I’m not in the habit of counting fish. But steelhead, being what they are — well, they’re just different. Trying to catch them is also different. I’ve been through all this with you before: you can do everything right and drop the fish. You can do (most) everything wrong and land the fish. Life isn’t fair, and neither is steelheading. The conditions you’re fishing in can be demanding, if not downright brutal. So when you get a decent flow and warm sunshine and bluebird skies and, most of all, a little luck, you thank the steelhead gods very much and you certainly don’t question any of it. I’d been stuck on steelhead #97 since November — my March trip was a blank — so here I was a month later, hoping something good would happen.
Tuesday April 13. I got to the river around 3pm. My float trip was scheduled for the next day, but I figured I should take advantage of the opportunity to fish. I hit a popular mark on the lower end of the river, one I was familiar with. As I was walking down the path, I saw an angler playing a steelhead, so this gave me hope. That was short-lived. For the next two-and-one-half hours, a total of eight anglers on the run hooked zero fish. I had a touch at one point, but my hookset didn’t even produce a head shake. I decided to save my chips for the next day, so I left disappointed, but clinging to the hope that sooner or later my lousy luck had to change.
Wednesday April 14. At first I thought it was the bottom, but it didn’t quite figure. No head shake, and I came away with air, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it had to be a steelhead. A dozen casts later, indicator down, hook set, fish on. It was a nice-looking drop-back, holding in some faster water, and now ripping line off the reel. True to form, the fish stopped at the bottom of the pool. I regained line, then another run and some aerials, too. Line regained, process repeated, and now this fish is whipped. Reel cranking, cork upstream, rod bent, steelhead just about 20 feet from the boat, Jim with the net ready. Here comes number 98. Doink! There goes number 98. This is the type of loss that vexes me no end. I had a good hookset, and I played this fish no differently that the last 50 I’ve landed. A few four-letter words provided only a moderate salve to this grievous wound. Is this how today is going to be?
As promised, here’s a pre-currentseams oldie but goodie. The events took place in December 2009, my first real winter steelheading trip. It’s amusing now to read this over a decade later, recalling how raw I was and little I knew about hooking and landing steelhead. I’ve included a link to a video old fishing buddy Todd Kurht made where you can see the battle and the beast. I hope you enjoy this little slice of steelhead dreaming,
“That Boy is a P-I-G pig!” With apologies to Babs from Animal House (and the steelhead involved) he truly was.
We started out on a beautiful winter morning with moderate temperatures and plenty of sunshine in a pool I had never fished before. The water was low (>350cfs), cold (33 degrees), and crystal clear. I had high hopes for this trip, my first winter steelheading venture, and I thought the conditions would only help us out. I sparked up a churchill to start enjoying on the walk down to the river. An hour later, I was still puffing on it, fishless. Bob had moved to spots elsewhere, and Todd and I were beating the water thoroughly. I just didn’t know this spot well. I spent a half hour around a really sexy-looking stump tangle before wading over to discover that the water was much shallower than I thought.
Then, I waded though a deeper channel that I didn’t know was there, and realized that that was where I should have been fishing (later confirmed by Trapper, one of the good guides, who shared the pool with us and his client). But, such is the learning curve on new waters.
I had tied on an Opal Blue Estaz egg and was fishing a current seam along the far bank when the indicator paused. I set the hook like I had already done dozens of times today, only this time the rig didn’t come flying out of the water. It stuck. And then the water boiled up 50 feet away from me.
I could see it was a good sized fish, but I didn’t have the full picture until the first run. Criiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiink! The drag sang out in the warm December air. The fish rolled again, and I could see once more that it was a good fish. Todd was on the scene by now, and confirmed it was a sizeable steelhead. And that’s when the line went slack.
Well, I told myself, that’s why they’re called “steelhead.” At least I had hooked a big fish, and at least I had my adrenaline rush for the day. Can’t win them all.
So why is my fly line moving upstream at a very rapid pace?
You must understand that I have a minimal corpus of knowledge when it comes to steelhead. “Rookie” would be accurate. I had forgotten how quickly they can turn on a dime and shoot upstream. The last time this happened was the first steelhead I hooked over a year ago. I lost that fish. Frantically, I stripped and reeled line as the fish passed me. Yes! Still on. I reset the hook as hard as I dared, and the fish dashed downstream at a breakneck pace, peeling line off the reel like I’d never experienced.
Again, understand that my experience base of fighting a fish like this on single digit test tippet is nil. The steelhead melted through the flyline in a matter of seconds. I was into the backing good. Of course, Todd is kibitzing the whole time, providing moral support, and telling me this is a great fish. I kept thinking, “Todd, you just put the whammy on me.” I decided nothing ventured, nothing gained. I was uncomfortable with well over a hundred feet of line out, so I started to reel in. Every time I felt weakness on the other end, I reeled in more. I regained the majority of the line before the fish blistered off on another long run. But all this oxygen-burning fury was taking its toll. And for the first time, cigar clenched in my teeth, puffing away, I felt good about landing this beast.
Finally the end was in sight. I had the fish in the shallows. At this point I felt if it broke off, I had at least achieved a moral victory. Todd came up behind the fish, tailed it, and a prize that was measured in pounds, not inches, was ours.
Talk about good fortune: the egg fly was dangling from a paper thin section of tissue in the steelhead’s mouth. We took some pics then released it, watching it porpoise as it skulked back to its lie. Not a bad steelhead to be your first on a fly you tied. And here it is.
This caption was not part of the original piece, but the photo was. I believe this is still the largest steelhead I’ve landed, and I’d estimate it to be about 15 pounds. You can see the fly dangling by a thread of tissue — such is the case when planets align and good fortune is in the forecast.
