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In the News with Fly Fishing British Columbia Fishing The Pitt River: Always The Promise Of A Big Fish Running
Story By Peter McMullan with Photography by Nick Didlick, A River Never Sleeps.com

Remote yet still accessible, the Pitt River and Danny and Lee Gerak’s Pitt River Lodge of the same name bring a sense of unique opportunity to the sport fishing scene in British Columbia. There are lodges, rivers and lakes aplenty in this huge province of ours but the large majority, or at least those offering fishing that counts as out-of-the-ordinary in terms of the quality of the experience, are invariably located some distance away from the main population centres.

A lone Fly Fisherman at the Hot Springs Pool

A lone Fly Fisherman at the Hot Springs Pool

That, of course, is an essential part of their charm for there is nothing worse than the pressure that comes with over-fishing. Resident stocks suffer in terms of numbers and average size and, anyway, who really wants to fish shoulder to shoulder or even within hailing distance of complete strangers. It’s a fact of life in so many places now and, for the most part, we accept it as such with good grace as part of the compromises we must make if we are to continue to fish at all.

To come to the Pitt River Lodge, as I did in late October with Mark Hume, Nick Didlick, Glenn Baglo and Mike Smyth, journalists, writers, photographers, friends and colleagues from this website, was to take a step back in time. One minute we were snarled in Sunday afternoon, Vancouver highway traffic as incessant rain drenched the coast; an hour later we were well on our way by boat up Pitt Lake, eager in the anticipation of a return to an era when all rivers in this part of the world were in their prime, full of fish and located in places where the hand of humans had yet to leave its mark.

True, the rich forest resource of the Upper Pitt River valley has been and, to a degree, still is being exploited. But the logging operation that once supported the long-since-dismantled township of Alvin and its pioneering population of some 250 hardy souls is being scaled back and should be shut down altogether within a few years. Research by Lee tells us that Alvin was named after a Nova Scotian farmer and logger, Alvin Patterson, who was the first settler in the valley in 1901.

As it happens, the very nature of the wild and often braided river valley is such that the visual impact of the logging can be largely ignored. At the same time the network of gravel logging roads provides access, from the estuary upstream for some 43 kilometers almost to the very edge of Garibaldi Park where, for some reason, all fishing ceases.

Here in British Columbia we have every reason to take great pride in our superb parks and one wonders why such a total closure is deemed necessary. Surely a catch-and-release, fly only experience would help to attract discerning fishermen to an area of extraordinary natural beauty? As our resource industries – forestry, mining and fishing – continue in decline so tourism becomes an increasingly important source of revenue, and jobs, with fly fishing as a good a way as any to attract visitors from south of the Border and further afield for that matter.

Danny Gerak knows full well the challenges faced by a commercial fisherman but now his boat, the 32-foot Fraser River gill-netter, River Wind, is also an integral part of a Pitt River Lodge transportation system that includes a fine, old yellow school bus and a rugged, red 4 x 4 crew cab.

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Danny Gerak releases a Bull Trout

The boat provides the key linkage between the lodge and the pick-up point at Grant Narrows, less than an hour’s drive from downtown Vancouver, where tidal Pitt Lake runs into the Lower Pitt River on its way to meet the mighty Fraser.

In calm conditions – and it can be really rough at times – the trip up or down the lake takes about an hour and a quarter. Had the rain eased, we would have been able to enjoy to the full our first sight of this wilderness on the very edge of civilization. There are some holiday and weekend homes at the lake’s edge but they are dwarfed as steep, forested slopes climb into the clouds. On a fine summer’s day the boat ride would be an experience in itself; for our crew the warmth of the cabin’s oil stove was good reason to stay below.

Just as the River Wind carries guests, equipment and supplies on the first leg of the journey so the yellow school bus is used between dock and lodge where, over the years our hosts, Danny and Lee, have created a remarkable home away from home. It’s one where guests are immediately welcomed as family, where visitors are encouraged to make the most of a still maturing enterprise, one that owes everything to the relaxed and informal way the owners go about their business.

