I set out on this trip with a pretty lofty goal, to catch a steelhead trout by fly rod in Washington, Oregon and California, all while pedaling down the cost. While finishing the ride was also part of that goal, it was always secondary to the fish. I guess that is indicative to life in general. My riding buddies are constantly giving me grief when I go fishing rather than hitting the trails.
Washington provided ample opportunities on the Peninsula, but it wasn’t to be. Eight days on the five rivers without even a tug (except for one beauty of a bull trout). Oregon was even less productive as the rains picked back up and blew out nearly every river I pedaled past. I spent four days on three rivers, finding a couple nice sea run cutthroat trout, but no steelhead. By the time I arrived in northern California, I had almost given up hope. Just about everything I wanted to fish was brown and high, unfishable.
Continuing south, there were only a handful of steelhead rivers in front of me. I consulted a friend, and he confirmed that conditions were “perfect!” on a river that I would soon pedal past. I called the local bait shop, and a gravelly voiced woman proclaimed the river was “as good as gold!” Things were starting to look up.
There was not a soul to be seen despite the fact it was of the best looking fly fishing runs of the trip. I set up camp on the banks of the river, wadered up and fished all afternoon, meticulously covering the water two steps at a time. Despite high hopes, and a feeling that this was my best chance, nothing happened.
I decided to give the same run a second chance, but started higher up this time. Studying this new water, I was sure it was going to happen here or not at all. I made four or five casts, pulling out more line after each cast. On the sixth cast, as the line was tightly swinging across the current, I felt the sharp tug...tug.tug of a fish. Having fished so long without even a bite, it would have been easy to react with too much enthusiasm and set the hook prematurely, pulling the fly out of the fish’s mouth. Surprising myself with the calm of a seasoned steelheader, I let the fish pull a foot of line out of my hand, until the fly was solidly seated in the side of the fish’s mouth. Only then did I set the hook, and realize I had the first steelhead of the trip on my line. Within a few minutes, I was holding the hardest earned, most rewarding fish of my life. It wasn’t the biggest I’ve caught, nor did it put up a particularly memorable fight. It was a native female steelhead, chrome bright, not even a mile from the ocean. It showed the scars of a challenging life, but was beating the odds. Only 5% of her sisters and brothers will likely survive from egg to mature adult and return to their natal stream.
With her tail in my hand, I gently removed the barbless hook and cradled her body under the water. After snapping a photo, she kicked her tail strongly and continued on the journey upstream where the next generation of steelhead will be born.
When you prepare for something for so long, it’s hard to know how you’ll feel when the thing actually happens. In this case it was as good as I’ve dreamed. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I simply sat down on the gravel bar, smiled and basked in the sun and the feeling of success. I had all but given up hope on finding steelhead.