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FISHING

Quarantined At Sea: A Sailor’s Stormy Fishing Journey Amid The Pandemic

After COVID-19 rerouted his sailing trip, pro-snowboarder and fly-fishing guide Curtis Ciszek encountered formidably turbulent waters—and was reminded that cold-weather fishing is more rewarding than you think
It was pre-dawn when Curtis Ciszek and his crew pulled out of Safety Cove. After two months of effortlessly tacking along British Columbia’s coastline, exploring small inlets and secluded fishing channels, news of the pandemic had made its way to sea. The four sailors on board had one goal now: to get home as quickly as possible.

Leaving the safety of the protected inlets, the Emerald—a boat that Ciszek was sailing in honor of his late father—entered the exposed waters along Cape Caution. The knobby headland, which juts into the ocean like a puzzle piece, had to be timed just right. It’s a zone where big swells come in from the west and strong tides flush out from the east, causing the sea to converge on itself, according to the sailor. “It just stands up and gets really nasty,” Ciszek explained.

By mid-morning, the boat was rocking forcefully and the waves were growing violent. As the crew approached the worst part of the passage, the motor suddenly stopped.

A moment later it spun back on and the watercraft began vibrating.

The cameraman, who was filming a documentary onboard, jammed a GoPro on a stick and shoved it under the boat. As the crew watched the camera footage, it revealed what they already suspected: something was stuck in the propeller.
“It just started pouring water into the boat. We couldn't figure out where it was coming from. It was like, “OK, we’re slowly sinking here. How do we fix this?’”—Curtis Ciszek
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Fly fishing guide Curtis Ciszek encountered rough waters this spring aboard the Emerald when it was rerouted due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Familiarity with fear

Fortunately, this wasn’t Ciszek’s first encounter with adrenaline. The Columbia Sportswear athlete is also a professional snowboarder—hucking himself off giant cliffs and outrunning avalanches is part of his day job. His work has taught him to remain calm in the face of danger.

“There are situations where you're like, ‘OK, there's a problem here. We are in serious trouble. We have to figure this out.”

As waves continued crashing around them, Ciszek stayed composed enough to get the boat to safe anchorage, dive underneath, and wrangle the propeller free. The incident wasn’t the only time during the trip that the crew had a brush with fear. Several weeks earlier, they faced a similarly harrowing situation on their first trip up the coastline. That time, the bottom of the boat began filling with water as they navigated the turbulent waves.

“It just started pouring water into the boat,” Ciszek recalled. “We couldn't figure out where it was coming from. It was like, “OK, we’re slowly sinking here. How do we fix this?’”

Ciszek managed to keep his cool that time too and, after some investigation, traced the leak to an old seacock his dad had used as a water drain, then removed at port. He hammered a wood plug into it, stuck a hose clamp on the end, and got the crew on their way.
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When he’s not captaining sailboats or leading fly fishing trips, Curits Ciszek is a professional snowboarder.

A VOYAGE WITH A REASON

The purpose of Ciszek’s sailing trip was to make a movie in honor of his father. The plan was to retrace spots they’d sailed together as a family, incorporating surfing, snowboarding, and fishing into the film. However, the pandemic hit just two days before their arrival at their first snowboarding spot.

They attempted some splitboarding instead but found that climbing up the mountains through thick rainforest was a “complete nightmare.” “Old growth trees that are 10 feet around—trying to climb over them with a snowboard on your back,” Ciszek said. “It was like, ‘This is crazy.’”

Not only that, it was early on in the pandemic and panic was still running rampant.

“Those were pretty uncertain times at that point,” Ciszek said. “It kind of seemed like the world was ending. And we were out in the middle of nowhere.”

A pivot to fishing

In order to save the whole trip from being a bust, they decided to skip straight to the fishing portion. With a singular purpose in mind, the crew shifted mindsets. They sailed through British Columbia’s towering fjords, exploring remote inlets and dropping anchor in small coves. From there, they took jet boats upriver in search of spring steelhead.

It was this portion of the trip that reminded Ciszek how amazing cold-weather fishing can be. In fact, he said, on most days they found themselves praying for rain.

