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Copper River SteelheadBy Jim & Carolyn Z. Shelton,
Dawn brightened the canyon as we parked near the last pool reached by road. The Copper River flowed like silver ink through black timber, broad gravel bars highlighting its path. Snow frosted the distant peaks, and we pulled our coats snug against the chill breeze. We picked our way along a slippery path to the pool, noticing bear tracks at the shore. At our feet a broken slab of rock revealed fossil imprints from an ancient seabed.
The Copper River, or Zymoetz, meets the great Skeena a few miles out of Terrace, about 600 miles north of Vancouver. No hatchery fish inhabit the entire Skeena River system - all are native. Steelhead, Oncorhynchus mykiss, are legendary for their strength, endurance, and size here.
British Columbia has designated the Copper Classified Water, one of 42 streams offering world class angling opportunities. Depending on weather and current regulations, you can fish the Copper from April through late November. Good gravel road offers 43 miles of bank fishing on the Lower Copper. Above that, the road and river part ways. The canyon narrows and becomes treacherous for travel, with many rapids and whitewater. Sheer rock walls make hiking upstream next to impossible.
Despite the road, tall firs and mountain views give a wilderness feel to fishing here. In two days of fishing the Copper, we encountered a total of eight other anglers.
We scrambled halfway down the steep rip-rap bank, sliding in loose gravel. Bulwarks of giant boulders edged the swift, dark current. Two flat rocks seemed ideal casting platforms, and we hopped on to our perches above the water.
Far enough apart to avoid a tangle, we released the spools on our casting reels and tossed spoons slightly upstream across the river. As the lures sank on their trip downstream, we cranked slowly and deliberately. East cast sent out more line, thoroughly covering the water.
On the third cast, one line went tight. At hook-set, the line yanked back, hard enough to jerk an off-balance angler right off the rocks! In icy green water, a platinum slab banked and turned upstream. Luckily, a small beach lay directly below, and from there a second yank drove the hook solidly home. A chrome-bright steelhead answered, bursting out of the water.
Keeping rod high and tension tight, there was little else to do but hang on hoping the brute would stay in close and not shoot down to rapids. Massive boulders along the riverbank prevented a chase downstream.
The fish held in the strong current. Fighting the desire to horse the big steelhead in too soon, we witnessed two more leaps, and prayed the lure would stick. Several times, minutes of hard won line stripped back off in mere seconds.
Slowly, the gleaming beauty came to shore. Careful not to fray line on jagged rocks, we worked together to ease it toward the beach. We held the magnificent fish — twenty-pounds-plus - at water´s edge for a moment to take a photo.
As its nose dipped in the water, the steelie shot away with a powerful tail flip. The ghostly silver shape disappeared upstream into the dark river currents. We stood on the bank, hands cold and dripping, hearts pounding, marveling at the chance to touch nature.
We pondered this sea-going trout´s journey, borne in a gravel redd far up the Zymoetz River. A necessary but dangerous migration downstream led into the shock of saltwater. The young fish struggled to feed, dodging predators and fishing nets, and inevitably returned to freshwater, sensing the time and proper birth-river. Here, this remarkable creature would seek the right place and partner for a spawning dance.
If strong and healthy, it might repeat this incredible journey—even more of a miracle. We intercepted the steelhead´s voyage, then allowed the story to play out.
Reading water and learning where steelhead are likely to hold is a major key to successful steelheading, with flygear or conventional tackle. In winter conditions the single most important rule is to present your fly or lure where fish hold - near the bottom of the stream. For flyanglers, try the swing method or traditional trout nymphing technique with floating line and heavily weighted fly.
Look for places steelhead hold — in slower water below a large boulder or downed tree. Drift through a current seam, where fast and slow currents meet. The "tailout," or section of river just above a rapid is another likely spot. Even though currents may be swift and shallow, fish spread out anywhere along tailouts. Be careful not to wade through fish. Often steelhead lay right along the bank in the shallows, especially if water is murky. Tricky water is often underfished by anglers, becoming all the more attractive to steelhead.
Depending on the shoreline — broad, open gravel bars or steep banks with overhanging brush, we alternated between flyfishing, casting spoons and spinners, and float fishing pink rubber worms. Although regulations allow catch and keep, we pinched down barbs and released all steelhead.
Skeena River tributary streams like the Copper produce large, powerful fish. Cheap equipment could end your adventure prematurely. Bring an eight to nine-and-a-half foot medium or fast action spinning rod, preferably graphite. Load up 15 or 20-pound test line on a level wind reel such as the Ambassadeur 5000, 5500, or 6500. Carry a variety of small to medium size lures and spinners and keep the hooks sharp. Experiment with lead-head jigs, gooey bobs, spin-n-glows, and small roe egg sacks on size #2 hooks with 12-pound test leader.
Flyanglers need an 8 or 9-weight balanced outfit, including a good quality graphite nine to ten foot rod. Fill the reel with 30-pound test backing, and carry a variety of lines — floating, sink-tip or steelhead taper, and heavy sinking. The fish were not leader-shy, so we used short, 3-foot leaders with 15-pound test tippet. As always, bring a variety of steelhead fly patterns in a range of sizes, some weighted, in sizes 4, 6, and 8.
Sometimes it takes hours or even days to hook a steelhead. Other times, like that drizzly day on the Copper River in British Columbia, it took minutes.
With a fine mist falling, and the mountaintops white with autumn´s first snowfall, it seemed the magic must happen. Suddenly the rod bowed hard to the river. Nothing else mattered. A tremendous steelhead —like we hadn´t seen in years — careened out of the water, shaking it´s head violently. The giant trout revolted, thrashing on the surface, then dragged line upstream in a struggle to escape.
As we ran to keep up with the frenzied fish, our steps mingled with wild animal tracks in the sand. Though we would never forget the Copper River and her wild steelhead, winter floods would soon erase our footprints in her cold embrace.
In addition to a B.C. angling license, you´ll need a conservation tag and a Daily Classified Waters License; rates change each year.
Contact Northwest Fishing Guides at (604) 635-5295, or write P.O. Box 434, Terrace, B.C. V8G 4B1. They have reasonable rates and a comfortable lodge. Noel Gyger and his guide staff proved knowledgeable both flyfishing and casting.
Guides often carry a digital camera on the stream to record angler trophies. Noel publishes them on his internet website homepage at www.adnet.bc.ca/nrthwest .
If you´d like to receive his newsy weekly fishing report via e-mail, contact Noel Gyger at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daily flights reach Terrace from Vancouver, B.C. Terrace is located along Highway 16, about a 15-hour drive north of the border.
Jim and Carolyn Z. Shelton are a freelance writing and photography team specializing in outdoor sports, travel and conservation. They have publication credits in Flyfishing, BC Sportfishing, Canadian Angler, Alaska Magazine, Northwest Travel, Fly Rod and Reel, and the Denver Post, to name a few.