& photos by Ian Forbes
Columbia's Kispiox River has had a 50 year history of being home
for the largest steelhead in the world.
to that, only local residents knew of these exceptional fish. The
rest of the world became aware of the Kispiox steelhead when they
took all the top places in Field and Stream Magazine's Contest.
That started an annual fall migration of anglers to the whole Skeena
Columbia rivers such as the Babine, Sustut and Suskwa in the north,
the Thompson in the dry belt country, and the Salmon and Gold rivers
Island have had steelhead over 30 pounds. But, not in the numbers
produced by the Kispiox River. United States rivers like the Skagit
have also had a few monsters, including one measuring almost 48
inches in length. But, it is the Kispiox steelhead's tremendous
girth that is remarkable. In the 1960's, I saw a pair of 42 pound
steelhead laying on ice in
Prince Rupert. Their length was only 43 inches, similar to
Chinook salmon of the same weight. Both steelhead had been caught
on the same August day in one gill net set at the mouth of the Skeena
many 40 pound steelhead have been hooked and lost on the Kispiox
River. And, a few have possibly been caught and released by modern
anglers who have no need for personal glory. They truly value the
live wild steelhead. In 1963, the american, Karl Mausser killed
the official largest fly caught steelhead in the Kispiox. In those
days it was normal for most anglers to keep their limit of steelhead.
Since that time, most anglers, including Mr Mausser, have practiced
catch and release. Unfortunately, the commercial and native gill
nets haven't. Commercial fishing has devastated steelhead throughout
the Skeena System.
Although the numbers of steelhead have been drastically reduced
since the 1960's, a few still make it through the maze of nets to
reach the Kispiox's spawning waters. Unlike commercial fishermen,
anglers don't need a bunch of dead fish to make a successful day.
A few experiences with one of the Kispiox brutes is enough. By releasing
their fish, anglers can have their cake and eat it to. With a bit
of care, 95% of released steelhead survive their encounters with
anglers, and many are caught several times. When it was legal to
do so I kept two summer steelhead on tethers for up to two weeks
before releasing them. I subsequently caught those same two fish
later in the season and they both had spawned successfully.
many years, while she was running her steelhead camp on the banks
of the Kispiox River, Olga Walker kept an extensive journal of the
fishing, the weather and the river conditions. She sent her regular
customers an abbreviated copy each year. Her journal reads like
a who's who of steelhead fishing, and very few famous anglers aren't
mentioned somewhere. The journal is a valuable bit of history showing
the decline of a great river. But, it is also an invaluable aid
in showing the timing of the Kispiox's steelhead runs and the best
methods to catch these fish.
July, the Kispiox is still running murky with snow melt, but that
is the best time for summer run chinook salmon. These bright silver
fish average 25 to 30 pounds and will take a fly. But, lures are
far more successful. The river gradually clears throughout August
and September. Although a few steelhead start appearing in the Kispiox
in September (years ago they arrived in late August), October is
by far the most important month. Barring an early freeze up or rain
storm, November can have great fishing, but that month is notoriously
weather is the nemesis of the Kispiox. Any kind of heavy rain will
make the river un-fishable. A warm rain on an early snow turns the
river into chocolate soup. Unstable soils and extensive logging
adds to the problem.
Bulkley River steelhead, the Kispiox fish are not as responsive
to surface flies or lures. It's not that they can't be caught on
a dryfly; it's just that deep sunken flies are more effective. Black
or purple Wooly Buggers are as reliable as anything. The traditional
orange patterns are also good.
My first experience on the Kispiox was electrifying. I had walked
into a pool above the Sweetin River. I was float fishing with Jensen
eggs and I was using a level wind reel. On the second or third cast
my float went down and I struck into something solid. The fish slowly
circled the pool while ponderously shaking its head. Then it swam
downstream and around a bend in the river, completely emptying my
reel filled with 200 yards of line. Bankside trees prevented me
from following the fish and it broke off without me seeing it. I
reeled on another spool of line and continued fishing. Three casts
later my float went down again, and again I set the hook. This time
though the steelhead took off so quickly, and with so much strength
that my monofilament line buried itself next to the reel plate and
broke off. My only option was to cut all the line off the reel.
I had hooked two fish and lost two spools of line! I camped there
that night and returned to the same pool the next morning. My luck
improved and within a few casts I hooked the same fish from the
previous night. It turned out to be a thick 39 inch buck steelhead
with a broad pink stripe along its side.
roads follow most of the Kispiox River and its tributaries. Much
of the river can be drifted in a raft with little danger other than
a few sweepers. Boats are not used to fish out of, but are helpful
to access more water, and to follow runaway steelhead. There is
more than 60 kilometers of river, but don't attempt to drift more
that 10 kilometers per day and still expect to have time to fish.
Kispiox River continues to produce the largest steelhead in the
world and the new restrictive commercial fishing regulations could
be the rebirth of this great river.
Copyright Ian Forbes