Wednesday 1st October, 2008
October is here once again. My how the days, weeks, months and years fly by.
Seven years ago this month I caught my first west coast steelhead. I remember it clearly because of how disappointing it was.
The first hookup came after almost two days of swinging flies on a tributary of the Columbia River in eastern Washington. Looking back, knowing what I know now about steelhead fishing, it was a lucky fish. When the soft grab came, the line came tight and the fish was hooked I held my breath and waited for all the things I'd read about to happen. You know, the blistering runs, cartwheeling leaps, and gleaming chrome brilliance.
But none of that happened. What I got was a short, uninspired, twisting tug of war battle, with no runs, jumps or chrome brilliance. Until Travis actually pulled the dull, 23-inch hatchery fish out of the water I wasn't actually sure that it was a steelhead that I was fighting. I'd been practicing my Spey casting technique on my home waters back in Montana, catching some 17-inch rainbows on the swing, and those fish out-fought, out-classed, out-shined, and just down right out-steelheaded that steelhead. I don't even think we took a photo of that first fish.
I had one more short, slow grab from a steelhead in the final two days of that trip.
A few weeks later, with the guide season and Yellowstone Park's fishing season closed for the winter, I made camp for a week on another well know steelhead river in Idaho. I hooked and landed two more small, dull, and unimpressive steelhead in the first two days of the trip before a big rain soured the river for two days. All the takes were slow and very tentative.
I was enjoying what I thought was real steelheading, with long spans between fish, cold and wet weather, beautiful scenery, and all that, but I couldn't stop wondering why people made such a big deal out of these fish that took poorly, barely fought, and didn't seem to exude any of the brilliance that authors like Roderick Haig-Brown and Trey Combs describe in their writings.
It turns out that I was experiencing false steelheading success, thanks to record returns of hatchery fish in 2001. I was hooking fish in places that probably don't typically hold steelhead, just because there were so many around. And the fish were all hatchery reared, which I now know is why they lacked the fight and fire.
The river came back into shape on day five of that trip, and with the rain and high water came a revelation. I didn't know or understand that this could happen, but the changing water conditions had triggered a group of wild, stream born steelhead to move upriver out of the canyon and into the runs near my camp.
On about my fifteenth cast of that fifth day, I learned what steelhead were really all about. As my fly came into the heart of the swing a fish clobbered the fly with incredible speed and ferocity and was hooked immediately. Off it went across the river. When it stopped I pulled back hard and it didn't move. There was more give and take for about five minutes until I could see the fish in the shallow riffle. It was nothing like the rest of the steelhead I'd hooked. This one was bright, and big, and plenty strong. I had a good look at the fish, and put on more side pressure, thinking that it was almost over. I was right, and wrong.
Without warning the fish turned downstream and in a single blistering run cleared my reel of the entire 120-foot Spey line before turning back up stream at full speed along the far shore. With about thirty five yards of backing out of the rod tip and the whole fly line bellied out against the force of the river, the fish finally had enough. It leapt from the water so violently against the line that it flipped itself over and in the process, threw my hook. I was left there shaking, in disbelief, with nothing to do but collect my line and think about what just happened. I knew that I would be a steelheader from that moment on. When I reeled up, I found my tippet intact, but the heavy wire #1/0 steelhead hook bent out in a way that I had a hard time duplicating with a couple pairs of pliers. I retired that fly that day, and pulled it out tonight when I was writing this for a photo and for inspiration, but I remember that fish like it was yesterday.
I later learned that the fish that made me a steelheader for life was probably a big, wild, native fish known here as a "B Run". A REAL steelhead in spirit. The biggest, baddest, brightest fish I'd ever hooked at that point in my life. Turns out that fish really hooked me more than I hooked it.
PS - If you didn't hear, ODFW upheld Catch and Release Regs for Wild Steelhead on the Umpqua River system thanks to some hard working and dedicated anglers willing to give back. Inspiration for us all to keep fighting for what we believe in.
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