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The Gearboat Chronicles

Steelhead Report

I caught my first steelhead. Penny caught her first steelhead. My buddy Dave caught his first steelhead. Lots of steelhead out here, friends. And the fishing is good.

Here are some pics from yesterday, buddy Dave and Winding Waters Paul with fish. I did not have a camera handy when I caught mine, but here’s how it went:

There’s truth in what they say about vast numbers of steelhead swimming their way through this year. One of these fish swam back from the ocean, took a right at the Grande Ronde River and paused to consider the imitation foodstuff I was bouncing along the river bottom. This next part is a rare event for me. It took that fly.

Using my lightning-quick reflexes, I did nothing, assuming I’d snagged the bottom of the river again. I gave the flyrod a lazy nudge to free myself and couldn’t understand why I was seeing a giant fish tail rise from the water. Strange.

The next part was lackluster. I pulled and it came toward me. Reeled in and it came in more. So far, playing my first steelhead was like tugging an old tire out of the river. Then the tire woke up and did a burnout upstream. And I got nervous. There are some aspects of my flyfishing technique that need a lot of work. Like casting, for instance. Remembering knots. Choosing the proper fly. Little things like that. But one thing I have mastered is the long release. That’s when a sportsman avoids over-tiring a fish or harming it through excessive handling by allowing it to get off the hook somewhat sooner than normal. Some hardliners will split hairs and claim you haven’t really caught a fish unless you’ve … well, caught it. These philosophical details bore me. I did know that, just this once – please – I didn’t want another long release. Rod tip up, tension on the line, I very much wanted to land this fish.

Which brings us to a favorite childhood book of mine. Red Tag. It’s about a salmon. A kid’s in the woods. Sees a guy messing around with little fish. Kid asks what’s going on. Guys says, Well, kid, I’m a biologist. I’m putting this red tag on this here baby salmon so when it comes back . . . then there’s a bunch of cool illustrations where Red Tag goes to the ocean and gets chased around and almost eaten. He jumps dams and steals a car at some point, I think. Then the kid’s back in the woods a year or so later and sees Red Tag all grown up, just like the biologist guy said he’d be. Loved that book. Read it over and over.

Years later in Wallowa County I worked for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. There I was down by the river tagging young salmon, and realized I was in a page from Red Tag. I couldn’t wait for the kid to walk up and ask what’s going on.

The kid never did show up. But I thought of Red Tag again just a few days ago while fighting that steelhead. I wanted to land that fish. Have a look. Heft the weight. Hey, I read the book, I know he swam a long way. Got chased. Almost eaten. Jumped fish ladders. It wasn’t a five-minute fight on a fly rod, it was a trip out to the Pacific Ocean and back that was on the line.

He came in, finally. Bright. Wild. A fine-looking red and silver torpedo. I had my look, removed the hook, he lay there resting, then flipped his tail and shot away. Just like an animated version of the last page from my favorite childhood book, where I got to reach down and pick the fish up off the page. And just like the book, I wanted to go back and start over again.