Fly & Field presents...
THE SUPERSTAR OF STEELHEAD STREAMS
by Dave Whitlock
The steelhead of the Babine River are the world's most magnificent trout. They are second to none in size, beauty and power. The water of the Babine cuts through 45 miles (70 km) of incredible splendor of British Columbia's scenery on its journey from Babine Lake to the Skeena River at Hazelton and then on to the Pacific Ocean. Time and environment have left a rich legacy of trout and salmon fishing through the Pacific, Skeena and Babine systems.
I had dreamed of fishing the Babine since I first caught a wild summer-run steelhead on a fly and the read Joe Brooks' article in an issue of Outdoor Life titled "Heaven is a Steelhead". My fantasy could only be realized by taking a trip to the river that Brooks wrote of, the Babine. But even in my fantasy there was no clue that this river and its riches would be powerful enough to change the character and quality of my life and work.
I am compelled to write of the Babine, though I do not usually write where-to go articles in these times of overcrowding and exploitation of our wildlife habitats. The Babine represents a unique example of British Columbia's natural resources. Its story must be told since it is perhaps the most dramatic example of what we have and what we may lose as man progresses down the expressway of civilization.
My Babine fantasy began with a phone call from my friend Len Bearden in Los Gatos, California. Len asked me if I would like to accompany him and a group of steelheaders that he and Bob Nauheim had organized for a prime-time late-September trip to the Babine. I could hardly believe my ears and, though I said yes, I was still in doubt as our jet left Vancouver for Smithers, British Columbia, five months later on the last leg of my trip from Arkansas.
The weather reflected my anxiety as we touched down at Smithers in a gusty, chilling, sleet shower. The snowcapped Canadian Rockies encircling Smithers were completely shrouded in a gray afternoon overcast. That afternoon, eight anglers loaded with bags and equipment piled into a motel for a short overnight layover before traveling down to the Babine. Our final destination would be the rustic Babine River Steelhead Resort.
At the motel I sensed a common anxiety in everyone, including Len, who was a four-trip veteran of the Babine. What I know about the Babine makes me surprised that Len wasn't even more agitated than the seven novices, for no angler's imagination can be so keen as to envision what the Babine had in store for us over the next seven days. Dinner and a little restless sleep climaxed the long day. At 4:30 AM we were awake and piling our gear into a taxi and pickup for the rough 80-mile (128 km) journey to the outlet of the Nilkitkwa-Babine lakes, where the Babine River is born full size. The trip was rough, dusty, muddy, cold and done completely without coffee or breakfast. My visions of great Babine steelhead were almost lost during the pre-dawn drive.
Just after sunup we arrived at the federal fishery weir, where the Babine is born. Bob Wickwire and his son Jud were waiting for us with two long, handmade riverboats equipped with 50 horsepower jet outboards. It was still overcast and cold, but the sight of the river boiling below the weir, with dark-crimson salmon leaping out of the white water, got me back on the track in a hurry. In minutes, we were in the riverboats and zooming down river into a cathedral-like corridor of arching cottonwoods and fir trees. The river flexed, heaved and forced itself between, over, through and around a treacherous course of giant fallen trees, car-sized boulders, cliffs, deep pools and whitewater rapids. We skimmed downriver for seven miles (11km), powered by the jet motors and the furious thrust of the river. As the shore whizzed by, I looked up and saw bald eagles soaring overhead, snowcapped mountains rising beyond the tall trees and large dark forms of great fish darting away from the boats. The water was clear and looked like wet gravel.
Finally, we saw a ribbon of blue smoke rising against the dark trees just around a long bend. The smoke came from the wood-fuel cooking stoves at the camp. We soon beached the boats in front of a neat row of log cabins just a few feet from the river's edge.
After unpacking, we all clambered into the camp kitchen and began to unwind. Bob's wife Jerri and Zoka Zuidema served mugs of hot black coffee and a breakfast of eggs, freshly baked bread and lean smoke-cured bacon. The sounds and smells of the kitchen were as reassuring as those of home.
After breakfast, Bob spoke briefly about the fishing. We then put on waders, readied our tackle, got back in the boats and shoved off for the runs and pools downstream. In minutes, Len and I were wading into the Recker Hole. I took the run and Len dropped down to the lower section of the 150 yard-long (140 metre) hole. The water was strong, deep and hard to read.
