Vancouver Island Steelhead rivers are some of the most unique around. You can catch fish any day of the year on Vancouver Island, and it’s a steelheaders paradise. Some are wide and slow moving and many are steep, fast and deep. All of these Vancouver Island Steelhead rivers listed have their own character and need a little time and practice to get to know. All of the 200 plus rivers on Vancouver island are with a day’s drive from anywhere on the island, this makes steelheading on vancouver island very convenient for the locals, but people from all over the world travel here every year to experience the wild rugged west coast and the feisty fish that come with it.
#1 Cowichan River
Listed as one of BC’s top steelhead rivers by BC Outdoor magazine, it’s definitely one of my favorite Vancouver Island Steelhead Rivers. It boasts easy access and lots of steelhead. The Cowichan is considered an urban river, however you’d never know it. When you’re standing in the river, you wouldn’t realize you’re close to a town. There is plenty of room, the river isn’t crowded with anglers and you’re surrounded by the tall trees that the west coast is famous for and it’s surrounded by a quiet hiking trail. The winter steelhead run in this river is absolutely amazing. A skilled angler can land several medium sized steelhead in a day out on this pretty river. The water is generally clear, unless it’s flooding. You are allowed to anchor and fish one of the many great spots. Fly fishing is a great option here as it’s banks are wide enough to accommodate the long throws.
The best thing about the Cowichan is actually the unique species of brown trout. These were introduced back in the 1930’s and they actually took to the system and have survived very well among this ecosystem.
Seasons: Winter and Early Spring are the best time to fish this river. In the Summer water levels are too low and temperatures too high, creating too much stress on the fish already. Catching them causes even more stress and leads to reduced populations. Freshwater fishing has been closed in this area for several summers in a row for this reason. Besides the river is filled with tourists tubing every summer anyway, also not great for fish stress unfortunately.
As with all Vancouver Island Steelhead Rivers, it’s very important to be up to date on regulations for this river as it is considered one of the most confusing regulated rivers, so ask for help and then check for yourself to ensure accuracy. It’s also changing regularly and different sections are opening and closing all the time. A guide is your best bet for getting things right so don’t be afraid to spring for the help. Someone experienced with this system can get you into the great spots instead of wasting your time in the non-producing areas.
#2 The San Juan River
This river begins at Port Renfrew and runs up the San Juan Valley and is fed by a few tributaries including the Caycuse and the Harris creek.. This is a remote river and for that reason it's my second favorite Vancouver Island Steelhead Rivers. You’ll need the help of a local or a guide for access points as they’re well hidden and very difficult to find. There a few ways to fish this river, and the best way, in my opinion, is by drift boat. This is what gets you into the best fishing holes. You can also hike in if you know where to go or if you have a jet boat you can launch from Port Renfrew. This is one of the few Vancouver Island steelhead rivers that allow powered boats.
Unlike most Vancouver Island Steelhead rivers, this isn’t a great river for fly fishing, as it’s too narrow in most spots until it nears the ocean. The best holding spots in this river are actually only about 10 to 15 feet wide. So because of this it is suited to great gear fishing. The steelhead aren’t as large as some of the main land rivers, averaging in the 10-15lb range for winter run, but there a few bigger ones lurking around!
My first experience catching a steelhead was on this river and it’s something I’ll never forget.
The first of the winter run appear September to October but they stay just in the river’s mouth. When the rain comes it enables them to migrate up the river to spawn. The winter run steelhead is great here, but be sure to watch your water levels carefully. This river can flood very quickly and become quite dangerous if you don’t have enough experience or know the character of this system. The steelhead fishing is highly productive right up until February, though it usually peaks in January.
Best way to experience this river is hiring a guide to do a drift.
# 3 The Stamp, Somass, Sproat River
At the headwaters of the main river, the Stamp lies Robertson fish hatchery and as it runs down into the Port Alberni inlet, it’s joined by several tributaries. It’s divided up into three sections and each section has it’s own regulations, so be sure to check carefully. The upper section is everything above Stamp Falls, middle is from the Bucket to the falls and everything below the Bucket is considered the lower.
Access is great for this river as many great fishing holes are literally a 15 minute drive from Port Alberni. Port Alberni is a small city with a population of only 17,000 so there is very little angling pressure from locals.
Steelhead season on the stamp generally runs July to February. Winter runs peak late December to late January, but this does vary slightly from year to year depending on conditions. Its seems there is a little confusion over summer and winter run steelhead and it’s thought there is now a combination of summer and winter runs in November and December.
Gear or Fly?
The Stamp is a great fly fishing opportunity but once the salmon spawn occurs these steelhead won’t even notice a fly. These egg hunters have their noses down continually in search of their next tasty meal. So if you’re a fly fisherman or woman make sure to get to the stamp before October, otherwise you might get skunked. Gear fishing is very productive from October to December, best with egg patterns. Our favourite are steelybeads.
# 5 Gold River
This river is situated on mid Vancouver Island by the town of, you guessed it, Gold River and it flows into the Muchadhat inlet. It’s named from the color of the water because it definitely has a golden hue to it, some say it’s from the cedar sediment in the water. It has good road access from highway 28 out of Campbell River and it’s a beautiful drive through Strathcona park. Stop and do one of their many amazing hikes if you have the time and desire. It does get float plane service if you’re into that sort of thing. There is no hatchery program here and an old mill sits down at the estuary.
It's common for this river to have the largest returns of steelhead on Vancouver Island and some anglers say you can fish for Steelhead any day of the year. Old rumours say that an Orca made Muchadhat inlet home and ate all the steelhead but they’ve since recovered. The skilled fisherman can get 20+ steelhead in a single day. Some of the deep canyons of this river are inaccessible to hikers but we have found that the most productive pools are lower down and very accessible with only a short hike. The Steelhead tend to range anywhere from about 5 to 20lbs, and the winter run tends to be bigger.
Although they say you can catch Steelhead in this river year round the peaks are as follows:
Summer run- Runs from June to September
Winter run- January to April
#6 Nimpkish River
This river lies on the northern part of Vancouver Island and runs from Nimpkish Lake to the cute little town of Port McNeill. The Nimpkish river is the largest river on Vancouver island and the legend Roderick Haig-Brown called it The Big One. This river has seen some very hard times due to unsustainable logging practices and the steelhead counts were way way down during the 80’s and 90’s. Fortunately the Nimpkish Resource Management Board is changing that and returns are increasing again. Understanding that this is a bit of a fragile system is important to help get the steelhead numbers back up. Please practice every ethical measure when fishing this river. Keep wild fish wet and remember NO GLOVES. Finding information on the steelhead holding spots can prove a little tough on the Nimpkish, as locals are extremely tight lipped.
The fish in this Vancouver Island Steelhead river are known for their fight. Even the smaller steelhead in the Nimpkish will fight like a large Steelhead of the other southern rivers. It must be the rugged northern spirit. Watch for wildlife here too, as the bears and elk are abundant in the area.
Winter run steelhead November to March, peaking January and February
Summer Steelhead: May to October.