Trip Report Desperation Gulch

Desperation Gulch

Copyright 2019. All rights reserved.


Or I could just call this the Dean River Chronicle, 2019. So why Desperation Gulch? More on that in a minute. It started out the usual way, rendezvousing at David’s at 5:00 AM Wednesday – a godawful hour if ever there was one – where we transferred our respective supplies and gear from Joe’s car and mine into David’s truck so that we might travel in comfort and style. On the road by 5:30 we were off toward the Canadian border, but first a stop at the coffee shop in Everson for a breakfast muffin and, of course, coffee. Thence on to the border, where the only car in line ahead of us just pulled away, placing us at the front of the line. Easy peasy, as usual. It seems like all the Canadian border guards are congenial and friendly toward foreign tourists intent on spending US dollars in pursuit of fish.

It’s a long day’s drive up to Williams Lake and then west toward Bella Coola. We stopped for the night at one of the several fishing lodges situated on the Cariboo Plateau. It was typical of lodges in the area, and we got a nice cabin large enough for the three of us. Unlike others I’ve experienced, the dining room was distinctly hoity toity, with a large glass chandelier and not just white linen tablecloths and napkins, but the brocaded kind, nonetheless. This trip to the Dean was getting off on a truly upscale start. Dinner was served at 7:00. I ordered the salmon, which was coho and fresh, but not quite as good as I cook salmon, since I prepare the best BBQ salmon in the world, according to me, and a few others. It rained a that evening, and had been quite wet on the plateau this July, something that matters downstream. At least there were no wildfires this summer, and we appreciated that.

The next morning we were off to the coast, already on the 50 mile stretch of gravel road that includes the Bella Coola grade, which hardly seems intimidating after driving it, well, riding along in my case, several times. If your vehicle has bad brakes, the grade is not intimidating, but deadly. Something to keep in mind if ever you’re inclined to take the ole jalopy on this trip. Of all the stretches of this road that remains gravel, it’s the worst stretch. It’s steep and has many switchbacks. We checked in at the airport to let them know we had arrived and confirmed our loading and take off time. It would be delayed nearly an hour because the weather held up the first trips of the morning. Even the first two arrivals of Air Canada were delayed by the weather. So we had plenty of time to visit the Hagensborg mercantile for some last minute fresh groceries and the Lunch Stop to get a sandwich, which makes sandwiches to remember. They are that good!

We’re loaded and taking off in the helicopter by 2:30, and I’m astounded anew each time I experience flying over these steep and impressively rugged coastal mountains. The ice age glaciers really had their work cut out, scraping and polishing these massive rock monoliths that appear one after the other. We fly over two other river drainages, and I wonder what fish resources occur there. Our pilot Richard mentions that there is a barrier falls near the mouth of the largest stream, so it has no salmon or steelhead. Richard pilots his craft and lands precisely on the GPS location of our previous campsite near Cottonwood. Only the log jams are no longer, and the pockets that used to be around the corner beyond the bottom of the pool are gone as well. Rivers change, that is certain.
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So what makes this location Desperation Gulch? As we took in the lay of the land, and especially the lay of the river and the two side channels between our campsite and the river, it became apparent that the water surface level of the river is higher in elevation than our campsite. And the two side channels are higher than our campsite. Only the tiny wall base channel to the immediate south of our campsite is lower in elevation. If the river, or even the side channels were to break through, having wet feet in our camp would be among the least of our concerns. So why camp there if the terrain is that risky? Well, because it looked perfectly good . . . from the air. Although it rained some this day and again the next, the heavy rains were over for now, and the next week was mostly clear and warm . . . and dry. So if Desperation Gulch was desperate, it would have to be for other reasons.

