Steelhead Report 12/5/14: Neither here nor there

You get two kinds of steelhead reports.

The first is celebratory. The bite was on, the hookups plentiful, and the giddy recollections make you wish it was you who had written them. Such reports are usually accompanied by multiple grip-and-grins, or artistic renderings of gleaming flanks, spotted tails, and hook-and-Estaz neatly secured in mouth.

The second focuses on the friends you fished with, or the solitude you basked in, but most of all the glory of just being there. Umm, the fishing was slow. What else is there to write about?

No matter which end of the spectrum your trip falls into, the truth always lies somewhere between the two. Yes, there is no other rush in fishing that compares to the knowledge that the bellicose, cartwheeling silver machine you’ve been dancing with is going to be in your hands in a matter of moments. And yes, it is glorious just to be there. (You cannot, after all, catch a steelhead in Connecticut.)

Here’s my somewhere-in-the-middle from Friday.

Morning. I had planned to fish one of the nearby creeks, but the water was falling too fast for my liking. So I explored some of the diversions below Altmar. Friends, I covered water to the point of excessive thoroughness. I moved around. I gave the steelhead a choice. Nothing. Whatever was there, it wasn’t eating what I was throwing. I spent the first three hours picking ice out of my guides and trying to coax my fingertips into a functional setting. At least I had my pick of spots. By 11am, though, I’d had enough.

It wasn’t cold by Pulaski standards, but it was cold enough to make crystal lily pads. IMG_2619

Afternoon. From the start, I viewed this as a bonus trip. After my wildly successful November, I was playing with house money. So I decided to head downriver, instead of up to where the heavier concentrations of steelhead (and anglers) would likely be. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have chosen both.

I learned that some of the places I can cross the river at 1,000cfs are far more challenging at 1,400cfs — even with a wading staff — and still others are plain impassable. That limited my choices here. Run A was a blank. Run B produced my only steelhead action of the day. I kicked it. Asleep at the switch. By the time I realized the bottom was a steelhead, it was  swimming indifferently downstream, never to be seen again. (I am working on an algebraic proof that states: after the 499 good drifts you make, eyes keenly focused on the indicator, reaction potential equal to a cobra’s, looking for an excuse to set the hook, the one take you get will come on the 500th when your senses are taking a nap.)

Run C was dark and deep and surely held a few fish fresh from the lake. Or not. Run D was formed by a perilous conglomeration of deadfall. I waded out between logs, stripping out line, trying to decide where to cast. I was already a little annoyed by the missed opportunity (and lack of others). So when my fly got snagged on one of the submerged logs before I could even make a cast, I angrily tried to snatch it back. Thrummm! Asleep at the switch again, only this time the fish was hooked. Not a steelhead — that was abundantly clear from the non-hysterical headshakes. Good thing, too, because with all the barriers and overhangs, there was zero chance of landing something chrome. But I will take a 20″ brown trout over the skunk any time.

Lousy picture. Decent brown. Incredible luck. IMG_2642

Run E appeared to have potential, but after 45 minutes it remained unrealized. So I went back to the dropped steelhead location well, in hopes of a repeat. Hopes were dashed. At 3:15pm, with over eight hours of hard fishing in the books and lake-effect sleet bouncing off my hood, I began the hike back to the truck.

I tell you, it was really great just being there.

Christmas tree, Pulaski style. IMG_2628

Thanks to the FRAA for hosting me

You’re never sure how a new fly fishing presentation will play out, but the feedback is in and the final tally is, “The Little Things” does not suck.

Many thanks to the FRAA for hosting me. There were a lot of familiar faces, and it’s always nice to not be the youngest person in the room. And thanks for so many post-presentaion questions. Speakers like lots of questions. Except maybe if you’re President Nixon during a Watergate-era press conference.

“The Little Things” matter in fly fishing. I caught this brown this summer in the shallows just a few feet off the bank as darkness fell.

