Three Weeks in British Columbia – Part Two – Bull Trout Fishing

THREE WEEKS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA – Bull Trout Fishing

 

PART 2: FISHING AND LIFE AT THE LODGE

British Columbia Bull Trout

The lodge is a historic log structure right on the banks of the Stikine River that houses the main dining area, rec room, kitchen and several bedrooms. Outbuildings serve many functions including storage, shop, living spaces for family and hunters. The grass strip used by Ron’s bush plane and chartered bush plane that brings guests is located behind the lodge.

The lodge itself is a log structure that has a big “living room” with large table for dining and a comfortable assortment of chairs and leather sofas.  The kitchen stove runs off propane but there is also a wood stove. 

Running water comes from an innovative system Ron created that traps water at a spring up the mountain and uses gravity to create most of the pressure needed to service the lodge, guest buildings and the family’s living quarters. 

There is hot water and the shower was very welcome after ten days in the bush. The entire lodge is heated by one central wood stove.  For most of the remaining 11 days, I was the only person sleeping in the lodge. 

The hunters who had tagged out and returned had their own building and the family also had their own buildings.

British Columbia Bull Trout

The amount of effort required to get hunters out and back to the lodge for their remote hunts shocked me. I had no idea how much time and energy that takes.

9/19/21: Day Eleven: I spent most of my next two days at the lodge trying to help out and watching as Ron and Maria hustled around in an attempt to get the seven new hunters that flew in by bush plane that day out to the designated backcountry sites.  Ron got only one group out before the wind became too strong.

Bare in mind that Ron’s float plane will carry only one passenger and their gear so when he is spreading out the hunters, he also has to move the guide and packer, as well.  That is a minimum of three trips into each spot. Of course, with a float plane, the weather has to cooperate and it was really windy most of Day Eleven

Bull Trout Fishing

I spent most of the day filming take offs and landings with my drone. Ron and a freelance float plane pilot from the nearest village took out hunters and their guides and packers.

9/20/21: Day Twelve: The wind was strong in the morning which grounded Ron but in the afternoon it laid down.  Ron, and another pilot he hired to move people in a pinch, were able to get everyone out.  It was an amazing flurry of activity that resulted in a camp that was suddenly empty.  I spent much of the afternoon flying the video drone that I brought, filming the take-offs and landings for a promotional video I plan to do for North River Outfitting.

Bull Trout Fishing

I caught my first bull trout on September 21, well best the time when most people chase them in the lower portions of their native rivers. By BC bull trout standards, this is a small fish.

9/21/21: Day Thirteen: Time to go bull trout fishing.  For the first time on this trip, I had my fly rod in hand with a serious intent to catch one of the bull trout for which British Columbia is known.  I probably fished five or six hours and caught two bull trout and about ten grayling. Interestingly, the grayling all hit the huge streamers that I was using for the bull trout. 

Those streamers are so big that I was shocked these fish could even get their little mouths open wide enough to grab them.  Biggest bull trout was around six to eight pounds.

Bull Trout Fishing

A grizzly came to the camp during the night and ripped a wall off the meat shed and stole a moose hind quarter.

9/22/21: Day Fourteen: Got up this morning to find that a grizzly had torn part of the wall off the meat shed and made off with a moose hind quarter.  The hunter was royally hacked off that the bear had stolen his meat and cussed for 15 minutes as we surveyed the damage. Ron and I went looking for the bear and must have ran him off his prize because we found the moose quarter about 100 yards into the woods, but no bear.  We brought the meat back to camp, effectively stealing the bear’s meal.

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

After breaking my number one rod, I used my backup to take this nice bull trout toward evening. This is about an average sized bull trout from my experience in this area.

In the afternoon, Ron and I jumped into his jet boat to run down river to a spot loaded with boulders where he felt I might find some more bull trout.  As soon as we got there, I started to put my rod together and found that the entire tip section was broken in two places. I must have accidentally stepped on it in the boat. Dang it! 

