Still Trying to Fool a Steelhead

A call from my friend Stuart is what got me thinking about steelhead fishing again. He is a steelhead fanatic. After tantalizing me with stories of his recent successes, he invited me on a trip over the mountains to steelhead heaven.


I couldn’t swing it. He went without me and despite promises to call me next time, I haven’t heard from him again. This is the pattern in the steelhead business, at least for me. You need to pounce on each opportunity, because they tend to be few and far between. I made one trip, a couple of years ago with a batch of steelhead professionals, who made the whole thing look easy. One of them, Steelhead Steve, even gave me a steelhead from his freezer. It “ate real good”, but the gift fish did not come with an invitation for a return trip. Missing the boat with Stuart convinced me to take matters into my own hands.


My pal Erwin, who had never gone after steelhead, was easy. So was my friend Bob, who had been steelhead fishing several times, and quickly became “Steelhead Bob.” Never mind that having gone steelheading and having actually caught fish are not one in the same thing.


So there we were, in the extreme wee hours of a February morning, carefully picking our way over the icy mountain pass and down the longest, snakiest stretch of highway in these parts toward steelhead country. For more than one hundred miles of the trip, we didn’t see a single car or truck.


Bob, experienced and upbeat, took this as a good sign.

“I think we may have the place to ourselves. The weather is keeping folks away. We should be in for some great fishing.”

I tended to agree with Bob. Erwin is more the “wait and see” type.


I had managed to forget everything I learned on that first trip, Erwin didn’t know anything to start with, and Bob just wanted to make sure, so to prepare for the trip, each of us had consulted known steelhead types as well as the local sporting goods stores for information regarding the right equipment and technique. As a result, we were prepared with three different approaches to the whole deal.


Heady with anticipation, we each contributed to a kitty, to be stored in the glove box, which would be doled out to the lucky angler who caught the first fish, the most fish and, of course, the biggest one. There was no doubt about our impending success.


As dawn broke over the river, we pulled off the highway at the one place I remembered fishing. I had watched Steelhead Steve pull three big fish out of the river right there. I didn’t tell the other guys, but I chose to stand on the very rock that Steve had stood on that day.


As we began to fish, Bob immediately began to revise his theories about other steelheaders. That’s because people began to materialize from nowhere. Boat after boat drifted down through the hole in front of us, lines dragging behind. After awhile, each of those boats motored back up through the hole and drifted down again. We heard people in the boats referring to us as “bank suckers.”


As, more and more “bank suckers” began to appear, Bob decided to take this as an even better sign than no crowds.

“Fishing must be pretty good, what with all these folks out here in the middle of nowhere. It’s just a matter of time guys.”


And fishing did appear to be pretty good. The people in the boats were bringing in big, silver, wriggling fish with some regularity. So were some of the increasing crowd of “banksuckers.” At one time during the day, we stood nearly elbow to elbow in a crowd of perhaps a hundred and fifty anglers, with another seventy or eighty across the channel. For those of us used to fishing in solitude, it was almost an out-of-body experience.


Erwin and I were growing a bit frustrated, but not so frustrated that we would do anything to expose our ignorance. Not so with Bob. There is an eternal question that I have long ago sworn never to ask anyone.


“So, what are you fellows using?” Bob called to the occupants of a passing boat, involved in landing a fish.


As it turned out, it didn’t make any difference. Try as we might, no fish. As near as we could tell, the biggest difference between the average steelheader and us was cigarettes and beer. We had neither, and most of the people we saw had one, the other, or both. This provided an imaginary line none of us was willing to cross, and it also gave us a handy excuse.


As we began the long trip home, we weren’t downcast. It had, after all, been a learning experience. And we knew there had to be a way to get around the whole cigarettes and beer deal. Next time, it would be different.

We paid for dinner with the money in the glove box.

Categories: Fishing, Friendship, Nature