Becoming a Steelheader

Becoming a Steelheader

Faith and steel on Washington's Klickitat.

  • By: John Gierach
  • Illustrations by: Bob White
Becoming a Steelheader

Last October, While taking a break between passes through a pool on the Klickitat River in Washington state, Jeff Cottrell said to me, “I think you’ve become a steelheader.” I took it as a compliment, even though I didn’t really know what he meant. Probably just that I’d worked the entire run methodically, starting higher than some would and fishing so far into the tail that the fly ticked gravel on my last swing.

Or maybe, in a more general sense, that I’d simply learned to embrace the monotony without losing hope. There’s a higher step on this path where you actually come to crave the monotony the way skydivers crave adrenaline, but that level of enlightenment is still somewhere in my future.

My friends and I do occasionally take breaks while steelheading, although not everyone does. If there’s one thing all steelhead fishers agree on it’s that your odds of catching fish are invariably slim, but they increase the longer you keep a hook in the water. There’s a lot more to it than just putting in time, but that’s what you start with and it’s what you return to when all else fails. There’s the story of a local steelheader who’s so persistent that he’ll pee in his waders rather than stop casting for five minutes to take care of business. It’s said that he stinks from stewing in his own juices, but he’s widely admired for his purity of intent.

From the first time I went steelhead fishing, I had the sense of being sunk in these kinds of clichés. It’s not just that steelhead are hard to catch—plenty of fish are hard to catch—it’s that they don’t feed in any recognizable way when they return to their home rivers to spawn, so they’re not really supposed to bite. But then they do bite every once in a while—not often, by a long shot, but more often than you’d think given that it shouldn’t happen at all.

No one knows why, although there are plenty of guesses. It could be latent instinct, idle nibbling, curiosity, playfulness or anger—the states of mind we extrapolate from the way a fish takes or boils at a fly—although my own theory is that it’s something more impenetrable to the way we mammals think. Pondering this as you cast and step down run after run without a strike eventually gets under your skin. You don’t feel crazy, but you begin to think you must be.

My writer friend Scott Sadil said this can become such an exercise in futility that when you do finally hook a steelhead after days or weeks of casting, you don’t feel relief or elation, but instead think, “Okay, now something can really go wrong.” Another friend lives in the heart of steelhead country in Oregon, but only fishes for trout. He says, reasonably enough, “I like to catch a fish every once in a while.”

It’s impossible to explain the attraction except to say that steelheading is like golf: viewed objectively, it makes no sense, but some people like it. Whatever the reason, when you become a steelheader you’ve either joined an elite class of anglers with heightened sensibilities or you’ve entered the lunatic fringe of a periphery: a place where voluntarily peeing in your waders indicates a strong work ethic.

Because of the kind of mind I was born with, I didn’t come at steelheading straight on, but sidled up to it sideways. At first it was an excuse to cast long, two-handed rods. Later it became a pretext to tie those pretty steelhead flies I’d otherwise have no use for. I was consciously trying to develop an acquired taste and did catch a few steelhead along the way. They were undeniably sweet fish that came one at a time after great effort, but I wasn’t sure they entirely lived up to the hype. Then a friend said that although all steelhead are steelhead, it’s only the occasional bruiser that really cleans your clock, which only put the carrot on a longer stick.

I had begun to see that the long, dead spaces that drive bottom-line types nuts were like waiting for Christmas knowing it doesn’t come every day; but it was only on my fourth or fifth trip that I arrived at the heart of the matter. Toward the end of a nearly fishless week in March on the North Umpqua, I abruptly found myself stumbling down the slippery right bank trying to keep up with a 14-pound wild hen on her way back to the ocean with most of my backing. I thought, in an oddly calm way, This fish is pretty damned strong.

There were four of us fishing the Klickitat that October: Doug, Vince and I, who’d driven out from Colorado, and Jeff, who at the time ran a fly shop in The Dalles, Oregon—a town poignantly named after a set of rapids that’s now flooded by a dam on the Columbia. Jeff and his wife Jan had put us up at their house for the last few days while we fished the Deschutes with Scott and two off-duty guides named Leif and Nate. Then Jeff took some time off to fish with us on the Klickitat.

