Mention The Dean River to any fly angler, and you can bet images of awe-inspiring peaks and bright, healthy hard fighting Steelhead and King Salmon come to mind.
RIO Fly Designer Patrick Kilby was prepping for the trip of a lifetime when the pandemic struck—the 2020 Dean season was canceled.
Fast forward to 2021, and the certainty of the trip was once again unknown. Right before the scheduled trip, Canada announces they are opening the border to vaccinated Americans. But then, shortly after this announcement, Canadian border agents announced they are going on strike, the beginning of many hurdles that stood between Patrick and The Dean River. Along with his companions, Sean Visintainer (Owner of The Silver Bow Fly Shop in Spokane, Wa) and Joe Rotter (partial owner of Red’s Fly Shop in Ellensburg, Wa) were anxious, to say the least. It wasn’t until many Covid tests and security hangups that the team finally received the go-ahead. The trip was on!
Grab an inside look from Patrick as he, Sean, and Joe swing flies on the legendary Dean River in British Columbia.
We had stayed at the Fairmont Hotel, which is inside YVR, making it very easy to make connections. We took the 10 min shuttle over to the South Terminal and boarded the charter flight with several Dean-bound guests. The flight into Bella Coola was beautiful as we flew over the jagged mountains, fjords, and ice fields that looked like rivers. It turned exhilarating as we dropped in between Polar Bear Peak and Black Fly Peak and flew deep within the tree-lined canyon walls as we made our way to the landing strip. The air was clear, and the winds were calm.
While we waited for our turn in the helicopter, Caroline (the Bella Coola coordinator) took us up the road to grab some coffee and a light breakfast; we mingled with the locals in Hagensborg and watched the chum salmon in the local creek. The helicopter ride was spectacular, and if we were not heading to steelhead mecca, we would not have been ready for the ride to be over so soon. We flew at about 5,000 feet through mountains, reaching 10,000 feet. At times we were only a few hundred feet above a meadow, then it would disappear to several thousand feet down to the river bottom. I don’t believe any photos or videos could ever do this ride justice.
We arrived at the lodge and were greeted by owner Billy Blewett and the guides. We were escorted to our cabins. We quickly suited up and rigged up to head out fishing. Our boat was in the lower beat with a new guide, Dylan. It was his first official day of guiding. The weather was scorching (95 degrees), and the river was milky green in color. Despite the bright, hot conditions, we all encountered our first Dean River steelhead. When we came back to camp that evening, we could properly meet the rest of the crew and guests as we enjoyed a meal together.
DEAN RIVER GO TO LINES
I never heard an official temperature, but I heard Billy say something about 40 Celsius. If that were the case, it would be around 104 Farenheight. The river was again milky green. We fished the upper beat with Teal. We learned that Teal is a world-class skier and took 5th place in the 2018 winter Olympics in Slopestyle. He’s slated to represent Canada again this winter. We felt confident in his ability to navigate the 22’ wooden sled up and down the rocky rapids.
We had to work hard again, fishing deep and slow. For example, I used an 8136-4 prototype that Paul, a Sage engineer, had given me. I was fishing the 600 grain Skagit Max Power with 15’ of T14 and a weighted fly. We all encountered fish, but not the storied numbers that come from ideal conditions.
We fished the middle beat with our guide, Paul. This day was also warm, but some clouds had moved in, offering some shelter. The river color was the best of the trip, more green than milky—this was our best day of fishing as well. It was on this day that I had my most memorable two fish. First was a steelhead. I was swinging a tail out that required a long cast. I was at the bottom of the wadeable water since there was a root wad downstream of me and a deep pocket in front of it. I had already pulled one fish from this tail out. This next fish took my fly going downstream, so it was immediately peeling line from my reel. But this fish did not stop. I moved my drag from 7.5 to 8.5, and it didn’t seem to faze it. It seemed to pull harder. As the fish reached the first bit of whitewater, it thankfully opted to take a right turn vs. going down the rapids. I was already scheming on how to climb the root wad if it left the pool. The fish was now about 300+ feet away, and I only had 441’ from fly to my backing knot. It swam way into the near bank, then turned and blasted back upstream well above me. I was able to bring the fish to hand, and I knelt to get close to it. I grabbed the wrist of the tail, put my rod down, and reached for the fly. The fish then flexed and flipped its body up, headbutting me in the chin. It bounced off my chest and swam back toward the tail out. I brought it in a second time and managed to snap an image and send it back. At best, the fish was only about 10 lbs but by far the strongest, most determined steelhead I’ve ever encountered.
I was fishing a run called Pat’s (not named after me) at the end of this day. I had just stripped in all my shooting line when I felt it get heavy. I tried to hold on to it, but it slipped out sharply, which caused my pile of running line to jump up and over my rod. Some kicked around my backside and caught on my wading staff holder. The fish wasn’t swimming away fast, but it was swimming away, so I went to work freeing all the line wrapped around me, my rod and reel. I successfully freed it and began to pull back. The fish quickly took me into my backing, and I had to chase it. Jumping ahead, we eventually landed the 35lb king salmon and used all that 8136-4 prototype had to offer.
We were reminded of how wild this place is on the sandy beaches, where we found Grizzly and Wolf tracks. After dinner, the three of us wet waded and fished camp water as we watched dark clouds push in and begin to rain. It poured all night.
DEAN RIVER GO-TO FLIES
When I had gone to sleep that night, the sound of the river was being overpowered by the sound of the rain on the metal roof. But when I woke in the morning, even though it was still raining hard, I could only hear the raging river. The river had come up so much that all the rods down by the boats were about to be swept away. Thankfully a guide had gone to check and rescued them. He also had to rescue the gas cans, and the boats were brought in closer to the lodge. We decided to retire to the lodge this day and tie flies with the guides and staff.
Despite the river being a mess, we all were jones-ing to fish. Our crew went upriver to the upper beat again and discovered the major tributary (Sakumtha River) was flowing much cleaner than the main Dean was. Joe and Sean coaxed a steelhead from the confluence where the water was clean enough to see the fly. The remaining water in our zone proved too dirty to do any better.
Throughout the trip, we tried a variety of rig setups, including; 8136-4 Prototype, 8136-4 Igniter, 8130-4 X, 7140-4 X, 7136-4 One, 7136-6 SONIC, 7130-4 X, 7120-4 X, 6139-4 X. This gave us each three rods to draw from. A heavy dredger, a medium dredger, and a skater/light setup. We found any of the multi-density heads best in big wide runs with little structure. But in the runs with boulders, we found a floating head more maneuverable. We had the privilege of using the newest Powerflex Ultra Shooting Line from RIO. I fished it for the entire time and only had one minor tangle; it was the best shooting line I’ve ever used.
We only fished RIO flies, and given the water conditions, we mostly used the big patterns. Top producers were RIO’s Animal and RIO’s Pay Dirt. Next in line was RIO’s CCFCCP and RIO’s Prawn Jovi. RIO’s Hare Snare, RIO’s Ghostbuster Shrimp, made some clutch plays, as did the String Leech, Marabou Tube, and Bunny Tube. RIO’s Steel Plow raised several steelhead, but not even one contacted the fly. Bright colors like Pink/Orange were by far the most productive for us. For the week, I believe the three of us went 13 for 25 on steelhead and 9 for 9 on salmon (3 pinks/6 Kings).
This trip was a true “bucket list” opportunity for me and one I will cherish.