Pacific Northwest Part III: Into the Unknown

I rubbed my eyes, in an effort to stave off the steadily advancing drowsiness. Having driven for 5 hours through the state of Washington, I had found myself admiring the absolutely breath taking scenery that unfolded itself in front of me. However, with nightfall, the exhaustion of the constant driving was taking it’s toll. Luckily, I was not far away from my destination: Vancouver! Having only visited Canada once in my life as a young boy living on the East coast, I was eager to see what experiences the country would hold for a young adult.

It had only been a few months earlier when I had the pleasure of being introduced to one of Ken’s many angling associates, whom we will call Kaz, when I mentioned that might be in the Vancouver area. Kaz was a species hunter, like Ken and I, and had accrued a large amount of valuable information regarding the varied species of fish that inhabited the tangled web of rivers that weaved their way down the slopes of the Pacific ranges of the Coast Mountains.

After some correspondences, I discovered Kaz would be undergoing his own species hunt for a rare sucker species in the wilderness of Canada when I had planned to be there, and therefore would not be available to guide me around the area. However, Kaz was kind enough to not only share some fruitful GPS coordinates with me, but even mailed me a small “care package” containing exclusive Japanese lures that he was confident would aid in my search for new Canadian species of fish. My trip to Vancouver would coincide with the “spring float,” which was an event where small salmon fry were hatching from redds high up in mountain streams and floating down the current towards the ocean. This event would attract numerous piscine predators, eager to take advantage of the helpless fry.

Armed with this knowledge and my own small array of lures, I was ready to tackle Canada! Unfortunately, even the best laid plans don’t always pan out as I would soon find out. Arriving at the border between Canada and the US near midnight with only 10 miles to my hotel, I found a rather short line of cars, and waited a quick 30 minutes before I was at the cusp of entering a different country. Unfortunately, this was when my plans started to go awry, as my passport was quickly whisked away from me, and I was ushered into an interrogation room. 2 hours later, after being searched, interrogated, threatened, and intimidated, I was fortunate enough to be able to continue on my way to Vancouver. Let’s just say that after that experience, Canadian border patrol officials are not my favorite people in the world. Also, in case anyone is unfortunate enough to be in my situation, realize that when you are being interrogated, they can, and probably will access your computer and phone to read texts, emails, documents, and listen to voicemails!

With that rather unpleasant experience done with, I checked into my hotel in downtown Vancouver. On a shoestring budget due to the expansive nature of this expedition, I had chosen one of the cheapest hotels available. Unfortunately, the area reflected this, with an enormous number of homeless people literally carpeting the sidewalks. In fact, upon finding my hotel reservation in my email account, the border patrol agents had teased me for choosing such a run down area to host myself. Luckily, I am somewhat accustomed with vagabonds and vagrants due to my time at Berkeley and I slipped past them into my tiny but comfortable room and promptly passed out.

Having only just barely squeezed the trip to Canada onto my schedule in a last minute change of itinerary, I could only spare 2 days exploring the waterways of Vancouver. However, given the time of year, there would not be an expansive number of species of pursue anyways, so I could focus my efforts on some of the more interesting and unique species of fish in the area. One of these species would be the Bull Trout. Closely related, and quite difficult to distinguish from the Dolly Varden, the Bull Trout was actually a species of char. Named for it’s aggressive and highly predatory nature, I was extremely excited at the prospect of encountering one of these northern water wolfs.

Based on Kaz’s coordinates, however, I would be driving for a good amount of time into the wilds of Canada before I would find fruitful waters… and unfortunately for me, my GPS unit chose to self destruct the moment I entered my car at the break of dawn. With absolutely no clue about the area, no cell phone service, no map, and no internet capabilities, I had only one choice to proceed and that would be to buy a new GPS unit… and this meant waiting for the first electronics store to open at 9am. Foiled again!

So, with the new GPS unit set up and the sun well up in the sky, I followed my way up the winding highways through the gorgeous landscapes of western Canada. An hour later, I found myself headfirst in a dead ended street just before entering Whistler, the famous skiing destination. Was my new GPS unit acting up? Did Kaz give me bad GPS coordinates? Nope, silly me had entered in the wrong coordinates. So, back down the winding roads and mountain passes, I went, backtracking almost 50 miles before finding the correct road to take. Less than 24 hours in Canada, and life was already upside down!

Now that I was certain I was on the correct path, I found myself on small mountain road that paralleled a crystal clear river. I was lucky to have a rental car, because as I traveled further and further along the road, it steadily degraded in quality. First from patches of concrete broken with dirt patches, to a purely dirt road, to a dirt road interspersed with gravel. Soon, the road quality had become so ridiculous that my poor rental car simply could not continue, as it could not get over the grapefruit sized rocks that littered the road surface. A full 15 miles away from the GPS coordinates given to me, I wondered if today’s entire journey had been an exercise in futility. Nonetheless, the gurgling and gorgeous river called to me, and I decided this spot would be as good as any to get some fishing done. I slipped on my waders, donned my wading boots, and readied my terminal tackle.