Dry Brown 7:14

Not a bad way to begin a steelhead trip

Just got back from three days on the Salmon River. This fall’s steelhead fishing has been very spotty, so wasn’t I more than pleased to land this magnificent chrome hen a few hours into the trip. Full report to come.

“Do I look fat in this picture?” Yes, dear, you do, and bless every single one of your powerful pounds. She took me into into backing in just a few seconds.

Big Steel 11:14

P.S. Inquiring minds will want to know, “what fly?” Size 10 60-Second Copperhead.

Steelhead streamer: The Grapefruithead Leech

The Grapefruithead Leech is the creation of steelhead guide Kevin Feenstra out of Michigan. I first saw this pattern a couple years ago in John Nagy’s Steelhead Guide. I remember thinking it was a horrible fly. You know, over-the-top, unapologetic, in-your-face, clearly inspired by the egg-sucking leech. I was thumbing through the book this past fall, looking for some ideas, and there it was again. Over the next few weeks, I kept coming back to it. It was kind of like drinking a new bottle of wine that you’re not sure you like; as you’re trying to decide, you realize the bottle’s nearly empty. So I tied some up for my November 2013 trip. Wouldn’t you know, I caught my first steelhead on the swing on this horrible, beautiful, wonderful fly. Feenstra says he likes this pattern whenever there’s snow on the ground. I can tell you that steelhead also like it near dusk on a snowless day, dangling in the current near the tailout of a shallow run.

The Grapefruithead Leech

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Hook: Daiichi 2461 or 3XL streamer hook, size 4-2/0
Tail: Black Marabou with sparse red flash
Body: Black marabou, palmered
Overbody:  Black or purple schlappen, palmered
Collar: Mallard flank, one turn
Flash: Green, silver, and blue flashabou
Head: Large fuchsia cactus chenille with a veil of chartreuse ice dub
~
Tying Notes: This fly looks huge out of the water; however, the lion’s share of the bulk comes from soft-hackled feathers, so it will slim down dramatically when wet. Before you tie the body, remember to leave enough space for the head. I left a good 1/3 of the shank. To make the body, first tie in a large blood marabou quill by the tip, and a schlappen feather by the tip. Palmer the marabou up the shank; leave enough space between wraps so that a single feather covers the shank. Be sure all the marabou fibers are floating freely. Wrapping the schlappen is the hardest part of tying the fly; take care to mat down as few of the marabou fibers as possible. I used a swaying, back-and-forth motion with the feather as I wrapped, and a bodkin to pick out the marabou when necessary. This fly has way more flash than I typically use in my ties, but subtlety not being its strong point, what the heck. I used 3-4 stands of each color, cut them in half, then tied them in one color at a time. Three turns of cactus chenille, then cover the head with a sparse veil of chartreuse ice dub. (Get it? It looks like a slice of grapefruit.)

November 2013 Steelhead: Fishing with Robert Zimmerman

Day One: Stuck inside of Altmar with the Pineville blues again.

Right from the start, I knew this trip was going to be a bust.

The river was pumping at 2000cfs. That’s high by anyone’s standards, and at that level vast stretches would be transformed into featureless aqua super highways. The weather was supposed to be bad. But the kicker was Bob and Bill. They had just returned from four days on the Salmon. Zero steelhead landed. Days between strikes.

There is a technical term for all this. “Sucks,” I think.

Then, there was last season. Six days of fishing from November through January. Only two steelhead to hand. Two days without a single touch. Yes, it would be fair to say that I was not stoked about this trip. But you don’t know if you don’t go. Maybe by some incongruous twist, my luck would change.

Five hours in, there was no sign that it would. We had left Connecticut before sunup and were on the water by 10am. A motion was made to focus on one of the Salmon’s diversions – small streams under normal conditions, but at 2K proper rivers. Jon was into steelhead right away, tussling with three in the first hour. Tommy and Todd decided to seek their fortunes downstream. I settled in on a 200-foot section that had a corner bend, riffles, and a mysterious dark hole. But nothing. It’s terrible when you’re wishing you were back home on the first day.

