We as anglers are very fortunate to live and fish in British Columbia. We live in an angler’s paradise. Ancient rain forests and a vast coastline allow for clear flowing rivers, heavily populated with wild sea-running fish such as salmon and steelhead, Dolly Varden, bull trout and cutthroat trout. Of course, we do have our environmental problems and setbacks. Industry is steadily encroaching on our wild environment and impacting wild habitat and spawning grounds. Even so, we are very lucky to have so many amazing places to fish, some of which are considered world class, and known through out the world’s angling community as must-see and must-do destinations. British Columbia is known world-wide for its incredible rivers full of wild steelhead; anglers will travel to BC in hopes of catching that trophy fish of a lifetime. Not only is the fishing world class, but the scenery in unmatched, breath-taking mountains, massive, dark green moss-covered trees, clear flowing creeks and rivers and sparkling lakes all make BC an amazing outdoor destination. For the angling enthusiast I have compiled a list of the top 10 steelhead rivers in British Columbia. I was born and raised in Vancouver, and I feel very fortunate to call these rivers my home waters.
The Thompson River is most definitely deserving of the number one spot, not because it holds record numbers of returning steelhead, as that would be an over exaggerated statement, but because it hosts an amazing sport fishing history steeped with tradition. The reality is that the Thompson steelhead are and have been in decline and are the centre of debate within the sport fishing community. The Thompson needs friends in a big way in order to save this strain of unforgettable wild steelhead. The Thompson is a big river located East of Hope where the Fraser Valley ends and the BC interior begins. The town of Spences Bridge lays smack dab in the middle and is the home turf for anglers arriving to fish the many great runs and riffles. The wild steelhead that enter the Thompson are second to none, they are big and elusive, hard fighting and beautiful. The land surrounding the Thompson is large scale also, and therefore I have nicknamed this river and its location the “Valley Of The Giants”.
Source: Confluence of the North and South Thompson Mouth: Fraser River Length: 489 KM Located In: South Central British Columbia Steelhead Season: Fall/Early Winter
The Dean River needs no introduction, any angler worth his or her weight has heard of and dreamt about visiting the Dean River and fishing for its magnificent steelhead. The Dean is a unique angling river for a number of reasons. First, its Steelhead are among the most beautiful and strongest around, second, it is only accessible by chopper and or boat to the mouth and then hike in. This makes it very difficult and expensive to get on the river, for those that can afford the big trip they can stay at one of the few lodges that specialize in steelhead fly-fishing. The Dean is set in an amazing landscape full of mountains and thick forest and flows directly into the ocean. This gives it another unique feature, as anglers can target steelhead and salmon fresh from the salt water, still dripping in sea lice. The Dean is set up for fly-fishing with long easy sloping riffles and boulder-strewn runs. It’s a must for any avid angler.
Source: Aktaklin Lake Mouth: Dean Channel Length: 240 KM Located In: Central British Columbia Steelhead Season: Summer
Skeena River, Bulkley River, Kispiox River & Copper River
The Skeena River and its tributaries are world famous for their fantastic returns of wild steelhead and salmon. Anglers travel from all over the world to fish in one of the many amazing rivers that make up this vast system. The Skeena is a large river set in Northern British Columbia to a backdrop so scenic it will take your breath away. Tall, snow capped mountains, lush old-growth forests and of course, sparkling rivers attract adventure seekers and fishermen alike.
The Skeena is the mother river to many well-known tributaries, including the Bulkley, Kispiox and Copper Rivers. All of these rivers host fine runs of steelhead that start entering the rivers mid summer and peak through the fall. Compared to other rivers in BC the returns of wild steelhead are still quite good, and the rivers are set up very well for fly-fishing. Long, sweeping runs sided with large gravel bars, easy sloping riffles and deep canyons make up miles of fishy looking water.
The Skeena main stem is the largest and will test even the most skilled angler. The Bulkley is second largest in size and makes for a perfectly suited river for spey casting with two handed fly rods. The Kispiox River is smaller and more intimate and known for steelhead that reach a very large size. The Copper River is also smallish in size but receives the largest return of steelhead out of these three tributaries. All of these rivers flow into the Skeena River and are easily accessible with a car and a good map. The Bulkley River is least affected by fall rains and therefore becomes the go-to when the weather gets very bad. Both the Kispiox and the Copper Rivers unfortunately have a tendency to get very coloured up from heavy rain. Anglers should watch the weather and plan trips accordingly. All four rivers are within a few hours drive of each other and are also in close proximity to towns such Smithers, Hazelton and Terrace. For those anglers interested in steelhead, these rivers are a must-see and a must-fish at some point throughout one’s angling career.