People who fish the Babine will tell you it's best to use a nine or 10-weight rod, a fast shooting head or leadcore fly line and a four to six foot leader (1.5 to 2 metres). The great rainbows of the Babine, which are actually summer fish, average 13 pounds (6 kg). They hold hard and deep, and are best attracted to a winter-style weighted steelhead fly. Even though the water was low, the river's flow pulled hard against our tackle.
Len missed a fish, but another nailed his Two Egg Sperm Fly on the next pass. It rose out of the pool's tail twice before I could get the scene into my camera's lens. The fish's first runs roostertailed the wake of Len's line as it zipped up and down the pool. Her jumps were vaults, high and long, and she re-entered the water with the great balance and composure of a professional diving star.
Eventually, Len beached the leg-long silver, green and pink creature in the shallows. But, before I had snapped its picture he let her slip back into the river, where she righted and bolted out of sight. All he said was, "maybe 12 pounds" but she looked 16 pounds to me. Len insisted I pass my fly over the hotspot before they quit "grabbing." Before the "grab" was over Len hooked another large steelhead, which broke off, and a big hooked jawed peach and pink male coho from that pool's tail. During the activity I hooked a bright 10-pound male that self-released as I worked him toward the gravel bar below the pool's tail.
That afternoon was like a three-ring circus with Len's steelhead, coho salmon and Dolly Varden battles, bald eagles gliding up and down the river, our boat runs to other pools and the fantastic golden sunset that plated the river's surface with golds, yellows, oranges and purples. The aspen, birch and cottonwoods glowed against the dark background of black-green spruce and fir stands.
What a great start! Almost everyone toasted his success at dinner that evening. Tom Wahl of Menlo Park, California, had the best Babine initiation. His first Babine steelhead was a giant of 25 or 30 pounds (11-13.5 kg) that he had on for more than an hour before the fish won. However, Tom caught and released bright 15 pound (7 kg) and a17 pound (8 kg) hen fish. He was using a No.4 Silver Hilton. Both fish had full, long bodies with bullet shaped heads and unusually wide tails.
"They were the most beautiful fish I'd ever seen----- pure classics," Tom said. He was aglow with delight.
Each day of our week was a beautiful, unique experience. The fish weren't as easy to catch as they were on the first day, but no one complained. Each cast was pure adventure. Even one strike a day was more reward than one needed to savor the Babine. Leg-long steelhead would roll, or leap clear of the water, or just glide by me no more than a rod's length away. We fished from daylight to sundown each day, stopping long enough for hot coffee, delicious homemade lunches of rich, thick, hot soup and heavy sandwiches, and fast boat runs to new waters. The weather was a constant spectrum of changing skies and temperatures. We saw only a few other anglers from Norlakes Lodge.
The more time I spent with the river the more I began to see and feel its wonder. the Babine's power and richness were obvious, but the incredible cycles of wildlife that swam its flows or passed over and along its course were amazing. The great steelhead and salmon runs, and the resident whitefish, rainbows and Dollies filled the water with life. We saw grizzlies at daybreak feeding on fresh salmon. Mink and beaver worked the river's edges and massive-antlered black moose and stately deer crossed the river daily. So much beauty surrounded me that it is impossible to describe. One day I took just my camera and walked along the river, looking, touching, smelling, listening and tasting a grand experience.
The steelhead make the Babine priceless because they belong to a unique strain of giant rainbow trout found only in the Skeena River system. Bob and Len talked to me about the Babine's fish each day, and before light out each night I read the biological stories and studies about these wonderful fish. Each fact I learned about them added to my belief that they are the greatest wild treasures that swims anywhere.
The adult Babine steelhead begin their 270-mile (435 km) spawning run up the Skeena River from the ocean in late July. Before they find the Babine's mouth they must avoid or escape gill nets, traps and fishermen harvesting the millions of sockeye salmon, trout and char that also use the river's system. As of 1988, steelhead are classified as a species of Pacific Salmon (Oncorhynchus mykiss) whose life cycle involves being born in freshwater streams that eventually go to the Pacific Coast. After two or more years of living in fresh water, the steelhead migrate to the Pacific. There they adapt to the salt water, traveling sometimes thousands of miles from their parental watersheds. It may be from two to five years before they almost mysteriously cycle back to find their stream and return to their exact birthplaces.
