This is the place. A secret mid-river bucket that holds fish even when there’s a parade of anglers pounding the water ahead of you. I pull back hard on the oars and drop anchor. The boat lurches to a halt.
On river left, three-quarters of the flow runs across a broad tail out. On the right, jade-green water moves at walking speed through a narrow trough. Under the boat lies a submerged island of loose cobble – knee-deep here but gradually falling away under ever deeper, faster current. Fish far enough downstream, and you’ll never make it back to the boat. I scramble over the gunwale, hands shaking with anticipation.
I used to come here to escape the conservation battles surrounding our dwindling steelhead returns at home. For Pacific Northwest anglers, northward travel works like a time machine – the farther you go, the more years recede. When I first started fishing this great Skeena tributary, it was everything I imagined Puget Sound rivers must have been 100 years ago. No hatcheries. No clear-cuts. No toxic runoff from suburban sprawl. Just perfect water and wild, freerising steelhead. We had found the good old days.
My first cast settles over the trough. I make a big upstream mend, holding my breath, waiting, ready. When the line trails below, I pick up, cast, mend and take two steps downstream.
This river, though, is changing. The politics and destructive forces I came here to escape are creeping in. Or maybe it’s just my awareness of them. This is a region rich with natural resources –precious metals, fossil fuels, timber, salmon – and a convenient path to the Pacific from the Alberta tar sands oil fields. As long as opportunities for profit exist, threats will hover over the river. Fishing here doesn’t feel like much of an escape anymore.
As the familiar rhythm of steelhead fishing takes hold, troubling thoughts fade. I work my way down the deepening gravel bar absorbed by the water in front of me. Cast, mend, two steps down. With each swing, the water fishes better than the last.
I don’t know when I will be back. This year, the government closed the river to nonlocals like me for two days a week. And life at home, with two kids in school and a farm to tend, has become more complicated.
Two more steps, and the current starts washing gravel out from beneath my feet. But it’s fishing too good to stop now. Two more steps, and I feel the shocking bite of 43-degree water pouring over the top of my waders. I make the mend with arms above my head.
Where will I fish next season? There are still major watersheds up the coast worth exploring and hundreds of smaller rivers, too. But where will we go after that? We are running out of North.
My line comes tight. The fish explodes, streaking downstream, and I understand there is no choice: I have to stand my ground and fight.