Fly Fishing the Babine River
My Bittersweet Journey to Steelhead Valhalla
Let’s get the bitter out of the way right now. Please bear with me as this is therapy, of sorts, so I can move on with my life …
Start of Aug we had just gotten back from our summer holidays when my wife collapsed in the front room. She just said my legs aren’t working. I thought Stroke and got the Paramedics on the way. As I waited, she was answering all my questions and was able to hold both arms out straight. I was hoping this was a mild stroke and that she would only be staying the night in hospital. The ambulance showed up and shortly after 4 firemen to help load her out to the ambulance. I followed them to the Hospital and hung out in the waiting room for some word. Half hour later and my daughter and I were ushered in to see her. We could tell she was less coherent, and I could tell when I saw the face of the doctor, who came over, that something wasn’t right. She informed us that it was not good and that a Medivac plane was on the way to take her to Vancouver General Hospital. There was a chance that I could fly down with her but on the planes arrival that plan was vetoed. We said goodbye and told here we would be down as fast as we could. Couldn’t get flights so my son in law drove us down the next day arriving in Vancouver around 1:30AM. My son and daughter in law got over from Campbell River that afternoon and he told us that the nurses up on the Neurological ICU said that we could come up whenever we hit town. This was another red flag for me. When we got to her room, she didn’t appear to be all that responsive but by squeezing my hand let us know she was aware that we were there and could hear us. It was next morning when talking to the head doctor that things were spelled out plain and simple. She was bleeding deep in her brain and there was nothing that they could do about it. He said the area where the bleeding was taking place was the awareness center and she would be losing touch with us. We were all crushed and so started the 6 day wait. It was just a matter of time we were told. The morning of the day she died I got a call from Oregon City, Oregon. The day before my phone was flooded by calls from Nigeria, Madagascar and Spain, all scams. I took the Oregon call as another scam. Later when I got back to the hotel, I saw I had a phone message, so I listened to it. “Gord this is Christine from the Native Fish Society.” She informed me that I had won the raffle that I had entered a couple of months earlier. I didn’t know what to think as my mind wasn’t working anyways. But what became very clear to me was my lovely wife as she hovered between two worlds had guided the hand on the draw so that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel for me. I will go to my grave believing that because that was who she was.
The next month and a half were dark times fighting what I knew was depression. Slowly I started to emerge from this and thought about my prize. For you see I had won a week of Steelhead fishing at Babine Steelhead Lodge starting Oct 14. As there was now just a glimmer of light down that tunnel I thought, I’ve got to start tying flies. The Babine River is one of those storied rivers that is on many Steelheaders (from around the world) Bucket list. I’ve never caught a Steelhead, but I too had it on my Bucket List and now here I was with a Gold Bucket encrusted with Diamonds. The Native Fish Society does a lot of great work establishing fish habitat and I guess someone had given up their primetime slot for the raffle. I don’t think they will ever understand the importance of this trip for me, but I’m so thankful. And so, the tying and that light brightened my life.
Finally, the time came for departure. The plan was to leave from work midafternoon the next day and drive to Prince George. That night I started gathering all my fishing gear up and loading duffel bags and rod cases. My big pup was watching through the backyard window and getting excited. She knew what was fishing gear and figured she would be going on a grand adventure with me. I loaded the Jeep and went to try get some sleep. Next morning as I opened the door, there, lying beside the Jeep, was my pup. She wasn’t taking any chances and had dug her way out from the backyard to patiently wait for me. I got to tell you that there was a whole lot of crying when I got her in the backyard and filled the hole with big rocks. Work crept along at a snail’s pace until 3:00 PM when I headed out the main gate. The jeep appeared to have a little more pep as instead of turning right and heading UP the Alaska Hyw to Fort St. John we turned left down the Alaska Hyw. I got through the Pine Pass before dark and I perked up as I was now on the Pacific side of the Rockies and there are no Steelhead on my side. Got to PG and got a room.
