Backroads, Backpacks & Fly Rods

Hike-in fishing destinations are well worth the effort

Many of British Columbia’s numerous lakes, rivers and streams are accessible by foot only, providing an opportunity to fish wild trout in picturesque locations while escaping the crowds. As these areas are further off the beaten track, the waters are less pressured, and the reward for miles trod is feisty fish on the fly in an untouched wilderness paradise.

Kristy V. Webster.

The trails we hike to our destination give us a goal, a journey, something to strive for. For every moment of glory, everything worth achieving, there is unseen sweat and struggle, obstacles that make the success that much sweeter.

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Most importantly, the fishing action is better, which is why we brave the trek and what brings us back for more. The camping is cheap (or even free) and no reservations are required. Not to mention the bonus backroad adventures along the way, such as old derelict cars, plane wrecks, logging relics, ancient trees, caves and more.

Once you hike deep enough into the backcountry, you escape the swarms of anglers at vehicle-accessible fishing spots, instead finding yourself alone on pristine waters. From popular streamside treks on Vancouver Island, like the fly fishing-only 11-kilometre Elk River Trail (and Landslide Lake), to less-travelled routes such as the 2.8-plus-kilometre Carmanah Creek and the fly only waters of the Buttle Lake tributaries, there is a place for every angler to find their own water. If setting up camp riverside, take care – many west coast rivers start high in the mountains, and are subject to flash flooding – just because it isn’t raining hard where you are, it doesn’t mean you are home free. A stick stuck in the ground at the water line on arrival can give you a visual indicator as to what is happening with the water level.

In the backcountry, for a moment, everything feels right, pure, wild and free.
In the backcountry, for a moment, everything feels right, pure, wild and free.

Hike-in lakes are at a higher elevation, staying cooler through long summer days, which keeps fish more active and responsive to the fly. However, keep in mind that glacial lakes are too icy cold and nutrient poor to support much fish population. There is no shortage of trail-accessible lakes with routes of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. Some of the best known locations are in Sooke Mountain park, home to Peden, Grassie, Sheilds and Crabapple lakes, four to 10 kilometres, and Strathcona Provincial Park, with Helen McKenzie, Kwai and Circlet lakes, three to 10 kilometres, as well as many other remote, less maintained, more overgrown options such as the fly only, 6.5-kilometre Anderson Lake, and the shorter, 500 metre Mcnair Lake trail.

For those that like to cast a fly into the surf, there are a number of trails to try, including around Cape Scott, the Alberni Inlet and the Juan de Fuca Trail (note: salmon fishing closed Aug. 1 to Oct. 31 due to southern resident killer whales measure). And we can’t overlook the opportunities presented by boat access rec sites and trails, and a canoe, kayak or pontoon boat. On the west coast, there are countless less-travelled paths leading to a fisherman’s paradise, open to those that explore.

Freshwater anglers on Vancouver Island can find rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden, kokanee, steelhead, bass and five species of Pacific salmon. With a little luck, it’s even possible to happen upon the fish of a thousand casts, steelhead, both in skinny summer streams and wild winter waters.

The number one priority is safety, especially when you are headed into the backcountry. It is a combination of common sense and risk management. Risk is always involved, but it is a calculated risk, taking into account that this is reality, there are no do overs, and the nearest help is usually hours away. Any missteps on your part can compromise the safety of yourself and others (especially during a pandemic), including search and rescue personnel, emergency services and the impact on rural areas with limited medical services. Ensure that you are at an appropriate physical fitness level for the terrain you intend to cover – consider route length, difficulty rating and elevation change. Consider whether fishing is the destination or just an opportunity along the way – I pack heavier for a trip, including a few extra luxury items, when the trail is short or I only have to scramble down the riverbank, as opposed to covering kilometres on a multi-day trek. As with just about anything in life, having a plan B, C and D and a positive mindset go a long way toward that feeling you get when you push forward and find the reward of something worth working for.

