Fish with Charisma – Steelhead

I remember the exact moment I fell in love with anadromous salmonids, or more specifically Steelhead.

That morning a gray sunrise lit the snow on the shoulders of the 30 or so fly fisherman along NY’s Salmon River. All had arrived in the sub-freezing dark to get the best positions along the flyfishing-only, catch & release upper reach. The existence of this short stretch crowned a contrived fishery of 30lb Pacific salmon and 10lb Atlantic steelhead transplanted into Lake Ontario. The fish gorge themselves on the lake’s fish for a few years then yield to nature’s call by running back up the Salmon river to the place of their birth, a NY State fish hatchery, where they die. A few are milked for eggs to sustain the contrivance, but all die. Except for the Steelhead.

The salmon provide sport fisherman the chance to troll the lake for giant salmon and for a few months each year, they can go after them during their spawning run. It’s not quite fishing though because Pacific salmon don’t eat once they leave the ocean, or in this case, the lake. So fisherman snag them with weighted hooks or dangle various contraptions in front of them to incite a reflexive bite. This creates a human zoo of meat fisherman going for maximum weight to stuff in their coffin sized coolers. The irony is that the fish are not safe to eat due to PCBs and mercury. I’ve caught a few on a fly but never one ‘fresh’ from the lake. After a few days in the river they start ‘aging’ in form, color and fight. Sort of like snagging a fluttering log

However, none of the fly fisherman in the upper stretch are after salmon. Steelhead is the game. Steelhead is a type of rainbow trout that has had access to the Atlantic ocean and adapted to an anadromous lifestyle. In this case, a lifestyle perverted to take place in the lake. The thing about Steelhead, like their Atlantic salmon brothers, is that they are ferocious fighters. Legendary fighters pursued by legendary fisherman; Ted Williams comes to mind.

I’ve read about this fish over the years but now my fishing and flying buddy, Jim Paris, has been hooked. When Jim gets on the trail of a new challenge, he scopes out the options, figures out optimal approaches, and then hunts it down. When I’m lucky, he calls me and invites me to try it out which he did after several trips to the Salmon River. So here I am, standing in an early morning lake effect snow storm with 30 other nut cases dredging for Steehead.

Flyfishing is normally a delicate and pleasant approach to taking trout on streams. You spot a feeding fish, you successfully determine which species of bug it’s feeding on, cast a passable imitation in synch with his feeding rhythm, the fishes rises and slurps it down. That’s the best part. Then you bring him in, slip the barbless hook our of his lip, release and repeat. Having mastered some technique and applying it at the right hour of the day, you can take a trout on almost every cast.

Fishing for steelies on the Salmon in early winter is gross and unpleasant. Instead of a weightless mayfly imitation, we lob heavily weighted fluorescent salmon egg imitations at the invisible non-feeding fish. 20 feet out, let it bump along the bottom, lift, lob, and repent endlessly. Whoops, the rod guides have iced up so slap the water to knock off the ice and lob it again. While unlike Pacific salmon that are all going to die here, Atlantic salmon and steelheads can return to their lives in the sea so they are not dying as we try to catch them. Despite that, they don’t feed much during their spawn but they can be aggravated into biting. Unfortunately it typically takes hundreds of freezing lobs to get a bite.

Getting the bite is the peak of the trout fishing experience. ‘Fighting’ them is rarely an issue. So I’m thinking, “this must be like catching a 10lb rainbow which would be quite an experience…lob, lob, lob”.

Fact is, I never caught a steelie in my 2 or 3 trips with Jim. I thought for a moment I had hooked one when it took off downstream and broke off. But it was just a large salmon who decided to fight by going back downstream a pool or two at a time I couldn’t follow.

But a fisherman a couple of positions upstream fought and caught one. I watched him land it after a long 15 minutes fight. It was probably a 10lb fish and was obviously exhausted. But up close I could see that he had 3 or 4 hooks in his jaws and wounds from several others. He was still resisting with energy as this last hook was removed and the fisherman removed some of the old ones before returning him to the stream. This fish had apparently run the gauntlet from lake to final hatchery pool escaping the snaggers and breaking off several spin fisherman along the way. This last catch was in question until he was voluntarily released. Wow!

Then another fisherman hooked one as we all reeled in to clear the pool for the fight. Early on the fish rushed over to me and slapped at my waders. At that moment I caught a glimpse of an eye on this desperately fighting animal. I’ve caught hundreds of fish and I had never seen such fierceness and abandon in the dead eyes of a fish. As strange as it may sound, I teared up and was overcome with admiration for the thing. I never did hook one up but it was a moment I’ve never forgotten.

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A Novice’s Smile at Andros

I’m primarily a trout and stream guy who has only dabbled in the salt.  But things have come together such that it was time to see what this flats fishing thing was about.  Like any well read angler I guess I already knew; sight fishing for skittish silvery missiles requires a patient guide, accurate casting and some of that fine looking technical clothing that one sees in the shops.

Following the path my old fishing partner Jim had modeled, I searched for a top lodge at a prime location with a reputation for successful trips.  From the very first steps on Bahamian coral it seemed that the basics were in place.

Since returning I’ve told people that  if  you showed up at this place with a pair of dress pants, a shirt and few Clousers tucked into a luggage pocket, they will have you out on the flats the next morning casting a well balanced 8wt  and a box of the  right sized Crazy Charlies.  My preparations were a bit better than that and compared favorably with the other 6 rods at the camp, a mixed crew of midwestern fishing buddies with a range fishing experience.

