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“Anatomy of a Steelheader”

by Jerry Kustich

Steelhead FlyThat was it! The final cast in the ritualistic series of last casts which can sometimes go on for hours. Dark had descended upon the Kispiox, and walking out along the water’s edge at this hour with the odd bear munching on a stinking pink salmon carcass could be risky business in this part of British Columbia. But that was part of the deal. At least it would make for some excitement. Four days had come and gone, two on the Bulkley and two on the Kispiox, and no sign of a steelhead in forty-plus hours of endless casts. Suspended in some sort of time capsule of anticipation and thought, another day had ticked by—if only work could pass so quickly. I wondered if this state of expectancy represents the same sense of time a dog experiences while waiting for his master or a bone or, for that matter, a pat on the head. They say that time is really a relative notion. In fact, it does some sort of weird thing when it starts approaching the speed of light, but it would be best to consult Einstein about such matters. Time in relationship to fishing is a tough enough concept to comprehend. And there’s no question that it seems to evaporate faster than the speed of light when the object of the pursuit is steelhead.

Since I do not live in the steelhead’s domain, I don’t consider myself a steelheader in the true sense. It is my firm belief that one cannot be a bona fide steelheader living in Montana. Most of the die-hards who qualify for this title live on the West Coast, or in British Columbia, or along the Clearwater, or somewhere throughout Ontario and the states surrounding the Great Lakes. This is an admirable group of individuals driven by the incessant desire to meet a steelhead anytime, anywhere. Always plotting and scheming for the next encounter, these anglers are obsessed with being at the right place while staying out of the poorhouse at the same time.

In their spare moments, members of this steelhead fraternity also continue the adamant fight for the right of this noble fish to live a life equal to its magnificence in a habitat that is constantly under siege. With focused determination, the true steelheader relentlessly searches runs, rocks, and riffles with the right fly to entice that one take. Each next fish gives rise to the hope that there is a future for this beloved creature though all signs, especially on the West Coast, point to the contrary.

Andrew and Clay had just returned to the Ksan Campground in Hazelton after another fishless day on “the Potato Patch” the day I met them in mid September. These veterans had been fishing the Kispiox for ten straight days, each landing but one fish, and rolling one or two others during that period. A bit discouraged, they both acknowledged in unison, “That’s steelheading!” The conditions weren’t right: low water, bright sky, late run, and few moving fish added up to dim prospects for the days to come as well. The true steelheader approaches the river with high hopes, but realistic expectations—particularly during slow periods. The drive is fueled by the excitement of the pursuit and the single hope that the stars and the moon may realign soon to hasten some changes. Despite the depressing news, they both were able to offer insight and optimistic encouragement for the few weeks I still had in front of me. Spoken in the spirit of true steelheaders.

By the start of my fifth day, I was pretty downhearted. Granted, this is not the attitude of a good steelheader. But then again, I assert once again that I am not a steelheader—just a trout fisherman who regularly fishes for steelhead. And there is a distinct difference between “steelheading” and “fishing for steelhead.” The way I see it, steelheading is the artful search and stealthy hunt of this migratory rainbow often in times of low probability or adverse conditions when finding these fish is ultimately challenging. I am a steelhead chaser. I fish for them in a lot of places, and every so often I have been known to hook a fish or two. But don’t confuse this with being a steelheader. I suppose there is the point of no return when a certain intangible line is crossed and one falls into the all-consuming abyss that is the collective soul of the steelheading society. I emphatically vow that I will never cross that line.

Somehow miscalculations this year have resulted in many days on various rivers with few fish around. When a trout fisherman goes fishing, he expects to catch fish. Going fishless for four days is unfathomable, especially to someone who usually figures out a way to catch something on any given day.  This fifth day out was going to be different! In the mid-seventies, I had dedicated one summer to the search of the surprisingly elusive Dolly varden. In the end, it became a near-holy pilgrimage that culminated with success in northern Idaho. Since that time this inland species of char has been reclassified as a new species and renamed bull trout. The coastal form, however, maintained its status as a separate species: the one and only true Dolly varden. Because this change had technically eradicated Dolly from my history, the time as well as the opportunity was now right to set the record straight.

Moved by this righteous cause while studying the gin-clear Kispiox getting lower by the day, conventional wisdom dictated that the Dollies would likely be feeding on the copious amount of pink salmon eggs spilling below the crowded redds. Looking over my shoulder to make sure there were no steelheaders observing my desperate measures, I rigged up with an egg pattern. To my pleasure, the first cast produced my “first ever” Dolly. Three casts later, a stronger take and, alas, the trip’s first steelhead was landed within fifteen minutes. Okay, maybe it wasn’t textbook, but it was satisfying just the same. Feeling a bit shady, I immediately removed the Glo Bug after this one-hour interlude and started to fish conventionally for steelhead again. After finally catching a steelhead, I even caught myself slipping—just a little—into a steelheader’s optimistic frame of mind.

