Monday, October 02, 2006

Why Steelhead?

It’s been four steelhead seasons removed since traveling to BC. That last visit my son of sixteen accompanied me. Having returned from this year’s trip I called him. First thing he asked was whether I got his fish. I tried, I replied. In a run fondly known as Four Banger he hooked his first steelhead. After retrieving his backing for the third time, it came unbuttoned. My son, welcome to the world of steelhead fishing.

Four Banger didn’t produce any fish this past trip, yet it did raise the fear of God and the indelible image of my son playing that fish. If you’ve ever wade a boulder or ledge rock strewn steelhead river near dark, or any river under similar circumstances, you'll ponder my inference. That which you can not see seldom yields firm contact. Your aching toes reminders of the uncomfortable nature of your endeavor. The hour of light, or lack there of, when you can’t see your feet, ratchets up the entertainment factor a notch or two. Such were the conditions as I tried to revive Four Bangers images of four year ago.

The fact that my son remembers vividly his first anadromous fish says volumes about the nature of steelheading. They say it's the land of a thousand casts. In the law of averages that's true. But steelheading isn't about averages when you get to its soul. There are no laws, there are no averages. Steeheadings what a river gives you in the true sense of the word. Although you're part of the process, you have very little control of its outcome.

Greg Smith, steelhead pioneer who's responsible for infecting me with the bug, once uttered after a few cold Schooners after another humbling day on the ditch; "When I pass through those pearly gates and come before the almighty the first question I have is why steelhead?" Dam good question! At the end of many a day I’ve asked the same. One day, year, week you've got them figured out the next they're figments of ones imagination.

Several years removed, a pair of steelheaders hadn't touched a fish all week, no yanks no tugs just thousands and thousands of casts. Towards the end of another cold wet fishless day they pulled into Humble Pie, a rather well know piece of water in the great Northwest. Humble Pie is one of those intimidating pieces of water that can take half a day to fish properly. Should there be no takers it can break you. But it can also spit fish as it did for these two fortunate anglers.

In total darkness and some twenty fish later they floated into camp. Upon their arrival their buddies, dejectedly took in the recount of the epic day. Steelheading can be cruel and unjust with no rhyme or reason to the outcome. Thomas McGuane wrote in The Longest Silence,"...evil luck in steelheading, when your companion once again had a deep bow in his rod, and you are on cast 65,509 without an eat."

If one chooses to chase these mysterious fish and persist, then you quickly come to surmise that that which you pursue often never materializes. In steelhead circles it's called paying your dues. This lesson of patience and pain was taught to me on my first trip, going twenty nine straight days fishless. The thirtieth day between fishing and drying out in local Laundromats I got the tug. The Rolling Stones wrote: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you get what you need." Perseverance, faith, and the satisfaction of being knee deep in some of the world’s most beautiful rivers gets you through and eventually you get what you need, the tug.

Since that first Wenatchee Buck I've experienced weeks where you measure a days success by yanks, tugs or an illusionary boil. Compared to days where no such indicators are evident, these are measures of success. I've had moments where I could call the tug. When you've got the steelhead MoJo everything vividly appears ephemeral. Those days that you endure cast after empty cast, run after empty run, day after day, will wear on the rational of your decisions. Your presence in the water takes on an unsettled state. The cinch grows tighter.

Generally I'm not a superstitious individual, really never have been. I would think it fair to say that most people aren't. Steeheading can change that. One September fall day a comrade hooked a dead cat, which he landed. You should of seen the guide trying to release this catch. I was rolling. Worse yet, he hooked this cat twice. Talk about bad JuJu. Needless to say, he went 14 straight days with out a sniff. After fourteen straight days our friends will had been broken, his faith tested, the sanity of steelhead questioned. Yours will be to.

So, why steelhead? What would motivate an angler to stand in forty degree water in the pouring rain with good odds being a fish a day? In today’s world of balloon strike indicators and instant gratifications, it’s not for everyone. I'm thankful for that. Steelheading in many ways represents all that I truly enjoy about fishing with a fly; the unseemly odds, the tug, wild places, big waters, passion, respect, challenge, and the common bond. And then there these fish. If you've ever caressed one in your hand to then respectfully watch it slide illusively from sight, you know what a magnificent piscatorial creature steelhead are. This is why I steelhead fish. To be connected to a fish that has few rivals and travels through some of this earth's most beautiful lands.

So, there I was, fishless. I must be steelheading. My partner had called it after being disgusted, tired and spent. Wanting to take in the solitude of fishing a run solo, I decided to fish into darkness. The evening’s air warm hung silent in the canyon. The run I walked shimmered in evenings dwindling light. At the runs head cradled in the midst of a worn path lay one of the most perfect eagle feathers I’ve come across. Smiling I gently picked it up and rolled it through my fingers admiring natures work knowing my fortunes were about to change.

Entering the run at the head of the pool, I could almost cast across the smooth currents as they flowed over a series of submerged boulders. Huge fir towered overhead, watching in silence. Each cast, the grease lined fly pulled smoothly through the run, the only sounds from the anchor of my single spey and the two steps taken after every presentation.

Having come across the feather, the ensuing tug was expected. Before I could lift my rod, backing was exiting my reel, its scream shattering the virtual silence. Maneuvering to shore, I slipped, pinching a kidney, and proceeded to crumble in pain breathless into the river. Minutes passed before I could regain my feet and continue the fight, the steelhead miraculously still fast to my line. After my ordeal she again headed to the toe of the run, cart wheeling across the waters surface. The bursts became shorter as the fight lingered. The last few moments before the fish came to hand were the most pretentious. Quietly resting I admired the hint of pink that adorned the gills and side, the fins virtually translucent in the waning light. With a single push of her powerful tail she silently slid beneath into the depths of the dark currents disappearing effortlessly as if the moment never existed.

I finished out the run before heading back to join my friend. Knowing I traveled a path frequented by grizzlies added to my elevated mood. Entering the small wilderness cabin, eagle feather in hand, my partner knew without asking of my success. With a smile he called me a son of a bitch. Cracking a Kokanee and taking a seat nothing needed to be said know tomorrow could easily roll fortunes his way. I was just thankful for what the river gave and for tomorrow I'll ask of nothing more.


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