“When the rivers come up, the fish come in,” he explained.
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Ciszek says that there’s no such thing as bad weather days—”only bad weather gear.” And cold-weather fishing often yields the biggest catches.
Heavy rains often melt the snow, he added, bringing the river levels up and washing everything out. As they begin dropping again, the fish arrive in droves—and they’re often bigger fish.

“You want to fish the river as it's on the drop,” said the fly fishing guide, who’s also the owner of Jet Boat Fly Guides out of Bend, Oregon. “You're looking for a big system to come through and blow the river out. (You want to be there) as it starts to come back into shape. It’s usually still raining.

“Most of the time when you're fishing for winter or spring steelhead, your best conditions are when it's pissing rain.”
“There are no bad weather days, just bad weather gear. You have to be prepared for the elements. That can make or break your day.”
Ciszek explained that while torrential downpours might not sound appealing to your average fisherman, he and the crew relished in them. It’s really just a matter of having the right gear.

“There are no bad weather days, just bad weather gear,” he said. “You have to be prepared for the elements. That can make or break your day.”

Shifting into fishing guide mode, he explained that folks who are willing to brave the elements are often rewarded with bigger, better, catches—especially when fishing close to the ocean.

Not only that, the sport is often more fun because the fish near saltwater tend to “fight the hardest.”

“When they actually get into the river system, they're not feeding,” he said. “They're just getting up there to spawn. So the sooner you can get them from the ocean, the more muscle and fat they still have stored and the more energy they still have.”

The cloudier water causes the fish to congregate in shallow areas which adds another perk to cold-weather fishing. In fact, the most ideal conditions are days with two to three feet of visibility, he said.
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Unlike on sunny days like pictured above, Ciszek says winter fishing brings an adventure element and you connect with nature on a different level.

A totally different feel

Spring and winter fishing have a completely different feel to it, Ciszek added. There’s a visceral thrill that doesn’t come with the sunny, warm-weather days.

“When the weather's nasty, there’s more of an adventure element to it,” he said. “... You're just connecting with nature on a different level.”

The trick to fishing this time of year is to be more selective about when you go out, he said. Check the forecast and watch the gauges closely. Winter fishing is all about picking the right days.

It helps to have a flexible schedule, he added. “The biggest thing is the river conditions,” he said. “When the rivers blow out and they get really high, it's going to bring the fish. Fish on the drop—that's what it's all about.”

“You’ve just got to watch the river gauges and then take your shot when everything lines up.”
“Most of the time when you're fishing for winter or spring steelhead, your best conditions are when it's pissing rain.”
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Ciszek said that having a reliable waterproof jacket and making sure your hands and feet stay warm are the keys to cold-weather fishing.

Practical considerations

You also have to think about your gear more during the cold-weather season, Ciszek said. While summertime is all about stocking foot waders, for example, wintertime is full boot fits. He also makes sure the rest of his body is warm and protected.

“The top priorities when you’re winter fishing are having a really waterproof rain jacket and keeping your hands and feet warm,” he said, adding that it’s also important to have good headwear.

“As soon as your feet get cold, or your hands get cold, or your head gets cold, it's over,” he said.

In addition to an ultra-reliable raincoat, the other must-have items of gear for cold-weather fishing include boot fit waders, warm wool socks, polarized eyewear, and high-quality insulation.

The missing ingredient

Reflecting back on his spring voyage, Ciszek said it’s not a sport that will entice every type of fisherman. You need to enjoy excitement and be mentally prepared to battle wet weather. But for those willing to brave the elements, he said, the payoff is extraordinary.

“It's something that's not for everyone, that's for sure,” he said. “You have to want to get outdoors. But in the right gear and having the right equipment, you can be totally comfortable when it's raining sideways and the fishing can be fantastic.

“Sometimes sure, it’s not super pleasant. And then you catch a 13-pound winter steelhead and you're like, ‘This is more than worth it.’ You just have to be focused on the end goal rather than what's in front of you at that time.”

“(Just) be prepared to freeze your ass off and dress warm enough to where you don't.”
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Ciszek said that having a reliable waterproof jacket and making sure your hands and feet stay warm are the keys to cold-weather fishing.
Need some cold-weather fishing gear? Check out Columbia Sportswear’s PFG
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