Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Steelhead Addict

It was August, somewhere along the Inland Passage perched decadently in a slatted chair on the back deck of a cruise ship in search of whales. A young woman came out to check if I needed anything. Such pleasant encounters take place at regular intervals on this vessel. I replied that peace and quiet, my coffee and that which lay before me was all I needed, “Thank You”.

It’s raining on this day and for the first time in a while I had to pull on some fleece. After summer’s retched heat in Salt Lake the northern latitudes cooler temperatures were welcomed.

I haven’t had much time to work on my journal and was seriously behind in recording times on the water this year. For me, such labors mentally revive my excursions. With my week at sea, I’ll have some extensive stretches of down time to put my thoughts to paper and recount the sparse year of travels I’ve had.

On this rainy day before putting pencil to paper I came across last year’s trip to the Salmon. I settled comfortably in the cool air, took a draw of coffee and immersed myself briefly in Steelhead. The cooler weather and rain are the first triggers that invoke visions of my favorite fish. Ever since my first travels in pursuit of these migratory creatures when falls rains finally douse summer’s inferno my focus wanders from trout to “Steelies”.

My steelhead obsession began in the Northwest back in the early 80’s. That first year I spent as much time in laundrymatts as I did trying to catch one of these fabled fish. After 30 straight days of fishing I finally caught my first Steelhead on the Wenatchee River. Ironically today, due to their steady decline, this river is closed to fishing.

I remained fishless when it came to Steelhead until the fall of 86. That August I’d received a phone call from a chance acquaintance offering to guide on one of British Columbia’s premier waters, the Bulkley River. Having just had a son the timing wasn’t the best, but given the opportunity and in need of an income I packed my meager Steelhead belongings and headed for “Steelhead Paradise”.

I remember arriving that first day in Smithers, the Steelhead capitol of the world. There I met John Simms and others who like the fish they pursued had migrated annually to this wonderful country. Their stories of travels through this province, the fish and rivers they fished only heightened my anticipation.

After arriving I had a little over a week to help get camp together and navigate 80 miles of river. Plenty of time! In addition to my river experience I also had to learn a new vocabulary; farming, tugs, boils, squirts, Chromer, Buck, Hen, Schooner, a vernacular uncommon in the trout world was common terminology in these parts.

My prowess for farming Steelhead quickly anointed me with the title “the Minister of Agriculture”. For clarification, farming in Steelheed circles is when that which you pursue prematurely gets off. Trout sets, which definitely leads to the farming of fish, don’t work on these big pigs. Yet I had the most difficult time letting the little buggers just eat my big dries without wanting to stick them. If you have ever had a Steelhead take a dry fly, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You see that big red side come up out of the water, here the sploosh, watch your fly disappear into the abyss, what’s your next move. You got it, you stick-em….wrong! Due to my success at this technique, I was presented with the honorable John Deere hat and anointed the Minster of Agriculture. Welcome to Steelhead Paradise.

Near the beginning of my vist to BC a sage Steelheader told me that I’d never be the same. He was right, “ the tug is the drug” and I’m a hopeless addict.

By the time I’ve finished my readings and wandered off those pages of past reflections, my coffee’s long gone. For the first time I realize that below this massive vessel of floating human flesh lie Salmon and Steelhead honing their senses for their home rivers. From Alaska to California they’ll silently slip into those waters where their life began. It’s one of nature’s most amazing natural acts. And like these fish soon after this voyage ends, I’ll gather with thousand of others and too migrate to the great rivers of the Northwest for a chance encounter. Just one, if I should be so lucky.

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