Sweetheart Steelheading on the Kalum River

by Noel F. Gyger

Ever had a "fishing hole" where you knew the success rate was almost 100 percent? That's usual on the upper Kalum River for spring steelhead. Jim Teeny started calling these river's massive fish "sweet-hearts" and we use that happy term often. For the Kalum River presents an angling paradise, with uncrowded water in a wilderness setting. I'm lucky enough to live here and to have the opportunity and privilege to angle for steelhead in the springtime when other nearby famous rivers such as the Copper, Bulkley, Kispiox, Morice and Babine close.

A 32-pound steelhead deserves careful handling and a prompt release.

PHOTO CREDIT: Noel Gyger

Steelhead action on the Kalum usually begins on the 15th of March and remains strong until around May 1st most years. The latter part of the season is a little more difficult because the water rises steadily and flows increase as warmer weather causes more run-off.

These fish aren't tiddlers either! Average Kalum River steelhead run from ten pounds on up. Fifteen pound fish are common. Determined anglers take 25-pounders with a little luck and a few days on the water. The largest Kalum steelhead I ever saw was released. It probably weighed 32-pounds according to a traditional formula of girth squared times length times 1.33 divided by 1000. This fish had a girth of 24.5 inches and a length of 40 inches. Most fish run smaller.

Typical Kalum River Steelhead

The Kalum River, a tributary of the more famous Skeena River, waits just outside of Terrace, B.C. Canada, a town of about 15,000 located about 600 air miles from Vancouver. Kalum steelhead winter over in the river and wait to spawn in late April, May and June. But steelhead aren't your only option. Some time in April, or more likely the first week in May, massive Chinook Salmon sneak into the Kalum river and lurk in steelhead pools like submarines with scales.

Unless you plan to spend most of the day following big Chinooks up and down the river, scale up to heavier gear. Twenty pound or heavier leaders and line aren't too much when the river's flows increase with warming weather and 50, 60 or even 70 pound Chinooks boggle the mind and break up light tackle types!

Just ask Larry Schoenborn, host of FISHING THE WEST, about the need for such tackle. A TV show shot back in May of 1991 demonstrated the problems of "appropriate tackle" when you mix fifteen pound steelhead with fifty pound salmon and aren't geared up for the latter.

Kalum River fishing's so good that most systems produce. I prefer float fishing that suspends a lure or bait under what some call "bobbers" and use a drift boat to cover all five miles and 22 pools of the Kalum River with ease, although it does take about eight hours to cover everything. The only times I go to shore is to land a fish, water a bush or manage a shore lunch. Best of all, floats help you control your bait or lure location and make bites evident even for beginners.

A typical 16-pound steelhead in not uncommon BC weather.

PHOTO CREDIT: NOEL GYGER

All sorts of rigs work. Most of the time I use dime-size roe bag looped onto Size Two barbless hooks. Salmon roe seems the best bait. And bait doesn't mean killed fish either! Some look down on bait fishermen as fish killers. They think that every fish swallows the bait. This is simply not the case with the proper rig and good technique. In England catch and release "coarse fishing" is the most popular, and affordable form of angling, and in British Columbia ninety-five percent of my steelhead caught with float rigs are hooked in the upper jaw and returned uninjured. When the float goes under (and your heart skips a beat) you set the hook in their jaw. This simple, but sophisticated approach is much, much easier than trying to figure out underwater drifts with traditional bottom-bouncing rigs

If you're new to float fishing techniques check Dave Vedder's book Float Fishing for Steelhead. It offers more than enough information to help you take steelhead or salmon first time out. There's full coverage of baits and complete instructions on how to use floats with artificials such as Gooy Bobs, cheaters, Spin and Glos, Corkies or just plain wool on the proper size hook.

Flyfishing also works, but you're limited because only a few special pools best suit usual flyrod techniques. Most of the typical systems work here, but local knowledge of the best holes can radically improve your chances. You can pick up a guide, special flies and other tackle locally.

But while catching Kalum steelhead isn't difficult, it's most important to conserve and protect the totally wild stocks - no hatcheries here. We do this with catch and release that normally avoids the dreaded net shrink and limits the size and number of your catch only by your creativity and your listener's gullibility. But the truth needs no gilding here.

A guided day also seems a good way to learn and practice catch and release with larger fish than most catch, let alone release. Start with barbless hooks or hooks that have very small barbs to insure easy releases. Don't have barbless hooks? Simply mash hook barbs flat. Do gear up so you don't stress a fish by playing it too long - a problem usually caused by too light a line or poor technique. Not bashing fish about in the shallows seems basic. Always keep the fish off the rocks and in deep water. To stay dry as you manage this, try chest waders or at least hip boots.

Even in the lust for photographs don't pick steelhead or salmon up by the tail and lift them high into the air; this puts too much stress on their backbone. To control trophy steelhead or salmon best, hold their mouth with one hand and support the belly with the other hand so your prize is horizontal and at least partly submerged. Many pros use a glove or grip sock to grip the steelhead's tail. For large fish consider gloves on both hands. Always stay away from the gills. Do not use a standard woven mesh landing net as the mesh can cause excessive scale loss and split fins; European nets that avoid knots reduce this problem.

The bottom line's simple. Keep fish in the water as much as possible, take the hook out gently, then hold them up for a quick "kiss" and photo, then let them go. If you do this correctly you will not need hemostats or pliers. If the fish has the strength to wiggle its tail, let it "kick" out of your hand and swim free. Do not hold it back. If your catch seems exhausted, pump it a bit with its head into the current so water flows over its gills and it starts to wiggle free. Then celebrate, with a loud YA HOO!

Any style of fishing is welcome here. Sweet Steelheading!!

The author, Noel F. Gyger, is a licensed angling guide in northwest British Columbia. for information, contact:

NORTHWEST FISHING GUIDES
P.O. Box 434, Terrace, B.C. V8G 4B1, Canada