My First Steelhead
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My First Steelhead

“Steelhead” is a word of almost mystic significance to fly fishermen. These special fish have held sway over the majority of my life, excluding my years chasing a diploma far away from my home waters. Now, even after all the time that has passed and forgotten fish that have been landed, I still remember the first steelhead I ever caught on a fly. It doesn’t seem like it is over 35 years ago.

Many fishermen don’t remember the lean years. In the 70’s and early 80’s the inland runs of steelhead in Oregon, Washington and Idaho almost disappeared. So threatened were these fish that there was no steelhead season for several years on the Snake River tributaries. Included in this was the Grande Ronde River, the river that will forever be my home water even though I now live hours away.

Fly fishing wasn’t a family tradition. I gravitated to it at an early age because of an overwhelming hatred of earthworms. To this day I am still not a fan of the earthworm. A boy wading a steelhead riffle on the Grande Ronde RiverThis, my first public confession of how I became a fly fisherman, has been a long time coming. Now society is more accepting of foibles and I feel safe enough to let my secret be known. However; I digress and this has nothing to do with the most unlucky hatchery steelhead in the world.

On September 7, 1982 (I still remember the date, this is the truth) my father had gotten off work early. He met me at the bottom of the hill that my high school sat atop. For some reason there was no football practice, the reason I don’t remember. Anyway; Dad decided that it was time to try to hook a fish. The creel census was good for the time. One fish hooked for every 13 hours fished! If these numbers were the norm today I would probably be a better golfer.

My father tolerated my “fly fishing thing” as he called it. As I climbed into the truck he told me he had grabbed my fly gear and an extra spinning rod. “If you actually want to catch one;” he finished with a jabbing smile. I am sure I told him to knock it off with a smile and away we went.

I am about to give away the biggest non-secret in the world. The steelhead hole at the confluence of the Wenaha and Grande Ronde Rivers under the old bridge is pretty good. It has always produced fish from above the bridge to beyond the little greenhouse that serves as the water gauge below. Even in the low fish years, it seemed to always have a lonely, forlorn steelhead resting on its cobble bottom somewhere. On this day there had to have been more than one.

Today, my personal theory is that there has to be a minimum of 2 1/2 fish in a run to get a grab on my river. On days I catch a fish I round up to three. On this day there must have been quite a few more than three. There was a special feeling, almost magical as we drove past the little Troy school. Dad then veered right abruptly through a gap in the barbed wire fence that led onto the gravel bar across from town(I use the term “town” loosely here). Even in those days, it was unusual to get this spot but there was no one there other than a cow with a calf that was missing more than half his right ear. Someone must have gotten a little zealous during branding that spring or there might have been a little whiskey involved. I don’t know, but I remember taking this sad looking calf as a good omen.

Dropping the tailgate, Dad and I sat down. He tied a swivel on and I threaded my rod. My rod was a hand me down of sorts. Dad had gotten it as a gift from a friend who didn’t realize that he had no interest if fly fishing for anything other than the occasional trout. In the end, Dad gave it to me to shut me up after nearly a year of continuous pestering. To this day he reminds me of what a pain in the ass I was about the whole thing, proof that you will always be a kid to your father no matter your age.

It was a gorgeous stick. I am not sure what blank it was built on but it might have been a G. Loomis. The beauty disappeared during one of my many moves during my college years. A deep, rich brown rod with red and gold wraps that held the guides on the 9’ 7 weight. These accents gave it a regal appearance making me feel invincible like Arthur with Excalibur. The reel was a Pfluger Medalist that I do still have and fish occasionally when I have a melancholy urge to ditch my trusty Galvan. By the time I had gently threaded my guides, Dad was already thigh deep getting ready to make his first cast. I started tying on a size 6 Greenbutt Skunk on my Maxima as the “plop” of Dad’s Steelie spoon plopping into the water echoed back across the river.

My knot wasn’t even twisted twice when my father’s reel started screaming. First cast and he had a fish. He said nothing and I ignored him as best I could, the chrome bright fish jumping into the Indian Summer hues to constantly remind me that he was there. Silently I finished my knot as I waited for the fish to tire. When he was finally done, the sun glared off of the steelhead’s mirror-like scales as he wearily flopped in the shallow water. I walked over and said; “Pretty small.” Dad grinned as he knelt down to release the little wild buck. Stumbling on the round river rock as I spun around, I gathered myself and stomped upstream somewhat jealous as I walked under the old green bridge.

Cottonwood leaves were falling gently onto the gravel bar as I made my way up to the head of the run. As I waded into the water I glanced downstream. Noticing how the old Troy bridge framed the scene of my father as he worked the lower end of the run in fall light like an old postcard, I paused and smiled. At that time was oblivious to my visceral smile. Thirty years later, over a glass of whiskey with my father, I would remember the scene. The memory of that moment and the once forgotten smile was now a vivid bond between an aging father and his matured son.

Splashing into the cold water, I slipped on the golden leaves that littered the cobble bottom almost falling in. I wet waded in September for many years until my perception of toughness was overcome by common sense. Breathable waders were as futuristic as a cell phone at that time and my old neoprenes were too hot for that Indian Summer afternoon. This day was no different than any other day of fishing in September. I had a slight shiver as I began to strip the line off of my Pflueger.

