Jason joined me on a guided Wild Winter Steelhead Adventure this week – a new client / friend / fishing buddy who was referred to me by a great friend of many years – Devan Ence.
We instantly hit it off, and I invited him to join me for a free half day “bonus session” the afternoon before our two days of guided fishing together. Within an hour we had an 8lb wild, native chrome winter steelhead in the net. Not even a hint of blush to her! We called it the “bonus fish”!
The next couple of days were a blur of hotel rooms, hard miles, muddy roads, streamside coffee, excellent meals, a stream of exciting and interesting characters, fascinating conversations, clues and rumors, ghosts and unicorns, mythical creatures, wild chrome winter steelhead, coho salmon, elk herds, eagles, cat tracks, wild and rugged canyons, solutide, wilderness, remoteness, and above all: a series of important lessons.
Most of these lessons can only be truly learned through experience, and some are nearly impossible to describe. The one that stands out most from this trip were the events that unfolded on the morning of the last day of our trip together.
I had spent a day and a half teaching Jason how to nymph for steelhead, and he’d hooked over a half dozen fish, but he really wanted to learn how to swing a fly. I had saved the swinging lesson for the last day when a fresh blast of warm water on the rivers would drawn in another push of chrome, wild winter steelhead, and I knew they would be grabby.
We hiked into a remote swing run I knew of that I thought would give Jason a good shot at hooking a fish on a swung fly. It wasn’t icy or freezing for the first time in weeks, and we had fresh tracks. The first couple hours was spent teaching Jason how to Snap T / Circle Spey and working on the dynamics of spey casting. He had some basic fundamentals of spey casting and swinging flies, but wanted to take his skills to the next level.
Jason had a couple of solid grabs, but both times he had pulled the fly away from the fish by setting the hook too early, despite my forewarning that he would probably do so! It’s a habit that’s very difficult to break, and we all struggle with it at one time or another. In the end it’s really about experience, doing your own experimentation and through trial and error figuring out what works for you!
After a couple hours of casting instruction, a couple grabs and swinging a couple runs, we were about ready to roll on. Jason handed me the rod and said, “Here, you show me how it’s done.” with a smirk. At first I declined, of course, but he was insistent, and finally I gave him one of those “are you sure?” raised eyebrow looks, grabbed the rod, and started stripping out line.
I swung a couple short casts, talking through everything I was doing and explaining some of the intricacies as I swung a few over the prime bucket, not expecting much. I started to reel up, but Jason insisted “C’mon man one more swing, all my guides catch steelhead when they’re out with me!”
As a rule I don’t fish on guided trips, aside from making a few quick casts, drifts or swings here or there to demonstrate or explain something that’s easier to show by example, unless clients absolutely insist. As a guide taking out a paying client, you always feel bad when you hook a fish on a guided trip, or at least you should! Yet it happens from time to time while demonstrating, and some clients realize that they can learn a heck of a lot by watching and observing.
So I shrugged and said, “Alright, why not, one more way down-town”, stripped off another thirty feet of line, and sent one to the moon. It was one of those rare moments when everything comes together absolutely perfectly, for once. There is always a delicate balance between form, power, and timing in spey casting, and I must have hit the combo just right, and when you do there is no better feeling in the world!
A brief instant before the fly hit the water, a huge dime-bright chrome fish rolled just ten feet below the fly. Jason and I shared a brief bewildered glance as our brains attempted to register what had just happened. I already had over a hundred feet of line out, but I thought “shit I’m still at least ten feet short”. I popped a huge upstream mend in the line, dumped another ten feet into the swing and let the fly sink. I prayed and waited, not daring to move.
I felt the fly sinking, the line slowly begin to belly, and imagined in my mind’s eye what the fly was doing. After what seemed like an eternity, just as the fly began to swing, I felt the slightest, almost impreceptable tension. “He’s got it” I breathed out loud to Jason, not daring to move still, knowing if I lifted up now I would pull the fly away from the fish, and the game would be over in an instant. The world slowed to extreme slow-motion for a brief instant.
The line continued to belly as I subconsciously counted seconds in my head, “one missisippi, two missisippi, three…” I felt the tension slowly climb on as the belly of the line drew the fly firmly in the corner of the fishes mouth. I lifted up as slow and smoothly as I possibly could, and dared not to breathe.
An enormous ocean-fresh, dime-bright, chrome winter steelhead exploded out of the water and proceeded to go absolutely ballistic in a series of a half dozen spectacular and stunning leaps.With over 120 feet of line out on the hook-set, I knew my chances of landing him were pretty slim. At that point I decided that landing it didn’t really matter, and all I could do was hang on!
The reel exploded in furious screaming rage as the beast turned and headed back to the ocean, not stopping for anything or anyone. I took off in a full sprint down-river after it, through slippery mud and over down timber, across a chest-deep trench of water, and finally managed to turn it and gain some sort of control.
Jason caught up to me with the net and we stood side-by-side on a mid-river gravel bar, standing parallel to the fish keeping constant side pressure on it, both completely mesmerized by its beauty. It was one of the purest, chrome steelhead I’ve seen, it’s fins so clear they were translucent, it’s scales an iridescent blue, a true ghost. The sheer power and energy of this creature could only be described as magnificent!
It slowly drifted to the surface and took one last good look at us as Jason began moving into net position. Deciding he wanted nothing to do with Jason or the net, the massive wild buck exploded into a final run, cart-wheeling off and spitting the hook violently back at me. I bowed deeply to the fish immediately and exclaimed “thanks for the dance!”, falling to my knees quivering like a leaf on a tree and laughing hysterically. It was a powerful experience, to say the least!
We went on to have a fabulous day of steelheading, catching fish on a number of different techniques: nymphing egg patterns and stonefly nymphs under indicators, swinging marabou and bunny flies across tail-outs, and jigging streamer patterns thru deep canyon holes.
The whole trip turned out to be a perfect case-study, with real-life examples, to teach Jason how to catch steelhead. He had worked hard, and been rewarded! He fished with intensity and focus every day, despite the conditions, and poured all of his boundless energy and enthusiasm into his fishing.
He listened to my suggestions, understood the concepts I was explaining, and asked questions for clarifications on things he didn’t understand. As a result, he was able to learn a tremendous amount about steelheading in a short period of time, all the while having a grand adventure in a remote wilderness setting!
While writing this story, the phone rang: it was Jason calling to put some dates on the books for another guided trip next month. After confirming the dates and catching up, we briefly recounted and laughed about our last adventure together.
He had hooked over a dozen winter steelhead in his couple days of fishing with me, each one of them revealing and teaching a lesson of its own. Despite all of those wonderful fish, his parting comment to me was: “Man, I still can’t stop thinking about that fish you hooked!” To which I promptly replied, “Me either! That’s one I will never forget!”
Join Primal Angler / Ryan Davey on a Guided Steelhead Adventure this Winter / Fall in the Pacific Northwest. Visit the Primal Angler website for more details.
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