The steelhead enter the fresh water of the Skeena River system in late summer, hold there through fall and winter, and then spawn in the spring. Unlike other Pacific salmon, some steelhead survive spawning, go back to the ocean and make one or more spawning cycles.
I was shocked to learn that the best estimates of the Babine's annual spawning run were a mere 1,200 to 2,400 steelhead. These studies also revealed that the largest fish, the 20 to 40 pounders (9-18 kg), are not repeat spawners. The average fish in a run weighs 12 to 16 pounds (5-7 kg), is five years old and has a life cycle of three years in fresh water and two years in salt water. The largest steelhead are always first-run males. The stream residency, not the sea residency, is the most significant factor in producing the Babine's giant steelhead. The longer a fish stays in fresh water and grows, the better it can use the sea's much richer habitat to super accelerate its growth.
Studies have shown that the only spawners that return to the Babine a second time are females. Their second run size seldom exceeds 20 pounds (9 kg), which is just a little bigger that their initial spawning run size. Less than three percent of each year's runs repeat the journey back to the Babine.
Most of the Babine's runs arrive in the six or eight miles (10-13 km) of the upper river's pools by late October or early November, where they hold over with very little movement until February. In February, they begin to move over the weir into the narrow, shallow, clean gravel channels of the Nilkitkwa-Babine Lake flowage and its tributaries. There they pair, mate and spawn in May. Tired and weakened, they begin their often fatal return to the sea.
Compared with all other salmonids sharing the Babine system, the steelhead are the extreme minority. Tens of thousands to millions of the other Pacific salmon as well as Dollies, resident rainbows and whitefish use the river, lake and special man-made spawning channels at Fulton River and Pinket Creek on Babine Lake. The men who know this system best are deeply concerned about the steelhead's fate as these other gamefish populations are managed for greater and greater numbers for commercial fishery harvests. My own research in salmonid species interaction verifies their concern. The other Pacific salmon, from egg to maturity, is a faster growing and more hardy and aggressive fish than the steelhead. The ratio of other salmon to steelhead fry sharing the river must be at least 1,000 to 1. The Babine's steelhead niche is a very fragile and vulnerable one.
Bus Bergman, one of the Babine's most knowledgeable guides and fly fishermen, believes that the altering of the fish population poses great threats to steelhead in the river. The threats involve more intense competition for nesting areas, lessening of food and space for steelhead fry and smolt living there, predation of newly hatched steelhead by young salmon, casual catches during the trout season, commercial fishing, netting and trapping of migrating fish and overcrowding and fighting for safe holding areas in the upper river during the peak of the salmon runs. It is the other salmon that enrich the river and the balance has always been set by nature. But by increasing their numbers and changing the harvesting methods man could seriously disturb those natural forces.
Then there are the rod and reel anglers who overfish the limited number of steelhead that represent the last and most important stage of the fishes' life cycle. This could well mean total disaster for these great fish.
Realizing this delicate balance, Bus and other concerned people and organizations have encouraged the British Columbia Fishery department to study the problem and adopt a sound management program that would protect the future of the Babine steelhead.
The fishery department's study reinforced the belief that the Babine's steelhead population is extremely fragile and cannot withstand much tampering. Angling regulations designed to protect the fish during the pre-spawn period were imposed. Before 1970 the creel limit was nine fish per day. It was reduced from nine to three fish a day in 1970. In 1974 the limit was reduced from three to one fish per day. Finally, in 1977, the river was granted a trophy-fish status and only one steelhead per season per angler was allowed. Bait was banned and anglers were restricted to single-hook artificial lures. Today, no wild steelhead may be kept on the Skeena River system.
Bus believed that even one fish per angler per season was too liberal since this encourages the removal of only trophy-size fish. This selective cropping of the prize specimens could genetically reduce the average size of Babine steelhead. Traditionally, the unusually large steelhead of the system have dominated the fly and open divisions of various fishing contests. In the past, many hundreds of these fish have been killed by anglers vying for awards and honor badges. Twenty-pound (9 kg) and larger steelhead are common catches on spin, bait and fly tackle during the season's peak.
