January and February are the peak months for winter steelheading on Vancouver Island. Most east side rivers have winters, as do most west side. And summers are in the water at the same time, but their presence is more limited to west side rivers, with some Johnstone Strait drainages added in.
The winter rivers plumbed most often include the Cowichan, Stamp, Campbell, Nimpkish and Gold, the first four of which have hatchery additions. Do note there are fly-only sections on some of these rivers so do check the regs for rules. And for the Big Qualicum take a look at this historical site: http://www.bccf.com/steelhead/focus6.htm. There are many rivers in this project, so look around. It’s a fascinating site.
If you are getting in to winter steelheading, the typical gear combo is a baitcaster reel married to a 9.5- to 10.5-foot trigger finger rod. Use 20- to 25-pound braided backing line and 20 feet of 15- to 20-pound mainline mono that attaches to the tackle end. Actual leader to tackle is lower, and on ultra-clear water as low as 4-pound, which is very difficult to land a steelhead without much care in the fight.
If you haven’t been out winter fishing, go with a knowledgeable friend or a guide. It may seem expensive to take a guide, but you are also paying to learn what the guide knows, and if you pay attention, you will have a better idea for coming on your own – safely – at later dates. Guides only fish high percentage spots in a day that combines other runs/pools that offer possible fish – steelhead are fish of habit, and the same spot you caught one previously, can hold a fish again.
The other advantage of guides is that they have boats – jet boats on rivers that allow them, like the Stamp, and drift boats/pontoon boats on other rivers. I don’t recommend going on your own unless you are with someone who has previously drifted the section you want to fish.
An example being the Stamp between Money’s and the Provincial Park. The latter is a pull out, but if you did not know there was a falls below and you drifted through, you would be in big trouble in that very tough section. The Cowichan has the Haig-Brown Fly Fishers Association map that you should pick up. See: http://www.haigbrown.ca/. If you are a fly fisher, consider joining the HB or other club. Steelheading is a life time sport and you will never stop learning.
The Cowichan is widely used, and the map will guide you to all the various runs on the river. There are trails along the side, as there are on the Stamp. Both rivers have sections with paths on both sides. An easy section done by foot on the Stamp is the Gun Club to The Bucket. You walk up and fish down to your car.
If you have water craft, one vehicle is left where you will exit the river, and the other at the top where you put in. Two obvious ones on the Cowichan are Greendale and Skutz Falls.
Look at the Cowichan map and you will find lots of foot access trails between Greendale and Skutz. The Stamp’s Gun Club section has an excellent area just above the club for those learning Spey and Switch rod casting. It is a left-hand bank.
If you are thinking of buying a boat, there are several options – below the jet boat, or outboard class; these options you would not take until you were familiar with fishing and decided river fishing was your thing. On the less expensive end are drift boats that require a trailer.
On most Van Isle rivers, belly boats are not recommended as you will constantly be in contact with the bottom. Pontoon boats are plenty maneuverable and a mid-price option with oars will can take you anywhere, and stay out of problems. You will need a roof rack or a truck to transport these fully blown up.
The other option is an inflatable boat, with oars. I chose a Watermaster after using different kinds of boats. They are pricey but worth the dollars you spend. They come with a packsack and you can take down or inflate them in less than 10 minutes. The kit includes a pump. At 35-pounds they won’t kill you to pack in to a river, although one of my trails is 2.5 miles long, and I arrive at the river covered in sweat, so keep that in mind, too.
The packed size of these latter boats are small enough to get two in the back of an SUV with fold down backseats, with space for the equally voluminous waders and etc. you will be clothed in. One chief advantage of this and pontoon style boats, is that you can simply stand up in-river where you want to fish – spots that can be next to impossible to wade to without being swept away – and then lift your feet and carry on.
Also consider whether you are willing to fish in the snow or days below zero. Gear is much more easy to use in the cold than a fly rod. Both form ice footballs in the rod guides, but on a gear rod you just snap them out and keep on fishing. The downside of fly lines is that ice, when frozen to guides or the line, tends to strip away the coating from the interior braid. In other words, ice destroys your expensive fly line. I go skiing on such days now. And for the truly wealthy, a trip to the Caribbean for bones, trevally and permit reaches its peak desirability when Van Isle is at its coldest.
The last thing – if you must fish in snow – is a way to keep your life if you fall in or your boat capsizes. Immediately, your temperature changes from 37 degrees to 4 degrees or less. Your body, chest and mouth go into a gag reflex and your mind panics. This happens every time you fall in, no matter how many times you fall in during your fishing ‘career’. If you keep in mind that your mind will come back to you in 30 seconds, that may just save your life.
I am famous for falling in – when I was a kid, I lost my fear of water, so I do more daring things than others – but the gag reflex thing can be a killer. If you go over a falls or under a log with your mind panicking, you are likely going to die. Swim across stream – to the side you want to end up on – or downstream, until your mind comes back to you. Don’t swim upstream, you will be swept downstream.
The first time I went in with waders on, I began swimming back to the side I had just waded from. When my mind came back to me, I turned around and continued swimming to the shore I was going to. The point is that if you go back where you came from, you are going to have to cross the river for a second time to get where you are going.
Get one of those Mustang chest ‘bar-style’ lifejackets with a pull toggle, and do the smart thing, which is to actually wear it. When you want it to save your life, it will be right where you need it. Good winter steelhead fishing.