150 Miles From Seattle
Hot Springs and Hotter Trout
On B.C.’s Undiscovered Lillooet
By Terry W. Sheely
Like a snake crossing hot rocks, our jet boat twists and skitters upriver weaving along a narrow current line past broken boulders, log jams and long tantalizing trout runs. Snow spits through the rain. Left hand on the wheel, right hand on the throttle, Tony is staring through smears in the windshield murk flying the sled along the seam, turning, charging, sliding, crabbing, and goosing through the corners.
This river has teeth; big rocky teeth, and shattered logs poised on the banks, hidden in the current, impatient to chew up and spit out the slightest miscue.
“You gotta watch it in here,” he says, “the current line changes with every high water. Never know what to
What Jim Goerg and I expect is to wear out our casting arms on wild rainbows, spectacularly spotted cutthroat,
and meat-eating Dolly Varden in this wild roadless river less than 150 miles north of Seattle, and then be back in Harrison Hot Springs in time to inhale steaks swamped in prawns and buried in mushrooms, followed by an indulgent sweat in the steam room and a protracted bob in hot spring mineral water.
This is our fourth fling at this fishery and I feel in my bones this one is going to happen.
Big, wind-prone Harrison Lake is at last behind us, we stopped at the “Witch Doctor,” a native pictograph on
the west bank, paid the requisite bread chunks and homage that insures safe passage and at last the Lillooet River is roaring around us in a righteous, fishy green color.Chilliwack, British Columbia guides Tony Nootebos and Chad McAdie are as jacked as we are, everybody riding high on optimism and anticipation.
In front of us are big numbers of aggressive wild trout, and char that need to be measured with a yardstick in a spectacularly beautiful, isolated, rarely fished, roadless, wild river that incredibly flows less than 150 miles from home in the Seattle area.
There are several explanations for why this mother lode of underexposed quality fishing isn’t packed with anglers and one of the biggest reasons is the temperamental tantrums of Harrison Lake.
To reach the river mouth requires a 42 mile boat ride from the public ramp at the little resort town of Harrison Hot Springs up Harrison Lake to the river mouth on the north end in a boat that can run the lake and then climb the river, too. Tony’s 21-foot North River jet handles this part of the quest, and in good weather it’s a great ride. When the wind howls down from the peaks behind Whistler-Blackcomb the lake becomes a tempestuous
funnel of towering mayhem that could sink a Dutch Harbor crabber.
Jim, Tony and I have been trying to put this trip together for three years but each scheduled adventure was foiled by either an unseasonable flood with a bleeding blue-clay landslide, thigh-deep snow or murderous winds stacking monster waves across the center ofHarrison Lake.
The hardest part of catching these fish, it seems, is getting the weather gods to line up long enough to get here. In the summer, snow melt comes down ugly and brown and at best the river is tough to fish. In winter the mountainous area is susceptible to heavy snow and ferocious winds, which leaves a window of opportunity cracked open in the Spring—March, April and on a good year part of May, and in the Fall of September and early October.
The spring fishery targets the wild rainbow, cutthroat and bull trout that are feeding on salmon hatchlings. Fall, anglers find the trout and char plus adult sockeye, chums, chinook and coho salmon from the Fraser River that have surged through Harrison Lake into the river to spawn. The river’s resident predators switch their all-meat diet to eggs and successful anglers replace streamers with pink and orange egg patterns for trout and char and salmon flies for the rest.
After three years of false starts everything is finally in place for a spring trip and Jim and I, grinning like school kids, are ready for an exceptional day of exceptionally good big trout fishing on a close-to-home river that most anglers have never heard about and only a few have fished.
The Lillooet (pronounced Lil-loo-wet) River is one of those lucky rivers that flow on the wrong side of the ountain range from civilization. It begins in the snowfields and glaciers Mt. on Mt.
Compton in the spectacular Coast Range, rumbles downhill in the shadows on the backside of the urbanized Whistler ski areas, then drops like a typical freestone river on a 40 mile sluice along the east side of Garabaldi Provincial Park before spilling across a gravel bar and into the 900-feet of deep of north Harrison Lake.
Except for a rugged, “bring a 4x4, a winch and two spare tires,” track through the surrounding forest, there
is no practical way into this river except by jet boat.
