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Steelhead Can Change a Man

One's journey to catch the fish dreams are made of
by: Scott Thompson
01.21.12
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Twelve years now I have dreamed of landing a steelhead.  It seems that every other “good” angler that I know has done it and describes steelhead fishing as one of the greatest pursuits of their life.  “Steelheading” is a term I am familiar with only in theory.

For twelve years I have dreamed of the day I would hold a chrome “buck” or “hen” in my hands and feel the thick silvery sides that, as of yet. have only been described to me by men with eyes that light up to a fiery glow as they retell the experience. Each fall the last twelve years I have looked at my schedule and, more importantly, my bank account, and then resigned myself to the fact that I will be a poor and landlocked trout fisherman for the remainder of my life. 

Finally, last year I got the opportunity to go west to California’s Trinity River.  I had six full days with four other experienced steelheaders, including a local chef and vineyard owner.  “Last year”, he said, “we landed 48 fish out of one hole in one day below the bridge!”  “Wow,” I thought, “48 between four guys in one day?  That “sounds” easier than trout fishing.”  Since I am a pretty good trout fisherman, I reasoned I should be able to land at least fifteen in a week.  It only made sense.  “Easy peasy Japanesey.” 

I have always thought that in general trout fishing brings out the best in mankind.  It is, after all, a gentlemanly sport full of good nature between fellow participants, although there are exceptions.  Many do it for the relaxation and single minded focus on the drift and fish.  I have found this to be true in my life whether casting a dry fly to a pod of rising fish with a friend or nymphing a deep run amongst many on heavily pressured tail waters.   “It’s all in good fun and if we don’t catch anything, we don’t catch anything,” I say. However, we usually do.

I found out on this trip that steelhead fishing can bring out the worst in men.  We fished the Trinity all day from sunrise to sunset every day making drift after perfect drift after agonizing drift for an entire WEEK!  There were eight steelheads landed between six guys and two of the guys landed three each.  I was not one of the lucky ones; not even close. I have never fished so hard for so many hours for so much nothing as I did that week.  It got so bad that I found myself hoping that I would accidentally foul hook a decaying king salmon just so that I could feel something pull on my line.  As the week progressed the trip deteriorated into a mean, drunken, angry, lonely, rain soaked, cold, and desperate time.  There were late night arguments; accusations of stealing flies from one another, and cruel statements that were launched designed to break each other down even more.  We were up at 4:30 a.m. and fished all day with no strikes. Later we would head to the liquor store to drown all the feelings and frustrations.  One of the few steelhead landed was literally hooked and landed by the tag in his dorsal fin.  I am told that you have to be fishing a run HARD to hook the only fish in the run by the tag! 

Chasing steelhead can lead to drink

“This is steelhead fishing?”  I thought to myself.  It was as if every bad thing that we had ever done was raining down on us all.  There was to be no redemption in Lewiston that week.  I was an unworthy and unwanted person and not sure if I ever wanted to steelhead fish again.  Get me the hell out of here…

That was last year.

In late August I was lucky enough to guide a guy from Buffalo by the name of Joe.  A fisherman from out of town who said he needed a guide for the sole reason of taking him where the fish are.  He explained that he didn’t need instruction of any kind.

Usually when someone tells me at the beginning of a guide trip that they know how to fish it sends off a red flag.  Something is wrong and most times it turns out that he/she cannot fish at all and, even better, will not listen to any instruction.  Then at the end of the trip they will inevitably blame me for failing to land the numbers of fish that they had in their mind at the beginning of the trip.  I see this all the time; so as a precaution I asked to look at Joe’s fly box.  I can tell more about a fly fisherman in five seconds of perusing their fly box than any other single way.  It is the window into the eyes of the fly fisherman’s soul and a “tell all” of his/her abilities and aptitudes in the sport.

Now I have to point out that I don’t care if a person is good or bad at fly fishing when I take them out on the water.  I have never seen fly fishing as an exclusive club and, thus, I like to guide all abilities.  It is, however, the ego that makes a man lie to his guide or to himself about his ability to fly fish and that can make for a difficult day.  It hurts both guide and client with regard to expectations.  If you tell me that you can make the cast and get the drift before we start and I take you to the “Henry’s Fork”, you better damn well be able to do it, or at least understand that I am not a miracle worker at the end of the day.

I glanced at Joe’s box and scanned its contents for 20 seconds.  Neat little rows of hand tied gems that were both simple and, I was sure, deadly effective.  We are going to Tomahawk, I told him.  Tomahawk is a state wildlife area on the Middle Fork of the South Platte in South Park, Colorado.  If the fish were indeed running out of Spinney Reservoir, then he would have a chance at a very large brown trout and perhaps a big, resident rainbow. In order to land a big fish there, however, the guy has to be able to “make the cast”.

