Charles St. Pierre – spey instructor, fixture at Alaska West and BC West, signature fly tier, great guy to be around, not-too-shabby writer – drops by our blog again today. From our standpoint it feels like Charles’ main goal is to make us even more antsy about the summer fishing that’s coming up after not too long now, but really he’s just telling us about his favorite run to fish when chasing steelhead on the Dean River.
Charles’ Favorite Run on the Dean: Cottonwood
On the river that is regarded by many as the most beautiful steelhead river in the world it is very, very, difficult indeed to choose one run that distinguishes itself as ‘the’ favorite simply because there are so many prime choices to consider on the Dean. Time of year, technique, and water conditions are huge considerations to be sure but if I had to choose one run and one only between early July and mid-August it would undoubtedly be the run known as “Cottonwood”.
This is a very special run to fish for a wide variety of reasons. Located above the lower canyon, at BC West we use ATV’s to get here, which in itself is an adventure as you weave up river along the narrow road through the forest and beneath the granite ridges that define the river valley. After reaching the end of the road, it’s a very short hike downstream along the path to the rivers edge where you will get the first real glimpse of the heart of this run and its surrounding landscape. This run literally has it all – rainstorm fed waterfalls, towering granite faces, lush dense forest, great flow and structure variations, and magnificent BC steelhead.
From here on river right you can begin to fish just slightly down river from the end of the trail. This is considered the deep or high bank side of the run and deep wading and long casts are not necessary here with the ledge into the deeper water mere feet from the water’s edge. Fish will commonly and readily roll on the surface just beneath your rod tip here – hang on tight if you hook up in this area. Because of the structure and flow many of these fish turn away instantly in a heavy water-induced downstream freefall of spray and speed.
As you reach into the tailout of the run the wading becomes less difficult and longer casts are used to cover the bulk of its width all the way to the edge of the break at the top of the steep rapid leading to the pool below. You would not be able follow any fish that decides to fall from this pool to the next, which they occasionally do: after all, they have their reputations to consider too. The quarters for casting are tight and the wading is challenging but the views of the valley and the fish hooked here will etch themselves into your memory for a very long time.
To access the river left bank of the Cottonwood run, BC West uses a two man pontoon boat parked at the end of the trail that we use to ferry across the river. Two anglers will have all the room needed to fish this pool and then some. As on the river right side, big, underwater rock nuggets scatter themselves throughout the run from the ‘eyeball’ at the top all the way down and into the wide tailout. The flow here on the left bank is soft and inviting on the inside to both fish and angler, with a more gradual depth change from the bank to the mid river bucket as you progress downstream. The wading is less challenging and a bit more friendly with longer casts being the preference to cover most of the structure from the middle to end of the pool. The fish themselves could come to the fly from anywhere in this large, glorious run.
As you approach the tailout, there is a small secondary inside channel that empties itself from the main current into a long, deep, and narrow pool downstream around a small gravel high spot. From the left bank this small channel offers fish a calmer and less difficult path into the main pool than the steep rapid that sweeps and drops to the right with the primary flow of the river. On many occasions I’ve observed fish entering and resting in this area as they enter the main pool from this secondary channel on the left. You don’t have to necessarily fish past this channel break but you should always fish to it and let your fly soak here awhile before you slowly and carefully retrieve it before walking back to the top for a snack and a beverage. Get ready to make another pass…
Because Cottonwood is located above the lower canyon area of the river, all methods of presentation will work here. I’m very fond of variety in swinging techniques when it comes to steelhead, and sinking lines, floating lines with long leaders and medium or small wet flies, and dry flies all produce positive results in this pool. See if you can get one up to take a dry – you’ll never regret it. From either side, a good plan would be to make your first pass with a floating line and the fly of choice before making your second pass with a sinking line and heavier fly. If you’re lucky enough to fish this pool, multiple passes by each angler in the early and late part of the day are a must.
There are fish here, so settle in and make yourselves comfortable. Like most pools on the Dean, each cast could be the one that comes tight with a beautiful bright steelhead so use your time here wisely – if you fish it, they will come. The cathedral that surrounds you here is called Cottonwood and it is sacred, holy ground. Don’t forget to look around, listen, and remember one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever been to on Earth.