Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Katie's First Steelhead

When 2018 rolled around and it was time to renew my hunting and fishing license, my wife happened to be tagging along with me at Cabelas.
"We might as well grab your fishing license now." I said, while waiting in line.
"Ok, I want a steelhead tag too. I'm going this year, darn-it!" Katie added with determination.
"O-Kay I guess it's official. This is the year!"
"It better happen this year!"
"We'll give it our best!"

I had taken Katie on three steelhead trips over the course of 5 years. The first two were unsuccessful on both her end and mine, and the third I ended up landing 3 fish in the early morning while Katie slept in the car. Katie had put in dozens of hours on different rivers, and in my book, was definitely due for a steelhead.

We planned a trip up to the Clearwater in mid February, hoping to intercept some transitional steelhead. I watched the weather and the water flows studiously, not that it mattered, as we were going regardless. As luck would have it, the stars aligned and not only was the weather forecasted to be decent, but water flows were perfect. In addition, a large storm the week prior had blown the river out and filled it with fresh fish. If we couldn't get Katie a steelhead on this trip, I would fail as a fly fisherman, a guide and as a husband.

We arrived on a Thursday afternoon, and with a few hours of daylight to spare, we hit the water. 
I placed Katie on a "magic" rock and sat back to watch. It had been a couple years since Katie had done any spey casting. To my relief however, she picked up right where she left off, competently casting her flies to where the fish lay. In addition, over the last couple years Katie had dramatically improved her line mending abilities and was making some killer, long, drag-free drifts; imperative for nymphing and one of the most frequent problems I see other anglers struggle with.
I spent very little time coaching her cast and more time telling her how persistent and optimistic she needed to be.
"Any cast your indicator could go down and it could be a fish." I said, super positively. "You just have to believe!"
My cheesy optimism was enough to make someone gag.

We hit the water hard without any luck that first afternoon, but tomorrow was a new day and I just knew we'd connect with something.

The following morning we began at a location I had previously had great luck with. I put Katie in the right spot and told her where to cast. She worked the water for some time before asking for my help with her cast. I gladly stepped in and showed her a few tricks, explaining the mechanics of a water load. I performed a water load cast and showed her how to mend the line to get a drag-free drift alongside a "fishy" rock. The indicator sunk. I hesitated for a moment, realizing if I set the hook I could be "taking" a fish that could potentially be Katie's. My arm and my brain apparently weren't on the same page, because seconds later, the rod was high in the air and I felt the slow give and pulse of a heavy fish on the end of my line.
"Whoops. It's a fish." I turned back to Katie with a guilty look.
"You stole my fish!" She torted back with anger.
"I'm sorry! Here, take the rod and bring this one in."
"NO! That's your fish. I'll get my own!"
I chuckled as I fought the fish and brought it in. 
She was a hefty, wild fish measuring 32 inches. Too bad it wasn't Katie's fish. Guilt stricken, I released her. 

Katie grabbed her rod and went right back to it. Luckily, a few casts later, my guilt was absolved. I had been standing right behind her, a habit built from my summers guiding in Alaska. I told her to place a cast a tad higher in the run. She did, and we intently watched as the indicator slowly drifted downstream towards the sandy, deep hole the fish were in. The indicator hesitated, moved towards us a couple inches and then sunk. Katie was quick and before I could mutter incoherent noises (meaning set the hook) her rod was high and flexed.

The fish shook it's head, rolled near the surface and then took off across the river. I ran over to grab the net and stood in the water, ready. Katie battled the fish like a champ, and after several minutes, we had Katie's first steelhead in the net.

The colored male measured 34 inches. 
"You did it honey! You caught a steelhead!" I said proudly.
"That was pretty cool. Wow that water is cold!" Katie shuddered as she shook the frigid water off her hands.
"Ok, well you've caught one. My work is done. Shall we go home?" I questioned jokingly.
"No, I think I'd like to catch another!" She said, grabbing the rod and wading back in.

We fished that location until about noon, when we drove upstream to the pretzel hole. I placed Katie in a good location while I fished another run below her. It didn't take long before I hooked into a fish. The fiesty male put up a great fight before I wrestled him to the grassy shore. 

I released the fish and went upstream to grab Katie. Katie reminded me it was past noon and that we should eat lunch, something I frequently forget to do while fishing.

We finished our lunch and went back to the water. I made a fire while Katie fished. Katie tired of casting after a good bit and handed me the rod. Given my reputation of stealing fish, I cocked my head to the side giving her the are you sure look. She smiled and proceeded to the campfire. I made a few casts to some water I noticed she hadn't fully covered. The indicator sunk and I set the hook. Crap, I thought, as I felt a steelhead on the end of my line.

Katie netted the fish with joy and after we released the solid specimen, she resumed casting. Katie was doing an awesome job making perfect casts and great drifts, but after another hour of no fish we moved on to the next location.

It was busy upriver with other anglers. However, to our delight, one of my favorite locations was unoccupied. Katie got into position and began casting. I was beginning to assess where I could fish above her when I heard the promising "SSSHUP" sound of a rod setting the hook. I turned to see a steelhead dancing on the end of her line.
"Sweet! You got another one!" I said with joy as I grabbed the net.
"Alright!" Katie laughed. 
We brought the fish in and Katie stared at it in the net with delight. She then posed with the fish like she'd done a hundred times before.
The afternoon temperatures dipped a bit and we could tell rain was in the future. Katie bundled up and we continued to fish. No more fish came to hand that day but my task was complete. Katie had landed 2 steelhead and we were at 5 for the trip. A great start.
That night the rain came down in buckets, promising off-colored water for the following day. Despite the torrential downpour, we awoke the following day to "steelhead green" water clarity; as good as it gets for steelhead fishing.
Being a Saturday and busy with anglers, we decided to explore some new areas. We wanted to explore a bit behind private land, forcing us to asking for permission. Permission was granted and we discovered some cool places, but by afternoon we found ourselves at "The Fly Bucket", the location we had finished at the previous day. 

