It is easy to label November and December in the Skeena drainage as ‘late’ or ‘shoulder season’ times for steelhead. After all, they exist in the massive shadow of its famous summer-run fisheries where, over several months, big, aggressive fish enter the river and push upstream in some of the warmest water temperatures of the year. The traditional steelhead narrative indicates that with cold water, the fish slow down. The annual August run peak happened three months ago. Those fish have gained some colour and hunkered down for the winter in water so slow it may force you to look down your rod and use it as a sight to tell if your line is swinging. Water so slow that you may die of old age before your fly completes a single swing…if you don’t die from boredom first. The lodges are quiet, boat launches are snowed in, and most jet boats put away for the winter. Many good spots, like that bucket where the cabin girl freaked out after getting pickpocketed last September, are either high and dry, or iced over. And the weather, ugh. I mean, if the fishing were any good, there wouldn’t be so few people out there anyway, right?
While these points hold some truth, exceptions can be the name of the game with steelhead fishing, especially on mainstems of large drainages. And every shift away from typical ‘peak season’ conditions opens up new possibilities that often end in pleasant surprises; interesting and exciting situations that may have even experienced steelhead anglers thinking twice!
The fish that entered the freshwater months ago have settled into water where they feel they can live for several months. Rather than being scattered in heads and tails of runs up and down the river, they congregate into what may be described as schools to those unfamiliar with biological nomenclature. The fish have become more attuned to their environment, they’re used to cold temperatures, and they take advantage of the low, clear water to feed on whatever is available. This can lead to hard hits. Remember that warm afternoon when you were complaining about all the bumps and touches that weren’t hooking up? Don’t worry, the fish aren’t playing around at this time of year; they are taking your fly to eat it. They fight hard too, and experiencing this highlights the toll that active migration can take on fish. I swear that for every fish that seems slower due to the cold, there is one that seems extra jacked up, having recovered strength and condition with many weeks of relative rest and feeding following migration. And remember all the times you wanted to fish a dry line, but were concerned about passing over fish? There’s no time of year when it is more often practical, even necessary at times.
Shallow water is often the slowest, and fish unmolested by people and eagles move into surprisingly shallow lies - places that force you to fish unweighted flies on floating lines to avoid snagging. In fact, this might be the easiest time to check one of the holy grails of steelhead fly fishing off your bucket list - that is, getting a big fish on a big river while dry-lining in gumboots! Riffles often appear fast, but aren’t, and fish continue to hold in inside pockets. Although I usually avoid them like the plague, for once I find myself drawn to shallow flats where the water surface is glassy and featureless; they aren’t so boring when you can see wakes from steelhead moving around as you fish down the run. And if you’re lucky enough to get sick of fishing to holding fish, there are fresh fish entering the river all winter too, easily intercepted lower down in classic-looking spots.
Air temperatures are generally below freezing right down to river elevation at this time of year; although you’ll strip down on the hikes in, there’s no way to spin this as short-sleeves steelheading. But when you’re dressed properly, the beautiful scenery, with a thick blanket of snow covering everything from mid-river boulders right up to the mountain peaks, will take your mind off the cold until a steelhead does. Sometimes when you’re slogging a quarter mile through three weeks worth of accumulated snow without a single footprint to follow, much less a broken trail, you may wish that there were more people around, but this feeling quickly disappears once on the water. Everyone knows that once it gets cold, water conditions are consistently clear and low - snow has to melt to blow out a river. High and dirty water can happen anytime during peak fall season, but rain-on-snow events - the ultimate recipe for river disaster - only become a real possibility in the fall when mean daily temps are around 0ºC. During peak season, everyone enjoys better-than-average fishing for a brief period as high water drops into shape, but it isn’t long before this effect wears off. However, a blowout that roughly coincides with the season end will see the water drop into shape with no crowds around, offering a hard reset that can extend the better-than-average fishing almost indefinitely!
The experience of late-season steelheading would make it clear to anyone that the first big snowfalls don’t mark the end of the fall season as much as they usher in a new one. It is a time that could be mistaken for peak season if not for awareness of what preceded it, and one likely to keep you interested and make you a better angler in the process of rising to its unexpected challenges.