On Friday night four friends and I set off for Lytton. We'd been planning a 3 day trip into the Stein River Valley for a few months and the time had finally arrived. We camped out on a logging road just south of Lytton for the night and had planned to drive to the cable ferry first thing in the morning.... that was the plan....
The morning revealed two very crucial mistakes:
1) my hiking boots (Timberland Gore-Tex $150 boots) were in terrible shape and the sole on the left foot was falling off - I know, good time to check my boots! and
2) Ryan's brand new -15 Celsius sleeping bag was only half-sized, barely covering him to his waist. I didn't even know they made those.
Needless to say we both needed a store... in Lytton... at 8 AM on a Saturday. We were literally laughed at when we asked the gas station attendant where we could find a sleeping bag and boots, he told us to go to Kamloops. We ended up driving up to Kumsheen River Rafting hoping to find a small store there. That place is fantastic - they rented Ryan a sleeping bag for $20 and I found a good pair of sandals to ease my foot-ware concerns (for $130... grrr)
Ok on to the trip!
We drove to the ferry crossing. Amazing thing. If you ever get up there take some time and just watch it go. A short 10 minute drive from the ferry we reached the Stein Valley Park and got all our gear ready. We packed in lightweight tents and two hiking burners. We all packed in a mickey and Greggy made the last minute decision to throw in 8 beers. We started along the trail and before long we found some inviting looking water to toss the lines in. With 5 guys we set up with a variety of flies to test the waters. Nymphs with indicators, a couple of standard dry’s in different sizes (caddis, black ant), and finally an egg pattern just in case there were some early spawners in the system.
Right off the bat we were all excited as all but one of us managed to land small fish. 6-10 inch rainbows were quite abundant in the pocket water throughout the lower canyon. Ryan got an 18 inch Whitefish on a nymph pattern, and one larger rainbow spat the hook. Jay, new to flyfishing, had landed five fish on the dry in the first couple of hours. We fished a few easily accessed sections of the river along the lower canyon as we continued further and further into the valley.
Around 4 kms in the trail begins to climb up the "Devil's Staircase," where we ascend 400 metres. The climb presented us with an amazing view of the valley as it carved to the northwest ahead of us. The staircase took us along a 2km stretch that included some switchbacks and talus slope scrambles. At the summit the terrain continues with various small elevation changes before finally dropping us back down to the river below.
What followed was the most productive fishing that we managed to find for the whole weekend. The trail led us down to a small island accessible by a fallen log. We fished much of the water around the island and caught many beautiful rainbows in this stretch. Finding fish over 12 inches was a challenge, but there are a few around, and they were remarkably scrappy.
Time was ticking and we had yet to make it to our destination. At this point it was already lunch time and we were only about 6 kms or so into the valley. We knew that the suspension bridge crossing was near the 13 km mark and we hoped to camp somewhere after that. We continued up the trail, clearly marked as it twisted and turned out of the canyon. The landscape seemingly changed every kilometer. Stretches of arid ponderosa turned into dense cedar groves. The forest gave way to a new growth area that featured towering burnt trunks of old Douglas Fir, the site of a massive wildfire in 1995 still plain to see (thank you Ryan for the research). The trail rejoined the river and followed it beyond Earl's Cabin and Earl Creek (another great spot to filter some water) to the suspension bridge.
Crossing to the north side of the river we found a suitable camp site only 10 minutes from the bridge. The water at first glance in this stretch looked amazing, with considerably less gradient than the lower river. According to our research, it is this mid section stretch that sees the majority of salmon spawning when the modest returns of coho, chinook, and steelhead enter the river. The GPS tracker on my phone told me we were 14 km from the truck. Our campsite was right on the river and just up from us we could see a good beach with very fishy looking water. Ryan, Jay and Chris set off with their rods to test the waters, while Greggy and myself (the resident fat boys) sat down for a well-earned beer and warm dinner. Before long Ryan landed a few bows out of a nice run. Light was getting low and the three of them returned to us at camp. Chris threw Ryan up a tree and we cached our food for the night. Two people each in two tents, with Chris setting up a hammock as our bear guardian.
