Northwest Fly Fishing

The Best of Everything
By E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.

If you’re interested in pursuing steelhead, salmon, and trout in a breathtaking setting while based in one of the world’s premier angling lodges, you don’t have to travel to Alaska to find this appealing combination of fish and amenities. The Lodge at Gold River—on Vancouver Island—lies but a day’s drive north of Seattle, and it offers an ambitious menu of angling opportunities as exciting as anything on the North Pacific coast.
   After thousands of years of occupation by indigenous First Nations peoples—including the Kwakwa ka ’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish—the land mass now known as Vancouver Island first came to European attention during a Spanish expedition in 1774. Captain James Cook reached the island in 1778 during his third voyage, with George Vancouver serving as a midshipman aboard the Discovery. Conflict between Spanish and British interests culminated in the Nootka Crisis of 1789, which nearly resulted in full-scale war between the two countries.
   After a peaceful resolution of the dispute by treaty, Vancouver returned in 1790 as captain of the Discovery, charged with navigating and surveying the complex coastlines of what are now British Columbia and southeast Alaska. The charts he created during his voyage, between 1791 and 1795, proved so accurate that they served as coastal navigation standards for years. At an amiable meeting of Vancouver and the Spanish Captain Bodega y Quadra, the two diplomatically agreed on the name Quadra and Vancouver Island. As Spanish influence waned, Quadra’s name was dropped, and the largest Pacific island east of New Zealand remains Vancouver Island today.
   Nearly 300 miles long and 50 miles wide at its widest, the island creates no sense of confinement, even though visitors and inhabitants are never far from the sea. The population exceeds 700,000, with half of them living in Victoria, a lovely city that serves as British Columbia’s capital; most of the remaining residents are concentrated elsewhere along the southern coast. By the time you reach the Lodge at Gold River on the island’s northern end, the ambience has turned to near wilderness.
   With its highest peak at 7,000 feet, the Vancouver Island Range divides the island into the wetter western side and a drier eastern side. Precipitation levels vary widely, which is actually an advantage for anglers because rivers are more likely to be in shape somewhere. Although the Gold River drains to the west, the lodge is located inland near the divide. Visitors reach it by road from Campbell River to the east. The nearby ocean moderates the climate and even during winter steelhead season, freezing temperatures are uncommon.

 

Smorgasbord of Fish
Steelhead, the island’s premier fly-rod game fish, live all along the North Pacific coast. They reign supreme for good reason: steelhead are endlessly fascinating and there’s just nothing else like them. Because I’ve fished all over the world, people frequently ask my favorite quarry. The answer is always the same—steelhead.
   Since most of the area’s rivers receive both winter-run and summer-run fish, it’s theoretically possible to catch steelhead from the Lodge at Gold River year-round. Obviously, some months are better than others, but local guides’ opinions about which months those are range widely. The choice may boil down to individual preferences in fishing style with an element of luck mixed in. Like all anadromous fish, steelhead are a moving target.
   The lodge’s winter steelhead season begins in January and extends into June, with peak times occurring in March and April. Some prefer this timeframe for fly rods because of more consistent water levels. Summer-run season begins in July and peaks in September and October. These fish present particularly exciting opportunities for fly anglers because it’s often possible to sight-cast to holding fish. They also respond well to dry flies and skated surface patterns, which takes fly-rod steelheading to a whole new level of challenge and reward.
   The average size of Vancouver Island steelhead is a bit smaller than on some of the mainland streams such as those in the Kispiox-Bulkley area. However, lodge guests catch fish larger than 20 pounds every year.
   Visitors can target all five Pacific salmon species. Kings and silvers are especially important to fly-rod anglers here, as they are elsewhere. Both can be taken right from the Gold, which literally runs within casting distance of the lodge. However, the lodge’s unique ability to move guests around puts a nearly limitless number of locations within reach.
   Runs of both species are considerably later than I’m used to in Alaska. The lodge fishes freshwater salmon in September and October, and silvers and even some kings are still bright then. Because all of the region’s streams run clear and most are small, the opportunity to bring to hand a 30-pound king on a fly is as good here as anywhere I know.
   While sockeyes can be challenging to take on flies—or anything else, for that matter—there’s nothing like them when you find bright, cooperative fish in numbers. The lodge offers some good sockeye fishing during the summer months.
   Generally speaking, the lodge also provides excellent fishing for three species of “trout,” of which one is unique to the North Pacific coast and another is unique to this specific locale. Most of the area’s rainbows are actually just steelhead—one that began life in steelhead redds but never migrated to sea. The majority are between 1 and 3 pounds, and fishing can be excellent when they are concentrated, as they are when feeding on eggs behind spawning salmon.
   Of the dozen-odd subspecies of cutthroat trout, only the coastal cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki clarki) migrates to sea, where they acquire the distinct vigor shared by anadromous fish of all species. Sea-run cutts never migrate far from their natal streams, and they move in and out of fresh water from spring through fall, depending on the presence of food sources such as salmon eggs and smolt. Although they rarely exceed 2 or 3 pounds, they are beautiful, scrappy game fish that every serious trout angler deserves to encounter at some point. And I know of no better place to do it.
   Finally, something truly special: several species of char migrate to sea in at least some part of their range, but Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia (between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland) are the only places in the world where this list includes the bull trout, which is listed as threatened throughout its limited range in the United States. Opportunities to take this large, powerful char are consequently limited. Catching (and releasing) an 8-pound specimen fresh from the sea is a unique experience, and the lodge can get anglers to the few streams anywhere in the world where this is possible (see Notebook).
  