Katie got into position standing on a prime rock while I waded upstream of her to fish the faster, deeper slot the fish travel in to leave the run. I had only made 2 casts before I set the hook on a fish. Sadly, the battle was short lived and the fish popped off, leaving my line slack. I placed my next cast right back into the same location. My indicator dove again and I had another steelhead on my line. Back to back casts is always a great sign! This fish also had other intentions as it shook the hook as well. I reeled in and asked Katie if she wanted to try where I had been. Her reaction was predictable; no, due to the cold water she would have to stand in. She continued fishing off of her rock while I waded back to where I had been. In my opinion, Katie's spot was the better of the two and I knew it was only a matter of time before she caught another. Several minutes had passed before I heard a sound out of Katie.
"It's a fish!"
I looked downstream to see her rod high and bent, flexing with each shake of the fish's head.
"Sweet!" I shouted as I reeled in and waded back to shore.
I grabbed the net and got into position downstream of her. Katie battled the fish and soon we had a dark colored male in the net.

Katie had now landed 3 steelhead; all over 32 inches and all on the fly rod. She was quite thrilled with the way this trip was turning out, and so was I.

Katie resumed casting from her rock and myself back in the faster water upstream. The wind began to kick up and strong, cast-debilatating gusts from upstream were forcing us to time our casts. Regardless, the fishing continued to improve. I began to strip in the running line on a nice long drift, preparing to recast, and had only made about 2 strips, when I felt some resistance. I stripped harder a couple more times to free whatever my line had hung up on, when it began to pull back. Did I have a fish? Sure enough, a steelhead was on the end of my line. It must have grabbed my fly right before I began stripping in. I pulled back hard on the fish and held on for the ride. This was turning into a great afternoon! This fish too became un-hooked, leaving me with three hookups in a row with no trophy shots to show for it. 
We continued fishing, but now a steady rain began to fall, pelting us sideways with the strong, gusty wind. Katie was tired for the time being and she invited me to come fish her area. The run we were fishing historically had produced fish throughout, fish could be holding anywhere in the run, and the last couple days were consistent with this. This run also held a "bucket", a deeper hole that tons of fish held in. The fish we were currently catching were fish that were spilling over from the bucket. These fish were likely pushed out of the prime bucket by larger, more aggressive fish. This bucket however, lay on the opposite side of the river. A long cast placed just a couple feet from the opposite shore at an appropriate distance upstream of a large rock would send your flies through the bucket. With the strong winds and the heavy weight required to send our flies down to the fishes level, casting over to the bucket would not be an easy task. So far, neither Katie or myself had fished this bucket on our trip.
I waded into position, standing on a submerged rock just slightly upstream of where Katie had been fishing. I began to cast and fish the run, but with the strong winds, I was struggling to reach the "bucket". I started timing my casts in between the wind gusts, getting closer each time. Sometimes my cast would land too far downstream, not close enough to the other side or my line mend would pull the fly too far away. Finally, I landed a cast in the right spot, threw a quick mend and intently watched my small pink indicator dance down through the choppy water and into the "bucket". Like magic, the pink ball dove under the surface and I heaved back on the 12 and a half foot rod. I felt the strong pulses of a large steelhead pull back in annoyance. This was the beginning of a long battle with a big fish. 
After pulling all my fly line out twice, I finally began to make some headway on the big fish. Several times when it came close, we could see a large golden shape on the end of my line, larger than most of the fish we had caught so far.
We finally scooped the large female into the net and measured her on my rod. She was 37 inches, an above average fish for the river but certainly not my largest. I grasped her tail and with my other hand, cradled her belly. I began to lift her from the water when energy suddenly surged through the muscular fishes body. I tried to maintain control and silence her drive to survive, but I lost. The hand cradling her belly fell free as she shot over the edge of the net. All I had now was her tail as she tried to swim for the depths. The cold water and the strength of the fish were too much for my hand to hold onto. Into the river she went, as strong as a tuna. Can't get a hero shot of 'em all. 

Katie still wasn't ready to fish yet, so I got right back into position to fish the bucket. Once again, it took a few casts to finally reach the right spot, and when I did, I was rewarded with a fish.
I wanted Katie to fish but she didn't want to try to reach the "bucket" with the sideways rain. With fishing as good as it was, I wasted no time and got right back to casting to the bucket. This time, my first cast through the magic bucket did not produce a fish, but my second did. A large colored male found my crystal meth egg irresistible.

Katie was reaching her limit with the cold and the sideways rain. She wanted me to keep fishing, however. I knew better than to test her patience, so I promised her one more fish; a promise I knew wouldn't take long to deliver. The bucket did not disappoint, as if on command the indicator dove and a steelhead came thrashing to the surface. 

It was only 3:30 in the afternoon but between the weather and our success rate of 8 fish hooked and 5 to the net, I was ok calling it a day.

The last morning of our trip was upon us. Given the success of the previous day, we found ourselves back at "The Fly Bucket". We casted for awhile in our comfortable locations without any success. At 9:30 AM, without any fish to the net and the weather showing no signs of warming, we packed it up. 

Katie's determination at the beginning of the year had come to fruition. She had landed 3 steelhead! They say steelhead are a fish of a thousand casts. Sadly, it might have taken her that many to catch that first one. With Katie's skills and determination, I can almost guarantee it won't be a thousand more before her next.