Steelheading – Fins and Feathers Bozeman
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Steelheading has never really been “my thing” as all of my experiences up to this point has been characterized by countless hours spent standing in an unknown river searching for something that either is or isn’t there. I’ve heard the stories, seen the DVD’s, and had given it an honest crack. So, when some friends asked if I wanted to join them on their annual trip to BC for Pacific Steelhead, I said “hell yeah.”
Any great fly fishing adventure is more about the experiences in between the trudge and the tug so I’m always up for something new. There was little doubt that this trip would deliver on the trudge side of things. After 2 days of driving in which we crossed the never ending northern plains well into Alberta and a seemingly endless string of mountain passes through the Canadian Rockies, we ended up in some little logging town closer to Alaska than Vancouver.
Steelhead are anadromous, move from one piece of holding water to another as they make their way to wherever it is that they’ve come so far to do their duty to the continuation of their diminishing species. Oblivious to hatches, they are only there to spawn, after which they ride the high water of next spring back to the Pacific for another year or two of doing whatever they do until the next time they decide to give it another go. To say that they’re not like any trout I know would be an understatement. It’s the chance encounter with one of these amazing Salmonids that has given purpose and focus to many a lost soul on their way to becoming what we affectionately call a “Steelheader.”
This trip was my chance to see not only the fish, but also the infectious obsession that “Steelheaders” are best known for. The tug is their drug and in it’s pursuit, all other priorities seem trivial at best. Black or purple is a much more important concern than a hotel reservation. Being the first in a run far outweighs the significance of bringing lunch or grabbing breakfast. Remembering that wallet full of heads sits much higher on the list than double checking the gas tank.
Many a diehard Steelheader has spent day after day swinging flies through countless runs without a pull, knowing that as each fruitless swing is finished they are that closer to their next hook-up. I’ve given it a few tries over the years and I was of the opinion that this is one fish that I’m not meant to catch. So I figured I’d take the camera, make a few casts here and there while enjoying the various moments along the way to wherever it was that we were all headed.
The rivers we fished were all beautiful in their own ways with towering conifers coming right down to the river’s edge seemingly everywhere we anchored the jet boat. Spey fishing was not an option, but the rule. With no formal lessons in my background, it didn’t take me long to figure out that a Skagit line is a good thing and that my routine would go something like “duck, chuck, swing, step, and repeat.” I’d like to say that my skill set improved after a few days, but the reality is my aching muscles just got used to the movements after awhile and ibuprofen really is the miracle drug! Though I won’t be asked to do any guest spey casting appearances anytime soon, I still managed to marry my fly with the mouth of several truly wild steelhead in the course of a few day’s fishing. The other anglers managed to make that event happen more often than I, so I’d say that they were eating pretty well if that term can ever be applied to these fish.
The “thing” I’ve come to appreciate more and more every year is that I just enjoy fishing in cold, clean water. I’m just as happy to prowl the banks of a small stream, row down a big western river, or stand in frigid water hour after hour. When a fish is on the other end of my line, there is a sense of completion to the cycle that starts all over again once it is released.
There are countless moments in between the first cast and the tug, all of which have their own significance in making the “bigger picture” just a little more clear. If I know anything about fishing for Pacific Steelhead, it’s best characterized by an abundance of “in-between moments.” But, when that remarkable fish comes to hand along with it the realization that this animal has survived countless hardships only to eat this size 2 leach with a chartreuse head, there is an unmistakable feeling that we are all connected. I’ll be back there next year.