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Reprinted with permission by Pat Hoglund, Salmon & Steelhead Journal.

The Yakoun River on Graham Island, Haida Gwaii, is one of British Columbia’s best-kept steelheading secrets!

I couldn’t see my boots. Literally. I was standing in 20 inches of water and it was so dark that I couldn’t make out my wading boots below me. While I stood and cast it really wasn’t a problem, but wading was awkward as I walked up and down the heavily stained river.

Imagine taking a step into water no deeper than your calf muscle, but not being able to see where your foot is going to land. Common sense tells you that your boot will eventually meet solid ground below the river’s surface, but your eyes and mind play games with you. Will I step into a hole? Or off a ledge that I can’t see? Those are the kind of thoughts that go through your mind as you wade into the Yakoun River. Ultimately, you take a step on blind faith because you know that it will eventually lead to a steelhead, but if you think about it too much you might never move. So you move, and you cast, and you move and you cast and with each step you expect to fall into a black hole. But it never happens.

 Despite being perpetually stained by vast amounts of tannin in the water, the Yakoun is one of the healthiest watersheds any modern day steelhead fisherman will lay his eyes on. Ever. In the Yakoun’s case, the tannin is caused by the abundance of hemlock, spruce and cedar trees falling and decomposing into the river. The water is the color of a really strong cup of tea, which is to say it’s dark, yet clear. I realize that is an oxymoron, but it’s the best way to describe it. Stand in six inches of water and you can see the river bottom. Any deeper and you lose visibility. But six inches gives you some visibility and you’re able to see what this river bottom is made of: rocks, gravel and sand. There’s no sign of silt, mud or anything that might cause the river to run off-color. It’s as clear as what the Queen drinks at high tea. Chalk that up to the still intact tracts of timber surrounding the river and its headwaters.

One would think this would be problematic while steelhead fishing. I have fished for steelhead in tea-colored rivers before, but it’s hard to find a river that compares to the Yakoun. So it’s understandable that I’d question whether a steelhead could see my lure? My fears would soon be laid to rest.

The Yakoun is a medium-sized river, and it reads like any other river I’ve fished. Holding water is holding water, and across the river from where I was, there was an obvious resting spot for a steelhead. Brush and trees protected the river from any would-be predators that might strike from above. I guesstimated the depth to be between 4 and 7 feet. Not too deep, not to shallow. The river moved along at a good clip. Fast enough, but not too fast. There was a little chop on the water indicating the river bottom had structure. The submerged boulder at the head of the hole was the icing on the cake — it provided the break in the current for a steelhead to hold behind before continuing its journey up river. It had all the markings of a classic steelhead spot and it stuck out like a red dress at a funeral.

I made my way down to the river’s edge, waded into the river and made a cast. My float sailed across the river and plopped into the Yakoun about 15 feet upriver from the submerged boulder. It straightened and the current carried the foam bobber with a fluorescent orange top down river. No sooner did it get into the meat of the run than my float disappeared. I set the hook and a steelhead was zipping up and down the river, trying everything in its power to wrap my line around something permanent. It never found what it was looking for and eventually I had the fish somewhat under control. Problem was I didn’t know whether it was a big fish or a not-so big fish. The Yakoun is noted for producing some of North America’s biggest steelhead, but I had no idea what I had. At one point I had it within 10 feet of me, but the stained water prevented me from seeing it. The longer the fish fought, the more impatient I became until I eventually tightened my reel’s drag and put the screws to it. The hell with this, I thought. About that time it turned and headed down river. It also made three brief appearances, all of them about a foot off the river surface. At least I knew what I was up against: A steelhead that weighed in the 17 to 18 pound range. I readjusted my drag and suddenly regretted putting the screws to that fish. Seems I made him mad.



This section of the Yakoun, upriver from what is referred to as the 20-pounder Hole, was wide open except for a few large rocks on the river bottom. Nothing too worry about. So I let my reel’s drag work, allowed the steelhead to settle down, and enjoyed the ride. In the end I cradled a 36-inch steelhead, one that I figured weighed about 17 pounds. It was a big buck, and it had begun to see the effects of being in the river for several months. But it was a handsome steelhead. Its once silver sides were taking on a color of their own, one that was similar to the tannin-stained river water. They were turning a pewter gray and musky purple. Its white gums contrasted nicely against the dark red cheek. Lying on a bed of rocks this fish was patiently waiting to be released. You could see it in its eyes. His stay in captivity was short and I slid him back into the Yakoun. As he swam away I looked across the river and snowflakes began to fall. It had snowed the night before and the river bank was already covered with snow creating a storybook setting. More flakes fell and they quieted the rushing of the river creating a brief period of peace and quiet. It was at that moment I took stock into where I was and what I was doing.

The Yakoun River is the largest river on Graham Island, which also happens to be the largest island in the Queen Charlotte archipelagos. To say the Yakoun is remotely located is accurate. You get to Graham Island by boat or by plane. From a boat you take a ferry across the always-treacherous Hecata Strait from Prince Rupert to Skidgate; and by plane you fly in to Masset, a one building airport that serves as a hub for most of the fishing lodges in the Charlottes.

