When one thinks of steelhead fishing, it's difficult not to think of British Columbia. Here the elements of weather, water and geographical terrain combine to create the habitat necessary to grow wild steelhead of mythic proportions. Rivers of legend: The Babine, Kispiox and Sustut make up the headwaters of the Skeena River system. These rivers are home to the largest strain of wild steelhead on the planet. It's a remote region that although not completely unaffected by the destructive hand of man, still provides a truly wild environment for these fish to thrive. There are no hatchery fish here, only wild fish of pure genetic perfection. Having made their way out to the ocean and back, these hardy steelhead have survived encounters with Orcas, sea lions and many other oceanic perils. This journey ensures only the most superior fish return to spawn. It is this time spent at sea that makes a steelhead a steelhead and not simply a large migratory rainbow trout. Comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges or guppies to sailfish.
The Pacific Northwest region of North America is the birthplace of steelhead fishing. The region in and around Smithers B.C. is a steelheader's Mecca. Some anglers, whose commitment to the species borders on obsession, make annual pilgrimages to fish these great rivers. The classic rivers are few, enormous in scale and access is often very difficult. Do it yourself steelheader's are generally veteran anglers who possess expert angling, river running and outdoor skills. For those anglers whose time and energy are more closely tied to the realities of modern life, there exists a more practical alternative, the steelhead lodge. The number of lodges are few and spots at these lodges are highly coveted. Prime weeks are usually reserved years in advance by the same group of returning anglers. Some lodges have names and reputations as legendary as the rivers and fish themselves.
One lodge that exemplifies this fishing subculture is Suskeena Lodge. A classic self-sufficient operation carved from the bush, Suskeena Lodge is on the banks of the Sustut River. The lodge is strategically located in the center of over 20 miles of fishable water. The river's characteristics vary from classic, long wide runs to canyons puntuated with deep pools that require a wide variety of fly fishing techniques. Skating dries, greased line, sink tips from type III to 300 grain all have a time and place on this river. The angler who keeps on his toes and can adapt quickly from pool to pool can greatly improve his chances of hooking up.
Suskeena Lodge has a comfortable and rustic main building. Here guests gather for meals, tie flies or relax after a full day on the river. The guests sleep in comfortable, clean, 2-person cabins, each complete with a full bathroom... they'll be no bear encounters while making your way in the middle of the night to a washhouse! The lodge takes a total of 9 anglers per week. Three veteran guides operate sturdy and reliable 20 ft. jet boats with 3- anglers per boat. These three angler groups (who fish together the whole week) rotate each day with a different guide into one of three beats: upper, middle and lower. Suskeena Lodge has choreographed a seamless program that virtually ensures fresh, rested pools and (so far) no one standing in your assigned water when you arrive.
The guides at Suskeena Lodge are as varied and diverse as the beats they fish. Unlike trout guides who will stand in your hip pocket all day and provide commentary on your every mend, steelhead guides, as a rule, are a little less hands on. When asked, they will offer expert advise tailored to each angler's skill level. They will also share a pregame plan for fishing each of the day's pools. They may suggest to "start here", or "the bucket (sweet spot) is over there", or "remember to fish all the way to the tail of the pool". Beyond that, most of your time will be spent in relative solitude. Steelhead fishing requires a lot of space to be done properly so the guides have to spread the anglers out a bit... usually within eye or earshot of your guide. They will however, be right at your side when it counts... such as when it's time to land your fish. Another area where these guys really earn their keep is in their ability to operate a jet boat. Masterful and courageous boatmen, their main job is to get the anglers safely from one pool to another.
Suskeena Lodge is one of the B. C.'s more remote steelhead camps. Weather permitting, it takes about 45 minutes via fixed wing aircraft to fly in from Smithers, B. C. The aircraft seats 10 passengers and has an enormous load capacity. The lodge, staff, food and amenities at Suskeena Lodge are what you would expect from a great steelhead operation. As remote as they are, the comforts Suskeena Lodge provides are truly amazing. Aside from the facilities and atmosphere, it's really the fishing that all of us come for.
It's important to remember that a steelhead season covers a fairly short window of time; usually 6-9 weeks make up the entire season. Any week can be the best or worst depending on the weather and water conditions. There is no way to predict these elements from year to year. History tells us that our mid-October weeks can provide outstanding fishing. The truth is.... there are no guarantees... and no refunds if the river goes out and we sit for a week. This extreme case is rare.... but it can happen! Individuals need to ask themselves if going down gracefully with the ship is something they are prepared to do? We pay our dues, we go together and as a group, we live and die by a set of unpredictable circumstances over which we have no control. Sure there is risk, but the rewards are definitely worth the price of admission. If you are the sort of angler who is willing to accept the realities of trophy steelhead fishing in a truly wild and unpredictable environment, you should consider this trip of a lifetime.