Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Excerpt from a Winter Steelheader’s Journal

H: My last fishing adventure of 2020 was a solo winter Great Lakes steelhead trip around Christmas time. To allow for any last minute surprises in weather and flows, I had reservations at 3 hotels in 3 different locations in 2 different states. It wasn’t till 2 pm the day before, right before cancellation penalties would kick in, that I decided I was driving 7+ hours to Ohio.

It would be my first ever fishing trip to that state. Flows looked ideal for wading and the weather forecast was decent, at least for the next several days—highs in the mid 30s with some chance of precipitation but nothing cataclysmic. It turned out to be quite a trip. I honestly lost track of the number of steelhead I hooked and landed over 3 days. As a spey angler who swings flies, one doesn’t get to say that very often. 

Beautiful chrome Great Lakes steelhead
I lost track of the number of beautiful fish I hooked and landed.

Steelhead scales, DNA. One of several that got away.
Collected some steelhead DNA samples :). One of several that got away.

It’s difficult explaining to non-fishing friends and family members why I do this. In what universe is wading in icy cold water and freezing your tail off on the slim chance you might encounter a fish, enjoyable? I think only the brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow winter steelhead anglers can truly relate. Yes, it's painful at times. But the connection I feel with the river, meeting the challenges thrown at you by Ma nature, interspersed with bursts of joy when you cross paths with these beautiful fish, makes you forget the rest. 

Here’s an excerpt from my fly fishing journal. Perhaps it sheds a little light on this addiction of mine. 

December 20, 2020

I'm back in my hotel room after another 7 hour day on the water. Winter steelhead is a marathon rather than a sprint. I've been getting to the river around 9:30-10am and hiking out just as the light begins to fade. With air temps in the high 20s/low 30s and water temps hovering in the mid to high 30s, there's no need to rush out there. Being the first to go through a run is great but the spots I'd been fishing hadn't been at all crowded. On day 1, I ran into one other wade angler and I waved to two guys floating by in their Watermasters. I could get used to this. Good bye Salmon River low holers! :)

A pretty pool on a Great Lakes tributary.
A lovely and productive pool I had all to myself one morning.

A pretty colored up steelhead, my first fish of the trip.
My first fish of the trip, a pretty colored up steelhead.

I wish I had a thermometer. Not for Covid but for angling research. Even after a long hot shower and a hot meal, I still had major chills. I wondered: how much does a winter steelhead angler's body temp drop after wading in 36 degree water for 7 hours? I put on my down jacket, wrapped the comforter around me, and spent the next few hours tying flies. 

I've never lost so many flies in my life! Good call, throwing the vise and some materials into my bag last minute. I'm accustomed to losing 1-2 flies a day. But these unknown murky waters filled with sharp ledges, jagged rocks, and hidden debris had claimed more than a dozen of my favorite flies over the past two days.

Before hitting the sack, I checked the forecast and the latest flows. It called for precipitation throughout the night and for some reason, the gauge wasn't updated. It still showed the same flow from this morning. Guess I'll have to see how things look in the morning....

December 21, 2020

A steady rain overnight had caused the river to come up. The USGS gauge still wasn't working but my guess was that it had risen at least 200 cfs. It was bitterly cold and with a storm headed this way, today would probably be my last day of fishing.

After 2 hours of swinging flies crotch deep in 36 degree water, I felt like a human popsicle. Sounds fun, right? Lol. If I was a guy, I’d say I was close to freezing my nuts off. With 1 grab to show for iced up guides and uncontrollable shivering, a brisk hike to warm up was definitely in order. I could hike 15 minutes back to the car and sit inside with the heat blasting on high or I could look for another good spot to swing. Hmmm.... Two other anglers had joined me at the pool, stepping in at the head. I wished them luck as I hiked upstream past them in search of more swing water.

15 minutes later, I arrived at a nice pool. The flow and depth looked good. Towards the tailout, surface hydraulics revealed the presence of numerous submerged boulders, perfect steelhead holding water. Unfortunately, the bank on my side of the river was eroded and dropped off abruptly to deep water. My only option to reach those boulders was to cast from the bank. I actually relished the idea of staying out of the water for as long as possible. 

The bank was also densely lined with tall shrubs and several trees. There was one small area with enough clearance to form a D loop so I single speyed with my skagit head and sink tip, incrementally lengthening my line till my fly eventually reached and swung over those boulders. I was in the zone. My casting felt effortless. Each cast was made at the right angle, my fly was swinging at the perfect speed, and I was thoroughly covering the water at a good depth. I could sense everything coming together.

My flygirl instincts proved spot on. My line went tight as a beautiful steelhead resting amidst those boulders took my fly. Normally, I make a mental note about where best to land a fish. But I clearly had a case of brain freeze. I hadn't even given it a thought! I scanned the bank downstream and spotted a small patch of dirt and grass along the river's edge about 200 ft. away. As I fought my fish, I made my way towards it. Luckily, it was only a 5 ft. drop from the bank so with rod in hand and fish in tow, I slid down onto it.

The water there didn't look that deep, but with just a foot of visibility, I couldn't be 100% sure. I learned that on day 1. I had taken a couple of steps into the river from the bank (it didn't look that deep) and had gone from ankle to waist deep water, losing my balance, and almost taking a dunk. Well, winter steelhead fishing is a leap of faith. I took a step in and my foot found the mucky bottom just over knee deep. I tailed her, removed the fly, and after a quick, not so great pic, I sent her on her way. 

A memorable steelhead from my trip, caught single speying from the bank with 13 foot Loomis NRX spey rod.
A not so great photo of a memorable fish from my last day of fishing.

Reinvigorated, I thought I'd make one more pass. I scrambled back onto the bank and walked to my original starting point. As I start casting, the 2 anglers I'd seen at the first pool were making their way towards me. They scrambled down to the patch of dirt where I had landed my fish and proceeded to nymph. I swung my fly once more through those boulders but this time with no luck.

Hoping the pool I had fished earlier was now vacant (of anglers, not fish ;), I hiked back downstream. It was deserted. Before I made it even a third of the way through, I was once again chilled to the bone and shivering something fierce. I stepped out and performed my winter steelhead dance routine—stomping feet, clapping hands, speedwalking back and forth along the river's edge, and jogging in place while helicoptering my arms in circular motions. It's quite a spectacle! Lol

I stepped back into the river, picking up where I left off. Before I reached the tailout I felt a good grab and another beautiful fish was on my line. This time I was prepared and had set my phone to shoot video in case I was fortunate to have another close encounter. I recorded her beauty and her release. There was at least an hour of daylight left but I was done. I honestly don't think I could have lasted much longer. 

When I got back to my car to de-wader*, I found both legs of my heavyweight fleece pants not just damp but wet, all the way up to mid thigh. The previous day's hike along the river bank through wild rose bushes must have done a number on my old waders. Well, that explained things. 

December 22, 2020

I woke up and briefly toyed with the idea of fishing a couple of hours before driving back. But I was content, happy, and spent. The looming prospect of the 7+ hour drive back home didn't seem all that bad.

And it wasn't :).

*De-wader: the joyous act of stripping off your waders and taking off your fishing boots after a long day hiking and fishing.