Fortunately, I brought two 8 weight rods and when we got back to the lodge, I quickly re-rigged but Ron had other things to do so rather than take the jet boat myself, I elected to just fish the river around the lodge. I caught several more grayling and at least one nice bull trout, probably pushing 7 pounds.

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

The bear came back again and this time tore the wall off the other side of the building where the guides work on capes from the trophies taken by the camp’s hunters. The bear stole two hides, chewing the ears off one stone sheep cape.

9/23/21: Day Fifteen: Bear came back during the night and this time tore the wall off the other side of the building where the guides work on and store the capes, antlers and hides from trophies taken by hunters.  The bear took a Stone sheep hide (chewed the ears off, which we found) and a moose hide, which he destroyed. 

Ron was fuming by this time and we began making plans to kill the bear as we fixed both walls of the meat shed.  I guess bears don’t mess with walls that are clad in tin, so we scrounged around the camp and came up with enough tin to cover both of the damaged walls.

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

We scrounged up enough tin from around the camp to repair the holes the bear made in the building and provide further protection for other parts of the shed. Not overly pretty, but hopefully effective. Apparently, bears don’t like to mess with tin, so that is the material of choice when building bear-proof shelters.

I think I fished a little bit after we recovered the hides and fixed the walls, but didn’t catch much.  The rest of the afternoon was consumed with basic camp chores and a planning session for shooting the bear if he returned that evening.  So far he had stolen a moose quarter, which we stole back and a couple of hides, which we also stole back. 

We figured the bear would be increasingly aggressive because we kept taking back what he was stealing. We set up to cover the meat shed well enough to shoot the bear if he reappeared.

Later that evening, the bear showed up and we were able to get him killed. Ron shot him at about 30 yards with a .300 Win Mag.  Dropped him right in his tracks, which was nice.  It wasn’t a huge bear, but big enough to rip the wall off a building!

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

The grizzly and the moose quarter it stole on the night when we finally were able to kill it as it dragged the quarter away from the meat shed. The bear stopped at the float plane dock before coming to the shed but fortunately didn’t tear up the plane.

9/24/21: Day Sixteen: Interestingly, when morning came we backtracked the bear and saw where he had walked out on the dock where Ron keeps his float plane and pulled all three tires out of the water that hang next to the dock – between it and the plane – to serve as bumpers for the plane. 

The bear just laid them on the dock as if a person had done it. Very strange.  Ron said that grizzlies are very odd animals and some of them just like to chew on rubber.

The float plane was right there and since it had been used recently to bring meat in from the remote camps, there was still blood and plenty of odor in the cargo area.  We felt very blessed that the bear hadn’t decided to investigate those odors by tearing the side off the plane!  Good thing he was dead or he would have eventually torn that plane up just like he did that building.

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

I caught this nice bull trout with a big white and chartreuse Dolly Lama streamer. This would be considered a solid fish for the area.

By the way, despite closing the season for political reasons, it remains legal to shoot problem bears if they are threatening property or life, so Maria had to call the game department and report the kill as well as send photos of the damage that the bear had done to the building.

I fished for a couple of hours over the course of the day and caught two really nice bull trout, both in the 8 to 10 pound range. One of them was on a smaller white streamer I was using to catch grayling with my six-weight fly rod.  That was a good battle that resulted in me following the fish about 50 yards downriver before getting him in close enough to net.

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

Our first stop was to a sterile crystal clear spring fed lake high in the mountains. You can see bottom clearly in 20 feet of water.  We were there to retrieve a cache of goods left by one of the sheep guides earlier in the fall. We found this caribou kill along the lake and determined that wolves had driven the bull to the water’s edge where they attacked and killed it.

9/25/21: Day Seventeen: Ron and I decided to take a break and go explore what he calls Moose River. Not it’s real name. We stopped on a sterile high mountain lake to grab a cache of gear left there after a recent sheep hunt and then set down on a straight stretch of the narrow Moose River. This is no place to land on a windy day, due to the narrow confines, so it is not a place Ron gets to visit often. Despite the inaccessibility of the location, Ron keeps a jet boat here for use in moose hunts when the opportunity arises.

