Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is it about steelhead?

What is it about steelhead?

A meandering musing on the rather enigmatic, esoteric, irrational, and all consuming sport we call fly fishing for steelhead.

Why do we fly fish for steelhead?
Is it just purely because they are there? Do we fish for the same reason a climber is drawn to a mountain?
What are the inherent aspects of steelhead fly fishing that seem to captivate so many of us?

The fish:
A good point of departure is the steelhead itself. Chrome bright or colored with whispers of fuchsia, the steelhead is built like an athlete, and contoured with a water dynamic shape. It migrates hundreds of miles in its life dance, and is as unpredictable as the wind. Along with the Atlantic salmon, the steelhead is the ultimate fresh water game fish, and when hooked on a fly, gives all of itself in an unselfish joy ride of fear and power. Our joy is in the pursuit of these fish, not in their consumption. Feeling a soul connection as the fish burns off backing faster than a forest fire leaping up a slope keeps us in awe.

The rivers:
Steelhead would be nothing but inanimate objects without rivers. Rivers are timeless. They whisper and roar. They have personalities as wide ranging as we do. They have structure. They move. They are beautiful. To feel the raw power of a river as it sucks and pushes at your legs is like feeling the life force of a steelhead. After all, the steelhead is part of the river, and without the steelhead, the river is diminished.

Valleys filled with pines, mists on the river, basalt canyons: they all call to us, each with their unique smells, colors, and even tastes. If the steelhead is our spiritual worship, the river is our temple.

Scarcity, difficulty, etc.:
Steelhead are hard to come by, especially today as runs of wild fish are depleted, and entire river systems are vacant of chrome beauty. The simple scarcity of the fish, and the fact that we most often cannot see them, leads to our swinging flies with hope and yes, even faith. We have to believe the fish are in the river, even if for days on end it seems that we are just going through the futile rhythms of cast and swing. Fly fishing for steelhead is not a game of numbers. If it was, it would lose all interest for many of us. Instead, it is a game of patience. With every hour on the water and every run fished without a grab, we celebrate a sort of self denial, even a type of masochism which makes the eventual grab of a fish that much sweeter. This leads non-believers to condemn us as ‘nuts.’ “A whole two week trip, and you only landed three fish?” Yes…. What a fantastic trip it was!

There is a Zen quality to all this self-denial. We build up a sort of fish karma as we concentrate on the swing, confident that at any second, a fish will grab… right about NOW. Then, since nothing happened, we step and cast and swing again, even more confidant that this time it really will happen. The anticipation and frustration builds and builds until some anglers end up back at camp skulking around with long faces. Like the phoenix, they are ready the next day with renewed confidence and smile.

Steelhead fly fishing should be difficult. This is what makes it the zenith of our sport. The thrill of the chase by nature is by far the most fun. The appreciation gained through time and dues paid is a truer appreciation. No short cuts here. A single fly, a fly rod and line, and you. Our weapons should show restraint and respect.

Bill McMillan wrote in his introduction to Dec Hogan’s book A passion for Steelhead: “…Furthermore, fly fishing (for steelhead) is supposed to be an anachronism – a tradition of antiquated tackle choices to otherwise test mental ingenuity.” He goes on to point out that the difficulty is inherent, and that modern efforts to make it much easier and ‘dumb it down’ are an anathema. “The sport would not have the same fascination if it came easily…” he wrote.

The finest book on steelhead fishing ever written was not even about steelhead, nor was it about fly fishing. It was Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Think about it: Self-denial, exhausting delirium, the grab, the joy of success, the heartbreak, and the whole existential quality of the life struggle.

Perhaps the most powerful reason we fly fish for steelhead is freedom. In our fishing, we are free for but a moment in time, the rest of our lives are fettered to money, chattel, fears, and dreams deferred. For that one brief slice of time when we are connected to a wild running steelhead, we can feel what it must be like to be truly free. Free as a steelhead. We may escape to freedom, but it is the fish that is really free, and we can take a bit of this back with us into our world when after the fight, we release them again to go on their life’s journey, as we go on ours.


  1. Very nice Erik!

    To me a steelhead on a fly is the fish of my dreams. You never know when that one trip, that one cast, is going to reward you. Whe you are rewarded it's a fish you will never forget.
    In the northwest our steelhead have been denigrated to a shell of their former self but I think, at least for me, that makes them even more desirable. That elusive dreams of a steelhead on a fly....what a rush.

  2. Our equivalent of Steelhead is the Sewin, or Sea-Trout, which is a brown trout that migrates to sea.

    Sea-trout fishing is mainly done at night and the darker the night the better. Therefore there is an alien landscape aspect to the pursuit of sea trout, at a time when most hunting animals are out and sometimes converge.

  3. I like that analogy of an alien landscape at night. We too have large browns in the great lakes. Fresh water though, and we don't cherish them enough. Not a lot of places where a person can catch a ten pound brown on a fly. I fished a dry line and small fly this year for the first time at a warm water discharge area. fun stuff on a six weight. Only a 19" fish, but on a click and pawl reel it was sure fun!


Comments by interested readers are welcome. Back links to non-topical (spam) websites will be treated as spam and deleted.