The Lillooet has fascinated me since a cold winter afternoon half-a-dozen years ago when Nootebos, owner of Harrison Bay Guided Services and guide Fred Helmer, gushed about the river over coffee. The original plan was to anchor a 64-foot boat at the mouth of the Lillooet, mothership style and run jet boats upstream, but that plan eventually fell apart and we went back to Plan B—running up lake on a day trip in the first week of April.
A wet splatter of fresh snow is plastered into the trees on the steep mountainsides, the jet is beached on a
gravel bar and I’m wading up to my yahoos in icy Lillooet water toward Jim who is hollering and two-handing a bent spinning rod!
He’s dancing with a big Dolly Varden that powers under a giant buckskin log and out the other side. Tony is
scrambling with the release pliers, Jim is tied up in the log, the Dolly is firmly in control, and below me I see Chad’s fly rod bend toward sizeable fish splatter.
And the fish day is just getting started.
We had stopped to fish the braids and log jams at the mouth of the river, to get the kinks out, and let Jim dance with his Dolly before running another 10 miles upriver to fish back downstream.
The confluence of river and lake is obvious fish country. We are sharing the water with eagles, mergansers,
loons, geese, mink, otters and a patrol of harbor seals that has taken up residence more than 100 miles from saltwater. The seals are year-round inhabitants feasting on the seasonal runs of steelhead, salmon, trout and char that are concentrated into the shallows and braids where the lake bottlenecks into the river. Bear tracks are clawed into the sand.
This is not a fish-for-the-freezer fishery.
Under the province’s Region 2 regulations the Lillooet River is catch and release for all wild trout and char, no bait and lures are restricted to single barbless hooks.
Tony takes the restrictions a step further and limits his guided trips to fly tackle. The restrictions aren’t a handicap, he says.
"Nobody fishes this river but us,” Tony says, “There’s no pressure. Most of these fish have never seen a fly. They’re aggressive.”
That proves to be an understatement.
There are no other boot prints in the sand, no line tangles in the log jams, no boats in sight. We’re only a few hours from Seattle but light years away from the maddening crowd.
We find the majority of trout are right where they should be--locked into the current seams between fast and
slow water and the Dollies are holding on the bottom in the slowest flows of the deep runs and pools. At each stop it’s the same: rainbows and cutts in the seams, Dollies in the deep.
Tony hands me a pair of flies, a No. 8 Silver Epoxy minnow and a Red Salmon Fry. Both are tied on streamer
hooks to imitate the salmon alvin and fry that are in the river and are the food of choice for Lillooet trout. Insect hatches are few, unpredictable and scattered on this freestone river. Occasionally the fishermen collide with a mayfly hatch, but, Tony says, “that’s rare.” These trout and Dollies are meat eaters preying mostly on salmon, steelhead and whitefish fry, and big streamer imitator patterns are what produce.
Chad starts with a shimmering No. 2 Electric Leech which triggers several solid strikes and pickups but he can’t get the hook in. When he checks his fly he finds the hook point gone, probably broken on the first strike.
At the first stop, in less than half an hour we catch and release 14 trout and Dollies and it’s just a teasing taste of what waits up river.
The Lillooet supports a lot of rainbows and cutthroat in the 12 to16 inch range, quite a few larger, and Dollies measured in pounds. Tony says he has no idea how big the Dolly Varden get in this river, because they move in and out of the lakes with the seasons. We caught a lot of Dollies in the 18 to 20 inch range, several that pushed five pounds, and Tony said we weren’t even close to the big fish that the Lillooet offers.
Some of the rainbows are leopard spotted with a pinkish glow that reminds me of the spectacular Alaskan rainbows from the Iliamna region. The cutts are all thick bodied with bold red slashes.
I suspect that if I had switched to a monster streamer and sculpin pattern, three inches or so long, and added enough weight to dredge the depths I might have met some of the bigger Dollies. Whoop-and-holler size char want big chunks of food per bite, and nothing is too large for them to get their mouth around. Jim breaks out a two-inch nickel and red Krocodile spoon and catches a three-pound Dolly. He switches to a four-inch red-and-white Daredevil and catches a four-pounder and then a five pounder. When I leave he’s rummaging through his tackle looking for a six-inch spoon to up the ante.
These are healthy river fish, feeding in a river corridor between two lakes (Harrison and Lillooet). They have
thick, strong well-proportioned bodies, not the half-starved, big-headed river fish common to freestone glacial streams. The trout and char move back and forth between lakes and river, following the food chain which in this case is usually salmon--first the eggs in fall, alevins in early spring and finally the smolts.