Next morning saw me heading West down Highway 16 to the coast. I had never been this way before, but the first stretch reminded me of our fishing trip into the Chilcotin the fall before. Cruising on the Interior Plateau was nice but began feeling more at home once I hit Burns Lake and the Costal Mountains foothills. Something about being nestled in river valleys with Peaks on either side feels right. The closer I got to Smithers the more like home it got. I pulled into Smithers, for the first time, and it’s a cool little town. I parked downtown and went to Oscar’s, the fly shop, to pick up some leaders. It was a nice sunny day and I thought to myself, this just a great start to the trip. That was until I got to the jeep and realized that I had locked my main set and back set of keys inside. This was definitely a bit of a detour, but I noticed as I was phoning a tow truck company that I was parked right across the street from the Smithers Brewing Company. I had some time to kill anyways before checking into my hotel and sipping beer on a sunny deck wasn’t the worst way to do it. Tow truck shows up I jump the rail get my keys back and head back to the deck to finish my beer.
I was at the airport and Silver King Helicopters an hour early when I noticed a text from Christine that some other guys were delayed by fog and weren’t going to get there for a while. I went back into town fueled up and picked up some dog treats for the customary camp mutt. We finally got all loaded up and headed off for the Babine. We flew up and over a ridge getting out of the Bulkley Valley and landed at the Lodge in about 25 minutes. Mingled with the previous group heading out and heard some wonderful stories. Met Mark Sherwood from Native Fish Society and thanked him again for this wonderful opportunity. We had a lodge orientation which included getting our own bear spray and pointing out the electric fence that they had erected a couple weeks prior because of bears coming into camp. For the record I did not see a bear all week, although Alex (another guest) had a couple of yearlings, male Grizzlies skid down a bank behind him and with his hoody up and rain jacket could not hear everyone yelling at him. Thy young boars were walking toward him sniffing the air and the guide in a flash had his bear banger out and fired, scaring the two bears back into the woods never to be seen again. Alex, a good Colorado boy, gave it a MEH and resumed swinging flies. After getting settled in I rigged up a couple of rods and headed up the trail above camp to give a try in the Lobo pool. Worked a bit on my Spey casting which was weak but made sure I was back for supper which was fresh salad, roast vegetables and a blueberry compote duck. Not your typical bush food which turned out to be the case every night. After supper we gathered for some bonfire festivities where I met all the guests for the week. 2 Jim’s, Gary, John(the Tarpon guide from Florida) Alex and Skip. Somehow got to bed before midnight.
The girls were at our door at 7:00 AM and brought a fresh pot of coffee into the cabin. The gang wandered in for breakfast and I relaxed, mixed a toddy and sat on my porch watching the river. This was our first guided day and we were told to be at the boats at 8:30. We had Teagan and were going to be fishing the pools/runs close to the lodge, which turned out to be a good thing. At 8:15 I toddied up, wadered up and headed to our boat.
About an hour in up at the Lobo pool the guide comes over and says, “show me your box of flies, there was one that caught my eye. “He pulled out a no name fly (later dubbed Artic Silver) and said give that one a go. Half and hour later I hooked, and fought for 10 minutes, a 30–32-inch buck. I never got a good look at it, but the guide did as I had it close to the net a couple of times. It unbuttoned and I was officially now a Steelheader.
Midafternoon and we were fishing the Home pool close to the lodge when I had my first, but not last, Babine baptism. I stumbled and went into a long dance move before falling backwards into the river. The river was just past my knees in depth, but I could not regain an upright stance. I have a pair of Orvis Silver Sonic waders that I bought oversized so I could wear over insulated coveralls in the spring for ice out fishing in my tube. With my wader belt synched down tight my legs were full of air and there was no way for me to sink them to get my feet on the riverbed. Teagan was there in an instant and had me upright, but I was soaked. I told the guide and my cabin mate Gary that I was probably done for the day as I was there all week. I sloshed up to the trail back to the lodge and as plodded along I swore I could hear my lovely wife giggling back in the trees. This made me smile as I then knew she would be with me all week. I stripped everything off in the gear/drying room, hade a hot shower then went to the lodge where the girls mixed me up a Tea/rum Baileys cure all, which I sipped by the fire. Drink of the night was a Dark and Stormy followed by appies of scallops. Main was roast vegies and poached Halibut. It was an early night for me as I drifted off to sleep to the sound of the murmuring river.
