A steelheading story with a happy ending

A steelheading story with a happy ending

It seems to me that every time I try on an unfamiliar kind of fishing-a new species, new tackle or whatever-there are a few clumsy false starts, followed

  • By: John Gierach
It seems to me that every time I try on an unfamiliar kind of fishing-a new species, new tackle or whatever-there are a few clumsy false starts, followed by the trip where I begin to get the hang of it. I can't say exactly what the hang of it consists of, although it's somewhere beyond just adequately going through the motions, but far short of mastery, and it takes longer for some of us than for others. I'd been steelheading a few times and had caught some fish in the same way that even a blind pig now and then finds an acorn.But something clicked on the Salmon River in Idaho one early spring. I landed a couple of steelhead and one of them was 30 inches long, but more to the point, I had my Spey-casting down well enough that whichever side of the river I was on and whichever way the wind was blowing, I could fish the water adequately, if not exactly flawlessly. Of course there's more to catching steelhead than casting, but, as with all fishing step one is to get the hook in the water, and it's a memorable moment when some of the cryptic early advice you got begins to make sense. You know, things like, "Less brute force; more timing" and "This is not as hard as you're making it." By then I'd tied most of my own steelhead flies and selecting which one to tie on was easy enough, as it tends to be. The word that week was that although orange or purple flies could work, you'd still probably be better off with the ubiquitous medium-size black patterns. I've heard this often enough now that soon I'll just stop asking. As someone once said, all steelheaders carry black flies for the same reason that most women have a little black dress: It may not be perfect for every occasion, but it will always get you by. And that's it. There was no epiphany, just the inevitable moment when I suddenly sort of knew what I was doing and began to feel comfortable. I enjoyed it. This particular trip had turned into one of those mob scenes that sometimes happen in fishing. There were six fishermen (Zak and Corey, Chris and Andy, Vince and me) plus Laya and Happy Trout, Zak's Rhodesian ridgeback and Corey's chocolate lab. There were also three trucks, three drift boats, three full camp kitchens, an appalling amount of gear and provisions and a cluttered camp that straggled over the formal campsite boundary into what you could describe as urban sprawl with tents. I never really got the full picture of it until the morning we broke camp to leave. It quickly became clear that whatever action we'd get would happen in the morning (all but one or two strikes came before 11:00) so we were getting up at four, bolting breakfast and coffee, running shuttles and getting on the water at first light around 5:30. But then once you're out there you naturally fish late, so we'd pull in well after dark and turn in close to midnight. For the better part of a week we never saw our camp in daylight. A party of eight-two of them four-legged-is probably a little large for an orderly fishing trip. The ideal group size is a leaderless partnership of two with a shelf life of a week or so and that's often how they start. But as word gets around there are draftees and camp followers like me and Vince, each one welcome, but each one increasing the likelihood of anarchy. But this time it went pretty smoothly. For one thing, it was a good group-equally serious and humorous-and although camping and shuttling were communal affairs, out on the water we became autonomous units that would usually pile up somewhere for lunch and a conference. I can only remember two moments of real mind-stopping confusion in six days of fishing, both in the pre-dawn darkness, both the understandable results of a committee operating with too much excitement and too little caffeine. As for Laya and Trout, I really enjoyed having dogs in camp, especially when, come morning, they'd go off to fish with someone else. The word among local guides and fishermen that week was that there was a record number of steelhead in the river, but the water was running about a foot above normal for that time of year, so the fish were blasting on upstream instead of holding up the way you want them to. And then with the flow a little high, there were fewer lies and they were harder to read. But then those are always the two hardest questions in any kind of fishing: Why would the fish be in one kind of place instead of another? and Where are those places? The weather was about what you'd expect from the Rocky Mountains in springtime. There were odd warm spells, but it was mostly gray and chilly with occasional rain or light, spitting snow: pretty much what we'd hoped for, although a little worse would have been better. Because of the character of the fish themselves as well as the fishermens' natural perversity, steelheaders aren't happy unless they're at least a little bit miserable. On some of my previous steelhead trips, the weather had been too sunny, or the water had been too low, or too warm, or there was too much rain and the river was too high. Some fish were caught and when Chris-who first got me into Spey rods and steelhead-asked me what I thought of it all. I said I enjoyed the hell out of it. He said, "If you like it now, wait till you hit it right." All in all, it was what I'd come to expect. Conditions weren't as right as you'd like them to be, but they were right enough that patience and perseverance could get you into some fish. People who've been at it for decades unashamedly brag about three- and four-fish days. and among certain fishermen a kind of machismo develops after continued exposure to long hours, bad weather and large, but scarce fish. At its worst, this can develop into the belief