We've all heard the stories surrounding steelhead. Fly fisherman obsessively drawn to winter rivers swollen with rain, cold temperatures made worse by driving rain bordering on sleet, and cast after fish-less cast surrounded by endless wilderness. Until this year, steelhead fishing was a once a year proposition. Something my uncle and I did right before Christmas. Nothing like the steelhead lifestyle I'd read about in books and magazine articles. The authors always seem to describe people hypnotized by the chase of steelhead. Most of the stories had more to do with surviving the elements and keeping warm with fire water than they did with fish.
This season, however, I've begun to more clearly understand the steelhead narrative. It started in October with a seemingly innocuous, unguided, trip to a Northern California steelhead river. My friend Aaron and I spent three full days (sun up to sun down) relentlessly searching for fish. Each run we fished look more likely than the last. By the end of the weekend, we'd hooked and landed two smallish steelhead and I had shattered a rod while setting up my drift. In all, a mildly successful steelhead trip.
Since then, I've been twice more. Each trip becoming more successful than the last. Better river conditions, cleaner drifts, and bigger fish, up the appeal each time. It's never easy, but when you hook one of these fish... there's no turning back. Steelhead give real meaning to the phrase, "The tug, is the drug".
The problem with steelhead fishing though, is that it's highly dependent on weather and river conditions. In my case, most good steelhead rivers are about 5 hours from home, so access isn't exactly easy. Rains bring the rivers up quickly, so planning a trip 2-3 weeks out is a practice in futility. Sometimes, it all comes into place though. When you're lucky you hit the river just as it begins to drop, turning water from chocolate milk brown to steelhead green. That nearly turquoise color sliding by the feet of tall pines and redwoods sets the scene. You hook into a fish and instantly, it runs. Never in a predictable direction. If you're not on your game, you'll have fly line wrapped around your fighting butt and a snapped tippet in the blink of an eye. When you do bring that fish to hand though, it's well worth it. The effort, weather, and unpredictability all drift away when you feel the weight of thousands of years of anadromous evolution in your hands. Whether they're chrome bright with transparent fins or dark green with rosy cheeks, they're a sight to behold. It's enough to have you dreaming about them in your spare time, tying flies late into the night, and forgoing plans with friends when the river conditions are just right.
Steelhead fishing is more than the pursuit of fish. It's about a state of mind. A lifestyle. The fish are a big part of it but it's the search, anticipation, and constant optimism that make it an addiction. The feeling consumes you whether you land fish or not. I use to lament the day that trout season ended but for years to come, it will only be a signal that steelhead fishing is right around the corner.