A Steelhead River

A Steelhead River

I guess it’s no secret that steelhead fishing can have an addictive quality to it. I think I recognized that long ago, and maybe that’s why I waited until late in life to do more than occasionally dabble in the whole business.

 

Beginning almost thirty years ago, I made a few clumsy forays to the steelhead waters of the nearby Idaho panhandle, but never put in the time needed to feel like I had any real idea what I was doing.

 

I had never seen a steelhead until my first trip over to the Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho one December day long ago with local experts Steelhead Steve Stergios and his fishing buddy, Pat Robins, the Doctor of Steelheading. Sadly, both Steve and Pat are gone from the river now, but their spirits endure in the hearts and memories of many who they introduced to the mysteries of the steelhead.

 

I don’t remember the name of the hole we stopped at, but all the places known to harbor steelhead have names that are generally used by the people who fish there. If you aren’t familiar with the long windy road, the highway closely follows the rivers all the way from the first encounter with the Lochsa west of Lolo Pass to the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers at Lewiston. The river is often so close to the road that it would almost be possible to complete a cast to the river from the open window of a passing vehicle. The place we stopped had room for a couple of vehicles to park next to the highway. Steve and Pat stood atop the riverbank, just on the far side of a highway guardrail to give me my first tutorial.

 

We weren’t five minutes into the basic casting demonstration when Steve hooked the first steelhead of the day and I got to watch as he played the beautiful creature into the net, very adeptly handled by Pat. In no time, the hook was carefully extracted from upper jaw of the brilliantly colored fish and it was released back into the cold, dark water. It took my breath away.

 

Many years later, after another pair of steelheading friends, Butch and Sundance, took me under their collective wings and taught me at last how to get the job done, I finally landed my first steelhead on my own.

 

That’s what ruined me. Now I have to go every year when the time seems right.

 

Two weeks ago, Slats and I met up with old friends Erwin and Sleepy for a couple of days of steelheading. Erwin and Sleepy were alternating between fishing from a drift boat and wade-fishing, or “fishing by hand,” as Erwin used to refer to it. Slats and I were boatless, so we spent our time fishing water that allowed us room to wade and cast our fly rods without too regularly getting tangled up in the stream bank brush on our backcasts.

Solitude is hard to find

Solitude is hard to find

 

One of the things that an angler gets used to when heading to steelhead waters is that solitude is in short supply. There is often a fairly narrow window of opportunity when the big fish are in the part of the river easiest to get to from our side of the mountains. It sometimes seems like everyone from Montana shows up over there in Idaho on the same day and at the same hole.

 

The deal is that the anglers are all at the same place because the fish are, too. And, once you sort of get a grip on the protocols, and learn how to stake out a place on the river without creating conflict, it’s not so bad.

 

Then you just start fishing. You cast, and you cast again. Sometimes you might get your gear hung up on something on the bottom and have to replace a fly or two. And then you keep casting. You may cast a thousand times without getting so much as a nudge. You may do that while the person just upstream or downstream from you has landed a fish, or two or three of them. Or, you may be able to see six or eight other anglers and not one of them catches a fish for an entire day. But you all keep at it because you know the fish are there.

Time to re-rig

Time to re-rig

 

Slats and I worked a hundred yard stretch of river for six hours our first day. We watched several beautiful steelhead being caught and released just upstream of us. And late in the day I hooked up with one. The wonderful sensation of the big, broad shouldered fish, swiping at the fly, feeling the hook, and turning to head away and downstream in a fraction of a second. Two, maybe three seconds later, my line went slack.

Keep Casting

Keep Casting

 

My response to that turn of events was a unique combination of unintelligible profanity, arm waving and fist shaking, followed by me slogging ashore and sitting down in a heap on the bank to collect my thoughts. And, yes, I was pleased when I examined the end of my leader where the fly had been attached. The fly was gone. The squiggly bit of leader at the end of the line made it clear that my carefully tied knot had failed.

 

AARGH!

 

At the end of the day, we debriefed with Erwin and Sleepy and heard tales of the several steelhead they had boated, and Sleepy offered me some assistance.

 

“I’ll be holding a knot-tying clinic back in the motel tonight, right after dinner. It might be a good idea if you took it in. It doesn’t hurt to brush up on those things, you know,” he said.

 

Bright and early, we were back in our places the next day. For the first couple of hours, we cleaned ice off our lines and out of the line guides frequently. Then, with the day warming up, we kept at it, casting, casting, casting.

 

Standing there, feeling the frigid water wrapping around your legs, and imagining the fly you are casting as it bounces along the boulder-strewn river bottom, it is easy to slip into a sort of trance, where nothing exists except you and the river and the fish you visualize finning silently down there in the dark.

 

Late that afternoon, I had decided it was time to call it a day. I shouted as much to Slats a few dozen yards upstream.

 

“Just this last cast,” I said to myself.

 

That magical tug came again then. The line tightened and pulled away hard. I set the hook hard, three times. The line did not break. The knot did not fail. And Slats was soon at my side with the net.

 

"Fish On!"

“Fish On!”

That evening, there was no kidding about bad knots. It was just a little bit of joy shared by all. And I know that’s true, even though I was thinking that it would be awfully nice for Slats to hook up, too.

 

On the third day, he did. But this time, it was in the boat with Sleepy at the oars. Of course it became “Captain” Sleepy as soon as we were in the boat with him.

 

We were all surprised when Slats called “Fish on!”

 

And things got a bit confused as Captain Sleepy tried to handle the net from his place at the oars while I tried to snap photos of the whole event from my seat in the rear.

"Duck!"

“Duck!”

 

Slats deftly played the big fish. It made a hard run downstream and Slats had to work hard to get it back to the boat. I snapped pictures with my phone while Sleepy tried to duck out of the way and net the fish at the same time.

 

The result? Several photos of Slats holding a bending fly rod as he fought the fish, a photo of Captain Sleepy ducking out of the way, and several partial photos of Sleepy’s arm, part of a net with a fish in it, and several photos with my thumb obscuring almost everything. I did not get a photo of Slats with the fish before he slipped it from the net, and back into the river.

There is a steelhead in this picture, and a thumb!

There is a steelhead in this picture, and a thumb!

 

But the trip was complete.

 

A week later, Slats and I went back and did the same thing again.

Sleepy, Slats, and Erwin after a good day.

Sleepy, Slats, and Erwin
after a good day.

 

Now we are making plans for the fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Welcome back.

    Some of the best fishing stories I have heard in a while.

    Always a plus.

    Best,

    Skip

  2. Love this Steelhead story!

  3. Sounds like a great trip. I like the phrase “fishing by hand.”

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