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Fishing Remote Wilderness Rivers & the Equipment to Bring

British Columbia is a large province. If you superimposed our northern border on the 49th parallel – the Canada/USA boundary – BC’s land mass would take in all of Washington, Oregon, half of California, and parts of Idaho and Nevada.  It is a big place with limited road and highway access to much of the area.

I have been fortunate to explore many remote wilderness rivers, including over 30 seasons on the Dean River, by helicopter most years. Helicopter flying is expensive and unless I shared the costs with others or was an invited guest on a fishing trip, I couldn’t afford those trips. For instance, in 2001, a salmon/eco-tourism lodge owner invited me to join him in steelhead exploration. He wanted to see if there were steelhead fly fishing opportunities in the Great Bear Rainforest area in the spring and fall before and after the lodge’s summer operation.

For two months we flew around in helicopters fishing rivers, creeks, inflows, and outflows of lakes in search of steelhead. We didn’t find enough steelhead waters to warrant having a steelhead season, but I caught a lot of trout and coho salmon in these remote waters. I enjoyed exploring and getting to see a lot of country and fished over three dozen waters.

At age 81, my fly-fishing adventures are becoming fewer, but when I get a chance, I do like to explore wilderness rivers and did manage to get into a few more in 2023. When going on a remote trip, especially flying, and you have no access to stores that sell fly-fishing equipment, you need to pack sparingly.  Besides clothes, rain gear and waders, you need to take enough equipment to meet varying conditions.

On one trip, Dan Holder and I went up the coast and flew into a couple of rivers. It was a day trip and we didn’t need a lot of equipment. On another week-long trip my son Charles joined me, and I needed to take fly fishing equipment for him as well. Both of us prefer to swing flies when fishing rivers. Charles spent his summers through college guiding at a Rivers Inlet salmon lodge. 

Charles has not done much steelhead fly fishing. We were after summer-run steelhead in Northern British Columbia in October. After the flight to Smithers, we had a one-hour helicopter ride to northern waters. In October, rainy or wintry weather is common in northern British Columbia.

Summer run steelhead will rise to a fly when water conditions are right. I prefer to swing a fly skated across the surface or swing a wet fly on a floating line just sub-surface for those fish but will fish deep if conditions warrant it. I like to use both two-handed and single-handed rods for this trip. I packed my 13’- 6” R.B. Meiser 9-weight rod—I just love the finish Bob does on his rods, especially this one, which Meiser had donated to Watershed Watch Salmon Society

The Robert Meiser 13′-6″ rod and Hardy Dural St. John reel (not shown) with a 9 mid-Spey line works well. The jungle cock insert is a classy touch.

My second two-hander, a Bruce & Walker 12-foot grilse 7-weight rod, I bought from England in the mid-1980s. It has seen a lot of use over the years on many steelhead rivers. Ron Grantham has been on my mind. We had a long overdue memorial service for him on the Thompson River in the summer and for that reason I packed my Grantham 7-weight bamboo single hander as well. I might not get to use it but took it anyway, seeing as I do like to swing flies using bamboo.

The Ron Grantham bamboo 7-weight with Toby’s Moose Hair Skater. With this outfit I took a fish that was close to 20 pounds.
Toby Gilbert’s Moose Hair Skater and the St. Aidan reel

Charles is not a two-handed rod user, so I had packed two, 9-foot, 9-weight single handers – a Hardy graphite and an Orvis boron—for him. I bought the Orvis boron in 1983 with the intention of it being my main rod for steelhead, but in late 1983 I hooked my first steelhead on the Thompson using a two-hander. The famed BC steelhead fly fisher Jerry Wintle had one at the Thompson and when I saw it, Jerry said, “give it a try.” I went down to the Y Run tailout and was into a fish after a cast or two. In 1984, I went into using two-handers on the Dean and Thompson and didn’t use the 9-foot Orvis boron as much. But it is a nice rod to fish, especially if I find coloured water and necessitates the use of a sinktip.

The Meiser, paired with my Hardy Dural St. John reel with a mid-Spey floating line is a great combination. The first reel I ever bought was a Hardy St. John back in 1978 and over the years I acquired three or four other St. Johns. When I decided to switch to fly fishing for steelhead I re-read my 1968 edition of Haig-Brown’s The Western Angler, and he says that “I prefer Hardy’s “St. John” for most purposes.”  In addition to my Dural St. John, I took another St. John set up with a line that I could loop a sinktip on if the rains came and coloured the river. My son likes the Hardy St. Aiden the second reel I bought for steelhead in the early 1980s, and I took my Hardy Taupo Perfect set up with a Skagit head on which I could loop on a sinktip.