We arrived at the Middle Fork and I pointed out a pretty good fish about 35 feet upstream holding on a shelf just off an undercut bank.  The fish was big and very spooky in the slow foot deep water as clear as good vodka.  With little effort Joe stripped out the necessary line and dropped a caddis and rojo midge dropper four feet above it.  And it took!  Clearly, this guy could fish.  Long story short, Joe did very well and managed to land one of the bigger non-steelhead of his life, a nice 27 inch rainbow that fought very well.  His abilities to play a big fish were easily in the top two percent of anyone that I ever guided and a joy to watch.   I liked this guy and we developed a mutual respect and a genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. 

Fishermen from western New York are different.  I know this because my grandfather was born in Elmira, NY and probably the most passionate fisherman I ever knew.  He moved out to Colorado with my mother and grandmother in the 1950’s because of numerous near fatal bouts with spinal meningitis and had to leave the moist climes of western New York for the arid country of southern Colorado.  I basically worshiped him all those years I spent around him, always wondering why he was the way that he was.  He was always engaging, intense, and ever interested on how to catch the next fish.  He would get up earlier and stay later than anyone else.  As a third generation immigrant from Scotland, fishing was literally in his and, in turn, our blood.  He had a knack for improvising new patterns and techniques by just “knowing” they would work.  He was also completely full of s___ sometimes, and I loved him for that too. 

I had never been back to the area where my Grandpa had grown up chasing trout, salmon, and steelhead.  Of course, I had heard all the stories about rainbow trout in the 1930s running out of Seneca Lake into Catherine’s Creek.  He told me of crowds of men that would line her banks and then literally fill coolers full of giant trout so that they could feed their families. It is said that my grandfather and his seven brothers were one of the very first to use skein sacs of trout eggs as bait.  They would buy a box of Kotex tampons and strip the pads to use as the netting.  For years, I am told, men would follow the Gibbs boys around secretly just to see how they did it.  Joe and I talked at length about the fishing in upstate New York. 

At the end of the day Joe invited me to come out to Buffalo and said that things would be different from my horror story that I had recounted to him about the Trinity.  I often get invited by clients to go meet them where they live and fish for the species that they are most familiar with.  Often I am open to the idea but when push comes to shove most times, it just doesn’t work out for either of our schedules.  This time was different.  Joe stayed on me with regular reports and pictures of his catches of the day.  “By the way does this guy ever work?”  I thought to myself.   I have to say I was very, very intrigued by all the pictures that he was sending me.  I was headed to Buffalo.

There are two different steelhead fisheries in western New York that provide fish to the dozens of creeks that feed two Great Lakes, Erie and Ontario.  Lake Erie tributaries have the numbers of fish and relative solitude.  Ontario has the larger fish and also king salmon, coho salmon, and legendary brown trout.  The crowds on Ontario “tribs” can be rather oppressive and in many of the more popular spots, it can be quite literally shoulder to shoulder fishing.

I started with Joe one early Friday morning and we made the roughly one hour drive southwest to Fredonia, NY. Fredonia is representative of literally hundreds of old western New York townships that are a little economically depressed, very old, and charming to drive through. It seems that every last house has unique architecture and a lawn that is immaculate to the last blade of grass. There is also in every one of these towns a series of strip malls and each of them has a “Pizza, Sub, and Wings” restaurant with an Italian namesake.

Joe asked me if I wanted to use a spin rod to start. “No thanks,” I replied. You see back here the majority of steelhead fisherman use spinning and “center pin” rods to get their drifts. Since Joe is an excellent fly fisherman and still chooses to use a spinning set up, I probably should have just gone along with the program and I would have caught a few more fish that week. But as a lifelong fly fisherman I suppose I would rather catch fewer fish and know that I did it my way. No disrespect to the center pin guys at all because their technique has its own set of challenges as well. I just wanted my first steelhead to be on a fly rod.

Center pin rod

We parked and got our gear on. I pulled my new Patagonia waders out of my bag and marveled at them. “What a beautiful pair of river pants,” I said proudly. I had ordered them a week earlier because my others were in disrepair from a long season of hard use. I, at least, wanted to be comfortable this week in what could always turn out to be horrible weather in upstate New York. I went to put them on and slid my right leg down the hole and it came to an abrupt stop halfway down the chute. “Oh s___!” I said to myself. “What is it? Joe asked. “These waders are too small.

They told me that they would fit me a little more loosely than my last pair.” I stared at the size, XXL King. “These should fit. Have I gained that much weight in the last month and a half since the guide season ended?” I said, as I thought of every beer and every taco that I have shoved down my gullet the past 45 days. “Why Scott, why?” I asked myself. “You fat bastard!” I said aloud. I could tell that Joe was laughing under his breath and I didn’t blame him. Somehow I had to wedge my 310 pound self into a pair of waders built for a 275 pound man.

