This post from the Classical Angler by Erik Helm compliments my annual post about leaving spawning steelhead in the upper rivers alone which follows Erik's piece.
Well, here we are. Spring is in the air, the robins are singing, “Cheer up… cheer up…cheerily!” cardinals are calling their mating song, and ‘fly-fishers’ are on the gravel chasing spawning steelhead. In the past week, the water level has fallen and cleared enough to allow the use of those nifty polarized glasses to spot fish on the gravel. Guys with expensive cigars wade the shallows looking for bedding fish, hook them on nymphs and glo-bugs, and drag them away from their mates during the act of procreation. The poor fish flop around on the gravel until trapped in a net effectively damaging their protective slime layer, and then get to star in grip and grin ego photos.
Is this sporting? I guess the answer depends on what one considers fair chase. Would it be sporting to wait for a deer buck to mount a doe and then shoot it? That is effectively what is happening here.
To me, and this is my opinion, chasing steelhead, or any fish while they are attempting to build redds and spawn is the lowest form of ‘fishing’ shy of intentional snagging. Even the snagger is probably being honest in his or her game, however illegal it is. Gravel rapers on the other hand actually think they are fly-fishing. Sad.
After many years of swinging flies for steelhead, I can spot a gravel-raper just by looks.
Usually the most expensive vehicle in the parking area, Lexi, Range Rovers, and other obnoxiously large and irresponsible SUVs, will belong to them. Often they sport fly-fishing stickers, or even TU logos. The anglers rarely fish alone. They most often show up in twos and threes. It must have something to do with the glory photos, and the sense of camaraderie in pounding the gravel with your buddies ready to offer congratulations on your ‘catch.’ They wear all the latest gear, especially if it has a logo. They dress up to look like some image in their mind of how a fly-fisherman should look. They ask every person they come across, “Have you seen any fish?” They wander around the river in unpredictable directions, most often again, in groups.
Most of these guys are trout fishermen. That is sad in itself. Instead of learning the skill of reading water in a large river, they just do what everyone else is doing, and rely on sighted fish on gravel before they can make a single cast. I am a trout fisherman as well, but it just kills me to see people that I know from the small streams rely on these tactics for steelhead. Would they fish that way on a trout stream? Is that why the streams are closed for part of the year to protect spawning fish? If the streams and creeks were not closed, would these ‘anglers’ hook as many spawning trout off their gravel beds as they could?
It is getting to the point that an ingrained belief, culture, or even tradition surrounds the use of single-hand rods: nymphing, or glo-bugging over gravel. Swinging streamers seems to be relegated to spey rods now. This is sad too. The single-hand rod is an excellent tool for streamer fishing, if only this method would catch on here. If only these legions of anglers in the Midwest ( and Pacific Northwest) would depart for a day or two and not rely on sight-fishing, the sport that would be discovered by them would be enough to put them off the bedded fish forever.
Alas, this takes a leap of faith, and the ability to appreciate a single fish caught fairly after a full day of wading and casting, versus tallying numbers and measuring the skill of the angler by the sheer number of fish to hand, however crude the method. That leap of faith, and sense of fair chase seems to be beyond most anglers. Indeed, they often defend the practice, and I have been told by one fisherman that “He feels sorry for me, if I don’t get enjoyment out of sight fishing for steelhead.” Sight fishing and gravel raping are not necessarily bonded together. If a fisherman walking the banks and looking down into a pool spots a pod of fish holding in the water, and then swings flies or nymphs for them, that is different than fishing bedded fish. In our rivers, 99% of steelhead spotted are on the gravel.
The thing that really bothers me is that these gravel rapers think that, because they are using a fly rod, they are somehow elevated above the gear fishermen or center-pinners that are legitimately hooking their fish. This very deservedly gives fly-fishing a bad name. Being snobby about an abominable method of fishing is just sad. This is sad, and a disservice to all the other anglers, whatever the method or gear, who are actually fishing.