I fished the Grantham bamboo and lost one in the tail out of the run where Charles got his 15-pounder.  Later in the day Toby wanted me to try one of his flies and put on his Moose Hair Skater. I got a fish near 20 pounds – my largest steelhead caught using a bamboo rod.

When we got to the river our hosts were both enthusiastic—the river was in decent shape, and warm enough with fish eager to take a swung fly skated across the surface. I strung up my Meiser rod with the Hardy Dural St. John and a Woolly Bear Bomber and set Charles up with the 9-foot Hardy with the St. Aiden reel and a Woolly Bear Bomber. Toby Gilbert took us downriver to a long run and in the next three hours Charles and I were swinging waked flies that rose five steelhead. Charles didn’t connect but I did: hooking three steelhead, landing two. The river was on the low side and not as big as I expected and best suited for the 12-foot Bruce & Walker 7-weight. I thought Charles’ rod would work better throwing a 9-weight line and switched the St. Aiden for the Dural St. John. I put my other St. John on the Bruce & Walker and looped on a floating tip and a Woolly Bear. The river continued to drop, and I wanted to fish bamboo and put the St. Aiden on my 9-foot Grantham bamboo ready for the next day.

The 9-foot Hardy and the 9-foot Orvis that Charles used, and the 12-foot Bruce & Walker I used.

I wanted Charles to catch a steelhead so on the first pool on our second day he fished while I watched. After a cast or two, he was into a steelhead on a swung fly skated across the run. His first steelhead on a skated fly. The 9-weight line worked better on that rod. I managed to beach three fish that day, swinging my Bomber across the surface.

Toby Gilbert and Charles Lingren holding a steelhead in the “Keep Them Wet” pose. Charles had a lot of action with steelhead coming to this fly.

I watched as Charles swung waked flies the next morning. After a while, I went down to fish the tail out, leaving the better water to him. Steelhead were coming up to Charles’ waked fly but not taking, so Toby tried a few patterns and eventually found one a steelhead liked. I came up to watch the action and take pictures. Minutes later, Charles posed with a female fish of about 15 pounds. He said that he had more than eight rises from fish before he got into this one. That fish made his day and that experience of bringing so many fish up to the surface on a swung waked fly will be a lasting memory. In another run Charles rose two more and lost the one he hooked. I fished the Grantham bamboo and lost one in the tail out of the run where Charles got his 15 pounder.  Later in the day Toby wanted me to try one of his flies and put on his Moose Hair Skater. I got a fish near 20 pounds – my largest steelhead caught using a bamboo rod.

The day closed with cloudy skies and then rain, not a washout type of rain, but good enough to put the river on the rise. Fresh water and a rising river can put steelhead on the move. During my many years of chucking flies for steelhead I refused to fish another fishermen’s flies. As I got older, I’ve relented a bit because I am fishing with more guides and they do like you to catch fish on their flies. Some people sent me flies to try and I had a few of those from Garry Anderson (Washington) and Brian Koll (Michigan) in my box. With a rising river, I wasn’t expecting much, but after I tied on a Brian Koll fly and skated it across the run and did get a bull trout of 18 plus inches and further down the run a steelhead of about 8 lbs.

Rain continued through the night and in the morning.  We found a river clear enough to swing a fly but swollen from the rain. I brought the 9-weight Orvis boron for conditions such as this and strung it up with the Hardy Taupo reel and looped on a 10-foot tip.  We set Charles up with a five-foot tip on the Hardy rod. We found some steelhead using tips and swinging wet flies and Charles also landed a couple of coho. I had more action with the 10-foot tip, and I gave him that rod to use for the remainder of the trip. I went back to my Grantham bamboo and floating line. Using the Orvis rod and 10-foot sinktip Charles did get into a few more steelhead. Hannah fished with us on our last day, and we fished a nice run with no action. Charles asked me to put on one of my Indispensables to go through the water again. Shortly after he found a nice steelhead, the last fish hooked on this trip.

Hannah Belford with net ready while Charles Lingren plays a steelhead fishing the 9-foot Orvis Boron and Hardy Taupo Perfect reel, sink tip and a Lingren’s Indispensable fly.

Air travel limited us to what fly-fishing equipment we packed, but the rods, reels, and flies we took were sufficient to cover the changing river conditions. Charles caught some nice fish as did I, we liked Hannah and Toby our hosts, and we came home with pleasant memories from swinging flies for summer-run steelhead on a wilderness river.

And, we lucked out with the weather – the day we left we had a frosty morning and the next day the temperature plummeted to -14C (7F).  With those temperatures a river would soon be flowing with ice.