There is plenty of debate over what constitutes being a steelheader. Some say it’s about dedication. The hardcore; the ones who eat sleep and breathe the fish; the ones who can drop everything at a moment’s notice; the ones who do whatever they can to get into fish. Dedication is an honorable trait but does not necessarily classify one as a steelheader.
Steelheaders are a close knit group. The club is not exclusive and by no means should it be intimidating but anyone looking to gain access needs to understand that there is one single thing that will make or break their chances of becoming a member: respect.
As rivers see more and more pressure, anglers from all walks of life can be found riverside and it’s all too common now to run into those people who have that ‘own the world’ kind of attitude. We’ve all seen them, the type of people who have zero concern for anyone or anything around them. It’s an unfortunate attitude that gives steelheaders a bad name and intimidates those just starting out. It’s a disrespectful, selfish attitude that will quickly get you shunned by the true steelheaders.
It starts before you even wet a line. There’s a pretty good chance these days that when you walk up on a fishable run someone has already beat you too it. The worst thing you can do, and I see it all too often, is to jump in and start fishing. Invading a steelheaders personal space is a sure fire way to piss them off. The solution is simple really: ask first. I have never turned down someone who has enough respect to ask if they can fish the run with me and on the other end, I’ve never been turned down when I ask. Once fishing a run with someone be mindful of their drifts. They were there first, so the unspoken rule is they have the right of way even if it means you have to stand back and watch for a while. When the time comes that someone hooks a fish, back up and give them the space they deserve to fight it. Offer your assistance if you want, although many steelheaders will politely decline, wanting to take care of it on their own, having no one to blame but themselves if something goes wrong.
It’s not just about respecting other anglers. Wild spaces grow smaller each year and it’s our duty as steelheaders to help preserve them. Respecting the environment around you should be a no brainer, yet so many of these wild spaces are littered with trash. Tackle wrappers, coffee cups, beer cans, discarded line; remnants of what could have been a high school bush party. It’s disgusting and disgraceful and is possibly the number one reason why private land owners are closing off their properties to anglers. Unfortunately it’s a case of the good being grouped with the bad. It’s frustrating because it’s so simple: if you carry it in with you, you can carry it back out.
Steelheaders value the fishery that they have. They’re fishermen yes, but they’re also environmentalists and conservationists. In the off season they invest their time and money in protecting that fishery and the fish in it. Respect the fish. Learn how to properly handle them after landing them. Steelheaders hate watching fish being dragged onto shore, or dropped to flop around on the ground, or held up by the gills for a photo op before being released. It’s one thing if you’re keeping the fish (a sensitive issue amongst steelheaders, but a topic best left for another post) but if you plan on letting it go, learn how to handle them the best possible way to ensure their survival.
The term steelheader can be relative. It means something different to everyone. To be a steelheader however isn’t about gear and how much you spend on it; it isn’t about time spent on the water and it isn’t about the obsession that seems to engulf everyone that is lucky enough to hook into one. It’s about respect. Respect for the people, the environment, the fish. Respect for the culture that is steelheading.