Travel

Heli-fishing along British Columbia’s Skeena River

Fly fishing for steelhead trout and salmon in Northern B.C.'s bucket list angling destination

  • Nov 24, 2022
  • 1,067 words
  • 5 minutes
Migrating salmon and steelhead trout can be found in the waters of the Skeena River. (Photo courtesy Aaron Whitfield - Northern Escape Mountain Lodge)
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Place the word ‘heli’ before any outdoor pursuit, and it instantly becomes more fun.  Consider heli-skiing, heli-hiking, or heli-touring. I once took a heli-yoga class on a mountain in the Rockies, but breathing in each pose was difficult because the view was breathtaking. I’ve heli-swum in alpine lakes you’d need days to hike to, and now in Northern B.C., we can add heli-fishing to the list.

Located outside of Terrace, the Northern Escape Mountain Lodge typically draws heli-skiers to the Skeena and Coastal Mountain Ranges, with promises of deep powder, alpine bowls, massive glaciers and endless virgin snow. With short, daily flights out of Vancouver, the outfit is also billed as the province’s most accessible heli-ski operation.  This modern boutique lodge offers guests jetboating, wildlife viewing, e-mountain biking, and ghost town cultural tours in summer. But, perhaps the biggest draw is the steelhead trout and migrating salmon that swell the region’s waterways. Inside an Agusta Koala helicopter patrolling tributaries along the Skeena and Copper rivers, the Skeena’s world-renowned reputation as a bucket list angling destination became immediately obvious.

Robin Esrock fly fishing in the Skeena River. (Photo: Aaron Whitfield - Northern Escape Mountain Lodge)
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With a birds-eye view above dense hemlock and cedar forest, I spot black bears lying idle on the riverbeds. Food is abundant at their paw tips. Sky Richard, my experienced and aptly named heli-fishing guide points out various spawning beds and desolate fishing beaches. Some are inaccessible by boat, while others would take many hours to access by water. Sky directs the pilot to land at a particular spot on the Dala River, telling us to keep an eye out for “G-bears.” As the helicopter effortlessly descends, I see shadows of fish darting among the rapids. These rapids are not caused by rocks but by the sheer volume of salmon migrating upstream. There is indeed a G-bear up ahead, but it scatters into the dense bush as soon as we arrive. We’re going to borrow the bear’s spot for a couple of hours, and we’re going to borrow his fish as well. We’re here to fly fish, and since it’s catch-and-release, Mr. G Bear’s meal will be here waiting when he returns. 

I’m new to fly fishing, but I still harbour visions from the beautiful Robert Redford film, A River Runs Through It. Based on Norman Maclean’s classic novella, it’s a meditation on family, love, loss, and the draw of the rod.

The view from the helicopter. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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“There’s no clear line between religion and fly fishing,” wrote Maclean, capturing the passion and mystique behind the pastime. I’m more concerned with the line lassoing above my head as I attempt to cast into the stream, and not say, Sky Richard’s eyeball.  He patiently shows me how to roll, spey and fast cast, how to lower my rod and strip the fly line to mimic an attractive shrimp. Then, knee-deep in the water, I cast upstream and let the current take my fly into the shadows, where I don’t have to wait long. “I’ve got one!” “Got one!” “Got another!” “Got one!” “Here’s another!” Here’s the thing about landing a helicopter by a pristine mountain stream in a wilderness that nobody else can access.

There’s a lot of fish. You cast, you catch, and then release the fish to continue its spawning journey. Much thought goes into the type of weighted lure – the fly – selected, and I quickly learn that some flies are better than others. Right now, the shinier ones are more successful than the feathered ones, but I confirm that both are easy to snag into a submerged rock. All this action allows visitors to quickly hone their fishing skills, graduating to tussles with rarer and bigger cohos and, if lucky, an 80lbs chinook. Although ‘quickly’ and ‘fishing’ don’t usually go together: this is a sport of patience, employing finesse and subtle technique. Sky tells me the best part of his job is watching anglers grow and develop skills during their visit. Seventy percent of his clients are repeat clientele, many flying in from the US and Europe. For fly fishing enthusiasts, you can’t beat this combination of stunning nature, exclusive access, and abundant fish.

For fly fishing enthusiasts, the Skeena River is the perfect destination to visit. (Photo courtesy Aaron Whitfield - Northern Escape Mountain Lodge)
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We have a snack, pack our rods into the helicopter’s storage containers, and gracefully take off in search of another location. It’s not like the catching could possibly be any better than the Dala, but maybe there will be more coho or steelhead. Ocean-living steelhead trout are the glory fish in this part of the world, known as the ‘fish of a thousand casts.’ Difficult to catch and elusive to find, they live up to ten years and, unlike salmon, return to the same streams to spawn multiple times in their lifetime. Unfortunately, it’s not high season yet (September to early November), and while there might be steelhead about, it’s unlikely one will be attracted to my shrimp-like lure. Not that I’m complaining: experiencing the dramatic snow-tipped Skeena Mountains from the air is a bucket list-worthy thrill unto itself, no fishing necessary.

Robin Esrock with his big catch. (Photo courtesy Aaron Whitfield - Northern Escape Mountain Lodge)
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This time we land on a more exposed beach adjacent to a river with an altogether different atmosphere. Running beneath a forest-carpeted mountain, the waters are vast and milky. Thousands of old logs are washed up on the shores behind us, and fresh bear prints wander across the sand. Wearing gaiters, I wade waist-high into the icy waters and roll cast, watching my fly drift with the current. Unlike the ‘cast and catch’ spot before, this time, it takes time to hook a fish. This time I must be patient and hope that my patience is rewarded. 

It was huge! Massive. Simply a whale of a coho. Fifteen, no twenty, no forty pounds! It could have fed a village, I swear it. We’re back at Northern Escape Mountain Lodge, sharing fishy tales over a gourmet dinner paired with fine B.C. wine. The size of the catch increases with every telling. Tomorrow we’re putting the rods down to take jetboats along the mighty Skeena, veering off along the sparkling Exchamsiks River in search of wildlife, waterfalls, and a picnic spot. After that, we’re cycling to a nearby sandy beach. This is a remarkably beautiful part of the world, and with toys like helicopters, jetboats and e-mountain bikes on the itinerary, this is the bucket list way to experience it. Heli-yeah!

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