As the boat slips and roars upstream Chad points out good holes as we go—under that log there, see the channel there, there’s a good hole below the cedar, caught a bunch of cutts there a week ago, this is a good bull trout spot.....!"
The river bottom is covered with round rocks in strikingly contrasting colors, the size of grapefruits and beach balls and slippery with algae. The plunging river rolls the rocks into piles and splits the current into braids that spit downstream with an energy that creates tear-drop islands, some barely big enough to stand on, others of
several acres. The river is a long cast and a half wide in most places and pristine. Not a Styrofoam bait container, mangle of monofilament, or dead beer can anywhere. The early April water is cold and in perfect shape. At every stop we catch trout and dollies, sometimes hooking up in doubles and triples.
A few stops are exceptional. In a slough a hundred feet from the main channel I catch a rainbow only 15 inches long, but absolutely beautiful. Thick shouldered, square fins, small head, shot through with large dark spots. The flanks are tinged with an iridescent pink. Mostly we fish from the bank and bars, beaching the boat and
spreading out but at one deep sullen run paralleling a massive gravel bar we cast from the drifting boat. We make the drift three times and in those three passes we catch seven Dolly Varden that push several pounds and lose a monster that gets its head out of the water, wallows, glares, turns downriver into the fast water and never slows down.
The downstream flow roars like it’s dumping from a bent water pipe, sloshing from one side to the other,
carving out deep runs and eddy seams where the fish hold. The current and the holding water changes with every flush of high water. Every trip, Tony says, is like starting from scratch.
Clouds are thick and falling down the mountainside. There is no traffic, only the sounds of the river. We cherry pick downstream, stopping to fish at the best looking spots, exploring a few unknown look-goods. Most produce at least a few fish and some produce a lot.
The rain is shot with snow and sleet but we’ve long forgotten about it, distracted by fish and fishing. Late in
the afternoon, Tony points to the tree tops where a new wind has the high branches swaying.
“We should go now,” he says, “if we don’t we’ll get pounded all the way home.”
It took four tries but the Lillooet has given us a great day. No sense pressing the odds.
As the jet plunges down lake toward the lights and a good steak in a mineral spring resort town that we can’t
yet see, I’m thinking of fall when the salmon run or maybe next April.
Maybe, just maybe the fifth time is the real charmer. If the weather gods can be appeased and I pull it off. I’ll be packing giant sculpin patterns, you can bet on that. There’s a Dolly in here bigger than a brag.
If You Lillooet
Because of the weather risk, I’d recommend pairing a Lillooet River adventure with backup fishing options in the Chilliwack/Harrison Hot Springs region, and there’s plenty of them. Freelancers towing river jet boats, when not running up to the Lillooet, can target year-round catch and release white sturgeon action up to 12 feet, chinook in the Fraser River from June to October, sockeye from July to September, pinks September to October, chums October to December and coho from September to December.
The Lillooet is hot for rainbow, cutthroat and Dolly Varden in late March-June and again in Sept.-Oct. when salmon are also available. Early fall is also likely to find Harrison Lake more benevolent. I love the April fishery, but weather can be a problem. If you tow a river boat consider anchoring and camping along the Lillooet. Another bad weather option is also the virtually ignored sight fishing for cutthroat along the white sand beaches on the south end of Harrison Lake, and there’s world-class fall steelhead and salmon fishing in the Chilliwack and Vedder rivers on the outskirts of Chilliwack.
A good paved public boat launch and loading dock is in Harrison Hot Springs, along with overnight accommodations (campgrounds, RV parks, B&Bs, motels, hotels, deluxe spa), several restaurants and groceries. The nearby city of Chilliwack is on Hwy. 1 about 60 miles east of Vancouver, and is a short drive to urban necessities and good tackle stores I recommend
Fred’s Custom Tackle
After a long-hard day getting beat up by big fish, I recommend the hot spring pools, saunas and steam room at
Harrison Hot Springs Resort,
Fully guided and equipped trips up the Lillooet are offered by
Harrison Bay Guided Services,
operates out of the ground floor of Harrison Hot Springs Resort,
GreatRiver Fishing Adventures,
(604-991-3474) in Chilliwack.