Wednesday, December 14, 2011
They can bring you to your knees after an encounter, leaving you a slobbering, jelly-legged, quivering mess! These sea going rainbow trout will bring a seemingly sane person out into near blizzard conditions in pursuit of them.
To the non-angler this behavior surely must seem like masochism or insanity at the very least. In my years of pursuing these fish I've hiked 5 miles up the Deschutes canyon in blazing heat August after summer steelhead. I have fished in weather so cold that the water not only froze in the guides of my rod but also froze my reel thus rendering it useless. It's hard to explain to someone who has never caught a steelhead why those of us who have will do almost anything to hook one.
Steelhead trout (oncorhynchus mykiss) are the fish of legend from the coastal rivers of British Columbia, Oregon, Washington and California to the mighty Columbia and it's tributaries like the Deschutes, Sandy, Snake and it's tributary the Clearwater. Steelhead have also been introduced into the Great Lakes of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota to name a few. They are the premier coldwater game fish in North America and are second only to Atlantic Salmon (Salmo Salar) as the greatest freshwater game fish worldwide but some would argue that steelhead fight better.
Steelhead trout have captured the imagination of generations of anglers. Celebrities like Jack Hemingway and Zane Grey sought them on the banks of the famous North Umpqua and Rogue rivers in Oregon. The rivers of British Columbia like the Kispiox, Skeena, Bulkley, Thompson and Dean are truly the rivers of dreams because of their large strain of wild steelhead.
So why do I love them so much? They are the truly fish of MY dreams! Their wild abandon when hooked is unforgettable and gut wrenching in it's fierceness. I can remember many of the steelhead I have hooked in the 38 years of fishing for them and I think it would be safe to assume that other steelhead anglers can do the same. They connect us to those fabled steelhead anglers of long ago like Roderick Haig-Brown and Mike Kennedy and the modern contemporaries like Bill McMillan and Lani Waller.Many celebrity steelheaders were made famous by the fish and not vice versa!
Wild steelhead numbers are in an alarming decline throughout the northwest and it is truly enough to bring hardened steelhead anglers to tears. We will never again see them in large numbers and to those that really care about this fish it breaks our hearts.
I remember my first steelhead from Oregon's Sandy river from back in 1974 just like it was yesterday. Each steelhead I have caught over the years was a unique encounter that will be with me through the rest of my days and honestly what other outdoor pursuit can do that?
There is no such thing as a casual encounter with a steelhead and even in their inferior hatchery version they still battle better than anything swimming in fresh water in this part of the world.
I have an affection for cutthroat trout not unlike a doting father would have for his fragile newborn. With steelhead it's more like a torrid love affair! You obsess over these fish like nothing else. Dec Hogan calls it "A Passion for Steelhead" and that explains it best.
People might wonder why some of us take our passion to a visceral level when our beloved steelhead are threatened by those that have no soul. We mourn the death of any wild steelhead because of the love we have for them.
So if you have not had the chance to fish for one of these magnificent trout in their wild form then do so and at all haste because we are nearing a day when they might be just a fond memory of a loved one lost.