that the only people who can catch these things are those who produce near-lethal levels of testosterone. I guess I've always been suspicious of that kind of thing, especially in this instance where, for day after day, you're casting a fly that doesn't look like anything to fish that aren't hungry and that may not even be there. To my mind, that takes something far short of courage. Anyway, we put in our time, worked hard, some fish were caught, and Vince and I even had a double one morning. I was just releasing a 30-inch, A-run fish when Vince came trotting around the upstream bend with his rod bent deeply and a worried look on his face. I ran to the boat, grabbed the big landing net, tripped over the anchor rope and fell flat on my face in the rocks, but other than that we landed the fish pretty smoothly. It was a 36-inch, B-run steelhead, back to spawn for its second time after no less than four years at sea. It sort of dwarfed my 30-incher and back in camp there were the tired but inevitable jokes men make about Vince's being longer than mine, but in this case they really were just jokes. But as with most fishing trips, and especially those for steelhead, the thrills and chills were few and far between in the context of ordinary days on the river. We floated the same stretch day after day because that seemed to be where the fish were and we began to get to know it a little, including the location of some of the rocks we bumped floating out early in the half dark. Some mornings, within the first half mile or so, a local boat would race past us bent on getting to a favorite spot first. Vince and I would always smile and wave and then make a point to remember the place the guy was in such a hurry to beat us to. In that way we located a couple of good runs. Sometimes the guys in the other boat would wave back and sometimes they wouldn't, but it didn't really matter. Being a non-competitive fisherman is the kind of small act of rebellion that often goes unnoticed. The river there flows through a wide, mountain-ringed valley, so it was mostly placid with wide bends, long, luxurious runs and cobbled banks. Vince had never fished the Salmon before and I'd only fished it miles downstream in a narrow canyon some call The Gutter, so this stretch was new to both of us. This was also one of those places where you could clearly see the entire short history of the West and maybe even a glimpse of the future. Many of the spreads in the valley had two houses, a new modular or double-wide next to what had to be the original homesteader's place, and some of those were one-room log jobs with sod roofs. They'd been left partly out of nostalgia and partly because, so far at least, the land wasn't worth enough to put up something better. The little town we passed through on trips between our camp and the put-in was a few blocks long and no more than two stories high with most buildings separated by vacant lots. If you looked all the way down any dirt side street you could see clear out of town and there were plenty of unofficial spots where there was room to park a truck towing a drift boat. There was no actual fly shop, but you could find a guide if you needed one, every gas station sold steelhead flies and even the teenaged girl at the convenience store could give you a sketchy fishing report. We never saw much of the interior of the place because we didn't need much besides gas and coffee and nearly everything was closed when we drove through anyway. Also, when you've been comfortably out in the weather for days on end you can begin to feel skanky when you go inside. That translates as the kind of claustrophobia that makes you want to avoid buildings of any kind. Still, I couldn't help but notice that out in the surrounding countryside a few modern log mansions had sprouted, complete with a pair of shiny new SUV's out front. A bike rider in Spandex and a jogger had been sighted and in a burg with only one stoplight there were two real estate offices. Having seen the same phenomenon in Colorado, I sensed that the place was on the ragged edge of gentrification, sort of like the Roaring Fork Valley back home 25 years ago, before the billionaires pushed the millionaires out of Aspen and the privileged class spread out down the river. At the time, that seemed like the end of something, but then I felt less desolate when I began to think of it as just the beginning of something else. It's just that time only goes in one direction, so you never get to point at a meadow full of mule deer and say, "You know, all this was once condos." The day Vince caught his big steelhead, the guys in the other two boats said they'd decided to do a turn and burn: get out at the first take-out and do the complicated shuttle that would put all of them back in above so they could do the same float twice in a day. I tried to quickly work out how many trips that would take with all three boats and came up with five, but I couldn't quite wrap my mind around it, so I could be wrong. Vince and I said we'd drift on down to fish some good-looking runs farther down river-and also to avoid the chaos. When we got off the water right at dark that evening, there was a woman fishing at the take-out and she asked if we'd gotten anything. Vince showed her his fish on the screen of his digital camera and she said, "Oh my goodness, that is big." Exactly the response you want. While running shuttles at about 5:00 the next morning, we all stopped for coffee at a convenience store in town (regular old coffee; no espressos yet) and the inevitable small crowd of old guys in coveralls asked how we were doing. I said we'd caught a few and that Vince got a pig. One man turned to Vince and said, "Oh sure, you'd be that guy from Colorado who got the yard-long steelhead yesterday." So it may not last forever-hardly anything does-but for now this was still a place where, in less then 12 hours, news of a big steelhead is all over town.