My Kind of Despair

My Kind of Despair

As a last resort, scream.

  • By: Troy Letherman
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas

This makes no sort of sense. In fact, referring to it as fishing is a terrible joke, responsible only for the mistaken idea that you’ll actually touch one (a fish) at some indeterminate point in the future. Angling masochism is a bit closer to the mark.

For one thing, it’s snowing. And dark. Merely cold was about six hours ago, when toes were something more than little cubes of ice at the bottom of a boot. Back then an entire universe of knots seemed possible. At the moment the only alternative is to soldier on with the soggy Glo-bug, though the fly inspires slightly less confidence than Congress.

To scream immediately is preventive, like regular oil changes or green tea or paying your taxes in estimated quarterly chunks. What it’s designed to prevent is catastrophic respiratory malfunction once the inevitable occurs. The inevitable in this case, of course, is a steelhead showing up when you least expect it and then promptly busting your tippet.

You can end up in hell for the things likely to slip out if you save the scream until now.

Needless to say, this is not a theory widely subscribed to within the angling world. Apparently a significant majority of anglers leaves the house in a hopeful frame of mind, not only expecting to catch fish but rather assured of levels of impending success that would make a millionaire blush. These folks, I suspect, do most of their fishing for brookies or cutts, grayling or Dolly Varden char, or god forbid, for bass. They fish at sensible times of the year, often in weather that’s perfectly hunky-dory, and they usually saunter about with enormous grins plastered across their faces.

In contrast, I’ve several friends who have given themselves over entirely in devotion to the Pacific steelhead. None of them smile much, and never on the water, when a form of self-induced, though utter and endless, anguish drags the color from their complexions and locks mouths into a perpetual, cigarette-clenching frown. These people are serious about their fishing, no matter the weather, which always seems to be bad, and no matter the chances of success (also bad). A steelheader within the orgiastic throes of the season is a ghastly sight rivaled by few other cases within the human condition—perhaps the searcher for sea-run brown trout comes close, but only after ripping through six consecutive pairs of underwear while trying to cast a 500-grain shooting head into a 30-knot Patagonian gale. To no good cause, of course.

Otherwise, for solidarity (this almost never leads to friendship, by the way) the steelheader has only the sallowed-out visage of an Atlantic salmon angler who’s purchased a week on the same beat for 10 years running and who’s seen two fish in all that time, both of which got away. This pair of unfortunate iconoclasts, typically of very little use to society at large, also shares a certain fondness for sick leave, implausibly early mornings, and whiskey straight-up. They consider the guarding of fly recipes a matter of national security and think the wet-fly swing has been more critical to the evolution of Western civilization than indoor plumbing. Each also secretly believes in a fairytale watershed that will one day reward their lifetimes of hopeless effort with a fish on every cast—the Ponoi River, perhaps, or some far-flung Aleutian stream.

Though geographically segregated, even the fish exhibit more than a passing similarity (you can throw sea-run browns into this category as well). As a matter of fact, only a geneticist could argue that the steelhead is closer kin to a resident rainbow trout than to these other sea-run salmonids. At the very least a rainbow can be counted on to eat every now and again. With these others, who knows? The facts of biology would seem to suggest some sort of dietary plan, though I doubt it would be hard to find an instance in history when a steelhead hadn’t voluntarily starved to death rather than take the chance of eating an offered fly. The bastards.

Atlantic salmon, steelhead and sea-run browns also offer relatively comparable fights—upon the slim chance one is ever hooked—which is to say they go absolutely, ridiculously bonkers. I mean, a rainbow can put up a decent battle, but a friend once had a steelhead quite literally hang itself from an overhanging branch on the other side of the stream instead of coming across placidly and being done with the photograph already. Good lord, this is grim business.

Herein lies a great degree of the gulf that separates the steelheader from the regular, if accordingly passionate angler. Ted Leeson, who’s written with as much authority and insight as anyone on the art of angling, once argued that “[t]he take instantly validates our efforts, conferring a measure of definitiveness and closure to an enterprise otherwise riddled with uncertainty and inconclusiveness.” For all its sagacity, it’s clear this quote wasn’t meant for steelheading, when all too often the take does nothing but set into motion one of those carnivals of misfortune that can only end in the most brutal, bone-crushing despair.

For example, already this year I’ve been on a weeklong steelhead foray that offered all the worst and most characteristic elements of the pursuit—interminable rain, swollen creeks, frozen fingers, and about 50,000 empty casts. Somewhere near the end of this trip your editor, Greg Thomas, a sort of gifted lunatic whose debilitating obsession with steelhead can at least be thanked for keeping him from becoming something much worse, nearly had the rod ripped from his hands. The fish shot from the tea-stained water like an ICBM, cartwheeled once, and then spit the hook. I had no idea a single syllable could be stretched to such duration, but when his lungs finally gave out and as he stood bent over clutching his chest, muttering alternately of bluegills and seppuku, I devised my preemptive howl theory.

The mountains around my house have been topped in white for a month already and I just finished reading, for about the tenth time, an article on fall steelhead in Alaska written by Rene Limeres. I’ve weighed commitments and thought up excuses to avoid them. I’ve tied hundreds of flies.

It seems all that’s left is to scream.