Having so much success fishing the first day, we all went to sleep that night excited for the day ahead. Surely the farther up the river we go, the better the fishing will be right?
The day began with a quick breakfast and we set off deeper into the valley. Thankfully with only day packs strapped to our backs we felt like we were floating. The trail followed the river for a couple kms but then plunged into the dense forest of the mid valley. Forest turned to floodplains in stretches but the trail was dry. This area had black bear scat every few minutes, and the first small bear was spotted 10 feet or so up a tree, before scrambling down and running off.
It would be several kilometers before we’d see the river again. The trail narrowed, though still clearly marked as it threaded us through the undergrowth and brought us back to the river bank. There we found the river had drastically changed. The cascading plunge pools of the canyon had been replaced with the peaceful and meandering river of the mid valley. We pressed on and were led up to the Snake Bluffs. Beautiful views followed as we climbed above the canopy and quickly dropped right back down into it. True to its name, Ryan caught a small snake on the trail while we were up on the bluffs. Lizards and snakes were commonplace along the way.
The trail continued but did not provide terrain that was conducive to reaching the river without horrendous bushwacking. When it finally did we would often find that the opposite banks featured the fishy water, while our side of the river was basically unfishable. Finally we crossed Ponderosa Creek, which unlike the three previous creeks, had some water flowing. At this point we were only a few hundred yards from the River and decided to bushwhack our way to the mouth of the creek. We shortly came to once again stunningly beautiful Stein River but only a small rocky beach to fish from. 5 frustrated and tired fishermen sat down and enjoyed a lunch on the beach. Ryan of course was the first to get his rod in the water and nailed four or five small fish in a small pool, but no decent fish were found here.
A black bear emerged from the bushes upriver on the next beach, but quickly retreated to the trees when it noticed us before we could get a photo of him. I can’t overstate the beauty of the valley at this point. Worthy of a National Geograph ic special. We decided (by we I mean Ryan) that we’d go a little further up the trail in the hopes we’d find good fishing water. A kilometer or so beyond Ponderosa Creek we entered the swamp land that the mid-valley is famous for. At this point we were 10 km from camp and still 6 kms from Cottonwood Creek, so we decided to turn back (Ryan was not pleased). Day 2 proved to be a bust from a fishing perspective, but a valuable learning experience. It’s always more fun to learn for yourself than to read something in a book, get discouraged and never experience it. The river likely featured a great deal of fishy water that time and access did not allow exploring. The magnificent beauty of the mid valley was a sight to behold. I am grateful that we made it as far as we did.
After a short breakfast and a slow tear down of the camp we headed back. Ryan spotted a nice beach as we crossed the suspension bridge so we bush-whacked down into it for a quick early fish – nothing was caught at this site, although there was a nice side channel that would have made an ideal spawning ground for salmon. We were hoping to encounter some early chinook sightings for some egg pattern fishing, but none were seen with the exception of one carcass that had been eaten by a bear. It was early and we had a long way to go so we didn’t take the time to explore this spot enough. I know that spot will haunt Ryan until we return one day.
We continued back. The mid canyon area above Devils Staircase would be our target rest stop for lunch. We took the opportunity to fish for an hour and were not disappointed. Greggy landed his first fish of the trip, who somehow had managed to endure a fishless first two days despite multiple hookups and lost fish. Two larger rainbows were plucked out of different pools from under indicators by myself and Greggy. Both fish took runs into the current and capped off the trip perfectly.
After lunch we all just put our heads down and completed the final 6 kms back to the truck, where we each enjoyed the best tasting warm beers of our lives (thanks Jay). It was a once in a lifetime experience and it couldn’t have been a better group of guys to trek with.