Annually — proper in the course of the shortest days and longest nights of winter — I begin casting flies for winter steelhead.
I am going a couple of times every week — if the river is just not a blown-out, coffee-colored mess — and I dream of hooking a smooth sea-run rainbow trout that gleams and glows within the dim mild like a sword from an epic film — or not less than “Recreation of Thrones.”
My goals hardly ever come true.
In comparison with say, Michigan, Montana or Minnesota, Oregon’s winters are fairly smooth and balmy. We do get snow within the Columbia River Gorge, however rain is the standard climate.
Nonetheless, few locations on this planet are as chilly as a Northwest winter steelhead river.
If the river’s in form, which suggests it’s clear or the colour of inexperienced tea, a lot of the water is coming from springs or melted snow. Yeah, it’s chilly, and also you’re standing in it for hours.
Your toes will go numb — until you put on thinner socks, which permit higher air circulation in your waders. They’ll nonetheless be chilly.
You’ll nearly definitely really feel chilly rain seeping by way of layers of wool and artificial fleece — even should you’re carrying a top-notch wading jacket that set you again just a few hundred bucks. Veteran winter steelheaders spend nearly as a lot on their garments as they do on their rods, reels and features. You’re going to be chilly and depressing it doesn’t matter what, however you’ll be so much much less depressing with good gear in your again.
The woods are soggy and mossy, and it’s nearly inconceivable to make a warming hearth. Moreover, you’re presupposed to be within the water and casting.
A thermos stuffed with any scorching liquid is your cherished buddy.
From what I hear, winter steelheading isn’t too robust — should you had been fishing 50 years in the past. Today, winter steelhead runs are struggling on many Northwest rivers. It’s so much simpler to discover a biting fish if there are many steelhead jockeying for spots within the river.
Good luck with that lately.
Now, dam removing and a few critical conservation work are making issues higher in some locations — the restoration of the Hoh River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula holds nice promise, however that river continues to be off limits and rightly so.
I do most of my winter steelheading on Oregon’s Hood River, which could be very near my house — and appears to have growing runs of metal, due to the removing of the Powerdale Dam just a few years in the past.
I additionally fish this stretch as a result of I do know the water — and know the worth of steadily pounding the water with a barrage of forged, mend, swing, forged, mend swing.
Nonetheless, it’s by no means, ever simple.
I principally stick to 1 good part of a superb river as a result of it’s arduous to hook a steelhead whenever you’re driving three hours to a distinct river — after which discover it blown out or seething with different anglers. It’s arduous to consider, however many Northwest anglers are hooked on the ache and frustration of winter steelheading. It will get crowded on weekends.
I firmly consider to find a superb stretch of water and pounding it arduous.
Then once more, I catch fewer winter steelhead than the crazies who drive all over, spin tires on black ice and fish for days on finish. Fly fishing for winter steelhead calls for maniac dedication — together with quite a lot of sink ideas and large, gaudy flies that quiver and shimmer within the chilly currents.
I’m a slacker, so I hope to hook a fish about as soon as each 5 journeys. My longest dry spell was a soggy, frigid, fishless slog by way of 10 weeks. Throughout that winter, I landed a small winter steelhead the week after Thanksgiving, and I used to be skunked till the second week of February.
Reality is, I spent numerous time fishing Puget Sound for sea-run cutthroat that winter. I simply wanted to see, really feel and contact an precise fish. Nonetheless, I fished winter steelhead not less than twice every week.
When the drought lastly broke, I stumbled round in a daze whereas the steelhead rocketed upstream and catapulted out of the water not less than 3 times. All of it felt like a dream. Later, that night time, I awoke sweating — and questioning if all of it actually occurred.
Most of my winter steelhead outings are three hours or much less — I’m not robust sufficient — mentally or bodily — to hammer away day after day whereas partially submerged in 45-degree water.
The times are fairly quick. On December 15, 2019, dawn was 7:47 a.m.and sundown was 4:29 p.m., however that isn’t actually correct. An enormous, moist chilly entrance hovered over the Columbia River Gorge that day, and it didn’t actually get mild till 8:30 a.m. or so, and it was fairly darkish by 3:30 p.m.
Perhaps it’s good that the times are so quick.
So, why achieve this many people embrace the chilly, frustration and ache of winter steelheading?
Effectively, the fish.
Many winter steelhead are available from the Pacific Ocean in a short time. They’re pure chrome with greenish-blue backs and midnight-black spots. Their fins are clear and tipped with white. Their backs are broad and powerful. They seem like they had been solid in a blast furnace after which polished beneath a glacier. A small one is about 5 kilos. Massive ones can attain 20 kilos — or extra.
When hooked, even the little ones overwhelm your sort out — every head shake and leap seems like one step from catastrophe.
Most of all, the hookup — after so many fishless casts — makes your head explode with adrenaline. One second, your fly is slowly, dreamily swinging within the present. Then the road comes tight and the fish erupts into your world.
As a result of the times are quick, you attempt to be on the water when the solar rises, as this transfer would possibly — simply would possibly — make your fly the primary fly a steelhead sees after the lengthy winter night time.
That’s what occurred to me just a few days in the past.
I used to be on my technique to work in Portland, however I ended at my Hood River spot for a hour-long session earlier than slogging down I-84 to the work week.
I didn’t anticipate to hook — and even see — a steelhead. I simply needed to drink within the river earlier than submerging myself within the metropolis for 4 days.
Mindlessly casting and swinging down a steelhead run is an effective technique to peel stress out of your life. You give attention to making good spey casts — and seeing that line rattle out the guides and unfold over the flowing water.
Solid, mend, step. Solid, mend, step.
On one forged, I had simply completed mending my line — whereas questioning why the David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet of “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” was on limitless repeat inside my head — when one thing new occurred.
My line, which had simply began to swing downstream, tightened, and the little loop of working line beneath my proper forefinger pulled out and snapped in opposition to the rod.
That is the exact time whenever you wish to wait to really feel the entire weight of the steelhead — some anglers wait till the fish is definitely pulling some line off the reel. Then you definitely simply swing that huge spey rod towards the financial institution. That’s the transfer that buries the barbless hook within the nook of the steelhead’s mouth.
Summer season steelhead, that are rather more aggressive and far simpler to catch, typically slam the fly in a giant, sucking boil and hook themselves, however winter fish normally mince away with the fly and switch again towards their spot within the present. All of this can be a actually gradual pull — a number of seconds between the chunk and the hookup.
The whole lot is slower with winter fish.
You by no means wish to instantly pull again and set the hook on a winter fish — such as you would should you had been fishing for trout. That transfer normally pulls the fly out of the steelhead’s mouth.
So, in fact, I misplaced my cool and set the hook method too early.
The rod pulsed twice because the steelhead shook its head — after which I felt the fly rattle out.
The steelhead, glowing within the dim mild and freed from my fly, jumped twice — a dream come to life — and vanished.
Chilly. Laborious. Metal.