Finding the Rhythm in the Motherland of Steelhead

by | Jun 24, 2019 | 0 comments

I hadn’t caught a steelhead since 2001. Maybe 2002.  While the memories of the fish are still vivid and clear, what year it was doesn’t really matter anymore.  At the time, I was fishing a two-piece, single hand, Winston IM6 eight weight, swinging flies in Idaho with sink tips in search of migratory fish several hundred miles from the salt.  Black egg-sucking leaches worked just fine, so did a Sparrow nymph. My first and only steelhead was a 26-inch buck from the Salmon River in Idaho.  We all drove beater rigs back then (still do really), crammed with plenty of gear, a few buddies, and a cooler within reaching distance.  This old school, late 80’s, red suburban with tinted windows sticks out in my memory more than the rest.  It belonged to our buddy Brian.  Johnny C, Brian and I camped out for several nights, cooking on a Coleman two burner and by most accounts drinking too many beers.  Spring in the Rockies is cold and inevitably some of those chilly nights would drive us into the local bar searching for warmth and a pool table. There was no need to walk outside for a cigarette back then, one could smoke in the bar while eating a bacon cheeseburger.

Those were also my first years living in West Yellowstone year-round, and we generally made it a practice to get out of town sometime in March and April to get off the volcano. Winter at 6667 feet can be brutal; heading for lower altitude to see some grass for the first time in five months is good for anyone’s state of mind.  I never got into chasing steelhead during October and November. Rather, I’d trade out rods and waders for shot guns and bird dogs.  For me, it was a choice to take a break from the six-month fishing season and walk through the sage brush, wheat stubble and grasslands of the high plains.  I had caught enough fish, rowed countless river miles, stumbled on enough slick Madison cobblestones and by the time early October rolled around, I was ready for change.

On a random day off in late August of ’99, Doug Pope took Brian and I into the Barns Pools for our first Spey lesson.  Pope pulled out this incredibly long Sage flyrod and riffle hitched a #2 Dave’s Hopper to the leader.  He stepped out into the Madison bare footed, stripped off a pile of line and with zero effort shot to the far bank and skated the magnum fly through Number Two. Pope cracked another Old Mil, handed over the rod, found his seat on the picnic table and proceeded to smash a few more beers as we learned the Snap T.  My next Spey lesson was seven or eight years later, with my buddy Kunhert on the Missouri River. Nine-foot rods still suited my needs and I really wasn’t convinced just yet that Spey rods needed to work their way in to my collection of graphite sticks. Matt and Justin taught me a few more things the past few years and as my exposure increased, I’ve slowly gained an understanding of the long rods and confusing fly lines. Presenting the fly is more important than the fly itself, but even then, everyone has a fly they believe in.  That definitely counts for something when you find yourself in the Motherland of Steelhead country, a place they call British Columbia, for the first time, like I did in April of 2019, while hosting a trip for a group of a few of my long-time fishing clients.  I didn’t really have faith in any flies, so I tied on a blue, pink, or red intruder and got to work swinging.

Travel angling is always a bit of a gamble, but that’s really part of the fun of it.  Fishing for only a few days in a distant land means that you must do all you can to take advantage of every single opportunity that comes your way.  Or you must be incredibly lucky.  As we learned, Springtime in BC isn’t for the faint of heart, but the fish are fresh, and some are giants.  You never know how things will fish in the end; you just go with the flow and roll with it. Steelhead themselves are a tough bunch of characters and some anglers will tell you these fish don’t eat flies.  I tend to believe that migratory fish are moody and eat for the love of being picky or ornery; but in the end, all fish eat flies. They also pluck the fly, peck the fly, follow the fly, and sometimes, every so often, they rip the line out of your hand crushing the fly and take off for a 100 plus yard electric stroll back towards the Ocean as your backing screams off the reel. You didn’t even have to set the hook – how wonderful is that?