First came the cabins in the early 1990s, two of them relocated from elsewhere in the valley. Then the lodge itself, completed just a year ago, built from locally cut cedar and fir and notable for the noble proportions of its massive, open plan, main floor area. The lodge provides every comfort with full board and lodging for up to eight guests in four double rooms. The four cabins – Bugtussel, Rocky’s Longhouse, Loft Cabin and Boise Bunkhouse – stand close at hand each accommodating between four and seven guests who look after themselves while enjoying evening access to the main building.

The silent, dripping forest is all around, ancient, moss-hung trees with stories to tell, with the green-roofed, two-storey lodge standing proudly in the middle of a substantial clearing. For those with the urge to wet an immediate line, a one minute walk brings you to the river.

Not that we were in any great rush to go fishing. After all, four full days lay ahead, dinner was cooking and we knew we would have the river to ourselves for most of the time. Expectations were high, the bar was open and there were flies to be tied by those with prior experience of the Upper Pitt, in particular a fresh quota of Kelsey’s Hope which spun effortlessly off Didlick’s nimble fingers.

A night of continuing rain did nothing to disturb the sleep of the big city quintet. Danny’s pre-breakfast check confirmed the river was still on the rise, not surprising in view of the volume of water still pouring down from on high. Nevertheless, there was a spirit of optimism in the air, inevitable when dedicated fly fishermen get set to go about their business.

In passing, Danny mentioned he was having problems with the heater in the crew cab truck he uses to bring visiting fishermen to the river. Soon we knew what it was to ride loggers’ roads in a mobile damp space, a condition exaggerated on the way back with six sodden, wader-clad bodies generating a level of interior moisture that would have been of fully tropical proportions had the day been any warmer. Liberal use of a wad of toilet paper just about kept the windscreen clear for the undaunted driver while his passengers relaxed, confident that he at least could see where he was going.

So the time passed. On the water for most of the daylight hours, eat and drink, talk fishing, play pool, glance at the latest satellite television war news from Afghanistan, incongruous as it seemed in the circumstances, and then to dreamless sleep. Two wood stoves make for comfortable, cozy living in the lodge with mounted, antlered deer heads perfect for hanging the chest waders, hats and jackets that were always bone dry come morning.

With no other guests on hand, Lee had lots of help in the kitchen with the dinner duties evenly spread between those with culinary talents, mostly Baglo, who had also provisioned the expedition in some style, and those of us who accepted our lot as humble dishwashers with not one breakage to mar the effort.

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The Crew

And how was the fishing? The answer has to be ‘met all expectations’ and this despite an unexpected dearth of coho at that particular time. There were certainly coho in and just above the canyon pools but not too many takers to the fly. Didlick’s fish was an exception to that rule but, perhaps responding to undue pressure, it promptly turned a fine three-piece fly rod into a five-piecer in less time than it takes to spin the yarn.

Over the four days we all caught and released our share, the majority of them delicately pink-spotted bull trout close to five pounds, in greater or lesser numbers depending on a variety of factors, prime among them being location and effort. There would be abundance of trout in one stretch of water and few or none in another but the sense of expectation, of something good about to happen, was ever present. With radiophones to hand, we were quick to hear who was doing well and who was struggling – a useful innovation with obvious safety implications when a group is spread out over three or four kilometers of wilderness water.

Keeping count with suitable recognition, and retribution, for the ‘top rod’ at the conclusion of each day enhanced the occasion, as did the recounting of various mishaps that befell the party. My bear encounter (see the December issue) was an early talking point while Danny made his mark not once but twice with headlong dives into the chilled water – unusual behavior for an esteemed guide, one who has known and cherished the Upper Pitt since boyhood. But for a leak in the casing, Didlick’s underwater camera would surely have been called into service to capture the moment.

It was my first experience of bull trout, resident fish according to Danny and not to be confused with the sea-run Dolly Varden that appear at certain times of the year, big char that frequently weigh well into double figures. The bulls were just that, bullish, strong and eager takers of a wet fly cast square on a sink tip.

