ambitions achieved on the Cowichan
by Ray Langley
Long ago, when I was a schoolboy, our English teacher gave the class a book to read which we were told would form the basis of a test at the end of the term. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was about fish and fishing. The book ”Return to the River” was by Roderick Haig-Brown” and reading it, certainly in the long-term, changed my life and taught me respect for that wonder creature, the salmon. Now this man loved fishing and wild places so much that he left the shores of England and moved to British Columbia. He settled down on Vancouver Island and wrote many more books on fishing and conservation. He was a man I admired and respected and he is somewhat revered to this day on the Island and elsewhere. He was born in Sussex in 1908 and died in 1976.
I am fortunate in having a son living in Vancouver and had received an invitation to visit in March last year. One of my ambitions was to catch a steelhead. (There are no steelhead in Scotland where I live.) I realized that this would be an ideal opportuity to “have a go” for that beautiful migratory rainbow trout. Having read a fair number of articles on the rivers and streams of Vancouver Island I knew over 80 of these have runs of steelhead. Some of these have both summer and winter-run steelhead so I had to find out which of these rivers would have fish running in early March and which was fairly easy to get to from Vancouver by public transport.
The internet is a wonderful tool when you want information and I soon found the British Columbia Fisheries web site with regulations for Vancouver Island. The great thing about fishing here is that all rivers are available at a reasonable cost in comparision with the British Isles. I was sent a copy of the provincial regulations with much of the information I wanted, including river maps. Having studied these I chose the Cowichan River which has a good run of winter steelhead and has the town of Duncan as the ideal centre. The river flows out of Lake Cowichan and is approximately 20 miles to the estuary, with 89 named pools and lies, which were shown clearly on the map provided including access roads.
My son Russell decided he would also like to fish and suggested that we engage a guide at least for one day because the river was running high with snowmelt and would be in the peak of the steelhead runs by the time we arrived. Our guide, Dan suggested we fish for two days and stay overnight in a log cabin next to the river. He would meet us at the ferry terminal, transport us to the cabin, provide food, tackle, waterproof clothing and waders, and then transport us back to the ferry terminal, all for a reasonable cost. This was too good to pass up. We booked for two days, Feb. 28th and Mar 1.
We caught a bus in Vancouver for the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal and then the ferry to Nanaimo. This is an interesting, low cost way to travel with no worry about car hire. Sure enough, our guide was there to meet us. We had a short, pleasant drive to Duncan. The log cabin was on a high bank overlooking the river (which looked high, glacial green, and was running fast). We settled in and later that evening Dan arrived with our permits, and he delivered a very welcome dinner that his wife had prepared.
At 07:30 the next day Dan took us upstream a few miles to the drift boat. We were reminded that a catch-and-release system operated for wild steelhead and hooks had to be barbless. We could retain two hatchery steelhead a day (adipose fin removed) but all wild steelhead had to be returned. Dan suggested we fish with a small pink plastic spinning egg, called ‘Spin-N-Glo’. Russell opted for it while I chose fly fishing.
We drifted to a lie close to the bank and Russell was soon into a steelhead, which jumped as soon as it felt the hook. After a good battle in fast water the fish was carefully netted and returned. It was bright silver about 6 lb. It was the first steelhead we had seen and what a wonderful sight! We drifted down to another lie and Russell caught another fish of about 5 lb., whilst I persisted with the fly, called an ‘egg-sucking leech’. I could not get the fly down deep enough, even with the fast sinking line, I was using a fly rod, nine feet in length, rated AFTM 8.
For the Spin-N-Glo, an eight foot light spinning rod was used with a small multiplying reel. The terminal tackle has a float that slides up and down the line to the required depth. Below this is a hollow pencil-lead which the line passes through, followed by a swivel, a 12 inch to 16 inch leader of 10 to 12 lb., the Spin-N-Glow, a bead (this was green) and a single steelhead hook (size 4). The float is controlled using the free-running mode of the reel. This method allows you to get to lies close to the bank and around fallen trees and obstructions. The lead should pass close to the riverbed with the egg spinning downstream, about a foot above the riverbed. You strike every time the float goes under. With the lure close to the eye level of the fish, you will eventually place it in front of your quarry. Winter steelhead are often aggressive and will leave their lie to attack a lure.
The technique is to control the float downstream so it travels at a natural constant speed. Our guide said he uses a centre-pin trolling reel for this, but we managed with a multiplying reel.
After lunch we anchored below where a small creek entered so that I could fish the fly in the back-eddy. Here I got my first steelhead and for the first few minutes it seemed to spend more time above the water than in it! It was estimated about eight lb. A few minutes after releasing it I hooked a second fish but it jumped and threw the hook. We drifted to the next lie and that lucky son of mine was into another fish. This time we had to follow it downstream until the boat could be anchored in slower water near the bank so that the fish could be played out and netted. It was a large slightly red cock fish of about 10 lb.
That day we saw bald eagles soaring above the river and the scenery was spectacular with the sun filtering through the trees. The forest and the undergrowth on each bank looked dense with fallen trees, and moss seemed to be invading. We kept a lookout for bears but were unlucky. Having fished over a good many lies, some with enchanting names like Gazebo Run, Benallack’s Pool, and Davie Corner Pool, we arrived opposite our cabin at about 16:30 hours and tied up the boat. This gave our guide (with my son’s help) time to take the boat up-river and ready for the next day.
The second day was very cold and frosty when we started at 07:30. Later we were pleased that the boat was equipped with two gas heaters so that we could get the circulation back into our fingers. I started with the fly rod again but after a while, I decided to have a go with the Spin-N-Glo and I caught two with this lure, the largest approximately 13 lb. This was hooked in Gazebo Run and it gave such a hard fight that we had to follow it downstream through rapids and round the bend at Clay Banks before Dan could beach the boat and net the fish. It was not easy trying to keep the fish from getting into the main flow; had the fish succeeded all would have been lost. It was a hatchery-bred and it was carefully returned.
Russell had a great day and caught two more fish up to eight lb., but also lost a fish that took off downstream and could not be stopped or turned. I went back to fly fishing from the bank in a shallow section of the river and caught a nice rainbow trout that marked the end of two days of the most enjoyable fishing, with the new experience of fishing from a drift boat. The main benefit of fishing from a drift boat is the ability to easily cover and move between all the lies. All of our fish were returned safely. I wondered if we had just been lucky with the steelhead runs coinciding with our visit but on reflection I realized it was the local knowledge and skill of the guide in positioning the boat above the lies that accounted for our success. We were lucky with the weather with two dry days that were not too bright.
Later that day I was reading a local fishing paper and was pleased to find out that from April 11-17 a Haig-Brown festival was to be held in Campbell River to celebrate his life and work as a writer and conservationist. Twenty-five years after his death, the district of Campbell River announced that it was naming a length of river as the ‘Roderick Haig-Brown conservation Area’. Many of his writings referred to this river. His home and his property were given heritage status and are maintained as a museum and education centre. Unfortunately I could not stay to attend this festival because I was expected back in Scotland.
There is much to see in and around Duncan. Only 40 km away is Victoria, the capital of BC. It is a beautiful city and is a must, especially for non-fishing companions. There is fishing in the Cowichan River year ‘round with coho, chinook, chum, steelhead, brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. You are spoiled for choice on Vancouver Island. On my next visit I will follow in the footsteps of Haig-Brown and fish the Campbell River. I will also make sure I pay tribute to this remarkable man and his work by visiting his home and museum.