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

The part of BC where Ron operates is a very remote and rugged wilderness. It is very unforgiving of mistakes.

We landed safely and fired up the jet boat for a trip up the river and a bit of bull trout fishing. Fishing was not good for me.  In two hours of casting to some pretty good looking runs I neither caught nor saw a single fish. I guess some waters have a lot of fish and some have very few. 

Headed back to the float plane and lifted off only to encounter trouble with the engine.  It began to sputter badly so Ron eased back on the throttle and slowly circled up to gain enough altitude for a dead stick landing should that be required. 

Not a veteran of many bush plane or float plane “adventures” this was more than a bit unsettling for me.  But Ron was able to side-slip the plane back down and land it on the river under power.  After killing the engine it wouldn’t restart and we knew we were in for some more trouble.  

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

Stranded on “Moose River”, 50 miles from the lodge, Ron and I have no option but to wait out the cold night until a chopper can pick us up the next day.

Using the sat phone and In-Reach satellite responder, Ron was able to get word back to Maria to send a chopper to pick us up and take us to the lodge. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day for the pilot to make the 1 1/2 hour flight and then get us to the lodge before dark. Rescue would have to wait until the morning. 

It was a long night trying to stay warm between short naps in the fuselage of the plane. Nearby wolves howling through the night kept us entertained.  When morning came, we were more than ready to get out of there. 

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

The chopper pilot lifts off with the rope sling attached to the structural tie points one on either side of the fuselage and nets over the wings to spoil their lift when towed.

9/26/21: Day Eighteen: Helicopter arrived a couple hours after daylight and the pilot handed us each a much welcomed travel mug of hot coffee.  During the night we had decided that it would be much easier to fix the plane if it was back at the lodge, so the chopper pilot’s first task was to attach the heavy rope sling and wing nets to the plane so he could carry it back to the lodge.

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

Ron looks on nervously as his quarter million dollar float plane lifts off the gravel bar where we got stranded the evening before. The chopper pilot expertly slung the plane to the lodge and then came back for us.

The wing nets spoil the aerodynamics of the wings, which prevents the plane from trying to climb while it is being towed.  It has happened and resulted in the chopper pilot having to release the plane to crash into the wilderness rather than tangle and bring down the helicopter.  

The nets worked great and the chopper towed the plane back to the lodge without incident and then returned two hours later for Ron and myself.  It felt good to be back at the lodge where we warmed up and ate a big lunch. 

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

With the plane sitting safely in an old corral outside the lodge, plane mechanic and one of Ron’s guides start the task of figuring out why the engine failed. It was determined that both magnetos gave out, one completely and one partially.

Maria had arranged to have their aircraft mechanic flown in that morning via float plane with hopefully enough parts to make the repair.  Immediately, he and Ron went to work.  By evening they had determined that one magneto had failed entirely and the second one was partially failed.  We were blessed that the float plane ran long enough to get us back on the river.

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

After a nap, I went back to fishing and caught this great trout on the big streamer. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite understand how the self-timer focus worked and the photo was not as good as I had hoped (fish was out of focus), but a great fish.

After a nap, I spent the afternoon bull trout fishing around the lodge and caught several grayling on my six weight rod and a very large bull trout in the 12 to 15 pound range on the eight weight.

I was throwing big weighted streamers and twitching them back, trying to produce the action of a wounded fish.  Bull trout are very aggressive predators and when they are hunting they will hit anything that resembles food.   

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

Caught my biggest bull trout of the trip (very similar in size to the one from the day before – possibly the same fish but small differences in color) as the fishing was getting noticeably slower. I caught only this bull trout during several hours of casting and caught only one more (much smaller) during the remainder of the trip. For sure, mid-to-late September is past prime time for bull trout fishing in these waters.

