Float fisherman with outsized bobbers floating roe and sand shrimp through likely holes. Spoon fisherman making incredibly long casts across the river and the rare fly fisherman with a strike indicator and pegged eggs.
They call them the fish of a thousand casts. I found this to be very true this winter. The fish that I am talking about is none other than the elusive steelhead. More precisely the steelhead that returns to the upper waters of the Snake, Clearwater, and Salmon rivers of Idaho.
Steelhead have fascinated me since my father introduced them to me as a young boy growing up in western Washington. I can remember days on the Snoqualmie river chasing rainbow and cutthroat trout on the Snoqualmie river with my father and two little brothers. On one of our outings I remember seeing this exceptionally large "trout" cruising near the shore at the mouth of Tokul Creek near the famous Snoqualmie Falls. Excitedly I pointed the fish out to my father. "That's the biggest fish I've ever seen dad!" That my son is the king of all trout, a steelhead. "Well lets catch him" I said and promptly cast my Colorado spinner and worm right in front of his nose. Of course the fish went swimming off deeper into the river and out of view as soon as my lure hit the water. Dad just chuckled. It'll take at least a "thousand casts" to catch that fish son! I was hooked right then and there. I had to catch one. I just had to. And so a life long obsession and quest began! To know and catch such an impressive fish.
Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) belong to the family Salmonidae which includes all salmon, trout, and chars. Steelhead are similar to some Pacific salmon in their life cycle and ecological requirements. They are born in fresh water streams, where they spend their first 1-3 years of life. They then emigrate to the ocean where most of their growth occurs. After spending between one to four growing seasons in the ocean, steelhead return to their native fresh water stream to spawn. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead do not necessarily die after spawning and are able to spawn more than once.
Dad is a died in the wool bait fisherman and so he would take me to the base of Snoqualmie Falls or near the mouth of Tokul Creek on the Snoqualmie river and we would "plunk"for steelhead. This was his favorite and I would soon learn the only way he knew how or wanted to catch them. Essentially you take a glob of cured roe a large spin and glow and several ounces of weight and chuck it as far out into some slow moving still water and let the spin and glow and bait work in the current while anchored securely to the bottom. Put a rod holder in the ground, attach a cute little jingle bell to the rod tip and wait for a fish to swim up and take the bait.
So with the enthusiasm and expectation of youth I had at it! Did I say that you have to wait for a fish to take the bait? Ya!! and wait and wait and wait.!! What about the thousand casts?! I quickly surmised that at this rate it may take a lifetime to catch a steelhead. Dad would get out some thick book and read until he fell asleep with the book laid across his chest. What did he think a 12 year old boy was going to do just sit their and wait for a damned fish to swim up and magically appear. Of course my patience did not last long and I eventually ambled off to find more riveting entertainment. This went on for weeks and weeks with nothing to show for our efforts except some new tome that dad would read. I began to wonder if the fish I saw was a ghost. Until one day while turning over rocks looking for periwinkles I heard the ringing of that cute little bell!
Dad was up and setting the hook as if he had never even closed his eyes. I remember vividly the rod bent in half and the drag on his ancient Mitchel spinning reel screaming as the fish peeled off the line. Could it be? Had dad actually hooked a steelhead? I will be honest in the weeks leading up to dad's strike I had my doubts about my fathers method so I had taken it upon myself to observe and learn how other steelhead fisherman went after these sea going trout and found that there were as many ways to fish for them as there were fisherman. Most of us learn from our fathers, grandfathers etc. how to fish and hunt. So my dad was just doing what he was taught as a young boy growing up in Oregon and fishing with his grandfather on the banks of the Columbia river. What I found on the banks of the Snoqualmie river were anglers with bait casting rods casting corky's and yarn. Float fisherman with outsized bobbers floating roe and sand shrimp through likely holes. Spoon fisherman making incredibly long casts across the river and the rare fly fisherman with a strike indicator and pegged eggs.
I will never know if my father had hooked a steelhead that day because as soon as I got to him and his bent rod the line went slack. Oh well he exclaimed!! Must have been a whopper! I noticed that nothing remained of his setup likely due to the lack of good knots. I had noticed that the only thing my dad changed about his rig in weeks was the bait, so the line had probably been compromised and broke as soon as it came tight. A good lesson I learned early on...Check your knots and tackle regularly as it could mean the difference in landing a fish and just getting hooked up! I was going to have to do this on my own. I love my dad but what I wanted was to be active. I mean to actively participate in angling. I wanted to outwit this fish and I meant to do it!
The next thirty years of my life I pursued my passion for steelhead through all facets of angling trying all kinds of tackle and methods to catch steelhead. I have fished for them from Alaska to Oregon and even have been to the Holy land of British Columbia with varying degrees of success. I even got good at it, wink, wink! Most of my early success can be attributed to catching them by pulling plugs behind a jet boat or drift boat. Then as I became a fly-fishing purist my success ratio plummeted but my satisfaction and lust for steel heightened to a fever pitch.
