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.