The river was clear and cool as I dropped into the water. The sun had already risen and fallen in the sky, and a cool spring breeze whistled gently through the trees. Having very little wading experience and no wading partner, I carefully forded the river across a shallow riffle, reveling at the sheer power contained behind the cheerfully bubbling water. I had set myself up on an ultralight outfight fishing to cast the 1 inch soft plastic lures that Kaz had suggested, to mimic the salmon fry that should be found in the river system. Cast after cast, I flogged the river, looking for a fish to connect with, but finding my lure only stopped when it found one of the many snags among the river bottom.

Slowly and methodically, I moved upstream while continuing to ply the crystal clear waters. Although my stunning surroundings made the tedious process much more enjoyable, the total lack of fish continued to cause me to wonder whether I was wasting time. Nonetheless, I continued onwards, eventually traveling a few miles upstream from where I had left my car. By now, the sun was beginning to dip over the distant mountain peaks, and I started to think I should head back. I checked back through my lure bag to see what I could use as I worked my way back. A glint of gold from the bottom of my box caught my eye, and I pulled out one of my universal standbys. The ¼ oz gold kastmaster. Changing out my outfit to a light spinning outfit with my quantum smoke reel, I was able to fling the little bar of metal much further than the nearly weightless plastic lures, and I figured I would be able to cover some more ground as I headed back towards my car.

Standing on a bluff that overlooked a deeper pool at the end of a set of riffles, I fired off a series of casts into the current. Tumbling the spoon down the current, I brought the lure back at the end of the drift with a set of jerky bounces. I watched through my polarized lenses as the lure flashed and twirled in the setting sun. Suddenly, a dark silhouette bulldozed it’s way towards my lure from the deeper water, fins spread and bristling. It snapped aggressively at the spoon, but it was too close, too late! From my vantage point on the bluff, I couldn’t get an effective hookset and the spoon popped out from the fish’s mouth and it disappeared. My heart pounded in my throat, and I felt the frustration burning in my chest.

Dejectedly, I continued back towards the car. With only a mile left to go, I came across a long stretch of the river. Wide and flat, I could spot a few deeper channels and pools interspersed among the submerged boulders. This screamed ambush spot, and earlier I had noted some surface disturbances but failed to raise anything. With the bitter taste of loss still fresh in my mouth, I sent out my lure back out into the middle of the river. Retrieving the spoon with the current just enough to keep it wobbling, halfway through the retrieve it stopped. My rod bent heavily as I instinctively struck, but it was such a solid resistance that I immediately thought I was snagged.

But there was a pulsating sensation at the end of my line. A deep, heavy pulsating that strummed with vibration through into my arm, and I knew there was something there. But this was no young buck, this was something solid, muscular, brawny. It began pushing upriver with no hesitation, almost ignoring my screeching 25 sized reel. I wondered what I had just connected with, as I started stumbling upriver to follow the fish.

After a solid battle that felt like an eternity, I was able to slowly inch the beast towards the shoreline. I grabbed my net as I felt the fishes determined runs grow less and less powerful. However, in the clear water, I watched an enormous shadow nose it’s way through the current and realized it would not fit in my net by any stretch. Salmon?! No way, I thought. In a moment, the thick caudal peduncle powered back away from me and the fish was hidden again, but the flash of silver and heavily spotted back had given me wind of the fishes identity. Steelhead!? My first steelhead!

Adrenaline rush now renewed, I continued working the fish back towards the shoreline as it stubbornly refused to be landed. I had found a shallow bank where I felt like I would be able to tail the fish and gently led the fish in that direction. After a few heart stopping last minute runs, I grabbed the spoon that was barely hooked at the tip of the fish’s jaw and slid the gasping fish into the wet bank.

I stared at it in absolute awe. 28 inches of chrome muscle, one of the strongest opponents I have ever faced, caught in absolute seclusion in the wilderness of Canada. The tiny ¼ oz spoon almost fell out as I went to unhook it, as during the extended fight it had considerably loosened. After a quick set of photos, I gently placed the fish back into the frigid water, and supported it as it recovered. Seconds later, it kicked back into the current, and I watched as it gently glided away from me. What an amazing experience!

Floating along the bank on cloud nine, I threw my spoon back out, barely even thinking about presentation. At this moment, I could not care less whether I caught another fish on the entire trip! However, just a few feet away from the bank, in the dimming sunlight, my retrieve was stopped again. This time, it was a arm wrenching strike, immediately followed by a frenzied struggle. This was a smaller fish, but it made up for size with pure mayhem. It was upstream, then downstream, down, up, away, running towards me, head shaking, all over! Within minutes, I had the fish near the bank and I could see it had a set of gorgeous white edged fins bristling from it’s body. An enormous jaw snapped open and close as it attempted to dislodge the spoon hooked again at it’s jaw tip.

