Spring Steelheading is not for everyone. The weather can be harsh and unpredictable and so can the fish sometimes (like everywhere). However for those that persevere and finally feel the power of these remarkable big fish it become the ultimate obsession.
How a Steelhead junkie gears up
In spring, visitors to the lower Skeena valley can expect typical daytime temperatures to range from 0–14C, with everything from bright sunshine to snowflakes possible; the region is part of a vast coastal rainforest and weather patterns can vary dramatically from day to day, and even hour to hour. With this being the case, your clothing strategy should be based on a four-layer system. By utilizing a system of layers, anglers can adapt to changing temperatures and weather patterns and be prepared for any of Mother Nature’s moods. Here is a suggested formula for maximum comfort and flexibility:
Clothing and Waders – A Four-Layer System
Layer 1: Begin with a synthetic or merino wool wicking-type base layer that breathes and removes moisture from the skin — very important for maintaining comfort and/or warmth for the entire body. Base layer underwear and socks can be found in three weights: light, medium and expedition. According to your individual metabolism and the stated temperature range, choose the weight best for you. Most guests will comfortable with medium or expedition weight during this season. Garments include: long-sleeved shirts/pullovers, long underwear, and wicking socks.
Layer 2: The second or alternative layer should be a medium weight fleece or wool sweater/zippered pullover. For your feet, choose SmartWool, heavy fleece or expedition weight merino wool socks. This layer is an insulating layer that provides warmth for your upper body and feet. Garments include: sweater/zippered pullover and heavy socks.
Layer 3: The third layer is a fleece, wool, down or Nano-puff style jacket to maintain warmth on the upper body. For the legs, chose fleece pants in various weights depending on river water temperature and weather. This layer provides additional insulating warmth for the entire body.
*The purpose for Layers 1 through 3 are to remove moisture from the skin and trap the warmth generated by your body, thus keeping you warm, dry, and fishing all day long, even in chilly, wet conditions.
Layer 4: The outermost layer is a breathable waterproof layer — your rain jacket and waders.
Hooded rain jacket: High quality Gore-Tex type products are the best, but they must be seam sealed and of quality construction to perform properly. In North America, Simms and Patagonia make excellent Gore-Tex rain gear. Rain jackets specifically designed for fly fishing are best.
Waders and wading belt: Gore-Tex or breathable waders are highly recommended. These waders provide a breathable waterproof barrier that maintains your warmth and comfort throughout a day of fishing. A wading belt should always be worn with your waders for safety. In North America, Simms and Patagonia make the best performing and highest quality waders and wading gear.
Other Essential Clothing
Wading boots: Felt-soled wading boots are essential for safe wading and all day comfort while standing in the river. However, please ensure that all felt-soled boots are cleaned thoroughly prior to your trip, to ensure that invasive species like Didymo or mud snails are not transported to BC’s rivers. High quality wading boots also provide excellent ankle support and are exceptional for hiking to and from rivers. Vibram soles are available on many boots and are a good second choice. Studded boots are generally not required on Skeena region rivers, but are acceptable if you feel more secure wearing them. Note: Ensure your wading boots are large enough to accommodate two pairs of socks.
Gloves: Wool or fleece fingerless gloves are great for wind-chilled boat rides or for fishing on cooler days and mornings.
Hats/caps: It is recommended that you bring your favorite “nice weather” lucky fishing hat! This hat should have a good-sized brim (with dark underside) to shade your eyes during sunny conditions. A second wool or fleece-lined hat should be brought to serve you on wind-chilled boat rides and during cold/wet weather. This hat should be capable of covering your ears.
Miscellaneous Fly Fishing Equipment
The following is a list of miscellaneous but essential equipment you will need during a day’s fishing in the Skeena region.
Fishing vest/hip-pack/chest-pack: Rain jackets designed for fly fishing generally have enough storage for fly boxes, tippet materials and other items. However, a vest, hip-pack or chest-pack may be useful to carry additional items or reduce the weight or bulk of your jacket.
