My First Steelhead

A thousand casts is a small price to pay.

[by Russ Lumpkin]


DON HAD BEEN A FRIEND OF MINE FOR YEARS BUT I’D never laid eyes on him till he met me at the airport. He’d invited me to his spring steelhead camp, and there I met his wife and several of their friends.

In the vacation home, I couldn’t have been more welcome and of the fishing, couldn’t have been more anxious. Over the years, I had read several pieces Don had written about Southeast steelheading and remembered that he called it a “target rich environment” that holds the potential to contradict the steelhead’s reputation of being the fish of a thousand casts.

Prior to the trip, I envisioned catching beautiful steelhead, embraced the reality of losing others, and imagined celebrating every acrobatic leap and powerful run. I imagined their spawning colors—deep red cheeks and sides, and elsewhere, a kaleidoscope of nearly every hue under the sun, dancing and changing depending on the angle of the light.

My hope for steelhead grew verdant but in the Southeast, there are realities that make the experience all the greater— pleasant walks over spongy ground, the smell of a Tongass spring, even the rank odor of skunk cabbage, numerous black-tailed deer, occasional bears, and the constant cacophony of birds.

But after a couple days, some of the others had enjoyed little luck, and aside from being there, I’d enjoyed none.  There were great meals and wine and Scotch, and in the evenings, the talk among anglers inevitably turned to fishing. I listened as skilled steelheaders spoke of their experiences over the years compared to their experiences of the previous couple days. And all the talk led to one question: “Where are the fish?”

One thought held that the warm weather had compelled the steelhead to spawn earlier than usual, and that they had come and gone.  The other argument posited that the fish had yet to arrive due to little winter snow, hardly any snowmelt, and a mostly dry spring that left the rivers too low for the fish to make it upstream.

Both arguments made sense, but when I flew out, steelhead remained the fish of a thousand casts and counting.  That evening in Juneau, I called Mark, an acquaintance of an acquaintance, and he said he’d be glad to take me fishing.  The hunt continued.

Steelhead, which are genetically the same as rainbow trout, are anadromous like salmon. But, unlike salmon, they live through the spawn, return to the sea, and often live to spawn again. I’d read that their forays into the salt often carried them far, as commercial fishermen near the Japanese coast regularly pull sea-run rainbows into their nets.

The next morning, at the river, Mark and I walked a path well worn by anglers and wildlife until we reached a point where the trail disappeared. We waded upstream. Not far up, we passed a steelhead that had been dragged ashore by an otter. My hope grew.

Occasionally, Mark would stop, point to a spot, and say “Fish.” I never saw what he saw but with great hope would drift the fly past each spot several times.  Then we’d move on. Soon we reached an area where two trees grew nearly in the middle of the river, one downstream of the other about 15 feet apart. A log lay wedged between the two, and Mark said there was a steelie just on the other side of it.

I made a short cast upstream, but Mark said the drift was just offline. I made another cast, this time accurately, and the indicator disappeared—the fight was on.  The water erupted with a heavy push of crimson and silver.  The fish made a strong run downstream, and I hopped over the log and crossed to the other side to keep up.  The fish showed itself with a big leap then took a dive into a deep, dark pool. I held tight while the drag hissed.  The big steelhead tried to make a run upstream but skirted a sandbar where Mark netted her—a beautiful hen.

For all the hope of catching a steelhead, I could hardly believe the reality of her lying in the sand. I tried to heft her for a photograph but she had plenty of fight in reserve and made way for deeper water. A thousand casts is a small price to pay.

I caught a final glimpse of her giant tail and thought of her swimming free in the ocean. Maybe she didn’t make it all the way to the Land of the Rising Sun, but certainly she’d seen things bigger and badder than me. I, however, don’t think I’ve ever caught anything so grand.

Russ Lumpkin

2 thoughts on “My First Steelhead

  1. Very nice, Russ. I had a similar steelhead experience in the same area, but a long time ago. Too long, actually. But despite not getting a tape on that fish or a photo, the good news is how large that fish will grow over the decades as you retell the story. Congratulations.

  2. Everyone remembers their first stream steelhead. Lake caught steelhead in Great Lakes not so much. Hand to hand combat with fish jumping over your head and smoking runs up and down the stream. Steelhead are still my favorite fresh water fish.

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