Ghosts of Steelhead Past

It’s a short list of fish that haunt my dreams, but it’s a list none the less. As fishermen we all have tales of the one that got away, but this is different. These are fish that when I close my eyes I envision. I awake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, re-living the moment over and over. Some plague me for a few days, until my mind replaces that memory with one of the fish that didn’t get away. Others however have been, and will continue to haunt me for life. It’s a list that continues to grow.

Its mid-March. With fall run steelhead spawning and beginning their long haul back to the lake, and fresh spring run fish moving in daily, the river is offering up a mixed bag of chromers and dropbacks. Early spring rains had the water running high and dirty for some time, making fishing tough to say the least. Finally, now the snow melt has slowed, and the river is shaping up nicely; a shade of green that steelheaders dream of.

In all honesty, I expected a good day on the water. Weather, water, run timing, everything was perfect; anything less than an amazing day would have been a disappointment. A slow start to the day had me second guessing my self-confidence. After a couple of hours with no fish, I began switch up my offerings. It’s not an action that’s out of the ordinary, but this time it was spawned from panic, and was much more frenzied than normal. Could this really be happening? How was it possible that I hadn’t hooked a fish yet?

As I contemplated my next move, I kicked a rock and watched it tumble down the bank and slip into the water with hardly a splash. When my attention centered back to the float drifting its way down stream, I couldn’t find it. Although it now seems like an eternity, I’m sure it only took a second or two for my mind to register the fact that my float was down and in turn send the signal to my arm to lift the rod and set the hook.

What was on the other end came as a shock as my long rod bent right down to the cork, and the fierce head shakes of the giant chrome buck nearly tore it from my hand. The four or five initial head shakes were unbelievably powerful, and each one sent small twinges of pain through my arm as the muscles tensed, trying in vain to fight back. The fish tried to jump, but didn’t quite make it. Steelhead are known for their acrobatics, but this fish was just too big (at least that’s what I tell everyone anyway), and its fat head was all I got a glimpse of. It was of course at that very moment that my line went slack, and the float came screaming back at me. Slack jawed, staring at the water in disbelief, I picked up the slack, assuming that my leader had broke. But it wasn’t the 6lb test leader that had failed; it was the hook, broken cleanly in half.

I clipped the hook from the line and placed in my hook box, a compartment all to itself. The broken hook was now to serve as a souvenir; a memento of what could have been the biggest steelhead I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing battle with. As if to add insult to injury, as I tied on a new hook, the fish surfaced, close enough that I could see the mesh that was previously my roe bag still hanging from the half hook that remained lodged in his lower jaw.

This fish spends way too much time in my thoughts. I don’t dwell over the size it, rather the way it taunted me by surfacing; the fish version of a six-year-old sticking out their tongue and running away. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve lost sleep over that very image. It’s an image that haunts me like a ghost.

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