Spey casting originated in the heart of Scotland in the mid-1800s. The name comes from the River Spey in Scotland, which is where the cast originated, presumably at Gordon Castle Estate and Wester Elchies beat. Therefore, the Spey cast was developed so one could successfully cast on a large river such as the Spey. When Spey casting was introduced, 22-foot rods were used. These rods were made of greenheart, a heavy wood imported from British Guyana. Today, rods are only 12 to 15 feet in length, usually made of fiberglass or graphite and can toss a line up to 80 feet.
I took Spey casting more seriously this year as I listened to my fellow Marauders taunt me with stories of bright fish caught on the swing. In past years I would start with my Spey rod in hand but quickly becoming inpatient I would switch to my tried and true methods and get the results I needed to get my fix!
Knowing that to catch a fish on the swing is a very deliberate act requiring unwavering focus and dedication I set out this fall and winter with one goal in mind. To swing for steel and only swing. I wanted to catch them consistently on the swing. So I would spend this fall focused on one pursuit, swinging for steel. All my time and energy were focused on this pursuit, waterfowl and elk hunting took a back seat. My family wondered if they still had a provider. I became driven, focused, obsessed. Time spent on the tying bench were spent cranking out patterns that I was sure would entice a heavy shouldered leviathan from the river.
I was on the Salmon river as soon as the season opened knowing that very few fish were yet that far up the river system. Starting with warm temperatures and fighting glaring sunlight and sunburns to freezing rain and snow I stayed in the runs all season long. Swing step swing step on and on it went and my cast improved as did my knowledge of the river and fish while getting the feel for where the bucket is. That spot where you know the fish have to be. I learned more about hydraulics and the subtle nature of the river more so than ever. I went to the Main Salmon, the North Fork, Clearwater, Middle Fork. Towns like Orifino where steelheading is a passion to Kamiah and little known bars way down the North Fork of the Salmon like the MTSaddle where I spoke with other addicts young and old who pursue this fish like some kind of Meth addict. They understand my obsession, and we shared stories of success and mostly failure but still I would swing step swing step on and on and on. Was that a take? That was definatly a take! Finally a strike only to feel the line slip loose. Just what an addict needs a take yet not the high.
As a wrestling coach and our season just one week from starting I asked fellow Marauder Chris Rockhold to share my last weekend on the main Salmon before I had to exchange my rod for a pair of wrestling shoes. I had been on nine trips averaging 100 casts a day. Chris had recently returned from the holy land up north in British Columbia and had tasted the sweet satisfaction many times already. Seeing how bad I needed a fix he took me to some of his "spots" which I will keep sacred and secret. This would be my TENTH trip this season. The day was cold and the snow falling heavy. Forecasts foretold of a heavy freeze coming the next day promising to lock the river in its grip for the rest of winter. I had to get it done on this trip!
Our first run and ten steps in I hooked up! Tug Tug, line came pouring off the reel and I quickly was into my running line....then nothing.....Ugggg I fell to my back in the deep snow panting heavily. The best hook up of the season and... blank! Was I cursed? Come on he said lets go to another spot. Chris is always so confid+ent. I have guided with him for many years now and his confidence and enthusiasm is contagious and always pays off for him. Was this the last lesson I needed to learn? Confidence?? Trust the bug finish the swing and let it swim he encouraged. It'll come he coaxed me up gave me a beer and on we went to the next run.
The next run produced another tugging strike!! Two serious eats in one day on the swing. In one day!!! My best of the season yet none to hand. Hard to stay confident but Chris said one more run. I knew this would be the last run of the season. The snow was heavy on the road and we still had to negotiate the pass and dodge herds of elk to get home.
We made our way to the next run. Chris said he was going to take the first run we came to and that I should walk up river another 1/4 mile to the sweet spot and start and when he was finished stepping the first run he would come in behind me. What a pal!
The run was the best looking of the day. The snow squall had stopped. With fingers frozen I stepped in the river. Step, step swing, step, step, swing. I worked this final run with total focus. I felt the nuances of the current. I knew the slow sink tip that I changed to was the right choice. The choice of fly my own, hand tied the night before. The knot double checked. Hook laser sharp. Drag set just so. Everything felt perfect. I could sense the bucket coming. If a fish was in it I would catch it! I was startled to hear Chris behind me. My focus so intent. "Sweet run isn't it" I had five steps left in the run and I knew my fly was in the bucket as Chris stepped into the run 50 yards above me. Two steps left and back over the hill I must go, let it swing tight to the bank......
There is nothing like shooting a laser across the river and the feel of a tight line grab. The Steelhead took my fly at the very end of the swing following it close to the bank and came immediately to the surface, strong, living, surging, and hooked up tight. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Time slowed and my mind worked fast. Back stepping to the bank for sure footing the fish ran up river towards Chris, then back down. Once, twice he came close to the hand. Chris reminded me that this might take awhile. I prepared myself mentally for the inevitable. But it did not happen with patience and care together we brought this fish to hand. I took in the moment and looking at this fish realized that it had traveled thousands of miles, survived predators and passed through eight dams so that I could meet him. Ten Trips, 1000 miles and a thousand casts. They truly live up to there reputation!
This spring I will reset the cast counter and look for the next one! I need another fix!