Book Excerpt: Reelly Unbelievable Fly Fishing Guide Stories

April 19, 2024 By: Ryan Johnston


Do you believe in unicorns? I know my young daughters used to. I’m still on the fence with the idea, but there is a small part of me that wants to believe. I believe in Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, so why not unicorns as well?

When you look up the word “unicorn” in the dictionary, there are two definitions. The first is the one we all instantly think of: A mythical animal typically represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead. Any fish enthusiast might think, by that definition, that a narwhal would then be the unicorn of the fish world. But the second definition of “unicorn” actually seems to be more suggestive of steelhead over narwhals: Something that is highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain. That is the best synopsis of steelhead fishing I’ve ever seen.

We see photos in magazines and on social media of mystically huge anadromous rainbow trout caught from breathtaking rivers in some of the world’s most pristine environments. Pictures of big, chrome-bright, 20-pound steelhead that make us wish for the umpteenth time that we had more money to travel more, to more faraway lands, more time to chase after more fish we’re not entirely sure exist, and also maybe spouses who could understand our madness. Just a little?

As we stare into the eyes of that person smiling ear to ear, holding that fish that lives only in our dreams, we drift away to enchanted steelhead lands surrounded by rugged, snow- capped mountains towering over rivers that flow through mighty redwoods and foggy rain forests. Clean, fresh, cold water glows a perfect emerald green, the weather is always dry and cloudy, the sun never comes out to scare the fish, and the wind never blows to affect our casts. Fog slowly rolling in and out to keep a perfectly moist yet brisk feeling in our lungs. Perfect holding water in every run; big, bright unicorns rolling in every tailout. Now I’m starting to wonder if this is what Heaven will be like.

The cell phone dings, awakening me from my mental wonderland, and I’m sadly confronted by the reality that a place like this doesn’t exist. Not earthside anyway. Even the most desirable steelhead destinations in the world get adverse conditions. Yes, there are rivers where thousands of wild steelhead return every year. Yes, there are rivers that flow through the most beautiful and dramatic and almost unimaginable scenery. Yes, there are days when all the planets and stars in the universe align to produce the perfect conditions. But when you go looking for unicorns, brace yourself: be prepared to be disappointed.

Steelhead chasing is like that. A lot of our time is just hoping to interact with one. In every run we fish, we keep hoping and believing there’s a unicorn waiting to reveal itself in all its splendor. A fresh steelhead that ever so briefly lets its guard down, eats our fly, and reveals mythical powers so strong it must be from another world entirely.

The steelhead is the perfect freshwater unicorn in its thrilling combination of the gifts of all these world-renowned game-fish. It has the speed of a bonefish, the strength and stamina of a King Salmon, and the erratic, wild fight of a dorado. It is a fish so perfect, anglers will do almost anything to engage one.

A few years ago, a couple clients of mine were seeking their first unicorn in the Redwood National Forest on California’s north coast. Matt and Roy had been fishing with me for a long time, and we had caught lots of trout, stripers, and bass together. They’re good fishermen. Also, like all of us, they still had some things to learn. Each had been fly fishing for about five years and were gradually becoming more proficient at the sport. It was time to go land their first steelheads on the Eel River.

The first day of the trip went well enough. Matt hooked three steelhead, though he didn’t land any. The first was a beautiful 13ish-pound, chrome-bright buck, fought perfectly all the way to the boat… where the hook pulled out two feet from the net. The fish was so close, but the never-give-up attitude of the steelhead won.

Two hours later, Matt hooked his second unicorn. We were nymphing through a deep, emerald-green run. As soon as the fly fell off the shelf, the indicator shot under the water. Matt, with lightning-quick reflexes, set the hook and came tight to something big and strong. The fish jetted upriver, instantly jumping all the fly line off the deck of the boat. The reel engaged and the fish continued to pull an additional 30 feet of line upriver. In an instant, the steelhead decided to change directions and made a bee line for Matt.

I started yelling at him. “Reel faster!!! Keep up with him!” Matt was cranking hard, but nothing changed. I looked over my shoulder to investigate and noticed he was reeling backwards! Rather than picking up the slack, he was making a bird’s nest in his reel, and the fish came off.

“What happened there?” asked Roy, annoyed that Matt had hooked the first two steelhead of the day, with none yet for himself. “How did you lose that one?”

“The only explanation for Matt losing that fish is LOFT,” I said.

“Loft?” asked Roy. “I’ve never heard that term before.”

“LOFT is an acronym used widely amongst fly fishing guides,” I said. “Lack of F***ing Talent.”

Roy instantly laughed and nodded his head in agreement. After my dumb guide joke, I rowed down to the next run in hopes of actually landing one of these unicorns.