By that I mean he closed the shop and taped a hand-written “Gone Fishing” sign in the window. That’s something every fisherman will defer to, even a disappointed customer who needs a spool of tippet on his way to the river. There’s deep respect among anglers for the neat trick of making a living from fishing while still appreciating it as more than just a job. It’s also a paradox worthy of the sport that the guy you want to buy your gear from is precisely the guy who might be off fishing during what the rest of the world considers business hours.

For the first few days on the Klickitat I experienced the usual sensory overload from a new river. There was the sheer beauty of the river that anyone could see, as well as the particular shapes of the water and my imperfect knowledge of how fish might fit themselves between rocks, depth, current and shade. Fishermen love rivers for their own sake, but we always look at them with the knowledge that it can take years to begin to see what’s actually there. That’s why we can’t take our eyes off them. I’ve been in cars that almost crashed because the driver and all the passengers were looking at a river instead of the road.

Jeff wasn’t guiding us, but like a good host he showed us as much of the good stuff as he could in the time we had: not only the big, luxurious pools with parking-lot-size turnouts that we could have found on our own; but the inside dope on runs that looked good, but seldom if ever held fish (who knew why?), as well as froggy-looking tubs that could be inexplicably productive.

I especially remember one such slot right along the riprap from the canyon road. When Jeff showed it to me it looked too slow, too deep and otherwise all wrong for steelhead. But I dutifully fished it and once I figured out the cast, some trick of hydrology made the fly swim perfectly with no effort at all on my part.

I worked this water slowly and carefully and pretty soon I was expecting a tug on every cast. It didn’t happen, but once you feel a fish welling up the feeling doesn’t go away, even after it’s been proved wrong. This was a run that would eventually give up a steelhead if you gave it the time it deserved, even if all I got that time was a nicely waking fly.

After I’d fished out the run and was walking back to our truck along the road, I saw a woman coming toward me on the shoulder. The first thing I noticed was that this was an attractive young woman in waders (a real weakness of mine). The second thing I noticed was that she looked seriously pissed off. When we got close enough she asked, in an accusing tone: “Are you guys shooting a movie?”

“Are we what?”

“Shooting a movie! I saw your truck!”

It took me a minute to piece this together. Doug is part-owner of a small company that distributes fly-fishing movies and we’d driven out from Colorado in the crew-cab pickup that serves as the company car. In the back window of that truck, plain as day, was a sticker that reads, “” That’s when the light went on.

The thought of your home water starring in a movie that’s shown to thousands of fly casters, all desperate for the next hot spot, is enough to strike first fear and then righteous anger in the heart of any fisherman.

I sputtered out an explanation to the effect that Doug’s company just distributes films, they don’t make them, and that we were just fishing and that, anyway, I was just a friend along for the ride and had nothing to do with show business. I added that if she wanted to know more she’d have to talk to Doug. I know that last part was especially cowardly, but I’ve had an instinctive fear of angry women ever since first grade where I was regularly scolded by females who outweighed me by a hundred pounds.

I must have seemed craven enough to take the wind out of her sails because all she could think to say was, “Well, you ought’a cover up that sticker before someone slashes your tires!”

As I walked back to the truck, I idly wondered if she’d been about to slash our tires when she saw me walking down the road and the thought of an angry woman with a knife made my knees go all wobbly.

By this time we’d moved out of Jeff and Jan’s house and into a room closer to the river in the small town of Klickitat. Our new digs were half a block from the Canyon Market with its good breakfast burritos and fresh coffee, and a hundred feet from the Town Pool. This is where high-school kids fish for steelhead before class and where they’ve claimed the place as their own by tagging a cliff with spray paint. So when I went outside early the next morning I wasn’t surprised to see a kid walking up the street wearing Leon Trotsky–style wire-rimmed glasses, a faded “Born to be Bad” T-shirt and carrying a spinning rod and a hatchery steelhead. I gave him a wave. He raised his rod tip slightly in response, acknowledging the compliment while remaining aloof.

