Jim Culp tells of the time he, his long time friend Peter Broomhall, and his son Chris made a long walk into the reaches of what we like to call the upper Copper River.
It was late in the season. The valley still had flecks of orange, but most of the leaves were off. There was little wind but what there was, was the breath of winter. They carried their fly rods, but Chris brought along his drift rod, just in case, as steelheaders like to say with a wink.
After a long rocky tramp, the trio arrived at a run Pete and Jim had driven to before the flood of 1978 tore the road to shreds and dramatically restructured the river while destroying some of the beautiful, productive pieces of angling water that lay between Kitnayakwa Creek and the Clore confluence. Because it was situated in a rugged rock walled section of the Zymoetz Valley, the run had been spared the ravages of the flood and was as Pete and Jim remembered it.
The three made their first pass through the run with fast sinking lines and their favourite patterns. They fished carefully, attempting to sink their flies as deep as possible. This strategy was necessary because unless they’re in motion, steelhead dwell near the bottom where, thanks to the amazing properties of piscine vision, they get a 360 degree view of their surroundings.
When they are recent arrivals in their home streams, when the water is warmer, steelhead are overcome by their aggressive natures and will climb the water column to intercept a manmade fly that has offended them or triggered an instinctual feeding response learned when they were juveniles. On the other hand, when they have been in the river for months and the water has chilled, the fish, which tend to seek out the deepest water for sanctuary, fall into a torpor and will no longer give chase. They can still be caught, but to have a chance of catching one, an angler must get his lure near the bottom and keep it there for as long as possible.
In these conditions, even with the densest of fly lines and built-in weight, a fly can only penetrate the strike zone for a few seconds, if at all. The physics of a wet fly guarantees that it will swing down, across, and, save for a short period after the cast, upward. In contrast, a drift fisher using a latex lure, Spin-Glo, or bait, uses ballast and fishes in straight lines to keep his terminal tackle in the strike zone during the entire drift.
After fishing the run with care and covering it well, or so they thought, Jim, Chris, and Peter, were certain there weren’t many or any steelhead in the run. At that point, Chris took out his drift rod and made a couple of drifts with a pink rubber worm. In minutes he had a fish on. Encouraged, Pete and Jim started in again, Jim using a long fly made of pink marabou that looked like a cousin of his son’s rubber bait. Neither fly fisher had a touch, but the worm took a couple of more steelhead. Ultimately, the three men passed the drift rod around and released 20 fish. In retrospect, says Jim, 20 was too many. He adds that he was sure they could have hooked more.
Gene Allen, guiding a couple of fly fishing sports on the Kispiox for the Bear Claw Lodge in low water conditions, had the misfortune of following an American who was fishing a drift rod and a pink rubber worm. As they drifted from pool to pool, the American seemed to be hooking a lot of fish. In low water, steelhead seek sanctuary under logs and in the deepest pools, places where they are safe from flies, but not from pink rubber worms.
At the end of the drift, Gene spoke to the American drift fisher and learned the fellow had hooked and released 46 steelhead. Apparently, this greedy fellow didn’t realize, or didn’t care, that there is a distinct possibility that one or more of those fish may have swum away to die and others may have incurred sublethal damage that might subsequently impair their ability to spawn.
In recent years, a small number of drift fishers have descended upon the Copper River to fish for steelhead when the fish have settled into, and stacked up in, runs and pools where they will remain for months. These fishers like pink rubber worms and some of them are bent on catching as many steelhead as will bite, which is a lot, if not all of them.
When you could kill steelhead, size granted bragging rights to anglers concerned about such details. When, out of biological necessity, catch and release regulations were invoked, the size of a fish was supplanted by the number of fish caught. Clearly, hooking large numbers of vulnerable steelhead is not acceptable. This leaves several options: Banning rubber worms and similar effective lures; imposing a daily limit on the number of fish an individual can catch; imposing fly fishing only regulations; or closing the river to fishing at these times.