We woke to the coffee delivery, and it was 3 C and foggy. Then, which became my morning ritual, it was a banana and a toddy, wader up and to the boats. This day Gary and I would be fishing with Logan as our guide. His beat was down below the lodge, and we set up in Moose hole.
Fished hard and got some strikes on the Artic Silver but soon as the sun hit the water that ended. I switched to a black and blue intruder all afternoon, no love. The only thing pulled out of the river was a lost bear banger which we tested, and it still worked. Logan re-armed it and I tucked in my bear spray pouch. Half hour left in the day Logan says let’s fly up to Lobo as there were some fish caught there today. It was lower light conditions, so I tied on the ol’ Artic Silver. 10 minutes later I was into a nice silver buck. 15-minute battle with many runs and into the net with a 31-inch beauty. A real Steelheader now! Back to the lodge Maui ribs appy, Lemon Chicken and the drink of the night Ranch water. (Tequila, sparkling water and lime). I managed after a bit of bonfire time to set up my portable fly-tying station and crank out another Artic Silver before bed.
Coffee, banana waders head for the boat. Today was around zero degrees and we had a lengthy ride down river, with head guide Mike, to the Canyon section. First cast I lost the magic fly on bottom. Ties on the one I had tied the night before and 5 casts later hooked up with a slab. Big runs, tail walking, jumping and rolling on the surface. I could see it was big and the guide seemed quite excited. I fought it for around 12 minutes and had it close to the net 4-5 times. It would see the guide and the net and explode away. Finally, it looks like he’s going to net it and it spits the hook. I’m heart broken and the guide estimated that it was around 38”. Same hole landed a 10-inch rainbow or small Steelie. At the end of the day, which was becoming a habit, hooked a small steelie around 10 lbs. fought for 10 minutes and it spit the hook. Spey casting getting better. Tied another Artic Silver with the last of the body material I had left. This fly was getting a reputation and a couple of guides came in and watched me tie it. The boys from Colorado were looking for me to tie some for them but with this being the last of the material it went into my box.
Morning routine and it was a little warmer. It had rained the night before, but the river visibility remained, as it had all week, around a foot and a half. We headed up and fished the runs we had on the first day. Was really starting to get in a rhythm with the cast, swing, dangle strip and shuffle down 2 steps and cast again. I had read where this is all therapeutic and I must agree. Working on getting the perfect cast, following the swing imagining the fly dancing across the river and waiting for that electric jolt of a fish on. I hooked up a couple of times and landed another 30” buck. Late in the day Teagan takes us down to the run called Babine Special. He dropped Gary off at the head of the run across the river and takes me down a root ball on the other side. He tells me that there is a rock bar out about 15 feet and to wade out to it then parallel the shore for about 30 feet. Just then Gary come on the radio and says he’s hooked up. Teagan takes off in the boat and I start to wade out into the river. It was a little spooky being that far from shore with deep water on the outside and a deep hole on the inside plus pretty good current. I slowly shuffle down making casts. Then bang a jolt to my shoulders, there was no mistaking this was a hit. My first thoughts were I can play this awhile as they land Gary’s fish but then it rolled out in front of me and I screamed “Fish On” No need for a radio, they heard me. It actually kind of scared me. It looked massive. It wallowed out in the middle of the river for a bit then screamed down river. A real knuckle buster. By the time Teagan gets to me I’m halfway through the backing. He parked the boat way down stream and came running with the net. AS he gets close, I tell him its already around the corner past the boat. I’m frozen out on the bar, and he talks me down it and close to shore. I could see the line rubbing on the boat motor so he says keep walking down the shore, stay in the water and try to get some line back on the reel. At this point I could see the reel seat. Luckily, might as well thank the wife again, it stops downstream and I am able to recover line as I walk down the shore. Tegan has now jumped in the boat and is holding the line off the motor. I get to the boat and because it’s out on a point from here we follow down stream on shore. The guide heads down below me and the fish appears to be holding in this stretch of river. Same old story, get it close to the net and off it goes like a bull out of gate #3. The guide’s excited, I’m panicking and then on the 5 try it’s in the net. I get down to him and we are both hooting and hollering. He’s immediately on the radio to the other guides,” Gord got a monster.” It’s still got a lot of spunk so as it settles down, he pulls out the tape measure and I officially join the 40-inch club. Length 40” Girth 19” took me half a mile down river and was hooked on, you guessed it, the Artic Silver. We revived it for about 5 minutes getting some nice shots. When it decided to go there was no stopping it.