A kid walking home with a fish is a nostalgic item for me anyway, and since we’d all killed some hatchery fish recently, there was a heightened sense of companionship. Hatchery steelhead are inferior in every way to wild fish and in a perfect world they wouldn’t exist. On the other hand, they’re good to eat, legal to keep and this was a year into the worst recession since the 1930s, so a good free meal was no small thing. Whenever one of us landed a steelhead with a clipped adipose fin—the universal mark of hatchery origin—someone would be there to say, “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”

If the truth were known, none of us were exactly on top of things in the area of personal finances (never mind the particulars, which are nobody’s business) but we were fishing, so we didn’t dwell on it. Still, I couldn’t help recalling the endless stories about the Great Depression I heard as a kid—all those geezers proudly saying, “We didn’t have a pot to piss in, but we made our own fun and we never went hungry.”

I know there are assistance programs for people who are down on their luck, but I also know from experience that they often come at too high a price in self-respect. Once, back in the late 1960s, I went on food stamps for a month out of what I thought was necessity. The experience was so demeaning that I’d have felt better about myself if I’d just held up a gas station for grocery money. With that in mind, I found it nearly as satisfying to kill a hatchery steelhead that would be someone’s dinner as to release a wild one. In virtually every case, wild steelhead are too rare and precious to be eaten, but it’s the occasional meal of a hatchery fish that keeps the sport from becoming too cerebral.

Just the day before, a local fisherman and his dog arrived at the river in a preposterously ratty pickup and stepped in below me as I fished down a run. I naturally bristled for all the good it did. A Spey-caster’s personal space is about the same as that of a sow grizzly with cubs, but we don’t enforce it with anywhere near the same authority. But then later on we bumped into each other and got to talking. The guy explained—a little sheepishly—that he’d been in town looking for work with no luck and thought he’d try for a fish dinner before he came home to his wife empty-handed again. That struck me as a passable excuse even in less troubled economic times. I also met his yellow Lab, who turned out to be a slightly dim-witted, but lovable goofball and decided I couldn’t stay mad at a guy who owned a happy dog and honestly needed a fish for supper.

Later that day I was working down a long pool known poetically as “Number 4” where we’d caught a couple of fish over the last few days. By then I was in the usual steelheader’s trance, thinking about how straight each cast laid out, the angle of the fly to the current, the speed of the swing and so on, but also somehow thinking of nothing much at all.

For once I wasn’t even agonizing over my choice of fly. When your background is in trout fishing with its quasi-scientific pretensions, deciding what to feed a fish that isn’t eating can induce a coma. So I’d adopted the most common advice I’ve gotten on the subject, which is to just pick a fly you like—for whatever reason—and fish it with your best impression of supreme confidence.

I’d made one pass through the pool with a size 4 Undertaker—a handsome fly I’ve always loved if only for the name—and when I didn’t move anything I started another pass with a smaller Steelhead Muddler. Right at the head of a riffly tub that we’d come to know as the sweet spot, I got a boil at the fly and a little tap. I fished out the cast in case the fish wanted to follow the fly and hit it again, but no dice. Then I showed him the Undertaker again with no apparent reaction.

I stripped in and changed to a small, dark come-back fly that I’d copied from a pattern of Scott Sadil’s. (I won’t describe it because it might be a secret.) The fish hit on the first swing with the kind of angry grab you hope for and came completely out of the water. Jeff saw it from a distance and later guessed it would have gone 10 pounds. I thought more like 12.

The fish stayed in the pool through several good runs and a few more jumps and then came off just as I was beaching it. He threw the hook in six inches of water and was gone so fast I didn’t even have time to try and tackle him.

By this time Jeff, Doug and Vince had wandered over to watch the show and when the hook came loose we all shared a moment of silence. They understood that you beat yourself up over a lost steelhead as if you’d just gambled away the mortgage payment in a poker game, so they said the only things you can say by way of consolation: that this was clearly a wild fish that I’d have released anyway, so hooking it was what counted, while landing it would have just been a formality. All bullshit, of course, but meant kindly.

John Gierach has written the Sporting Life column since 1992. Order his latest book, Fool’s Paradise, at