Fisher swings up a Steelhead... breaking the ice on what promises to be a long journey of enlightenment.
This week I caught my first Steelhead on the swing. I’m sure that those of you who are Steelheaders understand the adrenaline that is only now working its way out of my system. You appreciate my shout echoing down the river banks the moment after I released the fish, and the pure relief and joy when I tailed it. I am sure you have never forgotten your first swung fish, and likewise, I will never forget this one. The amount of time and effort that goes into getting that first fish is monumental. And though the story of my effort, from the first time I picked up a spey rod to the landing of this fish, is not altogether uncommon, it remains worth telling.
This fish was three years, almost exactly, in the making. I first purchased a spey rod in March of my sophomore year at Whitman. There is no fly shop in Walla Walla, so I had to order it online, and I took it out for a trial on the Walla Walla river the day it arrived. It broke almost immediately. Fortunately for my ego, it was not due to my inept first attempts at spey casting but instead the result of a manufacturing error. Because of this debacle, I did not truly swing a fly for the first time until that summer. I worked the Puget Sound rivers closest to my house, never having the time or means to make a trip to the OP. I spent countless hours swinging these rivers, but it was a hopeless endeavor.
In an average year, the Skykomish, my home river, might only return 500 fish; 800 in a good year. With numbers like these, in all those days, hours, and seasons of fishing, I cannot be sure that a fish saw my fly even once. Upon moving to Portland, I was excited for the upcoming winter season because this would be my first opportunity to fish rivers with any kind of real return.
Everybody has been talking about what a lousy winter season this has been. I have found that to be demoralizing because it is the best winter season I have ever seen. For example, I have talked to many anglers who have caught a fish this season. I know people personally who have caught fish. Back home in Seattle, it was not uncommon for anyone I talked with to have not caught a fish. Even at the fly shop, many of the employees would go the whole season without a fish unless they went on a trip to the OP. Thus my usual frustration had been compounded this season by seeing others catch fish here and there. I was growing increasingly down about my ability as a fisherman. When I talked with Josh or watched other fly fishers, I could not figure out what they were doing differently to catch the occasional fish. But having been fishing at least two or three and often more times every week, or as my girlfriend says way, way too much, I began to have serious doubts. Could it be that I am simply this unlucky? What’s worse, I work in a fly shop. I would not have admitted it before I caught this fish, but now that I have, I can say that it would have been embarrassing to be the fly shop employee unable to catch a steelhead when it feels like everybody else has managed it.
But this week, I was finally delivered. I was on the Clack, throwing a big orange and red intruder with a sizable helping of flash. At this point in the season, every time I would fish for Steelhead I was mindlessly grinding. Punching each cast out there, mending, and then studiously not imagining what it would feel like to catch a fish, not even thinking about fish. I did this because I knew that if I allowed myself to feel anticipation, I would become demoralized when I inevitably didn’t catch one, wind up heading home early, or have trouble with the 5 am wake-up call to get after it again the next day. It was in this mental state, my mind far from fish and instead myopically focused on the hypnotic smoothness of a good spey cast, retrieve, two steps, repeat, that I was finally interrupted.
I had laid out about an 85-foot cast, made the mend, and the swing had just begun. Suddenly line was zipping off the reel. The fish took hard, so I let her run for about three or four seconds and then smoothly but firmly leaned into the side pressure. As a result, she changed her mind about what she wanted and reversed course, screaming upriver, straight at me. I reeled in as fast as I could, terrified I would be unable to keep enough tension on the line. She swam right up to me until the majority of my Skagit head had re-entered the guides. But I still couldn’t see her, as she kept herself as deep as possible in the riffles immediately in front of me. For the briefest moment, the horrifying thought that perhaps I was being tricked by yet another massive suckerfish crossed my mind, and then she turned and hurled herself from the water in four consecutive leaps as she beelined for the other bank. Even quicker than she had covered the distance to get to me, she ripped all 85 feet of line and then some, quite a bit of some, off the reel as she ran. From there, the fight calmed down. It was two steps forward, one step back. I would bring her 40 feet closer, and she would run 20 or 30 feet. I gain 30 feet, and she runs 15. The whole time I spoke this mantra out loud: “I will not land this fish” over and over again because I needed to mentally prepare myself in case she got away. When I finally skated her across the surface and tailed her, it was the most exciting moment of 2021 for me thus far.
Pondering my bad luck or lack of skill while still fishless didn’t do me any good. Of course, I can always get better at fishing. I’m very confident that I have a tremendous amount of room for improvement at Spey fishing for Steelhead in particular. For example, as this has been my most serious season yet, my casting has improved dramatically thus far. But I also surely could have been luckier. I put many, many, many good casts with good flies through good water this season before I finally ran into this fish. And suddenly, over the last two days, I landed that fish and had three other grabs. What I was doing this week was only marginally better than what I was doing last week. Not four encounters with four different fish better. What I needed was faith that I was doing the right thing, or at least approximating it, and the determination to get out there and do it over and over again. As a wise Steelhead guru said to me after I told him about the fish and after he had listened to my steelhead woes this season far too often and for far too long: “see, perseverance pays off.” That was all that was required, no matter how hopeless it felt like Steelheading was. However, when I returned to the river the very next day, now having experienced for myself that catching a steelhead on the swing is possible, I was no longer mechanically casting and stepping over and over. I had started fishing again.