Fly Fishing Coastal BC
   Except for occasional periods of heavy rainfall, streams here run crystal clear, eliminating the visibility problems that hinder fly-rod anglers targeting anadromous fish in many places. Because of the wide variety of streams and rivers accessible from the lodge, anglers have ample opportunity to fish water that suits their taste. Some streams are the equivalent of high-mountain trout streams suitable for 5-weight tackle, while others are broad enough to be inviting to Spey-rod enthusiasts.
   Stream access takes many forms and may be as simple as a five-minute car ride along the Gold. Because of the lodge’s remote location, even roadside water receives little angling pressure, and some of these streams have been designated for fly fishing only. Day trips by raft offer pleasant opportunities to fish nearby water that’s inaccessible by road.
   But the lodge offers an even more dramatic option that I haven’t encountered anywhere else this side of New Zealand. Taking a cue from British Columbia’s wildly popular heli-skiing operations, the lodge offers helicopter fly-out day trips to some of the most remote water anywhere along the North Pacific coast. If you visit, take advantage of the opportunity. You deserve it.
   Because of the wide range of water conditions you might encounter, be equipped with both floating and intermediate sinking lines. Most standard trout, salmon, and steelhead patterns will prove effective here, but because of the island’s special opportunities to take steelhead and even coho on top, be prepared with surface patterns appropriate for these species.
   The variety of fish available requires a wide spectrum of rods, from 4-weights for trout to 10-weights for kings. Fortunately, the lodge has a complete supply of excellent fly tackle available. I recommend taking a favorite 7- or 8-weight for steelhead and coho, and choosing from the lodge’s extensive rod collection should your agenda require lighter or heavier gear.
   Novice steelhead and salmon anglers need to keep one important point in mind: no matter what your destination, anadromous fish come and go and river levels rise and fall. No lodge can guarantee ideal conditions on any given day, including this one. However, the sheer variety and geographic extent of the water available from the Lodge at Gold River offer the best possible insurance against encountering blown-out rivers or water devoid of fish.
   Along with freshwater angling, the lodge conducts extensive saltwater operations throughout the summer, primarily oriented to conventional tackle anglers. While lodge staffers acknowledge that they’re not ready for prime time when it comes to fly rods at sea, they remain open to the possibility. Based on my own extensive experience with fly-rod salmon fishing in the salt on the nearby Alaska Coast, I know how exciting such possibilities can be, and the Strait of Georgia is an even more target-rich environment than my own. One wonderful aspect of the fly-rod experience is that there are always new horizons to explore. This is one of them.
 
The Lodge at Gold River
   Through the years, I’ve based my angling operations in accommodations ranging from luxurious lodges to tents pitched in the mud and beleaguered by bears. The Lodge at Gold River certainly falls into the first category. In fact, I’m hard pressed to name one facility better appointed or staffed.
   The lodge sits among the trees on the upper Gold River, immediately adjacent to excellent fishing, on the refurbished site of what used to be the area’s only campground and RV park. This bit of local history led to an interesting personal observation.
   I came by my passion for steelhead the real old-fashioned way: I inherited it. Back when I was still in school in the 1960s, my father used to travel regularly to British Columbia to fish for steelhead and the Gold River was one of his favorite destinations. Because he always drove up in his camper, he almost certainly stayed on what is now the site of the Lodge at Gold River.
   The physical structure of the lodge is nothing less than spectacular, with custom architecture incorporating locally harvested rainforest logs. The interior is tastefully decorated with artwork in multiple media, emphasizing coastal Native culture and outdoor sporting themes. The ambience suggests the fusion of a luxury hotel and a well-appointed museum.
   But in the evaluation of any lodge facility, the people are even more important than the bricks and mortar, or in this case logs. Unfailingly gracious hosts, managers Kent and Teresa O’Neill have years of experience running lodges, not just on the British Columbia coast but elsewhere in Canada and our own Mountain West. They are also highly experienced fly-rod anglers capable of telling fish stories from all over the world. As a bonus, Kent is a knowledgeable oenophile who introduced us to a number of delightful surprises from the developing wine industry in the Okanagan district of southern British Columbia. Why these wines haven’t received more attention on our side of the border remains a mystery to me.
   The cuisine I’ve enjoyed on angling expeditions has varied as widely as the accommodations, and I’ve certainly spent my share of time in the field subsisting on various combinations of Spam, ptarmigan, berries, and Top Ramen. The Lodge at Gold River isn’t about to let it come to that. A formally trained product of Vancouver’s (the city, not the island) highly regarded restaurant circles, chef Terry MacDonald consistently served meals that would draw raves from any Northwest connoisseur. Lodge cuisine emphasizes local seafood and produce, complete with vegetables fresh daily from guide Randy Killoran’s girlfriend’s organic garden.
   Randy was the only guide my wife, Lori, and I fished with during our brief stay, but I found him knowledgeable, tireless, enthusiastic, and an excellent companion during long days on the stream.
   The lodge’s maximum capacity is 18 guests, but it reaches that number only during the busy saltwater salmon season. Maximum capacity for fly-rod anglers is six to eight, although larger groups can be accommodated on request.

 

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