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The pre-made meals I packed in the cooler were still frozen brick solid, so freeze dried dinners were on the menu our first night in camp. I made three dinners ahead of time and froze them and brought a cooler and ice. The fresh food sure was nice, but I’m not so sure that it was worth the extra 40 pounds to fly it in with us. After dinner and a minimal clean up, it was time for a camp fire and a toast to being on the Dean River again. Joe won a fire starting contest in Boy Scouts as a youth, so he always starts the camp fire. So it was this time as well. And after a well- deserved toast with Jameson Irish Whiskey, relaxing near the fire, Joe announced, “Bear. Bear. Bear.” And sure enough, here comes a grizzly padding its way upstream along the tiny side channel nearest us. For some odd reason I thought of a couple lines from Jimmy Buffet’s Bear Ballad. “He was a Kodiak looking fella’, about 19 feet tall.” I felt like I should say, “Mr. Bear, I love every hair, on your 27 acre body.” But I didn’t since we needed to attend to the immediate issue. I mean, there we were, three strapping young men, all around 70 years old, with our gruff voices, whistles, air horn, and bear spray; I was fairly certain we could take him. But we’re of the live and let live persuasion, and my best guesstimate is that it was a two year old, big enough to be kicked out on its own by mama bear, and at around 400 pounds, a might short of being the biggest bad ass bear in the valley. So after all the racket we made, we let him saunter off into the forest. We didn’t see the bear for the remainder of the trip. It rained some more that night.

A thing about mornings. Joe and David are Type A personalities for whom 5:30 AM is sleeping in. I’m distinctly Type B, and waking up before 6:00 AM means I didn’t get enough sleep. I suffer accordingly as my sleep deficit builds. Joe and David are giddy around 4:15 AM like adolescents in anticipation of opening day of trout season. A person can’t even see the river until about 5:45, but that doesn’t slow them down. So we set out to re-discover the water around Desperation Gulch.

It turns out that the Cottonwood Pool is mostly unchanged, except for the missing log jam at the upper end on our side of the river. And it’s obvious that the river is high, based on the algae marks on the rocks. The river had been much lower a few weeks earlier. It’s rained a lot on the Caribou Plateau, which is relatively flat, meaning it drains slowly into the Dean River. So there isn’t much in the way of fish holding water on our side of Cottonwood, and it doesn’t look all that promising on river right, either. However, anglers from downstream drive their ATVs up to the end of the road and fish it, and guided anglers from two of the upstream lodges come downstream to fish it from river right as well. The power boats can come as far downstream as the upper section of the pool, but then there is a sign indicating the power boats may venture no further downstream from August 1 through August 31. A sure indication that the Totem club has some clout with the authorities who regulate the river.

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Upstream, the place we dubbed the Camp Water, due to its being directly riverward of our campsite, looked pretty ugly and difficult to fish effectively at this height. I wandered upstream toward Grizzly run, only to see an angler fishing from a mid-channel bar at its lower end. I thought it was David and waded out to see how things were. Only it wasn’t David. It was a guide from the Kimsquit Lodge downstream of the canyon taking a busman’s holiday as the lodge changed out the old guests for the new ones on Fridays that would arrive for their week of fishing. I inquired about fishing success, and he told me that his boat (3 anglers) hooked 10 fish just the day before. That sounded promising, and it turned out to comport with the success described in the Totem fishing report from the day before we arrived on the river. Unfortunately the river rose over a foot that afternoon and went out, chocolate brown kind of out. A lotta’ rain up on the plateau. Oh, and we didn’t hook any fish that day. Or the next, as the river was still out Saturday morning and didn’t begin clearing and dropping until late afternoon.