The whole philosophy of the restrictions on the Babine is to insure that these unusual treasures will not be lost. They could never be replaced by stocking from inferior alien strains. And, the philosophy works when it's practiced by sportsmen and women such as those I fished with during my week at the Babine and those that have followed. Here are anglers using the river to derive the greatest of angling experiences and pleasures, yet treating each fish as if it was the last one alive. These are the real heroes, not the contest winners.
I was also amazed to learn that Babine steelhead are highly recyclable. One study showed that 16 percent of the fish caught and tagged were caught one to three more times within 23 days after release. Sometimes they were caught on the same day in the same spot. The fishing recapture data showed that 18.5 percent of the fishery is made up of steelhead caught more than once.
Such data proves that catch and release of wild salmonids is useful in stretching or recycling this resource. Catch and release extends the possibilities of economic wild-fish management and natural reproduction.
What has happened due to a handful of sportsmen, open-minded fisheries biologists and managers of British Columbia fisheries is an historic example of what can be done to preserve salmonid populations throughout the world. At the time we were fishing the Babine, records showed that thus far that season only six fish out of more than 300 catches had been killed. It is easy to see how the trophy-fish regulations have helped to protect the steelhead.
Bob told me that the steelhead season begins in late August with the first arrivals from the Pacific, it doesn't peak until cool weather of late September restricts the milky glacial runoff of the Nilkitkwa tributary. The Babine clears and falls at that time. Fly fishing is best from September to the first week of October. When the water cools in mid-October the best way to catch the steelhead is with hardware and spinning tackle. Hardware is the best tackle to use through late October, too.
Fishing lodges on the Babine are reasonably priced and offer far greater insurance of safety and steelhead success than a do-it-yourself trip. Persons working at the lodges know the river well and do everything they can to conserve the fishery while providing you with every opportunity to enjoy your fishing. Unless you are an accomplished river jetboater, don't try going down the Babine by yourself. If you do, it might well end up being your personal river of no return.
Anglers should take along waders that a chest high, well insulated ( or 5 mm neoprene) and have felt or metal cleated shoes. A nine weight or larger graphite rod and a good single action reel loaded with lots of backing are a must on the Babine. The most practical fly lines are weight forward, shooting-head or leadcore-lines. Split-shot on the leader will help you bounce your flies along the bottoms of the deep runs where most Babine steelhead lie.
The flies that worked best for us were size 1/0 to 6 weighted winter-style patterns such as the Two-Egg Sperm Fly, Babine Special, Silver Hilton, Casual Dress, McCloud Ugly, Dark Montreal, Burlap and Skunk. Take plenty of each because bottom bouncing and big fish wear your supply down rapidly.
On my last morning on the Babine, I waded out into Hot Shot's lower run, I had yet to land a really big steelhead. After a week's wading and casting however, my legs, back and casting arm were keenly conditioned and timed so that my casts were long and effortless. I was fishing well and sensed that something was about to happen. Len had predicted it could happen at Hot Shot if anywhere.
I cast my Two-Egg Sperm Fly about 100 feet (80 m) above the pool's tail. The fly drifted slowly to the end of the current's pull and was starting to swing across the pool when it stopped suddenly. As I tried to raise my fly rod, the tip whipped downward violently. There was a distinct hissing sound as the last coil of line shot tightly through the stripping guide and the reel started a high-pitch howl. A great wake rose up at the lip of the pool and an incredibly massive trout suddenly shot sky-ward. It jumped three times, glistening droplets flying in every direction, before it grey-hounded over the pool's tail and into the white water below. Then only the sound of a gull's squeaky call could be heard. I reeled in slowly and picked my way to shore, where Bob and Len were waiting to take me upriver. I felt numb as I boarded the boat and sped away from the world's most magnificent steelhead water. Len and I agreed that nothing in the experience of fly fishing rivals the feeling of a Babine steelhead's first great run and jumps. There is one thing better than catching such a great fish. It is knowing that there will be another one in the Babine and that there will be another opportunity to catch it.