Despite the fact that I was wet and cold, I stood still as a statue in the thigh-deep water with all my attention focused on my fishing rod, line and outfit that was drifting through the high, yet green colored water.
After each drift, when the river current had swung my weight and Corky (imitation egg cluster) near shore, I’d reeled in, cast and made another drift through the run. Repeating yet again what I’d been doing since first light. I knew the bite would be subtle, recognizable only by a slight pause or hesitation of my drifting outfit.
The technique had worked twice earlier in the day. The first steelhead was a thick-bodied 12-pound native, a male, which I quickly released. But not before he’d stretched both my line and senses in a failed attempt to dash over the tailout and certain freedom in the downstream rapid.
My second steelhead was an 8-pound hatchery fish (distinguishable by her missing adipose fin) that leaped from the river the instant I set up on her. She then cartwheeled around the hole in an impressive, but unsuccessful attempt to shake my hook. Keeping hatchery fish is the right thing to do, which I did.
Given the weather conditions — unrelenting wind and rain — any normal person would have called my outing a success and headed for home. But I was determined to hang in there for a few more casts (which turned into many hours) for a chance to hook yet another winter steelhead. After all, they are fearsome fighters and I love this winter sport — even on the days when the weather conditions are brutal.
I was beginning to wonder how much more “fun” my body could take. Despite being properly dressed for the occasion, the water had soaked my hat, wicked up my sleeves and began dripping down my neck. My joints were beginning to stiffen and my hands didn’t want to function.
I was actually starting to feel sorry for myself when the elderly man who had been fishing next to me all day said, “You know, this is just the way I like it.”
How was it that this man, who had at least 25 years on me, could handle to the brutal weather so well? He wore typical steelhead apparel: insulated overalls, hip boots and a long raincoat. If anything, he was wearing a totally inadequate hat, which couldn’t have kept his head and neck dry.
Other anglers had come and gone during the day. They’d last only a few hours at best, given the driving rain and wind, before calling it quits. But both of us stayed on in an unrelenting attempt to hook another fish. Although we had chatted off-and-on during the day, both of us were focused on the fishing far more than the social exchange.
But now he had my curiosity. What did he mean by his comment? After some prodding, he explained that his favorite thing in life was fishing for winter steelhead. That dealing with the ever-changing water and weather conditions combined with the sometimes-physical demands was what made the pursuit of winter steelhead special to him.
He went on to say that this particular river was his favorite. That he’d fished it since he was a young boy. And how this special place allowed him to re-live countless memories and add new ones to his library. He explained that he was happy to share the river, but liked it best when he had it all to himself.
He relished the nasty weather that drove others away, and granted him exclusivity over one of his favorite winter steelhead spots and any fish that might move in or decide to bite. That was when things were, well, just the way he liked it. I then understood what kept him there. We both fished on, until the light began to fade.
Given the ever-changing weather and water conditions, winter steelhead are regarded as one of the more challenging of Northwest fish to catch. They average 7-10 pounds in size and can tip the scale at 15 pounds or more. A lifetime trophy is one weighing 20-pounds or more.
Success is often best after a rainstorm and subsequent rise in water flow, when rivers like the Hood and White Salmon first drop into fishable condition.