Often the best of the fishing came at the very tail of the run, just where the water breaks with the larger fish eager to turn and make for the rapids as backing followed line in quick order. One such was my best, in prime condition and a full 25 inches despite the loss of any eye at some earlier stage of its life. “Ah”, said the wag on the radio, “that has to be one-eyed Oscar. We know him well!”

By mid-week. as the water level dropped and clearing skies revealed fresh snow on high ground all around, talk around the bar turned to dry flies and rainbows. And this, remember, was in the third week of October.

The others had their first surface-feeding rainbows on the Wednesday but they were working a stretch of water well above me and, for whatever reason, met up with rising fish while I saw no surface activity. On the final day it was a very different story. It was mid-afternoon when Baglo and I found ourselves on the opposite side of a perfect, broad stream, an even flow of clear water carrying with it a hatch of at least two species of Mayfly, one large and one small, riding the currents in significant numbers.

Just before the hatch was on in earnest the rainbows started to snatch at the sunk fly. Soon they were taking duns on the surface with a series of eager, splashy rises close to both banks, in mid-stream and towards the tail-out as well. The fishing was totally absorbing with my trout coming strongly to a #10 gray Wulff, five out of five hooked and played with all but one brought to the hand for release.
If ever an artist is looking for the picture perfect river rainbow then he should spend time on the Upper Pitt for these were classic examples of the species, hard-bodied, beautifully marked and in superb condition. Life can never be easy in a river as wild and boisterous as the Upper Pitt so its resident fish, whether they be bulls or rainbows, have to be of the best possible stock if they are to survive and prosper.

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The Upper Pitt River Valley

Mine were all in the 13-16 inch class while Baglo finally lost one he estimated around 18 inches. Further upstream, where the hatch was on a good hour before our fish started to move, Hume, Didlick, Smyth and Gerak met up with even larger rainbows to emphasize, if any emphasis is needed, just how good the dry fly fishing can be on this wonderful river.

For some years catch and release has been the accepted order for all Upper Pitt River species and so it should be. Its many boulder-strewn pools and shaded back channels, some constant, some changing from season to season, and even from one big flood to the next, offer the active fisherman a wonderful variety of water, deep glides, runs and streams, pockets of all sizes and always the prospect of a solid take and the accompanying sight and sounds of a big fish on the move. The fly fishermen, and those who use gear as well, appreciate the rare quality of the overall fishery and treat it with respect, even reverence. That approach makes for a healthy and stable stock.

The majestic valley setting with its surrounding mountains, rushing tributaries and abundant wildlife is an absolute visual feast. Bear, deer, cougar, bobcat, eagle, hawk and osprey all have their place in the Pitt River ecosystem along with the fish, the trout (rainbows, bulls and cutthroat), the Dolly Varden, the steelhead and the five species of Pacific salmon. We visit, admire, enjoy and take our leave.

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(Author’s postscript: On behalf of your riverneversleeps.com October guests and friends, thanks so much, Danny and Lee. It couldn’t have been any better. And on a more personal note, Lee, your special ‘tatie farts’ at breakfast provide strong competition for the potato bread so dear to the hearts of we folk with Northern Irish roots.) 

By Michael Smyth

The turquoise, glacier-fed water and unspoiled wilderness give the Upper Pitt River the feel of somewhere much farther north.

Matador to the bull trout: Fish fight like they mean it in the Upper Pitt River, just 60 km from Vancouver. The flock of Canada geese circling overhead looked a mile high, but their call was clear and strong, echoing through a misty valley, mixing with the rush of river water.

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Michael Smyth with his Sea Run Bull Trout

Fresh black-bear tracks criss-crossed a sandy trail as we followed the river’s song. A sudden flash of movement in the corner of my eye: A bald eagle gliding silently along the river’s edge. It was hard to believe I was just 60 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. It felt like the far north.

In a slow-moving pool of turquoise glacier-water, a large fish broke the surface in lazy, splashy rises. I flicked a small, dry fly into the center of the rings. It floated there a moment, then the water exploded in white fury. The fish torpedoed straight out of the water, then dove deep, raced across the pool and jumped again. And again. When I brought him to the beach, I saw the biggest, most beautiful rainbow trout I’d ever caught: Deep blues, silvers and pinks showed how he got his name. Large, jet-black spots gave him a wild, noble look.