I had my favorite traveling buddy along but was fishing solo.  My wife found the accommodations exactly as I had described them and all was good with the world.

In the morning at the departure dock I happily discovered I was going out 1:1 with a decidedly non-crazy Charlie,  while everyone else was paired up with a buddy.  I looked forward to a  first day  on the flats without distraction, inhibition or potential for embarrassment.  The day looked perfect with light winds and only a few clouds providing relief from the sun.    I thought I spotted some tailing fish 5 minutes out from the dock but Charlie was headed somewhere that was 30-40 minutes distant.  My brain thoroughly enjoyed the soak in the turquoise.

The novice’s moment of dread must be the first casts.  I thought I could feel Charlie back there taking stock of what he had drawn,  but we quickly found the same frequencies as I sorted out the rig, the boat and the water.  This was starting to look and feel real good as we start searching for fish.

Andros is wall to wall flats in all directions.  I already realized that no other people would be seen until we returned.  Charlie tried 3 spots in quick succession until we started to see Bones.  They looked small and turned out to be willing.  After a few misses and trout sets, I got my first on and to the boat.  They are as  hot as I hoped and turn out to be slimy beyond belief.  Skunk off, we move on.

Stepping though the basics of flats fishing, we steadily find and catch smallish Bones with a few nice medium size fish thrown in.  I guess that I’m bubbling with first timer excitement as I call every  Barracuda,  Shark and dead sponge I can find.  Charlie calls out singles up in the Mangroves, schools moving up from the blue and flights of 2 or 3 as they turn towards the boat momentarily giving up their transparent stealth.  I miss most of them most of the time but quickly learn to stay after them.  “They are hungry today, they want your fly”, and they do!  Even spooked fish will turn if I get a fly back in the water near them.  They’re competing for it, they’re eating it, they’ll eat it twice if needed.

By mid-afternoon I realize that I’ve lost count and I’m smiling as brightly as the day.  We end the day firing at some slightly larger singles, covering a lot water downwind and down-sun.  Perfect setups that happy exhaustion compromises.  I’m knee wobbly and sun stupid but unwilling to call it quits until Charlie does.

Remaining on the same frequency, we motor back silently. Five minutes from the dock we run into the other boats.  I’m smiling and it seems that everyone else is too.

Now I’m a smiling guy when I’m a happy guy and am always amazed how smiles reflect back.  The summary for my day is, “I lost count” but soon realize it’s been a mixed bag for  the others.  When the lodge staff acknowledges my smile with, “it’s not always like that” I decide to tone it down slowly realizing that I probably had the best day of the group.   Going into a lightly sun stroked stupor, the smile remains as I pass out on my feet.  At the camp my wife is over the moon collecting both shells and people as only she can.  She accepts the stupid grin as mission accomplished, we eat and I’m asleep before 9:00.

Buddy Jim gets a text update at 4:00am, “lots of fish, smallish but willing.  Not as hard as imagined, they are aggressive and always moving.  Spooky but not shy.  Too much fun!”

The next day the guides and rods are reshuffled.  I’m happy to again be a single with a new guide.  We head out and stop 5 minutes later to work a couple of tailing fish.  No joy with the fish but it’s definitely more comfortable out with mixed clouds and sun.  However the wind has picked up significantly and will require more from this mediocre caster.

We make a quick turn before going very far and work a shallow bay.  Some adjustments are made to facilitate short, faster casts, or perhaps we just aren’t tuned in yet.  Many fewer  fish are seen this day, especially when the clouds turn the lights off.

The day before I had been amazed at how every single fish was hooked exactly the same way in the same corner of the Bones’ mouths.  On this day I snagged and blinded the first fish.  The second swallowed it.  The third was snagged under the chin and that took us through lunch.

We never moved from this single bay and I realized that the marks I kept seeing on the bottom were poling marks.  The fish were not only small but wholly and consistently so.  It was fun catching the 5 we did but it was a completely different experience.  Upon return I hinted strongly that I wanted Charlie again.

Charlie likes the remote frontier to the  south and west and there we went again.  The day fit perfectly in between day 1 and 2 in terms of cloud and wind.  My wife joined us requiring little adjustment to our shared frequencies.  A fine and perfect day developed but with fewer fish all around.  There were no giant Barracuda, Sharks, flying Needlefish or speeding turtles seen, but there were steady sightings of larger Bones, a few truly big Bones, and definitely more wary Bones.

The hunt was on.  My casting had improved a bit and we were tuned in even more tightly.  However spooked fish stayed spooked.  Large fish kept their distance and maintained it with purpose.  One fish chased it, stopped, turned 90 degrees and gave it the finger.  I regrouped, led him properly and presented again while receiving the other fin.  “They don’t like your flies today”.  Indeed.

However it was the best day of the 3.  Only two fish caught with maybe 5 other hookups.  Earlier I had tried to take a few pictures of fish for my iPhone log (there’s an app for that!) but discovered that Bonefish slime completely disables touch operations.  Today the wife took dozens of stills but hit the lottery having decided to video one of my casts that resulted in one of the two fish of the day.

Returning to the dock I was grinning almost as broadly as day 1.  It was a mixed performance that fit well with the rest of the boats.  My better calibrated smile was reflected knowingly by the staff.  The day 1 smile was that of a very lucky flats novice.