When I graduated college a couple years back, my Dad told me he'd take me anywhere I wanted to go in the world as a gift. I looked at him and said I wanted to go steelhead fishing in British Columbia more than anything. We’re both fairly busy, so it took a few years, but we finally made it happen this year. And it was a great year for it too, because my Dad turned sixty in June. I’ll always remember the trip as celebration for both occasions.
I flew to Helena to meet up with my Dad on September 7th, and we began the twenty-hour trek north the next morning. Half way through our drive was Banff National Park, which is the most incredible natural environment I’ve ever witnessed. The drive from Banff to Jasper lasts just over three hours and it shocks every part of your senses. Each turn of the wheel leads you on a journey through ravines, valleys, plateaus, lookouts, mountain lakes and glacier fields. Each turn you’re entering a place more fantastic and awe inspiring than the place you just passed. And it lasts this way for three life-changing hours.
We left the rugged snow-capped peaks of Banff for what seemed like an eternal journey through the Fraser Valley, past Prince George all the forests that surround it. As we approached Houston, I started twitching with anticipation. The Bulkley River in Smithers was the main target of our exploratory trip. No guides, no lodges, just a handful of rods and about a couple hundred too many steelhead flies was what we packed for the trip. In the months leading up to the trip, I scoured maps, asked all the questions I could of friends who had been there, poured over the right rods, the right lines, etc. But all that was over now, hidden under a thick vale of memory. All that was left was pure anticipation, tired eyes, and the drive that sustains any steelhead fisherman who pursues these fish on the swung fly.
That last day before we arrived in Smithers, the area got its first big shot of fall rain and the river was coming us as we walked the cobble banks the next morning. I wasn’t paying enough attention, so I started off with a dry fly on my 7130 X rod. For some reason I had this thought in my mind that these fish were so damn aggressive that the conditions were somehow beyond them. I fished a couple runs and my Dad began behind me slowly, and with dedication. He fished with his go-to steelhead fly, a black Dirk Wiggler. Except these Dirks were special, I had my friend Jon Hazlett tie us a couple just for this trip. He proceeded to pick my pocket twice with that fly in the first two runs.
The first fish was on the smaller side and reminded me of a lot of the steelhead we often see on my home-water, the Rogue River. But it was my father’s first wild steelhead on the swung fly and for that he was enthusiastic as ever. The second fish he hooked was really a thing to behold. I was noticing the clouds moving and the mountains and suddenly this massive fish just comes lunging from the water. First it jumped broad side toward the main current and then again, toward the bank. It thrashed and lunged out of the water maybe five or six times. He fought the fish well, putting a deep bend in the rod; it was a fight my Dad would go on to win. As I was tailing the second fish for him, I looked down at the beast in my hands to find it to be one the finest steelhead I’ve ever seen my life. This was fish he and I will never forget. And it came to hand within two hours on the first morning of trip.
After that, my Dad was in steelhead paradise. He was talking about a buying a house up north and a boat and making the trip every chance he could get. Even though it was sure a pleasure to tail my Dad’s first two wild fish that morning, more than anything I was filled with a drive to pursue my first British Columbia steelhead.
In the afternoon we met up with my friend Steve Francis who has been fishing the Bulkley and British Columbia for many years. Steve was gracious to do something that few others take the time for: he showed us how to access and fish some of his favorite water. For that I will always be grateful. Before making my first full pass through the first run he put us on, I felt a slight ticking on the end of my line like my fly or sink tip had brushed up against a rock. But as the ticking turned into a solid pull on the reel I knew it was a fish. The fish ran into the backing a couple times and fought further than most of the fish I encounter in Oregon. He just didn’t want to give up, again and again going on runs that bent the 7130 X deep into the cork, something I don’t experience much on my home rivers. But after an exhausting fight, I lifted the rod, pulled out some slack from the reel, and then grabbed the line and his tail simultaneously. He was large and colorful and felt was just everything I imagined a wild British Columbia summer steelhead to be. In other words, he was flawless.
After that first morning, we worked hard for the fish we hooked. And we didn’t always land the ones we did manage to hook. I had one brief encounter with a beast on the main Skeena on the last day of the trip, but that will remain a story to be told a different day.
Soon after I came home I was talking to a good friend who was in the same area during that same timeframe. He told me that he started going to BC ten or twelve years ago. This year was the best fishing conditions he’d ever seen. But even after those tough years, with poor conditions and poor fishing, he still felt compelled to return to the area. So much so that he said he had to rearrange his life to be there as much as he possibly could. While I’m a bit shy of that, I’ll still take the first chance I get to go back. The area filled me for an appreciation for the immense wild steelhead resource, the vast watershed and the people who care for it and depend on it.
Now it’s just a memory, but three weeks ago British Columbia was right the in front me. It was snow capped peaks, cold hands, and a heart that pounded with exhilaration in between our brief encounters with truly wild summer steelhead. I will always be grateful for this trip, for the lessons it taught me about the fish and the area that surrounds them. I am also grateful for the good friends that tied flies, helped with information, showed me runs and put me onto fish. More than anything though, I am grateful for the time spent with my father, slipping on slick cobble banks, sipping cheap beers at night and telling stories on the long commute to steelhead paradise. Although I plan to travel and fish quite a bit throughout the west, I will always consider this to be the trip of my lifetime.
Marcus Mattioli is an outdoor and landscape photographer and avid steelhead fly fisherman based in Ashland, Oregon. Growing up in Montana, he always had a vision of himself living on the West Coast and chasing steelhead. Now he manages the Ashland Fly Shop and exclusively swings flies for steelhead throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California.