The Sultans Of Swing
Trout & Salmon|February 2017

Hunting steelhead with the swung fly is, for many, the pinnacle of game-fishing. Have you got what it takes? asks Matt Harris.

Matt Harris

ONE BY ONE, the last vestiges of civilization fell away behind us, and after a while, we found ourselves flying over an endless wilderness of dense spruce and gleaming, bottle green rivers. The vast spires of British Columbia’s Coastal Range rose all around us, looming over the broad valleys, and we left the twenty-first century behind. The deep greens of the forest gave way to a monochromatic carpet of thick white snow, as Tom the pilot lifted the little helicopter up over the vast saddle that separates our desolate, wild little valley from the rest of the world. I was gazing up at the serried ramparts of the snowy crags all around, when Tom came crackling over the intercom.

“Bear.”

Below us, a huge grizzly foraged in the thick snow. On hearing the whirring blades of the chopper overhead, the creature panicked, scattering snow and snapping saplings like match sticks until it was lost from view in the thick brush. Slowly the white blanket receded as we dropped altitude into the valley, and we glimpsed smoke curling up from the tiny camp, nestled among a grove of spruce and cottonwood trees perched high above the river.

Anglers are drawn to streams like this from all around the globe, not only to experience the savage beauty of the Pacific Northwest, but to attempt to catch the iconic fish that run these remote watercourses.

Steelhead.

Sea-run rainbow trout.

Heroic fish.

These extraordinary creatures run out of the mighty rivers that cascade down from the soaring peaks of British Columbia. They then somehow navigate the wild waters of the North Pacific Ocean to seek out their feeding grounds, before – perhaps even more remarkably – returning to the brawling streams of their birthplace. There are any number of steelhead rivers criss-crossing the Pacific seaboard, from Northern California to Alaska, and it’s easy to make bad decisions on where to go. However, I’m lucky to be friends with a few people who really know where to get the best from this vast watershed. Nick Zoll understands steelhead like few others and when he recommends a fishery, it is worth listening.

The river we had chosen to fish – on Nick’s advice – was truly special.

Special because it was utterly remote. A place where – apart from occasional grizzly bears, bald and golden eagles, moose and maybe even a wolf – I knew that I would see not a living soul but the camp cook, my two fellow anglers and our two excellent guides for the entire week.

Special because it was intimate – a river that could be covered with a 12 ft seven weight, a rod that really allowed the steelhead to show off what they can do.

Special because it was stunningly beautiful – a twisting, crystalline stream that weaved through the cottonwoods and that was small enough to read properly and even to sight-fish.

And most of all, special because it offered a chance – just a chance – of catching beautiful, crimson-flanked steelhead.

Be warned. Steelheading is tough. You’ve probably heard the old cliché that steelhead are the fish of a thousand casts. Believe me, they can be. I’ve endured trips when I would have given my eye-teeth for a fish every thousand casts. However, sometimes – just sometimes – everything comes together, and rare, rare days of four, five or even six fish are possible.

This week had been such a week.

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