Boat bag or backpack: A waterproof boat bag or dry bag is very handy for storing extra clothes, tackle, camera equipment, etc.
Line clippers, pliers/hemostats, and hook file/sharpener: These are essential items to carry on the river. Steelhead have tough, bony mouths and are notoriously hard-fighting fish. All steelhead fishing in British Columbia must be with single, barbless hooks. Therefore, the angler with the sharpest hooks often catches the most steelhead. For steelhead fishing, a high quality hook file is a wise investment!
Camera: Waterproof or splash-proof digital cameras are handy and help take great photos on your trip.
Polarized sunglasses: High quality polarized sunglasses are a must. Not only will polarized sunglasses protect your eyes from an errant back cast and reduce unwanted glare, they may also help you see that steelhead following your fly as it swings to shore! Sunglasses also help reduce windburn on your eyes while motoring up and down the river in jet boats. Bring a backup pair, as well.’
Fly Fishing Tackle
Fly Rods: The fly rod is probably the single most important piece of equipment in the fly fishing arsenal. Double-handed rods have become the rod of choice for most Skeena anglers, however, an angler competent in casting sinking tip lines with a single-hand rod can still do well.
Single-handed rods should be at least 9 feet in length. Many steelhead anglers who fish single-handed rods prefer 9.5-foot or 10-foot rods for more effective line control and mending.
Double-handed (spey) rods are another option and offer a definite advantage in most situations. These longer rods allow the angler to cast longer distances with very little room for a back cast. Double-handed rods also offer superior line control and mending capabilities. For most steelhead fishing, we recommend bringing one longer, heavier spey rod, and one lighter, shorter spey rod (or switch rod) to cover different rivers and applications. The longer rod should be 13 to 15 feet and rated for line weights 7–9. This rod will be used for fishing large flies and sink tips. The lighter spey rod/switch rod should be 10.5 to 12 feet long and rated for line weights 6–8. These rods will typically be for fishing smaller flies and lighter tips on smaller streams.
Overall, whether casting a single-handed or double-handed rod, a 7- to 9-weight rod is the perfect choice for steelhead fly fishing in British Columbia. Rods in this range can generally handle 8–20 pound steelhead and have enough power in reserve to battle the Skeena’s larger steelhead, which can reach 30 pounds — or more, in rare instances. Perhaps most importantly, rods in this range can also cast the wide array of lines required to cover the numerous conditions possible on your trip — from floating lines to fast-sinking 300 grain tips.
You should bring at least two rods on your trip. The extra rod(s) will not only serve as spares in the event of breakage, but will also allow you to set up multiple rods for varying conditions.
Reels: High quality machined aluminum reels with a smooth drag and a rim control feature are highly recommended. You will want to make sure your reel’s drag system will operate well when wet and in cold conditions. (Some do not.)
Fly Line and Leader: During your Skeena week, you will be fishing a variety of water types and sizes, from small tributaries to the broad lower main channel Skeena. Therefore, not one commercially produced fly line will cover all water types and rivers. The following lines will be needed to effectively fish most of the water you will encounter:
Lines for single-handed rods: A weight-forward multi-tip line is recommended.