“Dang. I knew this was a stupid place to build a nest.”

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Finally, at 3pm, I hooked up. Not a steelhead, but a king salmon. I figured this would be me versus dead meat, but the fish treated me to some whale-like surface rolls and an earnest attempt at going airborne. With precious little action coming my way, I really wanted to land him. Fellow flyaddict Gary, who was downstream from me, went above and beyond trying to help me get it to shore. After a long walk, he and Jon were able to corral it. It wasn’t very attractive, and it was foul-hooked, but at least a skunk of some sorts was off.

I had one more take about an hour later. A steelhead, eight or nine pounds, fresh from the lake. As it performed its initial cartwheel, Gary wished aloud, “Stay on.” Seconds later, it was off. The new normal.

It was beginning to look like a long four days.

~

Day Two: They’ll stone you when you’re floating in a boat.

I hemmed and hawed about floating the river solo. Before we left home, I had called Jim Kirtland (aka Row Jimmy, an excellent guide, and a fun person to spend a day with) to see if he had any open dates, and as luck would have it, he had a cancellation on Sunday. The rest of my group decided to wade, so I’d be going it alone. If I were lucky, I would not only catch steelhead, but also  gather intel on where they were hiding out.

We launched just before 7am. If you’ve never been, the Altmar boat launch is the upstate New York version of Burning Man. Instead of a towering tinder structure in human form, there’s the monolithic cement bridge. Replacing semi-nude hippy art chicks in furry leggings are porcine middle-aged men with near-ZZ Top facial hair, mad bomber hats, and camo hunting bibs. Not a fair trade, I’ll grant you. But it is an experience. Crowded. Chaotic. Carnival-like.

And of course, there is the jamoke factor, to which I contributed mightily. We had just passed under the bridge, and I put my second backcast over another angler’s line. To deflect my embarrassment, I announced to him that I was, in fact, a douche bag. And, if he ran into my friends later on the river, he should tell them what I douche bag I was. He laughed it off good-naturedly, and there were no further casting incidents. But the fishing was slow. One dropped steelhead in the first two hours.

We slipped down into some very promising water that I’d never fished before and anchored center stream. Egg patterns were getting me nowhere. So I announced that I was going to try little black stones. Every once in a while, you make an adjustment upon which the entire day turns. On my first cast, the bright yellow yarn indicator suddenly disappeared. I raised the rod tip and was greeted by a substantial pull at the other end. I lost the fish, but this was encouraging. Another take soon followed, and I began hooking steelhead in earnest. Whether it was a Copperhead Stone or a 60 Second Redhead or any of the many stonefly variants I tie, there was something going on down below hatch-wise that had the steelhead acting like winos at a Night Train open house. It certainly wasn’t the anecdotal fish on every cast, but it was as close to hooking an unreasonable number of steelhead in a brief period as I’ve ever experienced.

So much depends on a little black stonefly, nestled inside a steelhead’s mouth. The flies I was fishing were all tied on 2x strong, 2x short size 10 scud hooks. As Jim says, it’s hard to go wrong with black and copper on this river.

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The bite was so good that I hardly even noticed the wind-whipped downpour that parked over us for nearly an hour. All the while I kept telling Jim, “We’re staying here a little bit longer.” Damn right we are. In the midst of this embarrassment of riches, though, I began to feel self-conscious. What if Jon, Todd, and Tommy weren’t having any luck?

After two hours and close to fifteen steelhead, it was time to move on. We ran into the guys about a thousand yards downstream. Not to worry. They had found their own little paradise and were into a bounty of chrome, many of their steelhead in double-digit pounds. When Jim and I pulled out in Pineville, I shelved the idea of hiking over to meet them. I sat in the cabin at Fox Hollow and let the day’s events wash over me. A truly sensational steelhead buzz is hard to come by. I was going to savor this one, ably assisted by Mr. Adams and Mr. Fuente.

~

Day Three: You want hard-boiled eggs.

