Salmon River Report 11/19 &20: Steelheading isn’t fair

You’ve heard me tell that my mother used to say that life isn’t fair.

I hated hearing that, but over the years I’ve grudgingly accepted it. I know she had my best interests in mind. But if she really wanted to help me, she would have added, “And steelheading is even more unfair.”

Cam and I fished the Salmon River last week. We had cold, warm, ice, snow, and sunshine. We had 350cfs and 750cfs. We had fish on and fish off. And we had the cruel fickleness of the beast and the sport.

Day One. After a slow start, Cam gets into a slob of Lake Ontario’s finest. He went three for three. This is his first of the morning.

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It was Jim’s birthday, and since we were both taking a break we insisted that he fish and catch a celebratory steelhead. This guy’s good. Here’s proof.

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A different perspective on the grip-and-grin. We kept all the fish in the net in the water until it was time for a quick photo op.

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By now, you’re asking, “But Steve — where’s your fish?” Ahem. I pounded the same water as Cam all morning on day one and not. A. Touch. Steelheading isn’t fair, remember? On the way downriver, I fouled one first cast in a deep hole. Farther down, I went one-for-two in another deep pool while Cam blanked. Are we seeing a pattern here? This is Cam’s last fish of day one. I dropped my first fair-hooked fish to an incredibly bad set. The second was camera shy, but was about the size of this one and polished metal bright. One steelhead to boat makes it good day.

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Oh, the injustice of Day Two! This tank of a buck is the only fish we boated. Now, anyone who’s steelheaded for years can tell you that fish are often lost to operator error. They’ll also tell you that you can do everything right and still lose the fish. Friends, I’m here to testify (with Jim and Cam as my witnesses) that I had four indicators go under, and I was dead-balls-on every hookset. Fast, sweeping downstream, hard — sticky sharp hooks — and every fish came unbuttoned. Three right after set, and one that I managed to keep on for a couple runs. You can do what you can do, and beyond that it’s up to the steelhead gods. Repeat after me: Steelheading isn’t fair!

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Gordo rides again, or: First steelhead of 2017

My status as a fly fishing personality gets me all kinds of cool perks. Like walking into Stefano’s and telling the hostess, no, we don’t want that table in the blinding sunlight, we want that one over there in the shade. Turns out we were seated next to some fellow Nutmeggers who recognized me, and we got to talking. They’d been up for several days and, like everyone else, were finding the fishing challenging. But on that day they’d discovered a whole bunch of steelhead that were willing to jump on. Hold that thought for a moment.

It was below freezing when we launched from Pineville. We focused on high percentage holding water, but the height of the river (1.65K dam release, 2K at Pineville)  and its temperature (42 degrees) meant that the drop backs really hadn’t started dropping back in earnest. I found this natural work of art during a little shore leave.

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Look what Gordo found! At least the skunk was off for him. 

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The river looks totally different at 2K. Here Gordo takes us through Upper Sportsman’s. Talk about winning the weather lottery! We fished hard, but by 11:30 we realized that the numbers weren’t on our side. So we decided to trailer the boat and focus on some recently acquired intel (thanks, guys!) 

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We made the right call. Third cast, I was on. Small fish, but now the skunk was wholly vanquished. A half-hour later, I was working upstream, picking pockets, when I tied into a nice post-spawn buck. He gave me a few firm head shakes and surface boils, and made one impressive run toward the lake. Problem: no landing net, no good LZ, Jim and Gordon upstream out of assist range. Solution: improvise. I got him into a relatively shallow micro-eddy, gently corralled him between my legs and the bank, then lifted his head out of the water for a quick selfie.

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And if you want proof that steelheading isn’t fair, they started dropping the flows the day we left. Jim tells me the fishing has been great the last two days.

(Insert sighs and grumbling here.)

 

Two. For Two.

I don’t know about the rest of you dads, but it annoys the hell out of me when I try to give my boys a life lesson and life teaches them the exact opposite.

That’s what happened last year when I took Cameron steelheading for the first time. I grimly outlined the 40 hours it took me to land my first steelhead; explained that you can do everything right playing the fish and still lose him; how the lake effect weather is dicey at best. So what happens? We get 50 degrees in late November, bluebird skies, and the kid hooks and lands a 10-pound chromer in the first 30 minutes of the trip.

But not this year. I told him that on this trip, we’d find out if he was cut out to be a steelheader. A cold front was blowing in as we drove up. We awoke to a couple inches of fresh powder and the mercury in the teens. This was going to be a baptism in ice.

What’s more, these sudden temperature changes – especially downward – are usually bad for business. Sure enough, what had been a consistent bite over the previous week was almost nonexistent. Five hours after floating under the Altmar Bridge, we still hadn’t had a single take. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Or giving the fish a choice. I had been carpet-bombing the bottom with everything from egg flies to nymphs. Cam was throwing an egg sack under a float. The steelhead weren’t having any of it.

