“Steelheading: A tragedy in several acts” first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of The Drake. The photo here is different from what accompanied the piece in the magazine, and this is my original text, rated R for some adult language. What if The Bard wasn’t writing about Danish princes, Roman emperors, and star-crossed Italian lovers? Let the curtain rise on…
Steelheading: A Tragedy in Several Acts
If there is another angling endeavor that matches the rapturous highs and soul crushing lows of steelheading, I’ve yet to experience it. One day, you are the Most Exalted Ruler of the Kingdom of Chrome. The next, a lowly knave scraping in fishless dirt. That you willfully participate in this theater suggests that you are either a masochist, an addict, or at the very least, innately damaged. William Shakespeare understood. Even if he never wrote a scene about losing a fifteen-pounder fresh from the lake.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Hamlet
It’s a river. Some days it is blown out. Some days it is perilously low. There are steelhead in the river. Some days they eat. Others, they do not. I’ve blanked on perfect days and hooked immodest numbers of fish in water the color of mocha java. The river doesn’t hate you. Nor do the steelhead or the weather. You have no control over any of it. Try to stay positive.
“Sit you down, father; rest you.” — King Lear
I took my nine year-old steelheading for the first time. In the days leading up to the trip, I hectored him: It’s not like when we go to Day Pond to catch bluegills. It took daddy forty hours of fishing to land his first steelhead. You will hook them, son, and you will lose them. A half-hour into the trip, Cam ties into a twelve-pound chromer and proceeds to land it. On four-pound test. He has zero experience with any fish that size, let alone an alcohol-fueled dragster of a fresh steelhead. On the outside, I’m cheering wildly. On the inside, I’m trying to calculate how many extra hours of yard work that little punk will be doing come spring.
“But, soft! what light though yonder window breaks?” — Romeo And Juliet
For a dedicated steelheader, rising with the sun is sheer fantasy. If you’re fishing popular water, you’re up and out long before daybreak. You’re not the only one doing this. For proof, check the alarm clock in your room at the cabin next time you’re there. Bet it’s set for five a.m. – or earlier.
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” — The Tempest
How agreeable it would be if everyone you met on the river were Roderick Haig-Brown incarnate. Many anglers are indeed pleasant and welcoming. Others, not so much. See if any of these characters sound familiar: The bozo who wades in so tight you could take his eye out with your rod tip. The jamoke who dashes into your spot as you battle a fish downstream, then glares at you for wanting your place back. The douche bag who keeps his line in the water while your fish roars past, oblivious to your screaming reel. The lout who drops drift boat anchor on the exact coordinates you’ve been casting to. Damn them, every last one.
“Now is the winter of our discontent.” — King Richard III
If you’ve ever stood in a river in sub-freezing temperatures and swirling lake effect snow for three consecutive days without so much as a single fucking touch, well, you know from whence I speak.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” — Romeo and Juliet
There must be some mischievous spirit tasked with devising cruel and unusual ways of making you lose steelhead. How else to explain a 3x strong hook that snaps at the bend; a leader that tangles on a drift boat’s anchor rope; line that wraps around a reel handle mid-fight; a good Samaritan’s clumsy technique with a landing net? All resulting in lost fish. All in the space of two hours. I’m trying hard not to be bitter. Really, I am.
“Things rank and gross in nature.” — Hamlet
You don’t ever get used to the pernicious stench of decaying salmon flesh. Or the realization that the squishy thing spewing unholy pinkish-gray plumes from under your boot is a rotting carcass.
“Men at some time are masters of their fates.” — Julius Caesar
You’ve been at this spot since before sunrise. You were rewarded with the prime lie, but there was no first-light bite, and now it’s close to nine a.m. Do you wait for steelhead to arrive? Or do you roll the dice and head elsewhere? Assuming the bite is on, how do you know if there will even be room to fish? Whatever you decide, know this: there is a strong probability that you will be wrong.
“The deep of night has crept upon our talk, And nature must obey necessity.” — Julius Caesar
I relish the bonhomie of the evening scotch-and-bull session as much as anyone. But I’m wiped out, guys, and I want to be fresh for tomorrow’s ass kicking. Good night.
The nicest thing I can say about this particular day is that I got a decent photo.