“Some people call them ‘leopard trout’ because of those big spots,” said Danny Gerak, a fishing guide who knows every riffle of the river. “Another fish rising,” he said, as I released the big rainbow and prepared to cast again.

I smiled — because our day had just begun.

Welcome to the Upper Pitt River, perhaps the best fishing river in North America, an overflowing treasure chest of trout and salmon and char. And it’s right in our own backyard. Are we lucky, or what? The Upper Pitt doesn’t get the crowds that other Lower Mainland fishing holes attract. I had the whole river to myself during a recent trip. The reason? No highways. To get to the Upper Pitt you have to fly in or — better yet — take a one-hour boat trip up Pitt Lake.

Danny, owner of the cozy Pitt River Lodge, picked me up in his salmon trawler at Grant Narrows Park in Pitt Meadows. As we cruised up the lake, he pointed out local landmarks like ancient caves decorated with aboriginal petroglyphs and Red Slough, where you can kayak among feeding seals. At the dock, we piled into the battered old school bus Danny uses to shuttle fishermen up and down the valley. As we bounced along a gravel logging road, I spotted something dash into the bush.

“Bobcat!” Danny said, pulling the bus over. “There he is.”

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A Rainbow on the Dry Fly

I looked and looked where he was pointing. Suddenly, melting out of the rainforest like an optical illusion, the big grey face of the bobcat appeared. He seemed to stare at me with wonder equal to my own. Wildlife viewing. Mountain biking. Hiking. Canyon hot springs. There’s plenty of adventure to be had here. But it was the fishing that really brought me, and Danny had exciting news.

“The river is full of sea-run bull trout right now,” he said.

The next morning saw us bush-whacking through dense forest to reach a prime run of river. With the forest so close around us, it was tough to forget those bear tracks we saw the day before. (Danny carries a big can of bear spray with him, just in case). “Right in there,” he said, pointing to a pretty pool when we reached the river bank.

I cast my line, this time with a heavy sinking fly tied on, and felt an abrupt bump. “A rock,” I thought. But then the line came screaming off my reel, the handle rapping my poor knuckles. “Big fish, big fish!” Danny yelled. “Steer him away from those rapids or he’ll spool you!”

Standing waist deep in the pool, I backed up toward the bank, trying not to slip on the rocky river bottom. An epic battle later, I landed a silvery, 10-pound bull trout. That’s a good name: They fight like they’ve seen red.

The greatest thing about the Upper Pitt is the variety of fish you can catch there. The trout, my personal favourite, bite all year long, including wild steelhead in the spring. Time your visit to hit the huge salmon runs, especially sockeye in August and Coho in October. The fly-fishing is superb, but the fish will attack spoons cast with spinning rods just as eagerly. You can hike and wade 65 kilometres of river or just toss a lure into the water outside your cabin.

To protect this unique fishery for the future, the provincial government has declared the entire Upper Pitt as catch-and-release only.

So make sure you bring your camera. And hang on tight

(Reprinted with Permission)

VANCOUVER — A cold front comes out of nowhere and grips the Coast Range, stopping the spring melt as suddenly as it had begun. The Mamquam and Misty Ice fields lock up, as does the sweeping, cracked face of the Garibaldi Neve.

In the valley far below the Pitt River starts to clear. Within half a day it has gone from the color of milk to as clear as drinking water. And the fish begin to stir.

As the helicopter lifts off a landing pad in Vancouver’s harbor, rising up above the Pan Pacific Hotel and the cranes along the waterfront, we look down to see early morning traffic starting to snarl the city’s arteries. We leap over the Second Narrows Bridge, fly over the ranks of suburban housing in Burnaby and Port Moody and then climb over the mountains that form a solid wall between Greater Vancouver, and the wilderness.

“Just stunning,” says the Prism Helicopters pilot who has looked down on this a thousand times before, but who never gets tired of it. Little wonder. Spread below us are snow capped peaks, and just to the east, the cobalt blue waters of Pitt Lake. At the head of the valley we can see the river emerging from the path it has carved.