The river dropped all of a foot by Sunday, and water visibility improved to 2 ½ feet. The mid-channel bar area of the Grizzly run proved to be the most fishable, and fish holding water anywhere near our camp. It wasn’t a difficult wade to the mid-channel bar Friday morning, but it was treacherous Saturday. (I didn’t have studs in the felt soles of my wading boots. Joe had extra in his wader repair kit and loaned me some for the trip. Huge difference, but I still felt better about wading over to the bar in the slipstream down from either David or Joe. Those guys are crazy aggressive waders.) This piece of water is maybe 800 yards long, which turns out to be a good thing when you don’t have many pools of decent quality nearby. I waded far upstream to where a lodge angler had been dropped off by his guide boat. I asked if he minded if I began a ways above him. He suggested wading up to “those twin rocks” about 100 yards upstream and fishing down from there. So I did and was rewarded with a strong grab on my second cast. The fish was on and then off in a second, but it felt good to make a connection with a fish, this being the third fishing day of our trip. The other angler was soon picked up by his guide, and I continued fishing down the long run. Then, between another set of landmarks on this long run that I called the “sloping white log” and the “rootwad” I got another hit. This one ran some line off my reel, and I began playing the fish when it came free. Zero for two in a short span of time. I’m starting to feel an ominous cloud over my fishing fortune, but it’s clear as a bell this day. So I fished until I was downstream of a notable logjam on river right, and for the third time in this run a fish struck hard. OK, maybe third time’s the charm. I played this fish for over 15 minutes and was working my way downstream to where the mid-channel bar becomes a small island. David was laying down taking a nap, but I called out to him, thinking he might help me land this fish. However he couldn’t hear me over the sounds of the rapids that began at the tailout. I had this fish in close 2 or 3 times, and as I neared the island where I hoped to land this fish, again the hook pulled free. I rose three fish in the course of an hour-and-a-half or so and managed to lose them all. I felt great for the hook ups; not so much for not landing a single one.

The river had dropped very noticeably by Monday morning, and the Cottonwood was now looking like some respectable steelhead water on river left, our side of the pool. David and Joe get up early and go up to mid-channel while I try to sleep until 7 if I can, and then fish Cottonwood after breakfast. Joe hooked and lost a steelhead near the top of mid-channel, about 100 yards upstream of twin rocks, adding additional promise to this, our only productive pool. Cottonwood produces nothing as usual that morning, but on my return to camp I noticed bear tracks that weren’t there the day before in a sandy area between the two side channels. Coincidence I’m sure, but the bear’s tracks crossed tracks left by Joe or David’s wading boots, and then turned to follow them for a ways. So bro bear is still in the neighborhood, but he’s staying at least 50 yards or more away from our camp site.

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It’s so clear and hot in the middle of the day, we spend a lot of time hanging out at camp, chasing spots of shade with our camp chairs, seeking a cooler place to read and relax, or go take a bath in a side channel. Later we suit up for fishing and head upstream to fish mid-channel. We easily split the long run between us, and I ended up on the lower third. I hooked a really hot fish. A long and fast run into the backing, the Shamburg reel hitting higher notes than I’d ever heard from it before. And I’m not into exaggerating about fish. Joe noted that he could hear it above the river noise all the way up where he was fishing, a good 600 yards upstream. Again I played the fish a good 15 minutes, possibly longer, and this time the hook held, and I finally landed the fish. It was a 33 ½” female steelhead, the largest I’ve caught in the Dean. While the Dean is known for its large steelhead, the vast majority of the fish are between 28 and 30”. For perspective, Harry Lemire’s big dry fly steelhead in 1973 measured 38 ½”. The largest one I’d previously caught was 32”. Even one for four feels satisfying after losing 3 fish in succession.

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Although things were looking brighter in terms of fishing results, I made an alarming discovery this day. On Sunday I noticed that some stitching had come loose on my right wading boot. Small matter, I thought. I’ll just have the cobbler stitch it back up after I return home. But today the situation was more drastic. It wasn’t just the stitching between two parts of the upper that was a problem. The entire lower, the sole and the whole shebang, was detaching from the upper. Gravel and sand can and did get inside the boot under the right foot of my waders. Yikes! At that rate, I’d soon be wading stocking foot without a boot on my right foot. I came up with a solution that I hoped would get me through the remainder of the week. I used a chunk of bright orange para cord, first forming a loop around my ankle and then twice around the sole of the wading boot and tied off. If I wore through the para cord I could easily replace it with another piece. And these wading boots were in pretty good shape before the trip, so who’da’ thunk that wading boots would fall apart on a one-week trip? I bring extra waders as a general rule, but not extra wading boots. So there ya’ have it. Bad Simms! Naughty, naughty, shouldn’t do that!

