Steelhead are the pinnacle of flyfishing for many anglers – which might explain the near insanity and devotion that goes along with chasing them.
During one of our 100+ degree heat waves during the peak of guide season here at the shop, Hans and I decided that we were going to go fish Steelhead on the Clearwater River in Idaho in the fall. We picked the Clearwater because of it’s relatively close proximity to us, it’s reputation for big B-Run Steelhead, and the success that friends of ours have had there in the past. We nailed down some dates, ordered a quiver of spey rods, reels big enough that they could be mistaken for a pickup wheel, and enough Skagit and Scandi lines to make you dizzy. Flies were tied madly for months, and before long we had enough Purple Perils, Green Butt Skunks, Street Walkers, and Hobo Speys to fill up a small mountain of fly boxes. We were ready to go catch big, smart, anadromous chrome. How hard could it be, right?
The drive over consisted mostly of talk of how large the Steelhead we were going to catch would be, and which fly would outfish the others 10 to 1. Fifteen hours later, we arrived in our destination – Orofino, Idaho. The school mascots for the little town of Orofino are called the Crazies – which is quite possibly referring to the semi-insane anglers known as steelheaders. First step – go to the fly shop, Poppy’s Red Shed. Poppy’s shop is quite literally a shed – full to the brim with spey lines, steelhead patterns, and more two handed rods than I have ever seen in a single place. Poppy himself is quite the character – two-foot long beard, a hell of a sense of humor, and more knowledge about sea-run Rainbow Trout than anyone I’ve personally spoken to. More or less, he’s a certified badass. He gave us a few tips, we picked out a few flies, and we were on our way to Steelhead Valhalla, which was only about a half mile away. There’s one quote that stuck out in my mind from Poppy – “There aren’t any Steelhead in the Red Shed – Get out there and start swinging.”
We found a pullout on the side of the highway and started feverishly putting our rods together and rifling through our fly boxes like kids trying to open a well-wrapped present on Christmas. Threw our waders on, and headed down to the river. I wasn’t quite running, but it was pretty damn close.
There it was – the perfect swing run. Enough chop to hold steelhead, and about 4 feet deep. All I had to do was get out there and bang out the perfect single spey, and I’d be hooked up in no time, right?
I took about four steps into the river, and nearly toppled over. Not the best way to start out a week of Steelheading. The Clearwater is the slipperiest river I have ever waded in. I’m in the water a couple hundred days a year, and I’m a pretty good wader, but this place is a different ballgame. Every rock is round, and they’re ridiculously slippery. I wouldn’t recommend going there without a wading staff, and some good boots, with an ever better set of cleats. About a half hour later, I returned from Poppy’s yet again, with a shiny new set of studs for my boots. We started the cast, swing, and step down routine, all while I was dusting off my somewhat rusty spey casting abilities. A couple hours into in, and a few runs later, I got my first solid thump, from what had to be a steelhead, right? It was a “holy shit” moment to say the least, and it was enough to get my attention riveted back to my rod. That was the last bump we got that day. I don’t know how the hell a 30-some inch fish can hit a size 6 fly without eating it, but let me tell you, they can.
We woke the next morning with a renewed confidence, and that this would be the day that we caught our first big steelhead, and lots of them. Coffee-induced excitement abounded, and we chose what we knew would be the perfect run – our combined steelheading expertise totaling about 8 hours between both of us. Hans started at the top of the run, and I got in about a hundred yards below him. Cast, step, swing. Cast, step, swing. It can become slightly monotonous if you don’t watch your mindset, but I was enjoying getting my spey casting skills back up to speed, and after a half hour or so, I was feeling pretty confident about my casting. I don’t know how long it was after we started fishing that run, but at some point, the size 6 Green Butt Skunk on the end of my rig felt a little wacky, and it snapped me out of the cast, step, swing rhythm. Having never caught a steelhead, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Big, Anadromous fish have to hit with a vengeance, right? I felt another little tap, followed in quick succession by three or four more. “Shit, it’s a whitefish or something”, was the thought that I muttered under my breath. My comment no more than got out of my mouth, and it was on. It was a pronounced hit, and it pulled the extra foot of line or so I had between my reel and hand out faster than I thought was physically possible. I leaned my 13′ 7 weight back, and it arched under the weight of my first steelhead hookup. “There we go!”, I screamed at Hans, over the roaring of the Clearwater. I fought the fish while trying to keep myself upright on the greased bowling ball bottom of the river, and after a short fight, Hans tailed my first steelhead. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something very loud, and it caught the attention of some people walking their dog on the nearby walking path. They probably thought we were insane, which is slightly true about steelheading in general. I grabbed the tail of my first steelhead – a crimson and green buck that was around 30″. The sheer bulk of these fish is amazing, they’re as muscular as a cagefighter. A few quick photos, slip the barbless fly out of his mouth, and back into the water he went, with all the power of when he was first hooked. We did it – first run of our first full day, and we already had a great fish landed. Maybe this isn’t as hard as they say it is, or so we thought.