On my first cast, I hung my fly up on the piece of woven wire that I had snagged at least twenty times (it is still there and I still manage to wrap my fly around it once a year). Dropping my tip, I pulled my line tight hard with my left hand. My fly line made an eerie “whooshing” sound as my fly suddenly became free of the ball of wire. The Skunk was traveling just under light speed as it flew straight towards my face. Instinct took over, I ducked and turned my head raising my rod to block the black and green projectile. In a millisecond, or so it seemed, I had fly line, leader and fly wrapped in a tangled wad around the first guide of my rod. All I noticed was the sound of the water being drowned out by the laughter of my father who was 100 yards downstream.

I pretended to ignore him. He knew it and went back to casting his spoon. The tangled line took me awhile to deal with, even after I succumbed and cut my fly off of my leader. Ten minutes later as I was getting ready to make my second cast I noticed that Dad was at the truck validating his steelhead tag on the hood. The fish was already in the cooler and I hadn’t even noticed.

Three casts, three mends and then three steps down was ticking like a metronome in my psyche as my mind wandered to kid things. Daydreams of football and pheasants fought for the starring role in the teen fantasies that distracted me as I worked the run. A loud splash in front of my Father splintered me from my visions. I remember secretly hoping a kid had thrown a rock into the river, but it wasn’t to be. Fish number 3 had etched a grin on Dad’s face.

This was my second season of trying to catch a steelhead on my fly rod. I hadn’t even had a grab yet. I now know there is nothing harder on fly fisherman’s emotional health than trying to catch his or her first steelhead on the swing. Depression overcame me as I watched the steelhead jump what seemed like 40 times in front of Dad. A voice in my head screamed in an unwarranted jealous rage; “What do I have to do!!!”

My inner tantrum had blurred my vision and made my knees weak. I can still feel the physical manifestations of my need for my first fish. The only things I had “caught” in two years were the damned wire in front of me, a 16” bulltrout and three suckers. “This sucks;” I said out loud as I started to strip in my line for what might have been one of my last fly fishing casts ever.

A pickup crossed the bridge below me. The two healers that were in the bed immediately started mocking me with a chorus of loud yips. Now even dogs were making fun of the freezing kid who couldn’t catch a fish. I thought; “What a miserable friggin’ sport.”

I was retrieving my line through the frog water below me after finishing the previous swing. Feeling sorry for myself, I slowly stripped my line in. Mid-strip my line stopped like it was hung up again. Lifting my rod tip to free my line, I noticed that the line was making a wake towards the middle of the river. Slowly, the line gained speed, there was a weight that I hadn’t felt before bending my rod. Thinking that it must be a big butterbelly, I reeled up the line that I had stripped in trying to get the sucker on my reel. If melancholy was fog, you wouldn’t have been able to see me from two feet away at that moment.

The line stayed tight as I waded ploddingly to shore, not even looking back as I drug the fish through the water. Dad looked upstream towards me and yelled; “Fish?”

“Sucker;” I replied. The words were still echoing up the Wenaha when things changed.

My rod suddenly bent into my shoulder, spinning me around like a top. As soon as got turned around line started tearing off my reel exposing something that I had never seen before-BACKING! Dad sensing a good goat rope starting to happen had reeled up and started heading my way. Disbelief was still rife throughout my body. There was nothing I could do but hold onto the cork grip and stand there. “Stay there;” I yelled as the fish abruptly turned back my way. I started reeling the backing in somewhat easily. “It is just a big, foul hooked sucker.”

The depth of the water was knee deep where I was standing. Dad had ignored my pleas to stay away and was standing behind me giving me a hard time. Most of the fly line was sadly back on my reel. There might have been 15 feet of line to go before I was to my leader. All that was left for me to do was to turn the fish out of the current and into the slack water. I lifted my rod tip up and tilted it downstream a bit trying to pull the fish out of the current.

Launching would be understating what the steelhead did when she hit the eddy line! The hen steelhead flew out of the water like a missile launched from a submarine. We cussed simultaneously as the fish hit the water, the splash getting a few drops on both of us. My interest in the “sucker” was definitely regained as the tussle was on.

Telling you about the fight would bore you. The fish made a couple of more runs, then tried to wrap me around the bundle of wire in the river. After the realization that my sucker was a steelhead the issue really was never in doubt. However; my inner angst materialized every way I could have screwed up landing the fish in my mind. Then it was over. At my feet was an average Grande Ronde steelhead. Huge to me, all 25 inches of the little wild hen. I had finally done it.

There is no picture of that fish, other than the one in my mind. We never took pictures of fish in those pre-digital days. I can still see it vividly though. Often the vision of that one little steelhead resting in the shallows as I take my Skunk out of its mouth is replayed in my mind as I drift off at night.

Driving home that evening in the dimming dusk, I excitedly retold the whole story to Dad. Nothing was left out, not even the part about stripping my fly through water where no self-respecting steehead would lie. The water where it was hooked. The faint light from the radio dial made my Dad’s smile glow when he said; “Son I am glad you found a dumb one.”

 

 

Follow Sean Johnson:

Sean was raised in Northeastern Oregon in the Wallowa Valley. It was there that he learned to hunt and fly fish. After receiving his history degree from the University of Oregon, Sean guided fly fishermen from Alaska to Chile. There were a few interludes where he sailed as a crew member on a ship and even worked in the craft brewing industry. Eventually he found his love in writing about the outdoors. His articles and fiction stories have a unique style and voice that conveys his love for the natural world. Currently he is the main writer for Always A Good Day, freelances and is working on a book of fiction.