garrett “I got one!…And I’m scared”, he’s shouted back “you’ve got it, hang on!”. As promised by those who fish for steelhead, the fight did not disappoint. My bicep felt like it was going to explode at one point; Garrett began stalking the fish with the net. Suddenly the fish took another fast and powerful run, pushing my limits and making me doubt if I would be able to land it. Eventually, the fish came closer to shore, giving Garrett a better shot at getting it in the net. At this point, I was praying he would get the fish in the net and I’m sure he was thinking just the same.

My first steelhead. Photo: Garrett Wilson.

Garrett got closer to the fish, making one quick scoop, and it was done. My first big wild steelhead was in the net and I felt so full of emotion that I could have cried. A quick moment with the fish and I released it on its way, being sure to keep that beautiful giant in the water and revived quickly. Garrett and I shared a high five as he congratulated me on my fish. I was beyond happy. We walked back to the boat, shared a celebratory sip of rum, and headed on our way to the next run.

My second fish, a nice hen (female). Photo: Colin Kish.

PS, the remainder of the trip was amazing and I managed to land one more beautiful hen (above) and lost 5 other large fish. We also had a close encounter with a grizzly bear…a story for another time :).

Story and photos from Kate Targett, an aquatic biologist, angler, and skier based in British Columbia. Follow along with her adventures at @ktargett. Cover photo from Garrett Wilson.

Understanding Steelhead and How to Fly Fish For Them [An Angler’s Guide]

Behind the Fish: Steelhead/Salmon Biology with Scientist John McMillan

12 Year Old Catches Wild Steelhead on Spey Rod

 

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