We fished the rest of that day without another fish. And the next day. As well as the day after that. And the next. We fished three fishless days, with the exception of a small king salmon that Hans stuck further upriver. Three days with no real definitive thumps. The thumps are what keeps you going in steelhead fishing – the bumps, taps, and hits that tell you that you’re still doing something right. Without having any of these for days at a time, and you can start to think there may have been some sort of gillnetting tragedy further downriver. Hell, maybe the fish decided they were going to chill out in the ocean for another year. You can start to question every little thing about how you’re fishing, why you’re even doing this, and who the hell talked you into it, until you finally get that bump. it might not be the first day, the first week, or even the first year, but when it finally happens, it all makes sense, and you’re cursed for the rest of your life. That’s what they tell me anyway. I’m by no stretch of the imagination a Steelhead expert, but i can tell you that after catching one of these amazing fish, it will definitely be an annual venture for me from here on out. To me, steelhead fishing is trying to make something happen that has a high probability of not happening. These fish aren’t in the river to eat, they’re in the river to spawn. I think that’s the beauty of it all – you’re beating the odds every single time you catch a steelhead.
The morning of our last day we were contemplating just driving back. Veteran Steelheaders wouldn’t have been phased by a measly three days without a fish, but lowly trout fishermen such as ourselves were pretty grim about it. Hell, if we’d have had trout rods, we would have been heading for the Lochsa, or further east towards Montana and doing what we’re good at – catching trout. However, all we had was two-handers, and Hans suggested we fish one last run before we called it quits. I agreed, but not particularly enthusiastically.
We pulled into the “Airport Run” – A run that looked picture perfect, but had let us down the previous days. It was so perfect looking, and the fact that we’d not caught a Steelhead out of it was even that much more cruel. Hans decided to take the top of the run, so I went fifty yards or so below him, and started roll casting the Scandi head through the guides to get ready for my cast. I don’t think I even got the head completely rolled out before I heard a definitive, “YEAH!” from upstream. I turned around, and Hans was leaning into his spey rod against the weight of a fish. Second cast, last day. This is why Steelheaders are crazy – these things happen at the least probable times, when you least expect it, just after you’ve almost given up. After several reel-scorching runs, and about 150 yards downriver, I finally got hold of the tail of Hans’ Steelhead. (Note for next year – giant nets are muy bueno). Hans held up the fish, which we figured was high twenties to low thirties, I shot a few photos of it, and she shot off with a vengeance, even after the long fight. I guess is was worth fishing that run instead of going home, huh?
I hooked another fish shortly after this, and it came off with lightning speed, but hell, I didn’t care at that point. We happily fished a couple more runs with no bumps or hits, and called it a trip. We drove to Bozeman, stayed overnight, and made it back to the homeland the following day. Success! We’d each caught our first Steelhead, nobody had drowned – Hans had a slight run in with the slippery rocks and the water, however – and I still had some money left. Score.
My first experience fishing for Steelhead was a success in my eyes, and not only because of the fish. I’d gotten a taste of the highest and lowest of Steelheading – I’d improved my Spey casting exponentially, I knew the feeling of fishing hard all day and not getting anything remotely resembling a fish, I’d racked my brain searching for the “perfect” steelhead pattern, even though it more than likely doesn’t exist, and I’d actually caught a Steelhead. I was far more fortunate than many people who go on their first Steelhead quest, and come back with horror stories that they recollect for years.
If there’s one thing I got out of this whole experience, it’s that I’ll be back fishing Steelhead every year now. Everyone warned me of this. Dec Hogan wrote a whole book on it, entitled “A Passion For Steelhead”. I didn’t think this sort of addiction existed in fishing, and I wasn’t 100% convinced about it when people told me how it affected them. But, let me tell you, it exists, and it’s as addicting as anything else. Steelhead captivated me more than any fish ever has. Don’t get me wrong – I love fishing and guiding trout, and some of my most memorable days of fishing have been fishing for Carp, Bass, Pike, and a number of other species. But, there’s just something about Steelheading that grabs you and won’t let you go. Something about the cast, step swing routine, and knowing that it probably isn’t going to happen. The chance of a fish swimming 500 miles up a river, over multiple dams, and finding your size 6 fly out of the whole goddamn river is pretty slim. But, regardless of how slim the chances may be and how grim the outlook is, when you’re actually out there, every single cast is the one that’s going to catch that fish. Even during the worst run of the third fishless day, I still truly thought that on every swing, I was going to get that thump, and the reel was going to start singing to the tune of 36″ of steel on a mission back towards the ocean. And that’s what makes Steelheading and Steelheaders insane – you know it’s probably not going to happen, but you truly believe that it will. The definition of insanity – trying the same thing over and over, all while expecting a different outcome.That’s about the closest definition I can think of for fishing Steelhead on the swing. It’s not for everyone, but I can warn you – being insane is a pretty good feeling when you’re tight to a 30″ pissed-off Steelhead.