There are moments on the water we’ll never forget. Perhaps that’s why we really go there. To have an experience we’ve never seen, or felt, or heard before. It might be the river itself, rugged and remote. Or the valley carpeted in tall grass the river slithers through. Or the very hush of the dark woods girding the water’s edge, marked with flaming yellow aspens in the fall. Something that embosses an image on your memory which is indelible. Such was the case when I first visited the Blackwater.
For several years before I hungered to see a new steelhead river, I was content to enjoy the bounty of the Babine. It was where I began my tutelage for the big fish alongside veterans of many seasons. Lani Waller taught me the fine points of dead-drift fishing. Frank Amato showed me a trick regarding the aerial, upstream mend. Bob Wickwire, who knew the river better than anybody, explained the more subtle aspects of reading the current. The Babine was wading, casting and fighting fish of the highest caliber. It made me want more.
The Blackwater River, or Damdochax, as the Nisga’a called it, is a headwaters stream which flows out of the Blackwater Lake and is very remote. There are no roads into it. Access is by plane, and my first time there we flew in aboard a venerable, forked-tail Beech twin on floats. Ken and Alice Williams had built a small lodge shoreside where we would headquarter and dine on wonderful, fresh-cooked meals and depart from every morning for the day’s fishing. And that was when the real sense of adventure began.
We went down lake by canoe. We beached the boats at the outlet and began the trek downstream, about five miles. From the canoes, before we got to the trail alongside the Blackwater, we passed through an abandoned, Nisga’a village – a broad clearing with the remains of log cabins around the perimeter, sign of a large fire circle in the center, and further away, closer to the tree line, small grave houses on poles to hold them above the ground at shoulder height. We knew the old campsite was a special place, which was confirmed as we passed through it on our initial day.
Far back in the trees, first one and then a chorus of wolves began to howl. Cries that were eerie but not threatening – they were an announcement of the wolves’ presence and a declaration of their territory. We were honored and respectful and kept moving, while the wolves sent sentries to monitor our progress away from their ‘encampment.’ We would catch glimpses of the large canines amongst the shadows. Then, again, at night when we returned, the wolves would pick us up a mile or so below the Indian village, track us back and join the others in the territorial ritual of howling.
The fishing was excellent. The Blackwater was a small river and had that feeling of being unspoiled, as if we were the first to make a cast there. The weather was almost balmy in the last full week of September, and I remember fishing a long run on the brightest blue afternoon of our last day. My buddy took the top and I dropped in just above the bucket. Soon I was hooked to a hot fish. Bunkie had fished down to where I was and told me he was moving further upstream, back toward home. Meanwhile I was trying to stay connected and land a nice steelhead. But the fish broke off.
Cursing my luck and reeling in my line I heard Bunkie yell, “What are you going to do about the wolf?” He pointed to the riverbank above me, then continued walking.
Sitting on his haunches, a large wolf was staring down at me. I decided as long as I stayed in the water, I was safe. There was another rock in midstream that looked ‘fishy,’ so I waded a little further out, took a couple steps and pumped out a cast that was sucked up immediately by a very aggressive ‘buck.’ I didn’t want to lose this one and focused all my attention on bringing to the net what I believed would be my biggest catch of the day.
When the male ‘steelie’ went airborne, throwing a rainbow in the sunlight, all thoughts about the predator above me were forgotten. This was a fish I could call ‘Sir.’ And it fought me halfway back up the run and then back to the bottom. I put all my strength and skill into keeping my prize from going over the edge and into the fast water below. The nine-weight rod was at its limit. I could feel my boots underwater slipping in the gravel. Then the line went slack! The fight was over, the yard-long, silver fish lying on its side in an eddy near the shore.
Netting the beautiful fish so I could unhook and revive him, I remembered the wolf and shot a glance up the bank. It was gone, as far as I could see. I returned my attention to releasing my catch. And what a catch it was! Just over 34” – I taped it – and with a double red stripe down each side. It was a first-year returnee, too, judging by the few scars on it. I pushed the fish back and forth in the water, reviving it, and quietly thanked the steelhead for its part in my experience. One I was sure would be the highlight of the trip.
At the top of the bank, I set down the flyrod, took off my fly vest, stretched my shoulders and back, and gazed back downstream reflecting on what a day it had been. I’d hooked nine and netted six. One a dandy. Bunkie had been into fish, too. Bunkie. . . that prompted me to think about catching up with my partner. It was time to head back. I gathered up my stuff, put my vest on and checked the ground for any loose items, picked up the pole and turned upstream.
Head down, striding along, lost in thought I suddenly sensed something nearby and I stopped. Up the trail, no more than 40 feet away was the wolf, looking me straight in the eye. Then it began to walk towards me, a sense of power projected in each stride. Unmoving, I was on guard but not really afraid. I was fascinated by the animal’s image. While the gray fur appeared to glisten in the sunlight, it was the eyes – piercing yellow, unblinking – that fixed on me as it kept coming.
The wolf walked up to within a foot, lifted its nose to sniff me in my waders spotted with fish scales. No reaction. Just time frozen momentarily. Then a final appraisal, a deep look into my face, before it turned and walked away.
That late afternoon as we followed the trail into the Indian village for the last time, again the wolves howled. And I knew one of them. It was a fitting end to an extraordinary fishing trip, an exclamation point to an experience that haunts me to this day. That wolf’s eyes. They told me something. And part of it is why we go to such places. To feel the world of our origins. To connect to our primal source. To be in a rare moment of purity.