Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Salmon River Day Three: The Steelhead

A friend of mine, Ed, who had spent the weekend grouse and woodcock hunting nearby joined me for a day of fishing Monday. Pictured is the beautiful spot we chose, and again we're on the river at dawn. The nice thing about this spot is that it is almost exclusively accessible from one side of the river. You can cross the river and there's a path on the other side, but it's hard to fish this spot from there. So it's scenic, you're just watching the river and the woods on the far side.

And on this day, the river in front of us looked like a salmon parade route. Fish after fish after fish, leaping and splashing their way up stream. Huge, grey, heavy Kings. Dark red, acrobatic Cohos. Some jumping along the far bank, some so close you get wet from the splash. Even a few in the shallow water behind us. A truly memorable spectacle. As I'm watching the salmonid fireworks, I look over and notice Ed's still tying a fly on, messing with weights, etc., and I've already been fishing for ten minutes. Just as I'm about to give him grief about that, he drops his line in the water to strip out some fly line, and sure enough he gets a fish. One cast. Truthfully, I don't think this fish knew he was hooked, he just muscled his way upstream, slow and steady. Fly line. Backing. The fish eventually broke off, but I was psyched Ed got to feel the strength of a big fish so early.

But the fishing slowed down and people started to clear out, leaving a really nice stretch of river to just a handful of anglers. I moved downstream to the end of the big, quiet pool we spent the morning, and started fishing some riffles. Standard stuff, a pair of salmon visible in the current. Smaller, lighter female, larger, darker male. Throw the fly upstream and drift it to them. No takers? let it drift out, you never know when a brown or steelhead might be hanging behind the salmon, waiting for a meal of eggs.

Sometimes when a salmon takes your fly, you think it's a snag. They're so heavy and can be quite still, you just tug until you feel it move, then the game is on. But when I drifted this fly past those salmon and hooked something behind them, it was instantly, most certainly, NOT a salmon. This was a steelhead, and a beauty. Ed and I both got several good looks at her as she, lightning fast, shot towards me into shallow water, then back across the river, always in different angles but always at the same velocity: Full. Every glimpse I got filled me with the feeling that I was truly privileged to be connected to such a cool and beautiful fish. I really, REALLY, wanted this one, and said so.

But it was not to be. I was ill equipped to land it. I didn't have the skill, and we didn't have a net. My heart was still racing as I reeled in the empty line, and when I pulled some fly line back out to re-rig it, I realized I had made a critical mistake that I will never make again. The drag was still set very high from a previous salmon fight. Slow and steady, you can use a good amount of drag in that situation. But the steelhead was super fast and athletic, and I needed to give her more line faster. Too much pressure, and the tippet broke. All of the sudden, those seminars at the fly fishing shows with names like "Playing and Landing Big Fish" are sounding pretty good to me. This was not a trophy fish, maybe 24", maybe a bit more. Maybe eight pounds, maybe ten. But it would have been my favorite by far, and I vow to be better prepared next time I encounter a fish that special.

Next time, I'll have better skills. And a net.

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