I went and sat on the bank to savor the rest of the cigar. I was shaking. I think I giggled out loud for a half hour.
The battle preserved on video. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself, because I think I at least look like I know what I’m doing. The main even is from about 0:23 through 1:03.
By all accounts, it’s been a challenging fall on the Salmon River. That was the main reason I skipped my usual early November trip. But now, later in the month, it was time for my annual father/middle son Cameron steelhead bash. Prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best, we headed northwest. Here’s how it went down.
Monday, November 23: Too many teardrops for one heart. I generally don’t count fish, but steelhead being what they are, I keep track of my landing-to-hookup ratio, and especially my total landings. For those of you keeping score at home, I was at 96 landed at the start of this trip. A combination of egregiously slow action and bad timing in the last 18 months had slammed the brakes on my progress. But with a clean slate of two days to fish, the magic number of 100 was certainly in reach. One good day — hell, a few good hours — could get me there.
As always, the Cam trip is done under the guidance of my friend James Kirtland, aka Row Jimmy. Given the dearth of consistent action in the upper and mid-river boat runs, we made the decision to wade the lower end of the Salmon. Jim’s clients had hooked 10 at this mark yesterday. But you know how that goes with steelhead — here today, gone tomorrow, and at 8am, Cam and I sans hookup, the last thing I wanted to hear Jim say was, “I don’t like this. We had a half dozen fish on by this time yesterday. “
But all it takes is one, so when I set the hook on a dropping indicator and felt the bottom shake its head, I was stoked. My set was fast and sharp (with a second one thrown in for good measure) so I was a little surprised when the fish came undone about a minute into the skirmish. That’s the thing about steelheading. You can do everything right and still drop the fish. Something uncontrollable, like the wrong angle of attack or a bony insertion point can spell doom, and there’s nothing you can do but wonder why.
My second hookup was a chromer that treated the lineup to several entertaining aerials. When that fish got off, I was beginning to question my capabilities. Have I lost it? I don’t think so. I wasn’t doing anything differently. Then I saw it. Scales impaled on the point of my chartreuse Steelhead Hammer. Clearly a fouled fish.
Well, that explains that.
My final touch of the day also ended bitterly. This time it was a snapped tippet. I can’t remember the last time I broke 6-pound Drennan. Surely this was due to an abrasion or other accident of war. Regardless, the result was disappointment, and I was left to cry, cry, cry, cry, 96 tears.
Tuesday, November 24: Down to our last strike. Tuesday’s options were run the mid-river or try creek stomping. The Sunday night/Monday early AM rains were just enough to make us think that some fresh fish might have wanted to make the run, so creeks it was. I settled into a favorite pool while Jim and Cam headed upstream. You’ve always got to be ready with that first light first cast — a take is a damn good way to start the day — but an hour later I still didn’t have a touch.
Then, the indicator slowed, and I set the hook. (Today was a strong case for learning the nuances of indicator nymphing. Of the three fish I hooked in this pool, none of them pulled the indicator under — it simply slowed or deviated from its downstream path. You’ve heard me say it before, and it’s probably the best advice I can give you for this style of fishing: look for a reason to set the hook on every drift.) A powerful head shake, then fish off. C’mon. Really? When I hauled in my rig for an inspection, my tippet was again sawed off. Good grief. But about 15 minutes later, a domestic rainbow decide to eat, was landed, and I was somewhat off the schneid.
Finally, this egg-laden hen pounced. She kept to the pool during our tussle, and once she was safely in the net, I couldn’t help but admire her glorious iridescent colors. She reminded me of the hen on page 10 of Matthew Supinski’s book Steelhead Dreams. I’d just admired that photo last night, and I wondered if somehow I channeled her into taking on that drift.
Whereas Monday was well above freezing, Tuesday was not. Iced-up guides were a constant challenge, as were cold hands. Funny how you forget all of the sensory negativity when you’re fighting a fish.
Then there was poor Cam. He didn’t have a touch(!) on Monday, plus a disaster leak in one boot foot compounded his misery. Tuesday’s shot at redemption was even more frustrating: he had several takes and no good hook sets to show for it. (We don’t think Cam was at fault, either. In the interest of finding fish, Jim had a line in the water too and missed three steelhead — and he’s a really, really good angler.) And now, it was early afternoon and just about at the end of our session. I could tell Cam was emotionally done, but I encouraged him to take a few last casts while I walked downstream to cross the river.
And that’s when it happened. Two outs, down to our last strike, bottom of the ninth, and we drill this walk-off steelhead. I think I’ll just shut up and let you appreciate the simultaneous fatigue, relief, and joy on this young man’s face.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Cam, but we appreciate you playing, Mr. Buck. We surely do. This was the second time we’ve had a last-cast, day-saving steelhead while fishing with Jim.
“The Steel Deal — How to catch Great Lakes Steelhead in the Fall” first appeared in the Oct/Nov 2018 issue of Field & Stream. It’s a great introductory primer for Great Lakes steelhead fly fishing anglers, and even veteran chrome hounds will find some valuable nuggets. Written, of course, by yours truly, with insights from legendary Great Lakes steelhead guide Matt Supinski. In case you missed it, the link to the article is up top. And here’s a bonus link to the 60-Second Redhead, one of my favorite steelhead patterns.
Subfreezing temperatures? Stinging sleet? Frozen fingers? Suck it up, baby, and go steelheading! Here’s Number Two Son Cameron and my favorite Salmon River guide Jim Kirtland enjoying a little “Salmon River sunshine.” Is it all worth it? Just look at those smiles.