I quickly led the fish into my net, and peered at it more closely. The golden green hued body had a sprinkling of pale white spots dotting it’s length, and the long squirmy body was finished by a broad square tail. But I was enthralled by the fish’s mouth, which looked almost comically large on it’s body. This was the Bull Trout, my number one target that I had traveled to Canada for!

After admiring the fish, I quickly dropped it back into the water. With absolute no hesitation, the fish shot off into the current, and disappeared. I stood up, and watched as the sun continued to creep down over the distance. After a day complete with all sorts of misadventures, it took less than an hour for me to bring two of my most highly prized fish species to hand. What a trip!

Interestingly, as I forded the last leg of the river to return to my car, I saw some small fish dart in the shallows, and I managed to scoop a pair up in my net. Surprise, surprise, small salmon smolt! And just about the size of a 1/4 oz kastmaster! Match the hatch, so they say…

After being privy to a beautiful sunset as I drove my way back towards Vancouver, I quickly succumbed to sleep after my eventful day. The next morning, I awoke just before sunrise in preparation for another long drive to the east. Based on information from Kaz, I would be fishing one of the inlets to a large lake in search of the Coastal Cutthroat trout. Having never caught any species of cutthroat trouts, I was looking forward to tangling with another species of trout known for it’s aggressive tendencies and acrobatic fighting style. Arriving just after sunrise, a turquoise expansive lake stretched to the horizon, bordered by a beautiful azure skyline. I slipped my waders back on, and chose to keep my lucky kastmaster on my line.

The crystal clear waters of the lake parted to reveal a muddy and slightly silty bottom. The lake was filled past maximum capacity, and I could see the banks were flooded. Wading towards the inlet, I found a steep dropoff, and chose to parallel this feature as I casted my spoon into the deeper water. There were some small surface splashes here and there, and within 10 casts, I had hooked up to something. This fish immediately took to the surface, and I saw a little bar of silver light up in the air, before dashing under and ferociously headshaking. While not large in size, the fish made a great bid for freedom, but was soon in my net. These lake resident cutthroats almost completely lacked the vivid orange markings on their jaws for which they are named for, but retained the heavily speckled leopard spotting that their species is known for, dotting all the way down the pectoral and pelvic fins.

After releasing the fish, I continued to catch another half a dozen fish in the next few hours. These little terrors would smash into my lures, and half the time would throw them on their first wildly acrobatic run. Although I had the species solidly checked off my list, it was difficult to stop fishing for these fish when they were biting so aggressively and fighting with such vigor. With the sun warming the shallows however, soon the bite began to slow, and I decided it was time to pursue my final target in British Columbia.

I hopped onto my car, and sprinted a short way back towards Vancouver before turning off towards a feeder creek along a large tributary. Having never seen wild salmon before, the sight of the skeletal remains of salmon long gone intrigued me as I clambered through brush, and forded through empty salmon resting pools. Eventually, I arrived at the coordinates that Kaz had gifted me, and I found myself standing at before a rushing river tributary, directly before a shallower sandbar. Here, I had hoped to find the mountain whitefish, a species of fish shunned by many sports anglers as a nuisance fish, yet will readily hit many of the lures intended for trouts and chars.

Switching back to the small plastics in and attempt to entice these smaller mouthed predators to hit, I drifting up and across in the heavy current while slowly moving downstream every few minutes. Halfway across the sandbar, I get a mighty strike, and I watch the clear water for a sign of a whitefish, but instead a gorgeously marked coastal cutthroat slides into the shallows. Unlike the lake residents, this individual had an absolute crimson slash mark on it’s jawbone, but refused to stay still for a photograph and had flopped it’s way out of my net and back to freedom in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, this would be the only strike I would get all day at this spot, despite stubbornly fishing until sunset. Being really the only target species that I failed to catch on this entire trip to the Pacific Northwest, I couldn’t really complain.

After enjoying a wonderful night’s rest, I woke to an early start so I could make my way back to the US for my flight, which departed out of Seattle. Although I had been tempted to make an early morning detour to fish some more, I was glad I erred on the side of caution as my transition across the US border ended up taking almost 2 hours due to the large amount of cars waiting to cross.

Luckily this still left me just enough time to quickly stop by a small fishing pier in Mukilteo, just north of Seattle, under recommendation of pierfishing expert Ken Jones. Unfortunately, there were no fishermen around, nor were there any visible fish, probably due to the extreme low tide. Nonetheless, the area made for a gorgeous last view of the Pacific Northwest, as I prepared myself to leave. I had spent less than a week driving nearly 1000 miles between Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. I watched the morning sun sparkle as it hit the ocean mist in Tillamook. I stood in awe as I felt the powerful fury of the Williamette River roar through it’s canyons. I marveled at the lengthening shadows as the evening sun disappeared over the crest of the Coast Mountains near Chilliwack. Through the ups, through the downs, my quest in life to see more, experience more, catch more has led me on some incredible journeys, but few have and probably will ever fill my mind with images as vivid as this one.

La vie est grande.

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