Brody and I stand shoulder to shoulder at the edge of the road, peering down into the chasm before us. We lean forward, the gravel crunching nervously below our wading boots, as if a few more inches of perspective would reveal a glimpse of an emerald pool. We guess the river to be four or five hundred feet below at the bottom of the canyon, hidden amongst the giant old growth cedar and spruce who’s tops reach up and out of the canyon depths. The faint rush of the river is there, blended in with the sounds of the wilderness.
Brody kicks a softball-sized rock off the cliff edge. We watch as it tumbles down and ricochets off boulders and blowdown before finally disappearing into the underbrush. The harsh clacking of the stone sends warning signs throughout the canyon and the song birds and chattering squirrels fall silent. Only the soft, distant rhythm of the river remains.
It’s going to be one hell of a tough scramble down to the bottom of that canyon, I say out loud. And it’s going to be a lot worse climbing back out. But that’s where the fish are. That’s always where the fish are. Large, bright summer runs that have ascended from saltwater in the aftermath of the last torrential rains. The forest still drips with the remnants of the storm.
We pull our gear from the truck and slip carefully over the edge of the road, kicking blast rock and loose dirt before us. Wandering off the tendrils of penetrating roads to thread new trails through ancient river valleys. We descend into the wildness and allow the forest to swallow us whole.
The trip down is laden with debris, false trails, and dangerous footings. It takes a long time to reach the bottom. We are panting, sweaty, and dirty. But the river is there. It’s emerald waters cool our feet and clean our hands as we scoop cold, refreshing gulps into our mouths. The drips run off my beard, course down my neck and disappear under my shirt to mingle with the sweat already streaming down my chest. I absorb the river just as the drops of my sweat are lost in its currents, carried away downstream. If I am lucky I will begin to learn from it’s rhythms.
We take a moment to cool ourselves down and admire the beauty of the canyon. A fortress of towering bedrock that has surrendered to the timeless endurance and relentless power of moving water. That such a seemingly gentle rush of emerald energy could be capable of bending the will of mountains is not lost on our admirations.
Our breath steadies after a while, and Brody is the first to wander upstream. A frothing cascade of water erupts from the canyon ledge-rock and creates a long, slick pool. Brody negotiates the steep walls of the canyon and clambers to a ledge at the head of the pool. He assembles his rod and ties on a large, bushy dry fly.
With the practiced experience that comes from countless days spent learning on the water he calculates a sufficient distance of line and lets loose a cast. His line sails through the air, carrying the fly to land near the opposite bank. A subtle flick of the rod mends a loop of line upstream. An almost imperceptible lean of his torso towards the fly, a subtle hunch and tightening of his shoulders.
Brody’s eyes follow the fly as it swings downstream and across the pool. It’s wake dancing a seductive path across the surface, an enticing stranger in an otherwise monotonous current.
I can sense Brody’s anticipation heighten as the fly passes over the middle of the run, near a large submerged boulder where steelhead are likely to hold. My breath stalls in my throat and time pauses for a moment. But the spell is eventually broken and the fly continues to swing, unmolested.
First casts promise as much as the thousandth. Each swing of the fly provides an opportunity to reach beyond our tangible limits and probe the depths of a mysterious world that will forever remain foreign. I watch Brody for a few more minutes before my own desires overcome me. I whistle to him and wave, indicating that I’ll wander to another pool downstream and leave him to his speculations.
I fish my way downriver, pausing here and there to admire deep runs and shadowy lies that have produced fish in previous excursions. The river is in beautiful shape today, allowing for somewhat easy hiking along the contours of the canyon. At one point I hear Brody hoot upstream, a sure sign that he has connected with a fish. I debate hurrying back upstream to help him, but finally decide to let him enjoy the moment on his own.
There is a pool at the tail end of the canyon section that has been a dependable friend over the years, and I find myself fishing quickly through the runs above it. The afternoon is waning and I want to ensure I leave ample time to fish it thoroughly. The eventual climb back out of the canyon demands we leave before too long.
In my haste I miss a solid fish that charges my fly just as I’m picking it up to make another cast. I curse at myself because I know better. I should give the fly a second or two after it finishes it’s swing in hopes a follower finally commits to the take. I try a few more casts but the fish has grown sullen and refuses to move again.
I force myself to slow down as I enter the head of the lower pool. The light is growing weaker and I decide to change flies. I pull a well-chewed favourite from my box of flies and hold it up to my nose, sniffing it’s hairy materials and enjoying the faint scent of fish lips and former glories. Tying on a new fly only adds to the anticipation of fishing the final pool of the day. I can’t help but smile as i test the knot and drop it into the current.
Another distant whoop comes from upriver. Brody is into another one. The kid is a fast learner.
It takes five or six casts to work into the meat of the run. My shoulders are tight and nagging with stiffness. I try and relax as the cast settles the fly, massaging the back of my neck with my left hand. I close my eyes and take a slow, determined breath when the sound of water sloshing turns my reflexes on. I instinctively pull back with my arm and open my eyes just in time to see the water boil and my fly pop back up to the surface.
Experience takes over and I twitch the fly once, then twice as it continues it’s journey. It wakes across the surface and comes to a rest below me near the bank. I force myself to leave it there, an eternity of anticipation. Finally satisfied that the fish has returned to it’s lie I re-cast my fly and focus my attention on the minutia of it’s journey.
The next cast after a short strike offers sweet elixir. The overwhelming predictability of what almost certainly comes next.
Sure enough, the fly swings over the emerald water and this time I see the steelhead materialize from the depths to engulf it. The fish erupts on the fly, determined not to miss it a second time. It’s momentum carries the broad length of it’s flank across the surface. There’s no mistaking that it’s a sizeable fish.
In an explosion of whitewater the fish is gone and my line is racing towards the tail-out. It breaks water again and again in a frantic attempt to loose the fly from it’s jaw. After a few tense moments the big buck settles into the depths of the run and powers against the pull of the rod with deep, determined shakes of it’s head. I am literally shaking with adrenaline and excitement.
I’m in a bad spot for landing a fish, so I wade carefully downstream. The fish senses my movement towards it and powers upriver and past me towards the head of the run. The big bucks have a tendency to do that.
I swivel to face the fish again and see Brody materialize from upriver. I let out a whoop and pull back further on the rod for effect. I’m already visualizing a wonderful photo with the big, chrome summer run when the line suddenly goes slack.
Deflated, I hang my head in mourning before reeling in the line and inspecting the hook. It’s perfect. Not straightened out, twisted, or broken.
Brody arrives to console me. I relate what happened and offer the pool to him as I wade out of the water and sit down to reflect on the experience. At first he refuses the offer, but after some gentle prodding he strips off his line and begins to fish through the remainder of the pool.
He hooks a fish on his third cast. A beautiful doe that smashes his dry fly and tail walks throughout the entirety of the run. I enjoy watching the spectacular fight and help him bring the fish to hand, marvelling at her translucent fins and blue-chrome shoulders. Brody is all smiles as he gently releases the fish.
Brody insists that I fish the pool one more time before we leave. I make a few dozen casts but the run goes quiet. With daylight fading I reel in my line, shrug my shoulders and follow Brody upriver on our journey back to the truck.
During the hour march back up and out of the canyon I am purposefully grateful of the fact that Vancouver Island offers a wonderfully rare oasis in the dunes of steelhead angling. She holds secrets within her canyon rivers, and some of the world’s best fly fishing for those with the desire to challenge her remote and untamed depths.
For those in the know, we seek out the Island’s coveted mysteries every season. And despite our best efforts, her steelhead remain fickle lovers after all.
– Captain Josh Temple