Twenty-four days passed in the twitter of a cat’s whisker, and the fishing picked up only modestly; but the scenery was captivating and the mood surprisingly uplifting. I’ve read where some people claiming to have been abducted by aliens have no recollection of lost time. I can hardly account for the lost ten hours per day myself, though I am quite sure I never left planet Earth. My memory is fuzzy, but I do recall visions of past places and faces blending into dreams of the future. The reminiscence of steelhead that have briefly swum in and out of my life played in the background like a theme song.

In the hours of lost time, I wondered if I would even be chasing steelhead now if it hadn’t been for that wild hen on Idaho’s Salmon River that unexpectedly took my fly so many years ago on my first afternoon of steelhead fishing. There was also the encouragement of Twin Falls steelheaders Dick and Delores Smith whose love for the Salmon fueled my enthusiasm in those days. My mind wandered regularly back to northern California in February and the fish of the Mad River and Redwood Creek, the heavy ocean fog, and the severe case of poison oak. Unfortunately, the twisting journey to the Mettole was washed out by heavy rains shortly after my arrival, but I fished the rising waters anyway. A few weeks later, it was off to British Columbia’s Wakeman River as well as a few rivers on Vancouver Island.

During those twenty-four days of nonstop fishing, my mind continued flowing down this stream of consciousness— while every cast was carefully scrutinized for the next rise. Word that folks like Tom Pero, Jim Vincent, Mike Maxwell, or Bob York were in the neighborhood made my presence on these great waters seem insignificant, but my spirit would rise just talking to well-known guide Bob Clay or observing the legendary Harry Lemire floating by in his one-man inflatable. I was glad my brother Rick was able to join in on the experience for a while, making the trip in a roundabout fashion from New York.

In the evenings, we’d usually talk about every worthy steelhead we had ever seen or lost. We’d also reflect upon the April conclave of eastern and midwestern steelheaders who met in the vicinity of the Pere Marquette just a few months earlier. The Great Lakes’ enthusiasts are a serious lot. Even when there is the slightest chance that the fish are running, you can find these fly rodders exploring the hidden nooks of their favorite rivers. Braving subfreezing conditions, rearranging work schedules, or canceling appointments, these folks just plain do what it takes to get to the water. These are steelheaders! This affair was an enriching experience for both Rick and I. And upon leaving the hallowed waters of Michigan, we were still scratching our heads at the number of Big Manistee screamers that tore us apart for two days. These phantoms were replayed over and over in my mind during the hours of fishing the Bulkley.

Somewhere in the oblivion of unaccountable time, my thoughts also acknowledged the many dedicated steelheaders I had met over the years. Everywhere a steelhead swims there is that loyal band of followers intoxicated on their irresistible allure. Even my friends, Dick and Delores, arrange their respective counseling practices quite neatly around regular steelhead adventures. In fact, well into the fourteenth day of this British Columbia marathon I met up with them on the Bulkley. “If it wasn’t for you,” I commented to Dick, “I’d probably be hopper fishing on the Missouri right now—and catching fish.” He replied, “But you wouldn’t be having as much fun!” Fun, like time, is a relative concept, and I’m sure it would take Freud to help me understand exactly what Dick meant.

The day I came back to reality was the morning of our departure, but I really don’t believe my displaced sense of time had anything to do with being shanghaied by a flying saucer. My wife and I packed the camper in a howling wind that was soon to bring a chilling rain. It was a Saturday in early October, and a new crop of fishermen was just showing up to replace the ones who already had their shot. Looking at the Bulkley, we watched a few brave souls fighting twenty-five-knot winds. Now those were steelheaders! Down the road, Debra volunteered, “Gee, I like this place.” “Likewise,” I replied, “at least what I can remember of it.” It was then and there that I renewed my vow never to cross the line into the realm of steelhead addiction. I am just a trout fisherman who lives in Montana. I once again made a promise to myself never to get trapped in the steelheader’s web. Once entangled, it never lets you go. These specialized anglers are too intense for me. And besides, who has that kind of time!

The rain was short-lived, and the weather couldn’t have been better all the way back to Montana. The encore performance of autumn’s glory provided a wonderful climax for our month-long journey to northwestern Canada. And I was thankful that we made such good time. That meant I could squeeze in a quick trip to the upper Salmon River to see if the steelhead had returned to Idaho before heading back to New York. According to my brother, Cattaraugus Creek, just south of Buffalo, was full of steelies, and many chrome beauties were also moving out of Lake Ontario into the lower Niagara River.

My timing would be perfect.

 

Excerpted with permission from “Around the Next Bend” (Stackpole/Headwater Books, © Copyright  2013, all rights reserved.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Jerry Kustich is author of At the River's Edge: Lessons Learned in a Life of Fly Fishing (2001), A Wisp in the Wind: In Search of Bull Trout, Bamboo, and Beyond (2005), and coauthor of Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead (1999) all published by West River Publishing. His articles and essays have appeared in Fly Fisherman, Big Sky Journal, Fly Rod & Reel, and many other publications.
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  • Ed Filice

    Will look for the book at the Fly Show this weekend. Thanks!