Part One: Sunday. My original plan was to hit the Upper Fly Zone on the Salmon River, but after kibitzing with steelhead guide extraordinaire Row Jimmy, gears were shifted. High but falling water, some color to it — yes. The creeks. Creek A was surging along, and in addition to a moderate stain its waters carried a fair amount of leafy debris. I targeted two very likely holding areas, but over the course of an hour the only thing I could hook was the bottom. The UFZ beckoned, but its siren song was drowned out by the call of Creek B, which, as it turns out, was the right choice. Creek B was also running high, but much clearer. I was astonished to find that my secret spot was devoid of anglers. Third cast, right down the gut, the indicator dips and I’m on. I stuck the fish good, but as I’ve learned, now years into this endeavor, you can do everything right and the fish can still come off. (The reader will want to make note of this statement for later reference.) It was a fresh, gleaming bright fish, about five pounds, and it immediately skyrocketed out of the water and spit the hook. My disappointment was salved by the knowledge that there were fish here willing to eat. I ended up going 2-for-5, not a great batting average, but two of those were never really on, coming off seconds after a perceived hook set. It was good to be on the board. It was Sunday. It was sunny. I was steelheading. It felt good.
Part Two: Monday Morning. The fishing on the Salmon River in Altmar stunk. We saw three steelhead hooked and landed. Despite the high flows (1.5K cfs) we were able to target known, proven holding areas (along with multiple other boats) and it just wasn’t happening. I’d been thinking it for a couple hours, but after we blanked in Ellis Cove, Jim suggested that we cut our losses and hit the creeks. It was 11:30am. Sold!
Part Three: Monday Afternoon. In what seemed like a flash, I was 2-for-4. The first one I stuck was a big ole’ fish that came up and planted itself in the main current. If it could think and determine a strategy — to bulldog and try to outlast me — I’d want to shake its hand or fin or however you congratulate a steelhead. Because as I steadily applied pressure to the fish, something gave and I was left wearing my leader around my body. By 1:30, Jim had to leave, so I decided to stay for a bit. I was glad I did.
Part Four: The Comedy of Battle. I was unfamiliar with much of this creek, so before Jim left I’d asked him for some advice on where to fish. One of his suggestions was a run under a dead tree whose branches extended down to just a few feet above the water. The target zone was a slot of deeper water, maybe 1 1/2 to 2 feet. This section of creek was so small that the surrounding trees and bushes would make casting difficult, to say nothing of a hook set. Landing a fish? We’ll deal with that if it comes. What’s more, its boulder and debris-strewn bottom was a snag fest, as I found out on my first few casts. But on the fourth cast, the bottom shook its head.
Steelhead on. Now what?
Twice, I whacked my rod against tree branches trying to set the hook. Things were so tight that I did my best to complete a hook set that was somewhere between a strip and a tip. The steelhead didn’t have too many places to go. Its first run was downstream. This fish had been in the creek for a while. Dark horse, spawning colors, and the biggest steelhead I’d stuck all trip. I decided the best chance of landing him was to strike fast. I spied an LZ across the creek, and charged into the river. Once I got to the shore, the steelhead had other plans. Ziiiiiiiing! Another downstream run. OK, so I gotta follow you. No, don’t swim into those submerged branches! But he did. I had to grab my line — usually the kiss of death in such matters — and free it from the snaking arms of a downed sapling, then pull the fish out of the maze of branches. Whew. Still on. I cranked the reel furiously, only to have the fish peel off another 20 feet of line. I dutifully followed it downstream, adrenaline and heart pumping. No! Not into more submerged branches! But that’s where he went. Again, I had to grab line and leader, fully aware that the tenuous connection between angler and steelhead could disappear at any moment. Again, I had to free the line from submerged branches. At one point I felt the leader go limp. But no. Salvation! Fish still on!
The last few moments were filled with exciting apprehension, if not terror. After all that went down, so many pitfalls avoided, how could I possibly lose the fish now? I eased it into the shallows. Twice, it would have nothing to do with my efforts. Keep the rod tip bent, Steven…drag just tight enough…easy. And then it was over. I made another burnt offering and decided that this was one of the best fights I’ve ever had with a steelhead. My prize earned, I slipped the fish back into the currents of its natal waters and watched it melt into the current.
It would be a good drive home.
Hi Mike, thanks for the comment and thanks for reading. 🙂