Another late day fish but this time I landed it. Turned out to be the fish of the week! To be honest I don’t remember what we had for supper, but there was a few drinks and B.C. bud had around the fire that night. I slept well.
So, this was our last guided day and as I was taking back the coffee pot and cups and I didn’t notice it had frozen that night. I was wearing some plastic sandals and as I headed down the sloped boardwalk my feet shot out straight in front of me at about waist level. I was worried about landing on my back on the edge of the boardwalk, so I jettisoned the coffee and put my hand down to break the fall. What I almost broke was my wrist on the frozen ground. A guide helped me up and I stood there more embarrassed than anything. The wrist felt usable though I really have to work on my omen recognition. We headed out but you could see that the river was up and the visibility was down to about 6 inches. We fished hard that morning with zero action. This is where I dipped into my fly box and tried a bunch of different flies I had tied. Mid afternoon we were fishing a run and I finished my section way before Gary. The guide said I’m going to take you up and across there’s a spot you can fish that usually holds a fish. We get there and it’s a cliff with lots of big rocks down in the water. I was informed that it was tricky wading but maybe worth it. I start to wade out when my right leg drops between to big rocks. I go to step over one rock to get some footing to remove it but there was no bottom. At this point I’m going in the river, but I feared of breaking my leg. I twisted my body hard to try remove my leg and managed to get it part way out. I hit the river on my back with the one leg still caught in the rocks. Thankfully the guide was still there and managed to reel me back to shore. And with my second Babine baptism (remember the omen thing) it was a cold boat ride back to camp where calling it a day was that much easier because of yesterdays fish.
The plan was to go out on the first chopper flight of the day at 10:00 AM, so I slept in. Got all packed up even though it appeared that my gear must have grown as it was quite a chore getting everything back into the bags. The plan was for the chopper to do 1 lift for the lodge of stuff up to the landing then come and pick us up. I was standing behind the last cabin watching the chopper as it started to lift its load. I remember thinking man that’s I tight squeeze in between those trees. He was just about to pull on the load when there was a tang, and he dropped the chopper back on the ground very quickly. Evidently a branch had broken off one of the Poplar trees and contacted the blade. After getting a ladder and examining the blades the pilot said he felt comfortable to fly back to Smithers but he wasn’t going to take any passengers. A second chopper was sent and arrived around noon but landed on the beach instead of the pad. When we got back to the helipad in Smithers the engine cowling was off, and all the rotor blades were removed from that chopper. I loaded the jeep bid my farewells and headed for PG. As I was driving, I heard the weather forecast and it was calling for snow that night and the next day. I briefly thought about going all the way to FSJ but was too tired. Checked into a hotel and went down to the lounge for a couple of Caesars. It was over these that I made an executive decision and planned to sleep in and let the temp rise the next day before driving through the Pine Pass.
Rolled out around 11:00 AM and headed north. The decision paid off the road was bare, and I had a window of weather through the Pass. Home in 4.5 hours and the dogs and cat were extremely happy to see me. As I came into the house, I had a burning desire to tell the wife about the whole trip but just stopped and smiled and thought hell she was with me the whole way.
Gord FlyGuys Northern Division … Keep Calm/Fish On
In Honor to my best friend …