April River

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Deep in the coastal rainforest

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Headwaters

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I’m back in Bella Bella, preparing for our first year operating a smolt trap in the Koeye. But on Monday, before heading to Koeye for the next four weeks, Howard Humchitt and I decided to spend the day trekking around a little stream at the head of a long, mountain lined inlet looking which we suspected might be home to a few steelhead.

Leaving just after dawn the wind was calm on our way out, and in the inlet flanked by smoothed granite mountains the water was mirror-like, rippled only slightly with the breath of a breeze during the dawn hours.

The inlet is a place of immense spiritual and ecological power. Home to Heiltsuk and their forbearers since the glaciers retreated many thousands of years ago, today it remains home to grizzlies, wolves, eagles and abundant salmon. In early fall the thick shouldered chums and small humpbacked pink salmon spawn here by the thousands. Later in the fall coho will return to spawn, placing their offspring in reaches where low gradients and abundant woody debris create perfect rearing habitat. These streams, with their steep, snow-capped drainages are among the coldest in this part of Heiltsuk territory, and while there are no accounts of steelhead in these waters we expected that mid-April should be as likely as anytime to find a silver oceanic steelhead on its spawning run.

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The river is small, cutting through a narrow floodplain in alternating bouts of modest gradient, and steeper plunge pools and canyons. In the fall the river runs rich with the abundance, and decay of chum and pink salmon senescing along the shore fills the air with its rich odor. Now close to 6 months after the last chum spawning things are quiet. Only the bones, scattered in places along the shore and piled in the bear’s kitchen, and the few small fry skittering nervously in the shallows tell the story of the fall bounty.

Hiking upriver, we walked across the grassy estuary, passing an ancient looking gnarled patch of crab apple draped in long trailing wisps of dusty green lichen of the genus Usnea, known to most by its common nameold man’s beard. Near the top of tide we encountered an obvious animal trail, deeply rutted by the repetitive foot falls of generations of grizzly bears. Howard stopped, and pointed out a set of fresh tracks indicating that at least one bear had emerged from his winter den.

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Along a low saddle of a terrace, we walked through mostly open, mossy understory where hand-loggers once fell ancient spruces for the war effort.  We made good time. Just before noon we dropped down to the river, strung our rods and took a short walk upstream, noting the likely pools and pockets. Howard fished a small pool carved against a large boulder, casting his spinning lure adeptly to the deep water against the face the rock. Upstream the river gathered its gradient, tumbling heavily across a boulderd rapid, which at higher flows had scoured the middle of the run leaving behind mysteriously deep slow water dotted with only the largest of the boulder bedload. Just around the corner the river collided with a low slung bluff of hard granite which deflected by the rock race caused it to make a hard right turn before straightening to carve a short, urn like pool.  The depth of the pool and the shade which lingered on its surface gave refuge to a possibility of a resting fish.

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Flipping the small piece of weighted pink rabbit fur and sink tip across the heavy chute andd mending the line allowing it to sink down into the deeper seam against the far side. Jolted from the calm of the river in the late morning by the sudden instantaneous tightening of the line as the fish rushed quickly downstream, peeling away with the musical clicking of the old reel. It rolled, erupting against the surface with a broad sweep of its tail. Then, in an instant it leaving nothing but the faint tension of water against the flyline and fly.

Disappointed by the loss of the fish but excited by the affirmative finding of a steelhead in the little stream near Headquarters,  Howard and I fished downriver for the next several hours, exploring again a series of likely spots without any more surprises from the river. With the afternoon waning we walked back down river through the estuary meadow and the sandy clam bed at the river mouth to Howard’s boat, which we found resting beautifully against the glassy late afternoon.

Now at Koeye, the little river will have to wait again until next year, when I can explore the upper portion of the river and its valley more thoroughly. Who knows what we might find?

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