 

I started thinking of ways to get into them. Butter, grease, a steam room, laxatives, bulimia, anything! I took a deep breath and tried to think of skinny things like pencils and supermodels. I pushed my right foot down the hole until I got where I had gotten before on the first try. When my leg stopped I simply took hold of both sides of the leg and pulled as hard as I possibly could until I felt the fluids in my legs escaping into my body cavity. “Wow, tough waders,” I thought. I wondered if this was dangerous. Could I cut off the circulation in a leg and be forced to lose it in the hospital at the end of the day? After coming this far in my mind that still seemed like a fairly large price to pay for the chance of landing a steelhead. I could hear my grandfather Hank in my ear egging me on. “Damn it Grandpa Hank, shut up,” I thought to myself, “Hmmm. Lose a leg….Land a steelhead. Lose a leg. Land a steelhead.“

After ten agonizing minutes of pulling and tucking and breathing and sweating and contorting my body I had the “skinny jean” waders pulled up to my waist. After one minute I could not feel anything below my knees. Luckily Patagonia has a new strap system that allows you to wear the waders down at the waist while still holding them up because these things were NOT going over my stomach, period! So what I did was leave them at the waist and cover the embarrassment with a big bright blue coat. Perfect! “Are you okay?” Joe asked. I am sure that Joe was watching the whole thing in silent amusement or horror but was gracious enough not to try and belittle me.

My Colorado friends would have HAMMERED me to death with ridicule and laughter. I took a deep breath and said, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” How embarrassing!

We took the short walk down the railroad tracks to a bridge crossing that overlooked the creek called Canadaway. “If I land a fish here it will not only be the way, but the light and the truth as well,” I thought. Joe scampered down the steep bank ahead of me. I sort of descended slowly like an iceberg so as not to lose control of tightly compressed flesh encased in my Pategonias. My legs looked like two over filled sausages. I managed to get to the bottom without falling and walked up to the water. “Wow,” I said. “This river is so much smaller than I imagined,” referring to the water at my feet. “In the west the steelhead rivers are so much larger.” “This isn’t a river Scott,” Joe replied, “It’s a creek. You stand here and take the first cast.”

I yanked the line off my reel while I peered into the deep slot just across the creek from me. The water was a brown/green hue that could easily hide anything that didn’t want to be seen as little as a foot down. This hole appeared to be over six feet. I started with a simple roll cast and let my egg pattern drop from the dancing riffle above the shelf and into the abyss. Slowly my indicator made its way along the concrete wall and continued for 20 feet. I was riveted on its every move and turn. I heard a mighty splash. I looked up to see Joe’s rod bent nearly in half 20 yards above me and a beautiful hen falling back to the surface of the creek. He was already into a hell of a fish. I pulled up my line and got out of the way. Joe worked the fish just as I had seen him with the large rainbow in Colorado, methodically and with firm sweeps of the rod. He worked her over to the bank and pulled her to his feet in six inches of water, then placed his boots at angles in both directions so as to cut off her escape. Wow, I thought, what a cool way to land a large fish without worrying about a net. This way seemed to lessen the chances for injury. Joe lifted the eight pound hen out of the water and I admired her. They were here, I thought.

My intensity increased and in seconds I was back at it making drift after drift after drift through the off colored waters. Joe hooked and landed another large fish, then another, and then his friend showed up and proceeded to land four in six casts just upriver from us. Then two other guys showed up and they managed to hook a couple of fish. I however, did not smell a steelhead near my line. “F___!” I thought. An hour went by, and then another. And thoughts rolled through my mind, “Is this how it’s going to be again for me? Am I the newbie that never seems to get it? I can catch trout by the wheelbarrow full in Colorado and the West. I can tie flies. I can make rods. I can teach casting for Christ sake. Why can’t I steelhead fish? What is wrong with me? Am I too fat? Is God punishing me? I need a beer. My legs hurt. My feet hurt. I need a …” Just then I looked up to see my indicator slow down just in the slightest. I lifted my six weight rod and my arm stopped abruptly. My arm and the rod shot downward. What was this? It ran ferociously downstream about 70 feet and I turned to run with it. Just downstream of me was a rock just six inches high, six lousy inches. My boot clipped the top of it and sent me, my rod, and my head cascading down in slow motion to the earth. “Keep your rod tip up Scott!” I said to myself as I went down full well knowing that without a free arm to slow the descent, that my face would hit the ground very hard. It did and bounced along with my belly back up off the flat rocks with a thud. The rod, however, stayed up and line screamed off my Sage reel. All I could see in front of me were flat rocks that looked from my current perspective to be the size pie plates. “Get up Scott, get up,” yelled Joe.