The Pitt River runs out of Garibaldi Provincial Park and flanks Golden Ears Park, twisting through a valley that has been logged, but which is otherwise isolated from the urban sprawl that’s just a mountain range away.

Steep, granite faced mountains plunge into the lake, making roads into the region impossible. Access can be by boat up the lake, but even that is difficult because the narrow pass acts like a wind tunnel, boiling up the surface with little warning. And once you boat to the head of the lake, you are still a long way from the good fishing water. A helicopter makes short work of all that.

The helicopter drops down to a clearing at Pitt Lake Resort, to pick up guide Danny Gerak, then heads up the valley, following the river. It drops us on a gravel bar – and 45 minutes after lifting off from the helipad, in the downtown core, the first cast goes out.

In the spring, coastal rivers come alive as salmon fry begin to migrate downstream. The tiny fish, still attached to orange yolk sacks, wriggle out of the gravel at night and drift towards the ocean with the current. In some rivers, like the Adams and the Horsefly, which have huge sockeye runs, the fry hatch numbers into the uncountable millions. The Pitt River supports modest runs of sockeye, coho and chinook – but there are still millions of fry that emerge each spring. In the clear water, the young salmon are easy targets, and schools of Dolly Varden, bull trout, rainbows and cutthroat move up into the river from the lake to feed on them.

More than a decade ago the Pitt River was put under catch and release regulations, to protect the salmon stocks, which the department of fisheries has been trying, with some considerable success, to build up. That blanket regulation has protected the trout and char too – resulting in some of the most remarkable fishing to be found anywhere. That it occurs in a river so close to the city you can see the blue haze of automobile exhaust in the air, seems nothing short of miraculous.

In a deep pool, where the water turns green as it undercuts a giant bolder, a tiny fly the color of a salmon fry abruptly halts its swing across the current. The rod bends full, the fish shakes its head, and the three-kilogram leader parts like a thread.

“You gotta go heavier,” says Mr. Gerak with a sympathetic nod. He advises a 12 kg leader.

Are we fishing for monsters here?

“Oh, yeah,” he says and holds up one arm. The fish he is indicating would stretch from shoulder to palm.

Then he walks away to explore a run upstream. Who, you wonder, is supposed to land this monster?

Another fly sinks into the green pool. Nothing. A dozen casts, a hundred. You might think the river is over billed, except that upstream you can see the other fishermen, their rods bent, as they find a run where the Dolly Varden are holding. They beach half a dozen, release them, and you still have the green pool – all to yourself. Where is that big fish?

Even on wilderness rivers the best pools always seem to be somewhere else. Way downstream looks good. The helicopter moves us once, then flits off into the heavens. From here we will walk out to a truck Mr. Gerak has left at the end of a logging road, for a quick ride to a boat at the head of the lake. We will head out before dark and be back in the city in time to see the street lights come on.

It’s a long hike, over the rubble left by spring floods of the past, but it takes us past one beautiful pool after another. Almost all of them yield a Dolly Varden, some up to two or three kgs. Some 50 cm rainbows are taken. But the monsters, the bull trout, an ancient breed of fish that has inhabited this stream since the glaciers retreated, are still in hiding.

In a patch of soft mud we find a black bear print. In the distance a huge eagle spins up on an updraft. Here and there deer emerge from the woods, look bewildered, and then vault away.

As the day winds down I come alone to the last run to be fished, looking this way and that for cougars or bears. It’s a shallow run, but a cut on the far bank has created a small back eddy, which has formed a seam in the current. The fly swings down and stops, dead solid. The rod bows double, and the fish springs to life, taking the current broad side and running wildly. In a moment the heavy, colored fly line is out, and so is a big stretch of the white backing, which anglers seldom see once they’ve wound it onto their reels.

The fish demands to be chased. After a fight that lasts long enough to leave wrist and bicep aching, the bull trout comes in. It is silver and green and glowers as it grips the fly in its jaws. A quick measure puts it at 90 cms. A monster.

Soon the glaciers will start to melt again, the river will turn white, and the big fish will vanish like ghosts until the fall.

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A curious Black Bear

(Reprinted with Permission)