Steely Beginnings

On the bulletin board in my kitchen, there is a photo of my friend Formerly proudly displaying a beautiful big steelhead, fresh caught from an Idaho river not very far from our own little town. If you aren’t a steelhead fanatic, and if you haven’t seen one of those big-shouldered fish, then I’m sorry, but you really can’t know what I mean when I say “beautiful.” I am here to tell you that catching such a fish from a cold mountain river that snakes its way hundreds of miles from the ocean where that fish has spent much of its life is the stuff of dreams for any angler. That photo reminds me of those dreams every single day.

And when I look at that photo, I am reminded that it was nineteen or twenty years ago now that I first made the trip over the mountains into Idaho in the hope of catching one of those mythic steelhead. On that first trip, I was armed with equipment borrowed from my friend Slats, and I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to use it. But that was okay because I was escorted on that first trip by the legendary Steelhead Steve Stergios and his fishing pal Pat the Bonecrusher.

Between the two of them, they managed to get me lined out on the tackle and the technique, and then they proceeded with a little demonstration. While I watched, Steve caught three big steelhead in the space of less than an hour as he cast from the top of a prominent rock above the river. Pat caught another from his perch a couple dozen yards downstream. For the rest of that day, I fished as I was told without catching anything but snags on the bottom. Even so, I was thrilled to be there and excited at the possibilities so clearly demonstrated by the success of my mentors. Once, I even thought I sensed just the slightest bump on the end of my line from something living instead of another river rock or old car body. That was enough. Visions of steelhead danced in my head as we followed that long, windy road home through the black night. I was ready to try it again at the next opportunity.

Only much later did I learn what distinguished company I had been keeping on that first trip and exactly how fortunate I had been to learn a little bit about the sport from two guys who were well known as masters of the craft. And it’s a pity that by the time I made my next steelhead foray a couple of years later, I had forgotten every single thing those two guys told me.

That next trip came with my pal Formerly and another friend known locally as the Swedish Pimple. The Swede and I both served as experts on this trip simply because we had been steelheading before, despite the fact that neither of us could claim any success. That trip turned out to be another learning experience where we enjoyed watching a number of other folks catch those magnificent steelhead without having to get any fish slime on our own hands. Once again, it wet the whistle a little bit and stirred up some notions of how things would surely be different next time around.

Formerly, however, as they say, was hooked. He actually learned how to catch those fish, and he became a real steelhead fisherman, one of those folks who will drive hundreds if not thousands of miles, sleep on the hard ground, and suffer the cold and the wet to be on the right river at the right time to have a chance at a steelhead.

For some years now, I have listened eagerly as he has recounted tales of his quest for steelhead. That photo on my fridge is a daily reminder that Formerly has crossed some invisible dividing line in the world of fishing and left me behind on the other side.

It was that photo that made me jump at the chance recently to join Formerly on another steelhead trip to those waters not far from home.

When I told Bill down at Sportsman’s Surplus that I needed some help to get rigged up for a steelheading trip, he was almost as excited as I was.

“I think I remember the last time you went. Must have been about fifteen or twenty years ago,” he said.

Then he started talking in steelhead fishing jargon, and I had to ask him to back up and repeat the whole thing in regular English.

“Look, Bill. I don’t remember a thing about this steelheading stuff. I need you to get me organized from the very beginning. I need a rod. I need a reel. I need you to tell me what I need to rig with and how to rig it up,” I said.

Not only did I leave the store completely outfitted, I also got a detailed diagram of how to rig up, complete with measurements and locations for things I had never used before including bobbers, bobber stops, mysterious plastic beads, lead weights, and jigs. The diagram also includes notes on the fly-fishing possibilities and patterns to use for various light conditions, places to buy necessary gear near the river, places to stay, and the best place to eat. Because I know Bill may be famous some day, if he isn’t already, I am going to save that scrap of paper. It might just become a collector’s item.

When we slipped Formerly’s steelhead boat into the water over in Idaho a few days later, he was amazed at how much better prepared I was than I usually am.

“All the credit goes to Bill. He was so excited that I was giving steelheading another try that he pulled out all the stops to get me ready,” I told Formerly.

We joined the otherworldly crowd on the river for the better part of three days. We were there in the frigid pre-dawn darkness, sipping coffee between casts, watching the dark shapes of anglers in other boats, casting, hunkering against the cold, and listening to the indistinct murmurs of quiet talk or shouts when one of them hooked into a fish.

Formerly had a big one on within the first half hour that first morning. That was enough to carry me through the entire time we spent on the water, just knowing the same thing could happen to me with my next cast.

I watched as many steelhead were caught over those next couple of days. One guy in a boat about thirty yards away and across the river from us boated five one morning in the space of two or three hours. Everyone would stop casting to watch the drama each time a fish was hooked.

It was with great reluctance that I packed my rod away after our final morning on the water. I think I could have sat in that boat happily for another week or more, just casting away and trying patiently to untangle the backlash messes I created with my line by failing to keep my thumb on the spool. I didn’t want to come back across the mountains to my own real world.

But here I am now, writing about it again, with no fish to report, and only that picture on my fridge to remind me of the possibilities. I’m not going to wait years before I go again.




Categories: Connections, Fishing, Friendship, Nature