The Steelhead Express
Reeeeeeeediculous. Steelhead fishing is supposed to require long hours of cold perseverance for a brief but spectacular payoff. Six hours of angling per fish is an average I’ve heard bandied about this season. But not on Sunday. Mercy no. Not during that magic hour when I was averaging, say, sixteen minutes between fish. And this is me we’re talking about. As a rule, I don’t catch fish. Certainly not big beautiful steelhead. But I sure did Sunday, after riding down Minam Canyon on the steelhead train and walking into the best day of fishing I’ve had since Alaskan salmon took numbers for the privilege of getting on my line years ago.
This fish train runs . . . well, it goes ten miles an hour, I don’t know if that’s ‘running’ exactly . . . but it chugs nine miles downstream along the Wallowa River, stopping to drop passengers wherever they spy a likely patch of river. You get a lunch and further mobility to new fishing grounds when the train makes a mid-day traverse up and down the tracks. I wasn’t interested in new water. Tom Farnum, our Winding Waters fishing guide, stopped the train for me and pointed to a run nobody else was on. ‘If I were you,’ he said. ‘I’d just stay there all day.’
I would have moved if Tom hadn’t given me that tip. I would have moved just for the sake of getting feeling back in my feet. It was powerful cold early on. The guides on my rod iced over completely. I tried to make a cast but no line shot through. I tried a few more times, because in my style of fly casting, line does not always move through the guides. That style is known as ‘bad.’ But this time it was ice. And frozen feet. And no fish. Ah yes, I thought. Now this is steelheading.
Fast forward two hours. I had just landed my second steelhead. Sun was up, I’d taken off my coat and gloves, even thought about getting down to a t-shirt. Made six more casts and hooked up again. Just got all my line on the reel when the fish decided it had better things to do upstream, ripping a crease in the water while taking line right back off my reel. Another steelhead came up and rolled fifteen feet to my left. And I laughed. Just laughed. Sunny. Warm. A March day that went from freezing to sunscreen weather and I was in the right place at the right time.
The mood on the train was buoyant riding back to Minam. To signal the train to stop, the ‘elephant wave’ is conducted by wagging your arm back and forth as you hold it down. Like an elephant wagging its trunk. And the last group of fisherman made this signal as the train approached, except two steelhead on a stringer were doing the wagging, not their arm.
The steelhead express will make three more runs this season, this coming Friday and Saturday, March 12th and 13th, then the following Saturday on March 20th. For reservations, contact the Minam Motel at (877) 888-8130, or click here for a link to their train info. If you want the inside track from a steelhead professional, I can personally recommend Tom Farnum, who put me into the best day of steelheading I’ve had. Ever.