Playing the steelhead

I could hear laughing in all directions combined with ringing in my ears. I shook the cobwebs out of my aching head and started to rise. I was like a seal trying to right itself on the ocean shore. I was leg locked and top heavy and rushing with adrenaline. My legs entombed in their H2No technology and without blood flow had no strength. Now I have heard of men that suddenly gain superhuman strength when a car overturns and someone is trapped underneath. The news is full of tales of men that miraculously lift a one-ton vehicle off a victim with their bare hands.

“Please Lord,” I exclaimed to myself. “I need a miracle now!” In an instant my legs shot to life and my rocky perspective turned skyward. I was to my feet and moving again. This fish was now 120 feet downstream but I was running in her direction and at least closing some ground. The fish went airborne and time stopped.

As my legs continued to churn quickly forward my mind slowed to the same rhythm as the steelhead and in slow motion she met my gaze. The fish was hanging in the air. My breathing was slow and steady. I could hear nothing and think of less than nothing. I was now connected to my mind’s mythical creature of the past twelve years. She was beautiful. A steep cliff behind her covered in thick vines created a green, misty backdrop to the single most magical two seconds of my fishing life. She was a silvery missile descending slowly back to earth.

She landed with the crash of a cast iron frying pan thrown from 30 feet above, the sound and water spraying in all directions against the cliffs. I kept running and reeling, and running, and tightening my drag, and running more still. Adrenaline can even make a fat guy move at miraculous speeds. I was catching up and closing the gap between us. She broke to my left and across a fast channel. I moved right across the river and swung my rod over to my right side now. “I should have packed a seven weight,” I thought to myself. This would have to do. Below the channel where she raced was a sand bar on river right that caught my eye. As I moved towards it I could hear Joe behind me yelling for me to head there. Fishermen think alike. With a couple more sprints and hard moves of my rod I had her between me and the sand bar. She was now in about a foot of water. I looked down for an instant to check my next step and then felt the tension in my rod pull away. The hook was out. “It’s out, it’s out!” I said. No, no, no! I turned in a circle to try and find the fish. I could not see here anymore. I fell to the ground and my eyes scoured the shallow water. Where was she? “Oh, my God, no!” I yelled. I then looked just upstream. My head lifted slightly to see two boots, stuck out at opposing angles. I looked up to see Joe smiling at me. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Joe looked to his feet and my eyes followed. There she was.

I crawled on my hands and knees over to Joe’s feet and stopped. Her massive back was sticking five inches out of the water. “What is this?” I asked myself out loud. “It’s a steelhead.” Joe replied. He didn’t know I was talking to myself. I simply could not believe that this fish was in front of me now. I was grateful, humbled, and on the verge of a heart attack. She was longer than my arm. I knew this moment would last forever in my mind. Forever, when I think of this instant, I will get goose bumps with the memory. There were pictures taken and comments made. She was released back into the creek where she had spent several winter seasons before. If I never caught another single fish the rest of the trip it was all worth it. I now knew what men throw away their lives and marriages and jobs for. I was part of this fraternity of senseless men and women. This was steelheading.

Success

My trip ended four days later alone on a famous Ontario tributary. Joe had to catch a flight to Chicago on day three and so for one day I was lucky enough to spend a morning fishing with Joe’s steelhead mentor and friend Tom. He took me out to a new stretch of river with a couple of his friends and we sight fished for steelies and I stuck several nice fish. He was one of the most magnanimous and knowledgeable people that I have ever met in my life. In fact, everyone that I met that week was the same way. Later I asked Joe on the phone why everyone around Buffalo had been so nice to me. He simply replied, “Its western New York. We all help each other out.”

Nice New York brown

On my last day I rose at 4 a.m. to make the drive back to 18 mile creek where I had hammered steelhead, coho salmon, and silly sized brown trout the day before. I knew I only had a few hours to fish before my flight, but I wanted to say goodbye to the fish and people that had lifted a curse off of me.

I’m not sure if steelhead fishing brings out the best or the worst in all of mankind. I know that it did in me. What I am sure of is that I really, really, wanted to land a steelhead and that I let its pursuit get the best of me. I know that when I finally landed one a weight was lifted off of my spirit and I felt changed for the better. If only I could now lose a little of the physical weight too.

A dream come true

 

© 2014 Scott Thompson
About the author, Scott Thompson:
Scott is a Colorado native and began fly fishing the Rocky Mountains in 1977. His first strike indicator was a piece torn off of his dad's foam beer cooler. After attending Colorado State University on an acting scholarship he then went on to a successful career in comedy. He is currently producing a television show called "Fly vs. Guy". He now guides rivers and lakes all over Colorado . To book a day with Scott email him at scotttheguide@gmail.com or http://www.facebook.com/FlyVsGuy
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