To maintain proper hydration, most people need 2.7 to 3.9 litres of water per day, or more if active and losing water through sweat. Water is heavy, weighing 2.2 pounds per litre, so some sort of bottle/reservoir to hold enough to get you from point A to point B and a treatment system, such as a Lifestraw (with purification tabs for backup), will quench your thirst without weighing you down. I’m a fan of insulated bottles to keep water chilled and refreshing. On longer-duration hikes, sport drinks can enhance hydration by replacing electrolytes and providing carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores to keep you going.

Basic backpacking meals can be elevated with fresh, lake-caught trout and foraging Island edibles such as wild greens, mushrooms, salal and a variety of wild berries, fiddleheads – and anything else you can identify as safe to eat. Vancouver Island predators include cougars, wolves, black bears and, recently around Sayward, grizzly bears, making it necessary to cache your food a minimum of 100 feet from where you sleep.

Weighing in at about 2.5 pounds, choices for a fly fishing set up for backpacking typically consist of either a four-piece single hand fly rod, or the even shorter, six-piece packable fly rods. A single hand fly rod is my go-to for delicate presentations on water so clear that you can see fish on the bottom of pools 20 feet deep. But, on long trails, to lighten up even further, a tenkara rod set up weighs merely half a pound and is best on overgrown streams and quick scouting casts along the way. Effective almost everywhere, a handful of tiny flies and a selection of classic BC flies, such as Muddler minnows, stimulators, wooly buggers, nymphs, mayflies and even worms, in a range of colours, will cover most situations.

A small selection of essential flies should do the trick.
A small selection of essential flies should do the trick.

Before leaving, leave an itinerary with someone, know how to reach your destination and check recreational access online. Logging roads are normally open to public access on weekends only, in areas where they are not actively working. However, more and more backcountry routes are dug up or blocked by gates, boulders, blocks and ditches and it is disappointing to drive kilometres down bumpy forest service roads, only to have your hike extended by another 10 kilometres by an unexpected obstruction. Preparedness also includes having a full-size spare tire and ensuring your vehicle is suitable for the roads. Around here, a nicely groomed gravel road can turn into a rutted-out, debris-strewn goat trail in a few short kilometres.

Before leaving, leave an itinerary with someone, know how to reach your destination and check recreational access online.
Before leaving, leave an itinerary with someone, know how to reach your destination and check recreational access online.

The 2019/2021 Freshwater Fishing Regulations Synopsis restrictions for Vancouver Island streams include required use of a single barbless hook, year-round bait ban (some exceptions apply) and mandatory release of all wild trout, wild steelhead and char. Due to the droughts of recent summers and low water conditions, there is also a summer closure for management units 1-1 to 1-6 from July 15 to Aug. 31, excluding the Nitnat, Big Qualicum, Oyster, Puntledge and Quinsam rivers, as well as winter steelhead conservation closures from December to April, and fall salmon closures or restrictions on many Island rivers. This means that strategic consideration must be given to location, target species and timing.

Generally, on Vancouver Island lakes, retention of four trout per day is allowed, with a maximum of one over 50 centimetres, and there is no minimum size requirement for trout. As always, some exceptions apply, so check the regulations on the specific waters you intend on fishing.

Keep in mind, under provincial regulations, there is no fishing within ecological reserves, national parks on Vancouver Island, within 100 metres of a fishway or hatchery, and within 23 metres downstream of the lower entrance to any fishway, canal, obstacle or leap. When fishing the shorelines, watch for area-specific tidal angling restrictions put out by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, such as August to October finfish closures on many estuaries and fishing closures in rockfish conservation areas.

If there’s one thing 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic reminds us, there is more fear in civilization than in the solitude of the wilderness. In the backcountry, for a moment, everything feels right, pure, wild and free. For a moment, all that matters is where I am now. It’s the way my heart races when I spot a fish, the way my heart jumps into my throat as the fish begins to move, the rush of adrenaline I feel when the fish smashes my fly running downstream like a bat out of hell, that makes the bush whacking and blisters worth every step.

Getting away from angler-packed waters is a rewarding experience.
Getting away from angler-packed waters is a rewarding experience.