There is a rhythm that I always try to find whether guiding or fishing on my own. For me, fishing is coveted time, I like to do things a particular way and don’t want to be rushed whatsoever.  Anymore, guiding and fishing are one in the same for me. It’s a process that happens without thinking about it; because thinking about it means that it’s not natural. In the beginning, to find your rhythm, you have to train your mind to relax and create muscle memory.  You must learn to let go.  For me, it starts the night (or weeks before depending on the trip) before a fishing trip or guide trip and begins with preparation of the actual trip. Setting out rods, lines, flies and other essential tackle sets the brain into motion. If you haven’t had the luxury of spending your entire adult life working on the river, this doesn’t come easily, but in due time it will.  Ever notice how guides at the boat ramp have a certain way of doing things to get ready?  Most fishing guides use the exact same process each and every day; disrupting this is a bad idea.  Allow yourself to enjoy this process as you will learn there is a method to the madness. Listening to the river and observing the natural world is the next part, and possibly the most important.  It’s noticing the pair of Kingfishers downstream chattering about and getting lost in the sound of running water. It’s sitting in the gravel next to a river in BC which you’ve never stepped foot in and hoping a 15 pounder is out there waiting to blow your mind. Once I’m in the rhythm, time slows down and I forget about everything else; these days that happens more often during guide trips as I don’t have as much time to fish.  I employed these tactics while in BC and began to decompress from a crazy, busy, stupidly snowy winter in West Yellowstone.

Fortunately, I’ve got a group of fellas who, for some wonderful reason, love to travel with me.  I’ve been guiding one of these guys since 1999.  He’s more of a father figure than a client and he’s introduced me to some of the most loyal anglers a guide can have. On hosted trips it’s not about me, but I do like to influence anglers in a way that has helped make my days on the water more successful. On hosted trips, we fish alongside our anglers and experience the trip as they are.  I find this to be rewarding in so many ways as it builds the bond between myself and anglers whom I’ve guided and never been able to just fish with.  Long time professional fishing guides have a certain amount of fishiness we bring along no matter if we’re rowing the boat or not. It’s a time on the water type of thing that does rub off.  Hosted trips are a combination of guiding, fishing, and taking care of anglers who are traveling with us.  Depending on the group, you must teach them to find their own rhythm; the earlier the better.  This process normally starts off at the airport with a cocktail of some sort to blow off some steam.  Some of these folks might have come off a super stressful month or two of work and letting go just isn’t that easy.  Self-employed business folks never stop working, they…we, can’t turn it off.  One has to learn to turn it off, because, when I do return to the shop after a hiatus, I find that I am much more in tune with everything going on in my business.  Fly fishing, in general, will release the mind. This is so incredibly important, and I must admit that I forget this from time to time.  Steelheading is an even different sort of fly fishing, I believe that you just can’t care about catching one.  You might go all day or even three days without a grab.  Keeping one’s head in the game for when that moment creeps in and something hangs on to your fly long enough for the hook to slip in the corner of it jaws is no easy task. This is where the rhythm of doing things the right way every single time pays off. I found this to be even more important with the Spey rod. On this trip to BC, for the most part, I fished a two handed Burkheimer 8 weight,  lined up with a 600 grain shooting head, twelve feet of T11, and a Hatch 9+ reel. I rarely changed flies and concentrated on presenting the fly with a slow swing across the run. That started out, most of the time anyway, with a smooth but deliberate casting stoke which resulted in the coils of line in my hand shooting across the river and turning the fly over completely. Next, maybe, was a mend to slow things down and drop the fly in the zone and once the line was tight the swing began.  I must say, there is something terribly addictive about this process and the hope one feels when it’s done right is amazing.  Three different days, out of the five, I caught a fish on my last cast. I never once stopped believing that something just might eat my fly. That reminded me of a very serious lesson, one that I have known for years, but forget from time to time – never give up, not once all day long.  Anything can happen at any time in the sporting world.  I am, by no means a steelheader.  However, I am a professional fisherman who observes the natural world and adjusts to the conditions set forth by Mother Nature. Pay attention to these things and you might find yourself on the business end of a giant migratory fish that has never looked an angler in the eyes.