I’ve known about trout beads for many years and I always poo-pooed them. But the winds of change were swirling. I told Jim yesterday that I’d even use that fluorocarbon tippet of his (Drennan 6-pound. I still hate knotting fluoro, but I’ll be damned if that stuff wasn’t so impressive at holding big fish that I went right out and bought a spool). So today, with vast reserves of steelhead currency safely banked, I decided to see what this bead thing was all about.

We were now a party of three. Todd and Jon decided to focus their efforts on a riffle downstream where Jim and I had observed scores of steelhead the day before. I was captivated by a lovely little pool upstream, and set up shop there. It wasn’t long before the indicator dipped, and my rod thrummed with energy. It was a steelhead – a small one, freshly minted, highly spirited. Since I was playing around with new things, I thought I should hand-strip a steelhead in for the first time. A substantial pod of skippers was passing through, so I got to do it again and again. They were all sub 16-inch fish, but perfect in their own guileless way. Some of them even displayed the fading parr marks. Original artwork suitable for framing.

Meanwhile, Todd and Jon had been waging war with some significantly bigger fish. They were fifty yards downstream, and I could hear their cackles over the chatter of the river and see the deep bends in their rods. I considered joining them, but I figured with steelhead, what is downstream must soon come up. Besides, this pool was my idea of perfection. It had a clearly defined center seam that held fish along its entire length. There was enough bottom structure to entice the steelhead to pause on their journey, but not enough to cause repeated snags. The current moved at casual walking pace, making line management a breeze. (I was focused on improving my line management on  this trip. Less slack line on the water meant a better hook set, and a better hook set meant less heartbreak.) And because I had it all to myself, I could work the pool at my leisure. Surely the moment I vacated it, someone would materialize out of the woods to claim the prize. I would be a fool to leave it now.

Why beads work. The shores of the pool were littered with naturals. Inquiring minds will want to know, so here it is: 8mm Glow Roe by Troutbeads. I know, I know, it’s not fly fishing. But it sure is fun.Image

Bigger fish started to move through, and they found my peach-hued plastic spheres to their liking. I could do no wrong. Even when I fair hooked a king salmon – certainly a late traveler, as he had a translucent tail and not a suggestion of rot on his body – he was landed despite the fact that I was using six-pound for tippet. (Not to be ignored was some brilliant net work from Jon. Using a landing net without a handle, both he and Todd had perfected their technique, and I am grateful to them for helping me bring so many good steelhead to hand.)

Not bad for 6-pound tippet. I’ve never seen a king in this good condition this far into the season. Note that his head is bigger than mine — not an easy feat any time of year. 

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As I reached the quarter-century mark of steelhead hooked, the enormity of the day began to sink in. If there is such a thing as good steelhead karma, it was truly directed at me. The bitter memories of last year’s fishless outings and numb fingers  seemed impossible now to recall, let alone understand. And that’s when I decided to swing.

You hear stories of people who do nothing but swing flies for steelhead. They are content to go days without a strike if it means the opportunity to hook a single fish with this purest of methods. I admire their conviction; clearly their spiritual resolve is stronger than mine.  Armed with the confidence of a constant stream of fresh steelhead, I pulled from my box a streamer I had tied specifically for this trip: the Grapefruithead Leech. It’s basically an oversized egg-sucking leech with a contrasting head of fuchsia and chartreuse. On it went, and off I went to the other side of the pool where the fast water met the edge of the sod bank.

The take was not what I expected. I was hoping for an earth-shattering kaboom. But instead it was a dull thud, albeit a sizeable one. “Are you in?” asked Jon from the opposite bank? “Yes!” I shouted back, and we were off to the races. The steelhead quickly found the riffles below me, and so began an extended dance of silver, spray, and prayer. At one point I thought the fish was foul hooked; but as she move into more clement waters, I could see that the leader had wrapped around one of her pectoral fins during one of her flurries of leaping madness. The tippet came free with the sound of a plucked guitar string, and I was afraid I would lose her. In the fading light, I directed her between two downed trees along the bank hundreds of feet below where I had hooked her.