But, I kept telling Cam that he had to be ready, because the next cast could be the one that you get a strike. And you’ll hate yourself if you miss it.

I was getting enough false positives to keep me focused, but even those became adventures in bad luck. As we floated between holes, my indicator disappeared. I set the hook on the bottom, pulled, and then watched as my rig sailed over my head – into the only tree for 200 feet. It got worse. Drift boats are like trains; they take a while to stop. As Jim furiously back rowed, my line stretched tight, and the top section of my rod came loose. Now it was sliding along the no man’s land between the rest of my rod and the tree. If the leader or line snapped, it would be gone. Fortunately, I am over six feet tall. By standing on one of the boat’s benches, I was able to just reach the leader with an outstretched arm and a hunting knife. Tip was reunited with rod, much to its owner’s relief.

Meantime, Cam was patiently earning his winter steelhead stripes. Five hours is a long time to go without a strike for a grown man, let alone a ten year-old. If he was discouraged, he wasn’t showing it. Jim (Kirtland, our guide, of Row Jimmy Guide Service fame. This was the third time I’ve floated with Jim. Highly recommended. Nice guy, knowledgeable, and if you have a child you want to introduce to steelheading, he’s terrific with kids) made the observation that Cam was now a member-in-good-standing of the Frozen Chosen.

The indicator went under, and this time the bottom thrummed with energy. Fish on. I could tell it was a good one by the fact that the steelhead did not surface. His first run was deep and upstream. I have a love-hate relationship with upstream runs. They’re good because they force the fish to burn a tremendous amount of oxygen. Bad because those big steelhead turn on a dime and shoot back downstream faster than you think any fish has a right to. Meanwhile, you’re flailing away at your reel or the slack, trying to regain line and keep that precious hook set. But this was a most obliging creature. Once he turned, he came back slowly and wallowed deep, even with the boat. I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to breathe, so I pressed him. Now I could see him a few feet below the surface. Fresh chrome. Double-digit pounds.

At the midpoint of the fight, steelhead can loll you into a false sense of security. You just need to remind yourself that the fish has probably got a few more good runs in him. And off he went, bulling his way downstream. While I admired his power, something didn’t feel quite right. Simultaneously, I realized the fish must be fouled. As he rolled near the far shore, I called out to another angler to confirm my suspicions. He did. Reluctantly, I pointed the rod at the fish and snapped the tippet.

My adventure seemed to energize Cam, who had been warming himself by the heater. (Wonderful thing, propane heaters in drift boats. Best invention in steelheading since 5mm neoprene integrated boot foot waders.) Five minutes later, he was on. This was another good fish, one that doggedly refused to come to net. Every time Cam got him close, the steelhead found a reserve of energy and bolted. I finally picked Cam up by the waist and moved him to the center of the boat so Jim could get a better angle from the bow. Steelhead netted. A long, lean dark horse of a buck.

What a miserably cold ten year-old looks like after sitting in a boat for seven hours without a strike. All it takes is one fish. Well done, Cam. Your father couldn’t be prouder.

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Cam was now two-for-two in his steelheading career. We took some photos of him brandishing his prize, grinning, as Ridley says in The Right Stuff, “like a possum eating a sweet potato.” Any father-son steelheading trip where the son hooks and lands is, by any definition, a good one. Smiles populated the boat.

But the sun was getting perilously close to the treetops, and we hadn’t even made Ellis Cove. So in the interest of time and fishing, we decided to fish western style, until we reached Pineville. I was surprised how empty the riverbanks were; we only saw three other people. The fishing mirrored the scarcity of anglers; whatever was swimming under the boat wasn’t eating.

On top of that, I had been shivering in my waders for a few hours now. Desperate for a tactile advantage on any potential hookset, I had made the decision to spend large chunks of the day gloveless, an unheard of practice for me in cold weather. Any useful feeling I had in my fingertips had long since vanished. When I lost my rig at the tailout of the Hemlocks, I declared my day over.

Seconds later, I thought the better of it. What if the next run held that hungry fish? With shaking fingertips, I clumsily lashed some tippet material to the swivel and forced on a pink Steelhead Hammer. If I was going down, I was going to go down fishing.

As we drifted through the Refrigerator, I made a cast downstream toward the head of the pool. The indicator disappeared. The bottom was moving. Upstream. It was another chrome fish, not as big as the one Cam hooked, but this beggar was not going to unconditionally declare for choosing. A few cartwheels and frantic bursts later, the fish was ready to come to net. I gave my salvation a faux peck on the snout and released it into the snow-capped shallows.

This is my “Look, I pulled a steelhead out of my butt in the last five minutes of the trip” face. 

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“Dad,” Cameron said on the ride home, “you were really happy after you caught that fish.”

I was, too.