Source: Spatsizi Plateau Mouth: Pacific Ocean Length: 570 KM Located In: Northern British Columbia Steelhead Season: Summer/Fall
Source: Morice Lake Mouth: Skeena River Length: 257 KM Located In: Northern British Columbia Steelhead Season: Late Summer/Fall
Source: Kispiox Range Mouth: Skeena River Length: 140 KM Located In: Northern British Columbia Steelhead Season: Late Summer/Fall
Source: McDonell Lake, Dennis Lake, Aldrich Lake Mouth: Skeena River Length: 109 KM Located In: Northern British Columbia Steelhead Season: Summer/Fall
The Vedder River is a great local river close to Vancouver, it’s located approximately one and half hours east of the big city, in Chilliwack. The Vedder River is heavily enhanced by a hatchery on the upper reaches; this hatchery supports the steelhead run that returns in the winter months. Anglers from all over the Fraser Valley make the short journey in hopes of tangling with one of the Vedder’s beautiful winter steelhead. This river is easy to access and therefore does see a large amount of angling pressure during peak season. Most anglers will choose to float fish with conventional tackle, however the river is set up very well for swinging flies with two handed fly rods. The Vedder is broken into two major stretches of the river, divided by the crossing bridge found in the middle near town. The upper river is the Chilliwack River and the lower river below the bridge is the Vedder. Both reaches have great water to fish with the upper river having more pockets and faster flowing sections and the lower river being wider and slower with classic pools and riffles. The Vedder is a great river to cut your teeth on as a novice steelheader.
Source: Hannegan Pass Mouth: Sumas River Length: 80 KM Located In: South Western British Columbia Steelhead Season: Winter/Spring
The Squamish River is located North of Vancouver approximately one hour’s drive along the Sea To Sky highway near the town of Squamish and not far from the well known resort town of Whistler. The Squamish is an absolutely breathtaking river offering panoramic vistas of the coast mountains alongside thick, green, tree-filled forests. This river is also the mother river to a number of reasonably sized tributaries that, along with the Squamish main stem, offer sport fishing for salmon, trout and steelhead. The steelhead that enter the Squamish are a rare breed, unfortunately heavy logging practices on the upper reaches have done large amounts of damage, including destabilizing spawning grounds. Still, the Squamish gets fished through the winter and spring in hopes of finding one of its elusive wild winter run steelhead. These fish are fresh with ocean vigour and will attack a well-presented fly swung through one of the many stellar pieces of water in both the lower or upper reaches of the river. If you target the steelhead found throughout the Squamish system be forewarned, they are far and few between and can take many days of solid angling in order to find one.
Source: Pemberton Ice Field Mouth: Howe Sound Length: 80 KM Located In: South Western British Columbia Steelhead Season: Winter/Spring
Cowichan & Gold Rivers
Both the Cowichan and the Gold Rivers are located on Vancouver Island and are visited regularly by both traveling and local anglers alike. The Cowichan sees steelhead, salmon and trout returning back to its clear flows.
Interestingly the Cowichan River is one of only a few rivers in British Columbia that host a resident brown trout population, and these trout are sought after by fly anglers. This river is very beautiful, flowing green with great riffles and runs perfectly suited for sport fishing. Having access to a drift boat is very helpful and there are a number of resident guides who offer trips along the Cowichan River. The Gold is another great steelhead river found on the island. The Gold is a steeper river very well suited to float fishing with conventional tackle, and of course fly fishing works too. If you’re on the island I would highly recommend checking out one of these two rivers.
Source: Cowichan Lake Mouth: Cowichan Bay Length: 47 KM Located In: Vancouver Island Steelhead Season: Winter/Spring
Source: Muchalat Lake Mouth: Muchalat Inlet Length: 70 KM Located In: Vancouver Island Steelhead Season: Winter/Spring
That’s my top-ten list of steelhead rivers in British Columbia. If you are making a trip, be sure to do your own research in terms of maps and fishing locations. I prefer not to divulge too much information in print, as some things are better left up to your own hard work and personal experiences to find out. All of these rivers are beautiful in their own right, and well worth the visit. If fishing please practice proper catch and release techniques, treating every fish, fisherman or woman and the environment with the utmost respect. Also be sure to check in on local regulations and to get the proper fishing license.