She sped off before I could take her picture, kissing my face with a spray of water.

~

Day Four: I didn’t feel so cold then.

The bargaining phase works in reverse. That is, you can have beyond-wildest-dreams fortune, and negotiate downward: “I’ve caught far more steelhead in the last two days than I have in the last two years. So if you make the fishing lousy today, I won’t mind.” Lousy fishing seemed inevitable. Even reasonable, given the cold front and snow showers that were supposed to come through today.

Not a chance. On my first cast I hooked a sixteen-inch steelhead that made a laborious tour of the run, complete with several aerials, taking far more time than any sixteen-inch fish had a right to before coming to hand. A creature of routine and habit, I was back in the same pool, with Todd and Jon once again downstream. Within the first hour, I had landed three, the last two about eight pounds each, gleaming with the metallic brilliance of Lake Ontario. Without a landing posse, I had to steer both fish away from the swift water at the tailout and beach them in the shallows. But steelhead of eight pounds or less are usually manageable, even if they are obstreperous. Besides, I was fishing with newfound confidence, and I did not fear losing them.

Three steelhead were enough for me on beads, and I happily returned to the fly. My fourth came on a Copperhead Stone, neatly planted in ivory mouth. I stalked that fish with the utmost care after I noticed him porpoise in some glassy water near the head of the pool. My presentation was upstream, as delicate as I would have made it to a trout sipping spinners. I felt great satisfaction when I hooked and landed that fish.

But, the nature of steelheading is that you will lose fish. As skilled an angler as you may be, it only takes a little bad decision-making or a little bad luck. I managed both with my largest steelhead of the trip. A buck with shoulders, well into double-digit pounds took my purple Steelhead Hammer. Down the run he went, tail-dancing and cavitating before sulking on the bottom. I had re-learned from Jim the concept of not letting the fish breathe: that is, after an exhausting run, the steelhead will pause to regroup. The angler should not. This is the time to press the fish; kick him when he’s down; take unfair advantage of his oxygen deficit. I began to reel, the butt of my rod pointed upstream, a deep flex in the blank.

This merely annoyed the fish. Big steelhead aren’t like their smaller brethren. You simply cannot dictate terms to them. At least not early in the fight. He burst upstream with an almost otherworldly power, over the riffles at the head and into the pool above. This was worrisome, but I was still confident I’d land him. I had a good initial hookset, and I had hit the fish again when he was down below me. I’d be holding this one in my hands soon.

And just like that, things went south. Downstream came the fish, barreling over the riffles and streaking past me with frightening speed. To keep tight to him, I had to decide instantly: strip the line or crank the reel like a maniac. I have done both and landed fish. Today I chose wrong. As I frantically reeled, the tip of the rod wobbled like an antenna in a windstorm. I was so focused on the fish, I didn’t notice the line curling around the tip of the rod. I came tight to the steelhead. Too late, I saw the imminent danger. He ran farther downstream. The coiled line tightened around the rod. Tippet strained. In an instant, he was gone.

I stood in the river, alone and fishless.

The cold front arrived around noon, bringing lake effect snow. I could still see steelhead coming through the run, but the bite was over. And at three o’clock, we decided, so was our trip.

The obligatory grip-and-grin. This was our trip in microcosm: plentiful fresh fish. Lots of smiles.

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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.

Salmon River Steelhead November 2013

Just got back from four days on the Salmon River in New York, and I’m here to tell you, friends, that the fishing was off the charts. After a painfully slow 2012-13 season, the steelhead gods saw fit to shine their benevolent light upon me. (The entire group — there were four of us — got into an embarrassment of steelhead riches.) Still basking in the glory of over 50 steelhead hooked, and nearly half of them landed. Here’s a short film that my friend and co-conspirator Todd Kuhrt put together. Eventually I’ll write up a proper story, but until then, enjoy this little gem.

Baby, I’m howling’ for you indeed.