When I was a kid my time spent chasing migratory trout was limited, not due to any lack of want, but more a lack of knowledge. Not knowing the when, where and how kept me off the water during crucial times of the year. That doesn’t mean that limited time wasn’t great; some of my fondest memories are of those standing riverside trying to coax big steelhead from the small pools they temporarily called home.
Naturally as my knowledge grew so to did I. But even as I did I was too stubborn to realize I was going about things the wrong way. It was about catching fish and when things didn’t go as planned it was maddening. For many, many years I had completely missed the point. Steelheading isn’t a numbers game and focusing on it as if it were was driving me to the brink.
A good friend of mine Sean (whom, I should add, is one of the best steelheaders I know) lives in an area with some of the Great Lakes most pristine, wild, all around beautiful steelhead streams so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I rarely turn down an invitation to fish those streams with him, despite the fact that they’re over six hundred kilometers away. When he called me to fish some of the rivers in the northern most part of his area of course I had to go. A lot of these rivers I had yet to fish. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
After multiple text messages and late evening phone calls, it became clear that this may not be as easy to orchestrate as we thought. As it turned out, our schedules only aligned for a three day block at the beginning of October. Maybe not the best timing for a trip like this but we really had no choice. Make due or go without, and I certainly wasn’t going without. So, even though there would be more travel time than fishing time, we decided the trip was a go.
2am on a Friday morning in early October and it was obvious the steelhead gods were not looking down on us. It poured rain as I loaded the gear in the car from the comfort of the dry garage. It didn’t matter. We were already committed to this. Nothing was going to change it now. All I could hope for was that the weather was different six hundred kilometers away.
It wasn’t. The rain was relentless. It made for a slow drive, and from what Sean told me when I called him a couple of hours out, it was making the rivers swell. Disheartening, yes, but not deterring.
I rolled into his driveway around 10am. His gear was at the door, ready to go. He met me before I barely had one foot out of the car. We shook hands and three words were spoken ‘Let’s go fishing’. And we did. We had plenty of time on the river to catch up.
It didn’t look good, he explained as we drove to our first river of the trip. It had been raining constantly for a couple of days. Our only saving grace may be the rivers to the north, the ones we were fishing the next day. It looked as if those may have escaped the brunt of the system. For now we’d just have to fight the pouring rain and dirty water.
Apparently dirty water is a relative thing. What he saw as a tough situation, I saw as near ideal conditions. As we stood on the rocks well above the river it was clear we both saw a much different situation. His disappointment was only enhanced, while mine faded, replaced with excitement.
We positioned ourselves on a long run at the base of a large waterfall that impeded the fish in their journey upstream. I fished the head in hopes of tempting the fish sitting at the base of the falls, while he fished the tailout hoping to cut off some newcomers. It seemed simple enough. We fished it and we fished it hard, moving up and down the run, leap-frogging each other to change position. We walked a decent stretch of the river, fishing every fishy piece of water we came across. We spent the day focused on pulling some fish out of this one river. The end result was a single chrome hen that would have been lucky to weight five pounds. As it would turn out, that fish was the only steelhead of the trip.
At some point through the night the rain stopped. In its place came a significant drop in temperature and some strong winds. Not much better of a situation. Add to the fact that we had no idea what kind of shape the rivers to the north would be in and once again the day looked bleak.
My head throbbed from the combination of whiskey and lack of decent sleep. Still well over an hour before the first bit of sun began to brighten the day, I nursed a luke warm cup of coffee as we drove. Sean was optimistic but I couldn’t tell if he was trying to convince me or himself.
Still dark when we pulled off the road, Sean told me to make a little noise as we walked down the trail ‘just in case ’. He didn’t need to explain the just in case.
I felt a little better as I got my first glimpse of the small river. Something about it brightened my mood. In a little over an hour we managed to bank a few chunky Coho, but no steelhead. So we carried on.
Each river we stopped at became increasingly more beautiful but all yielded the same results; a Coho or two, but no steelhead. We hit what was to be our last stop not long after a mediocre burger at a joint just off the highway. This river was much different than the others we fished. Much wider, with much more flow, it was apparent in the open space just how windy it was. At this point however, it didn’t matter. Listening to the rush of the water; watching the eagles soar high above stalking the salmon down below, occasionally swooping in in an attempt to secure their next meal; fall colors as far as the eye could see. Suddenly catching fish was no longer relevant.
With each passing river my mind cleared a little. What started as a trip to catch steelhead, ended in a fulfilment I never would have thought possible. A trip to catch steelhead, without actually catching any, turned out to be one of the best trips I have taken. Happiness was not in the result but rather in the pursuit.