A Taste of Steelheading

Oregon steelhead river

Going into my recent trip to Oregon, I knew that steelheading wasn’t easy. I had a feeling that I knew what I was getting myself into – the awful weather, the freezing water, huge rivers, scarce fish, and confusing casting. In spite of these daunting considerations, I felt ready and couldn’t have been more excited! 

Oregon cost
The beautiful Oregon coast

When I took my first step out of the airport in Oregon, I was immediately confused. I was supposed to be going winter steelheading, famous for the blinding snow, the bottomless rain, and the chilling emptiness. Instead, I found bright sun and high sixties, which was quite nicer than the weather I left back home in Massachusetts. Apparently, I assumed wrong, or just got lucky, but I can’t say I was disappointed. My dad and I hopped into our rental car and hit the highway towards the near-by town where we were staying. The rest of the day went by fast. We visited the local fly shop, met with some new friends, and crushed some top-notch burgers with a new friend, Jesse, who we would be fishing with the next day.  

Spey setup
Tools of the trade -Nate Holmes

The next morning, we woke up, downed some breakfast, and trailered Jesse’s drift boat to the river. We got a thorough lesson in Spey casting (Thanks, Jesse), to the point that we could plop a fly further than expected and in the general intended direction. And now that my dad and I were pretty much pros (haha), we headed downriver to find some fishy runs.

fly fishing on driftboats
Jesse on the sticks -Nate Holmes

Steelhead are very special fish. Their unique life cycle sets them apart from any other species. Fittingly, as advertised, they are very hard to catch. They’re not like salmon in the way that while fishing, one would see some swimming around. It’s almost like they aren’t even in the whole river. It seems like they don’t even exist until that one moment where it all happens. I’ve learned that this one moment is what drives the extreme, diehard cult of anglers that are Steelheaders. After hours of casting, swinging, stepping and repeating, I got to experience that moment.

the swing
The swing

It was a long run, shallower than some others we had swung, but still had decent depth. The run had a slight curve, forming a loose “C” and a brushy bank. I was at the top of the run, and my dad had the bottom. Jesse, being the amazing host he was, stood by me and gave me pointers, mainly consisting of “you’re moving too fast”, “wait before you take your steps” and occasionally “nice cast”. He said that no one ever catches a Steelhead without feeling good about your swing, and while fishing that run, I felt good. I was getting the hang of Spey casting. The line was shooting out of my rod, and every swing just felt good. I can’t describe why or how, but it just felt good. I was getting in a groove when all of a sudden, my world stopped. Mid juicy swing, I felt as if I was hit by an eighteen-wheeler. My rod lurched forward, and I probably made some horrible noise. I raised my rod yelling “fish”! I was in slow motion. My rod came up and on the other end was a freak of nature. It came up off the bottom and shot partially out of the water. It fired upstream and my line came flying back at me. I stripped as fast as I possibly could to try to regain tension, but I was too late. 

steelhead fly
Our fly of choice

I had never been so happy after losing a fish! I felt like I just won the Super Bowl, but I actually just lost the fish of a lifetime. Jesse and I each got a good enough look at it to see my dreams in real life. I just hooked a bright chrome, large, wild and native Steelhead! I had the “moment”, and even though it was only ten seconds long, it sparked a flame, the same kind of flame that sparked when I started fly fishing, that one day will turn into a fire. A bright chrome fire that will stay with me forever.

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