9/27/21: Day Nineteen: I fished most of the day and caught my biggest bull trout of the trip, one that I would guess to be in the 15 pound range.  I caught another one that was in the 8 to 10 pound range, as well.  A lot of casts for only two strikes, but I think the fish have moved on upstream.

9/28/21 – 9/29/21: Day Twenty and Twenty-One: Bull trout fishing not as good. I spent several hours each day casting and caught just one fish in the 4 to 5 pound range.  The bull trout seem to have completely moved out in their upstream migration to their spawning grounds. I was a few weeks late on my trip if bull trout fishing had been my number one goal. Bull trout make a strong run to the head waters of the rivers in which they live to spawn and this run starts in August and ends in September.  I was probably lucky to catch as many of them as I did. If I go back for the bull trout again, I will definitely either go sooner or fish farther upstream, probably both. 

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

I caught dozens of nice grayling on my trip. Some days I targeted them specifically with small streamers or mop flies on my 6 weight rod. At first, when the water was warmer, I caught many on large bull trout streamers, which really surprised me.

Ron and his mechanic got the plane fixed.  But before Ron could thoroughly test it, the chopper pilot had to make the long trip out to sling the plane into the river so Ron could take off.  Given the cost of helicopter flight hours, the cost of flying the mechanic in and the actual parts required, Ron figured that repair job cost him close to $20,000. No wonder these sheep hunts are so expensive!

After thorough testing, and a few tweaks to the magneto timing, the guys determined that the plane was working well and Ron began picking up hunters and game meat from the various remote camps and shuttling them back to the lodge to fly out to Smithers on the 30th.

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

Even flying back to Smithers was an adventure. The weather had been bad all day but the charter pilot made it work by flying low, under the storm clouds, and following the mountain valleys. It was a rough ride that resulted in my use of the air sick bag!

9/30/21: Day Twenty-Two: We were supposed to fly out in the morning but as they day wore on, the weather got worse and worse. Rain storms, wind and brief snow storms between us and Smithers, BC kept the charter bush plane grounded. When finally there was a break in the weather it was a mad dash to get in and out before dark. I rode in the co-pilot seat and was mic’d up with the pilot the entire time as we flew under the weather (following river valleys through the mountains) all the way back to Smithers. It was a rough ride and left my lunch in the air sick bag before we made it the two hours back to the Smithers runway.  That was a sight for sore eyes after that rough ride through the mountain passes under the snow clouds!

British Columbia Bull Trout Fishing

The bear gun made every trip to the outhouse when we were in the remote moose camp. Everything that these guys do on a daily basis is a major adventure to the rest of us.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE ADVENTURE

I loved the trip and was shocked to learn that nearly everything these guys do in the course of a normal day is a major adventure for the rest of us. Those who make this rugged, remote country their life have my respect.  Life and death hang on a high percentage of the decisions they have to make each day.  This is not a land for the faint of heart or for greenhorns. If your guide says, “Run!” don’t ask him why – just run!

I plan to go back but now I know what to expect. I won’t be quite as awed by what I find the second time in, but I think this is the kind of place where you could say every trip to the region is the adventure of a lifetime – no matter how many times you go.

Comments (5)

  1. Josh NY

    Bill, what an incredible trip and a great write-up! Thank you for sharing this experience with us! Beautiful fish. Hope you get to make a return trip.

    1. Bill Winke

      Yes, me too. It is really rugged country and I barely scratched the surface. I did all my fishing within 150 yards of the lodge and I am sure there are better stretches in that river if I can get out and do some exploring. I may moose hunt on my next trip.

  2. Gaines Zarzour

    Bill, what an awesome and interesting trip, thanks for sharing it with us. I think you might have inspired me to go on a trip myself!

    1. Bill Winke

      I was super impressed by how they have to handle the simple logistics (just getting goods and people around) that we take for granted here. No Amazon Prime deliveries in the middle of the wilderness!

  3. Cody

    Amazing story, Bill! Wow. Sounds like a lot of stories you won’t ever forget! Thanks for sharing.

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