Lines for double-handed rods: The most common and useful line system for steelhead fly fishing in the Skeena region with a double-handed rod is comprised of a running line and Skagit-style shooting head. Skagit heads are designed to aid in casting sink tips and large (2–5 inches), weighted flies. RIO and Airflo are the most popular brands. Sinking tips of various lengths and densities can be attached to the front of the Skagit head. Popular and effective sink tips are Rio’s 15’ tips (intermediate, type 3, type 6, type 8), Rio’s MOW tips and custom cut lengths of T14. As an example, the fully prepared Skeena angler fishing double-hand rods might arrive with the following equipment:
13.5’ 8-weight double-hand/spey rod and suitable, well-maintained reel capable of holding:
200+ meters of braided Dacron backing
100 feet of running line (Airflo Ridgeline, Rio SlickShooter, Rio Powerflex and Varivas are popular choices)
500-600 grain Skagit head (Rio Skagit, Rio Skagit Flight and Airflo Skagit are popular choices)
15’ Rio sink tip kit (intermediate, type 3, type 6, type 8)
MOW Heavy/T14 tip kit (10’ floating, 7.5’ floating/2.5’ sinking, 5’ floating/5’ sinking, 2.5’ floating/7.5’ sinking, 10’ sinking, 12.5 sinking)
Custom T14 tips (15’, 17.5’, 20’)
11.5’ 7-weight double-hand/switch rod and suitable reel:
150+ meters of braided Dacron backing
80–100 feet of running line
425-525 grain shooting head (Rio Skagit Short, Rio Scandi Short, Airflo Compact Skagit, Airflo Rage)
MOW Medium/T11 tip kit
Polyleaders (10’ leaders can be used with short Scandi-style heads if casting smaller flies)
Note: When selecting a Skagit head and sink tip combination for best casting performance, the accepted rule of thumb is that the Skagit head length plus sink tip length should equal 3 to 3.5 times rod length.
Leader systems: The leader is the final connection between you and the fish. Therefore, it must be strong enough to land the fish in a reasonable amount of time but subtle enough to avoid alerting the fish that the fly is not natural.
In general, sink tip leaders should be 2.5 to 5 feet long — longer in that range if your fly is weighted heavily and shorter in that range if your fly is not weighted or lightly weighted. Maxima Ultragreen is a nearly universal choice for steelhead anglers in British Columbia. Breaking strains from 12 lb test to 20 lb test are most frequently used, with 15 lb being typical for most wet fly fishing. The reason for a short leader is to get the fly down with the sink tip as quickly as possible and keep it in the fish’s strike zone as long as possible.
Hot Flies for Steelies
Although your guide will have flies for you, it is a good idea to bring a selection of flies. Many of the patterns listed below are commercially tied and available at reputable fly shops. If you tie your own flies, please read on for information on characteristics that your hand-tied flies should incorporate. For the most part, steelhead and salmon wet flies should be of fairly good size, from 2-5 inches in length. Traditional style flies should be tied on top quality hook sizes from 4 to 2/0. Some of the key elements in steelhead wet flies (in order of importance) are motion, sink rate, size, color and flash.
Motion: A fly with wiggle and motion generally has much better fish attracting qualities since it looks “alive” in the water. This is a highly attractive quality for steelhead. Materials that help impart motion are rabbit fur, marabou, soft webby hackles, dubbings and mohair.
Sink rate: The sinking rate of a fly is important when covering different types of water. When fishing deep fast water it is best to fish heavier, streamlined flies that sink quickly. When fishing long even flowing runs filled with large boulders it is best to fish a fly with a slower sink rate that lets the sink tip contact the bottom before the fly. This will keep the fly just off the bottom and in the strike zone longer. Some ways to control sink rate are weight of the hook, the bulk of materials (the more water a fly displaces the slower it will sink), buoyancy of materials, and weighting the fly (beads, lead wraps, dumbbell eyes, etc.)
Size and Color: In general, the lower and clearer the water, the smaller and more subdued the fly, and vice versa. Favorite colors for wet flies are pink (cerise and salmon pink), purple, black, blue, orange and chartreuse. Don’t be afraid to mix and match colors; favorite color combinations are cerise/salmon pink, black/blue, blue/purple and cerise/orange.
Flash: Small amounts of flash included in standard patterns may help induce strikes from a following fish. And sometimes flies that are all flash are very effective in high, dirty water conditions. Many modern materials can help impart flash in your flies such as Flashabou, Crystal Flash, Cactus Chenille, Angel Hair, Edge Bright and many others.
Favorite Wet Fly Patterns recommended by our local top-nutch guides : Intruder and Intruder variations, Pick ‘Yer’ Pocket, Popsicle, Fish Taco, Starlight Leech, String Leech, Egg Sucking Leech, Trailer Trash, Bunny Bou, Hawaiian Punch, Skeena Series, Terrace Flasher, Skeena Flasher.