White River

White River


The weather had been hot for most of the week. That dry heat that sometimes slips out of the Interior scorching grass and recalling hot summer nights in Lytton or Trail. But on this day it was cool and breezy from the northwest. A small front had passed early throwing a few showers and
dragging cooler air onto the coast. Only a few cumulus clouds over the mainland mountains gave evidence of its passing. I was thinking of the fireworks that would be happening in the Kootenays that night as I picked my way down to the river.

It was fairly late in July – a little too late for great fishing in the canyon I thought – and the heat had brought the river up a foot or so. There wasn’t much more melt water to come and maybe the steelhead had moved up out of the canyon sensing that this was the last surge until fall. There should still be some though along with a few Dollies and maybe some early coho.

The trail led steeply down though the slash onto a small flat then dropped over a sharp break to the river. The slash was laced with deer runways and trails and there were beds on the remains of stumps and old logs. Had the deer created them by pulverizing the soft wood with their feet?

Before the late 1960’s, the White was barely known to a handful of local steelheaders in the Sayward Valley. I had heard about it from a logger who had shot a deer only to have it roll down into the river. When he went down to retrieve it, he was surprised to see a number of big summer
steelhead in the pool that came to be known as The Salmon Viewing Pool.

When I first came to the river not long after, the path had been only a faint track linking up the deer runways but now it was a well beaten track and there were plastic wrappers and those little cards that fishing lures come with. I wondered how much timber it took to make the cardboard for tackle displays and all the other packaging junk.

I usually stop near the edge of the break and survey the river from the cliff to see where the fish are holding. But this time it didn’t matter since there was only one stretch that could be covered well with the fly and the upper half of the pool was closed. Leave the spying to the bear, wolf
and eagle I thought.I could see green water and sense its chill as I picked my way over a windfall in the last timbered pitch before the river.

The White is a great river. Any river that supports big summer steelhead in numbers is a great one. This river has fish over twenty pounds and lots well over ten. It also supports a good run of summer coho which are very rare and large numbers of sea – run dollies – fast, bright fish still
heavy with the vigour of the Salmon River Estuary in July. The White River watershed is also great deer and elk habitat and is very beautiful. Someday I will spend a week exploring the upper valley, Stewart Lake and the alpine grandeur of Ward and Victoria peaks. I want to see elk in the wet meadows, wolf tracks on the river bars and view the river from a high place just about the time the first snow flurries of the coming winter sift in through the Sutton Range. I might even cross White – Gold Pass and the country between Upper Consort Creek and Grilse Creek and turn into Gold Lake. Then I can say I’ve seen some of that country.

The fishiness of the White must be due to the great amount and overall quality of accessible water. The fish can travel well into the headwaters and tributaries. Flow holds up well even in the driest summers and the water is nearly always very clear and cold. Almost too clear and cold I
sometimes think but there is so much of it in so much variety. Deep canyon pools with pale gravel at the tail spills and foaming turbulence at the inlets, strong and deep boulder riffles, long gravel runs and many meandering tributaries and little side channels and back waters where the smaller fish can find haven.

When the Upper White was due to be logged, local outdoorsmen and government biologists told their story and lobbied hard for protection of
the watershed. They argued that this was a special river and insisted that the interests of fish, wildlife, wilderness and the overall public interest would best be served by no logging but if logging were to proceed, it must recognize the ecological values and accommodate them by a carefully planned harvest with a minimum of roads and smaller, well spaced cut blocks logged over a long period.  Key habitat areas would be left

Logging was allowed to proceed but a major victory for conservationists occurred because, for the first time, coast logging was planned in a manner that would minimize impact on the other forest resources. Both the BC Forest Service and the company (Macmillan Bloedel) accepted the
plan which triggered a new concept in coast logging which was more or less applied to all watersheds thereafter: recognize that there is more to the forest than logs and do the best you can to make sure the other values can continue to thrive following harvest.  Believe me when I say, this was seldom the case before about 1970.

I thought about this and other watersheds that were not so fortunate as I approached the pool. The wind had picked up as the land warmed and I could see a little ripple on still areas of the pool. Would this improve the fishing? Would a few insects blow in from the timber in clumsy  little splashes and would this get the fish moving? Perhaps I could get closer to the fish behind a screen of surface turbulence and my leader wouldn’t look like baling wire.

The pool is very large and formed by pale rock. Steelhead hold well toward the bottom end in moderate to high flows then move up closer to the inlet depth and turbulence as summer progresses and the water drops. It is a beautiful place but somewhat tricky to cover with a fly since there is
little room for a back cast and wading is treacherous. In truth, my previous experience here was dragging a lure over a concentration of steelhead with spinning gear. I had landed over  twenty fish that day and lost about the same number. Many simply ran down out of the pool and kept going until they broke off. My confidence was low as far as landing big steelhead on the fly was concerned  but I had to try and I was sure I could hook some.

The fish were there. I worked a wet fly on a number 8 hook over them in the same way we used to fish the Kootenay rivers for big resident rainbows. My first cast  to a little nose of rock that divided the pool almost in half and created an almost perfect run of surface turbulence yielded two followers almost to my feet. I began seeing the fish then. Two below me holding steady behind a big boulder that just broke the surface and a mass of ten or more moving restlessly above me and just below the rock nose. The down streamers were darkish and dour looking. I covered them
twice without a move. I turned upstream just as a surface slick passed the school. They panicked and raced upstream to the head of the pool. They had seen me or sensed my presence.  For the next hour I flogged away and occasionally crept upstream to view the fish which were now in the closure. There were at least two hundred holding tight against a rock wall. I would count until I thought I’d seen them all and then a group of
fifty or so would show up out of the bubbles and make me wonder again. I had to catch one! How could I ever explain that I was alone with a bathtub full of summer steelhead with a hundred dollars worth of gear in hand  and was unable to catch one?

I climbed back to my idle rod saw a group of at least five fish break away from the pack and head toward the rock nose narrows in a leisurely fashion. I could catch one now – I was sure of it! The wind was quick and my fly went too far. I pulled down quickly just short of an alder branch
and it dropped too hard over the fish. The surface boiled as a great steelhead took fast. I held for a second then he was off running and jumping. Crashing upstream now then racing downstream. I hauled line in shock. Then the fish sulked. Why didn’t he just keep racing down the canyon? No contest then. I was sane now and actually believed I might land him as he moved up and down with less vigour. Once in awhile a great spurt and I thought he was gone but then a lull and he was still on. Then came the fearful moment when the fish came to the surface on its side and its size was all too evident .  All steelhead seem too large for comfort and this one seemed huge. There was a tiny beach near my feet and I led the fish
slowly in with my knees knocking. It was on the beach now and I could see that it was slim female not more than nine pounds – just average for the White. The fly came away easily and she ghosted off to deep water.

I landed one more and lost two others before the fish all moved into the closed area. Another angler with a many repaired rod tip came and went and I climbed the to watch the fish. A school of dollies moved in to the pool and I went down and caught one for supper then packed up.

I stopped at the cliff again and watched the steelhead move back to the nose. Ten or more this time for sure. I could easily catch them. I turned into the slash and thought of the girls I had known and how the sun would be sinking into the sea way to the west.

Leave a Reply