The Yakoun flows for 37 miles (60 km) beginning at Yakoun Lake and emptying into Massett Inlet. Centrally located in the middle of the island, it is without established boat ramps and the only access roads are logging roads that sometimes skirt the river, but most times leave you a good walk to the river. And nine times out of 10 the walk is a hike through a massive canopy of towering spruce trees, some of which are 700 years old. You have to pick your way through downed trees, thick brush and down and up steep inclines. There isn’t an established trail to be found, an extremely appealing quality for someone seeking a wilderness experience.



Here for a four-day stint, I was accompanied by Dave Schamp and Peter Dyment, a young, squared-away guide who guides for Kumdis Lodge. When not guiding for Kumdis Lodge, Dyment spends countless hours in the woods for the Canadian government tracking the goshawk, a raptor with short broad wings and a long tail. We never did see one while we made our way through the forest, but we were told that it is incredibly adept at maneuvering through dense forests. If it lived where we were walking, it would have to be.

Dyment was our guide for our duration. A transplant from the mainland, he now lives year-round on Graham Island in the small hamlet of Tlell with his wife and two children. He’s as knowledgeable as anyone about the Yakoun, its history and its idiosyncrasies. One minute he’ll educate you on the Haida Gwaii Indians and then send shivers up your spine with tales of Bigfoot on the island. Fortunately, he also knows where the best steelhead holes are, which is why Dave and I followed him like two school kids through the dense forest.

Unless you’re a student of steelhead fishing in Canada, the Yakoun doesn’t show up on everyone’s ‘must fish’ list of rivers to fish for steelhead. At least not like you’d expect with rivers like the Kispiox or the Dean. But those who fish it regularly will tell you it produces as many big steelhead as any other watershed in British Columbia. The reason you don’t hear a lot about it is due to the fact that it’s hard to reach. To fish here you have to make an effort to get here. You just don’t happen across it.

According to one study conducted by British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment and Parks, over 38 percent of all adult steelhead returning to the Yakoun are three-salt fish, and 33 percent are 4-salts. That means over half the adult steelhead returning to the Yakoun are 3- and 4-years-old. Having spent that much time in the ocean these steelhead run on the big side. Knowing that, and looking back on my trip last year, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect to catch a steelhead that weighs between 15 and 20 pounds and it’s definitely possible to catch a 20-plus pound steelhead. For example, during my trip here I landed a 38-inch steelhead (97 cm), estimated to weigh 20 pounds, another that weighed 17 pounds and I lost one that was well over 20 pounds that I’d rather not talk about. Aside from those, most of the steelhead that Dave and I caught ran between 9 and 12 pounds. Those are big for an average. And what’s even better is that every fish we hooked were hard fighters.

Depending on the time of year you fish will determine what condition the fish are in. I visited the Yakoun in late March, which is approaching the tail end of the winter steelhead run (fishing remains open through April). We caught fish that were colored, and we caught chrome bright fish. The tannin colored water does add to the fish’s coloration process, but only after it’s been in the system for a while. In fact, the 20-pound steelhead I landed had a swath of red down its belly and that has as much to do with genetics as it did with the time of the year it was caught. The first steelhead begin arriving in October and don’t stop until the end of April.

When we did return to the lodge we were greeted with a warm fire, a hot shower and a plate of appetizers. Owned by Langara Fishing Adventures, Kumdis River Lodge itself is simple. It has four rooms, a dining room, a kitchen, individual bathrooms and a living room with a wood stove. There’s a hot tub that overlooks Yakoun Bay and an out-building that is home to the three-person staff: the lodge manager, the chef and your guide. Simple, succinct and strategically located near some of British Columbia’s best steelhead fishing. As with any fishing trip hosted by Langara Fishing Adventures the service, food and guiding was excellent.

Kumdis River Lodge caters to a lot of fly fishermen, but Dave and I showed up armed with enough jigs, floats and Yarnies to outfit a tackle store. I also brought a fly rod, but given the conditions it was probably smart that I left it behind after the first day. We spent most of our time fishing Yarnies under a float, which is an ideal way to fish rivers that have snaggy bottoms and a lot of pocket water. At its source the elevation is approximately 3,000 feet (100 m) in elevation. From there the river then drains without a lot of dramatic drops. The river’s low gradient is characterized by shallow riffles interspersed with long runs interrupted by slow pools and small pockets that hold fish.  

Access on the lower end of the river is difficult, which leaves most of the fishing pressure on the upper end. When I say pressure, I need to qualify that. We never saw another person on the river so the term pressure is relative. As a rule you’ll find the easiest access from Branch 40 Junction to Gold Creek, a small tributary that enters on the eastern shore of the river. The upper river — from Ghost Creek to Yakoun Lake — is closed to fishing.

Kumdis River Lodge is the closest lodge to the river, and because of its location you only have to drive about 30 minutes to reach the river. Each lodge is allotted a certain number of rod days per year, which helps to keep the fishing pressure to a minimum. It also makes those slots precious. If you ever want to experience the Yakoun, I would have no reservations recommending fishing out of Kumdis River Lodge (rod days on the Tlell and Mamin rivers are also available).

My recommendation has as much to do with the Yakoun itself. It is a very unique steelhead fishery. It’s remote, wild and generous. It boasts trophy steelhead, but more important it is a wilderness experience that you rarely experience. Throw in the occasional big fish, and you have the makings of a special fishing trip. Which is why I’ve placed it on my list of ‘must fish again’ rivers.
 

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