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Cottonwood produced another zero on Tuesday, but David landed a 31” male steelhead at mid-channel, and Joe hooked and lost one in that run. At least we’re getting some action this trip after a slow start with the unfavorable river conditions. Wednesday produced no fish for any of us even though Cottonwood and mid-channel are fishing really well. Joe fished mid-channel, Camp, and Cottonwood for no fish, and David fished mid-channel, Grizzly, and Hornet for no fish, and he got a leak in his waders for the effort. At least the weather has been nice. Thursday was mostly a repeat with the important exception that Joe hooked – and lost – a steelhead downstream of the logjam at mid-channel. Bright spots like that can keep a steelheader fishing for days.

Friday was our eighth and last day to fish, so we all had that “hope springs eternal” feeling going on. And good thing too, as Joe hooked and landed his first steelhead of the trip, a male about 29” at the pyramid rock, high in the mid-channel pool. David even returned for a mid-day shift at mid-channel, to no avail. We ate an early dinner, intending to give the evening our best and last shot. We hiked up to mid-channel and fished it thoroughly at least twice. Joe landed a 31” steelhead downstream of the log jam. I hooked and lost a small king salmon at the sloping white log while Joe was playing his fish, so we had a double header going on briefly. Unfortunately David had no fish this day. We had another good campfire that evening. I still had wine and whiskey left that I had no intention of flying back to civilization.

Richard, the pilot, arrived in the helicopter Saturday a little after noon. We were mostly packed up already, except for an awning and camp chairs so we could have some shade. We had the helicopter loaded in 20 minutes or so and were soon in the air. This time we flew downriver and got to see all of the lower canyon that Dean fish must navigate to get upstream. I think it’s less than a mile long, but it is a continuous series of cascades, cataracts, and waterfalls and very impressive to know that these fish actually make it through. It’s no wonder that Dean fish all have some extra horsepower in their tails that makes them such impressive fish when hooked.

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BDD

Active Member
Thank you for writing about your adventure. I enjoyed it; though not near as much as you must have enjoyed landing your largest Dean fish. Here's hoping you can top that on your next trip.
 

Yard Sale

Huge Member
Thanks for the ride along SG! Hope to get to that river myself someday but it feels like a long way off. Close as I’ll get for a while so I appreciate it.
 

Salmo_g

WFF Supporter
What’s that helicopter ride cost?

It varies and is uncertain until after the fact. If they pick up another party after dropping you off, then you only pay for one way. Same on the exfil. If not, then you pay for both the flight in and the flight out. If they can fly up and over the mountains - most direct route - it costs a lot less than if clouds or fog forces the flight to go down the Bella Coola River, around the Dean Channel, and then up the Dean River to your drop site. So the cost can range from the lowest I recall of around $1500 US to over $4,000. It just depends. It also depends on the weight of your load. The hourly rate is lowest for 800 pounds, more for 1100 pounds, and even more for 1400 pounds. One group also had a load in a sling, but I don't know how much extra that costs, but I suspect it ain't cheap. And a load in a sling is not insured if the cord has to be cut for safety reasons.
 

Buzzy

Active Member
"gruff voices, whistles, air horn, and bear spray; I was fairly certain we could take him" and you could sleep at night? No "gun" as a backup?

Thanks for sharing Sg, great write up!
 

Bentley

Active Member
Thanks. What dreams are made of. Dean is on my bucket list from stories long, long ago. Can still go all day & most of the time hang for evening with a noon nap.
 

landlocked

WFF Supporter
Hmmmm, that Simms boot coming apart is about as bad as my Yeti cooler not holding ice more than a day. Fantastic write up and happy to know I'm not the only B-type of guy out there when it comes to Zero-dark thirty. Only bear tracks, no Squatch tracks?!
 

Salmo_g

WFF Supporter
No "gun" as a backup?

Guns are for the statistically incompetent who believe it would actually make a positive difference. Besides, it's Canada, where you can bring a shotgun easily enough, but if you as an alien shoot a bear, even in self defense, things get really complicated legally. I sleep pretty well with bears around. They aren't looking for trouble, and neither am I.
 

freestonebound

If it swims I'm interested.
No fish pictured. I dont have to read to surmise Desperation Gulch is in regards to the lack of fish caught?!?
 

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