Caught off Guard

I’ve been steelheading for a long time. I’ve witnessed and experienced a lot over those years. At times I become complacent with it all. Completely satisfied with myself and my accomplishments on the water. It sounds a little smug, I know, but don’t take it the wrong way. I know to never take anything for granted (and I do my best not to), but there are times when I get into a groove so to speak where I feel there is nothing that can catch me off guard. Recently I was in one of those grooves, until something did in fact catch me off guard.

It’s early in the fall season. Steelhead are moving in but not in any significant numbers. It’s the time of year when a fish here and there is more than enough to satisfy.
It’s also late in the salmon run. The major push of fish is well behind us but there are some stragglers around, and more than a few half-zombified fish looking for a place to die. A mixed bag on days like this isn’t unheard of.

And there I was, admiring the newly turned trees; the peacefulness of fall; the summer time heat. Wait, what? The summer time heat? Yes, not everything was screaming steelhead. In fact the heat wave (which was now well into its second week) had delayed any serious push of fish. But it didn’t matter, like I said, it was early and I wasn’t expecting much.

I had landed a hand full of fish in my previous trips to this particular stretch of river over the last couple of weeks so I knew there were fish to be had but in reality I was more likely to hook a tired old salmon than anything else. Still, being there was better than not.

So I soaked it in. I ran my drifts and I simply soaked things in, watching my float and not watching it all at the same time. I watched as people fished, without success, around me. Normally it’s a situation where I move around, fishing fast until I find something. But I was in no hurry, not this time.

It seemed as if every time I considered shifting downstream someone would beat me to the punch and slide in below me. It’s normally a gesture that would eventually start aggravating me, but not today. I watched countless people not catch fish right below me, why would the next ones be any different.

A scenario that could have discouraged me from fishing anything downstream of my position, watching angler after angler strike out didn’t affect my mentality at all. If I hooked up great, if not there would always be another day.

When a couple of guys vacated their position just downstream from mine after only a few drifts, I decided to make my move. It didn’t pay off, at least not right away. I ran drift after drift. Over and over I covered water that had already been covered by a dozen or so others. The float never stopped or dropped. It didn’t twitch or sway be it from fish or bottom. The drifts were completely dead.

Until one wasn’t. I immediately knew it was a fish and set the hook hard. Feeling the hook drive home and the ensuing handshakes was as exhilarating as it always is, but the first tail splash and subsequent dodging towards bottom had me thinking Chinook all the way. Not a bad thing, but not what I was there for. With that in mind, I played the fish a little more carelessly than I would have had it been a steelhead. If I landed it great, if not I was ok with that.

The fish swam directly at me and I briefly struggled to reel as fast as it was swimming. It continued past, and up into the pool I had been fishing earlier. It wasn’t stopping. Win or lose, I had to get it turned around so I clamped down on the reel and lowered the rod to my right. It was time to put the boots to this fish and finish this. There were protests in the form of head shakes and tail splashes, but I didn’t give an inch. If this big old salmon wanted to pop the hook or break me off then so be it. I had nothing to lose and didn’t feel like having this fish kick my ass.

I put some serious pressure on it, more than I should have gotten away with, moving my rod from left to right in an attempt to turn it around. Head shakes were intense, and my arm was starting to ache because of them. I stood my ground and eventually it started to pay off. The fish began to surrender.

As it came to the surface yet again, in a last ditch effort to win this battle, I realized just how wrong I was. All this time I had been putting the pressure on what I had assumed was a Chinook, content with either winning or losing this one. Complacent, having landed more than a few early in the fall. But the chrome silver side and crimson cheek of the steelhead that was now showing itself made me freeze both in fear and awe.
It was a big fish, I knew that from the start, but this monster hen was like nothing I had ever seen before, certainly not on this river, and without a doubt the biggest steelhead I’d ever hooked on a centerpin.

In a brief moment of panic I forgot everything I knew about landing fish. The mental image of my net leaning up against the wall in the garage didn’t help the situation. What had I been thinking. So content; so complacent; it could have cost me the fish of a life time.

My heart racing and my head spinning, I needed to come up with something quick. My rational side kicked back in. I had been struggling with ways to get this fish to hand when in reality it didn’t matter whether I did or I didn’t. It wasn’t going to change anything. Do I put the fish at more risk just so I can hold it for a few seconds and let it go? The answer was no. Instead of letting irrational me make a bad decision, I simply reached down, grabbed the leader, gave it a tug and popped the hook. I watched as the fish turned slowly and headed back to the depths I pulled her from. I watched one of the biggest steelhead I’d ever saw swim away, almost nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened.

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