Chasing winter steelhead has presented an entirely different set of challenges than any other fishing I have yet to experience. Once you get used to casting with what feels like a dumbbell on the end of your line, the fishing part itself is easy; cast, mend, repeat. The challenge is maintaining confidence so that every time your rig hits the water, you actually have a chance at hooking into a fish. Throwing a nymph rig into the water at fish, who may or may not even be in that section of a river, can be defeating. Add in some rain, wind, leaky waders and cold hands, and you start to question your idea of fun. On my first steelhead trip of the season, my friend Matt (IG: @mattbregartner) and I had just about reached that point.
With less than a week of combined steelhead fishing experience between us, we had left camp at sunrise, determined to be the first ones in the only spot we were totally familiar with. Within five minutes of arriving at our first spot, Matt put a solid buck in the net. After a few more drifts, we decided to head upstream, feeling optimistic about the rest of the day.
Any sense of confidence that we had gained at our first spot was lost over the next few hours. All the other spots we had scouted out the evening before were full of people. We tried going above the crowds but wondered if the fish were even up that high. We tried to find spots that were harder to access but usually ended up getting turned around by sketchy river crossings or no trespassing signs. It felt like we were spending more time in the car than on the water, so we decided to stop at the next open spot we saw and just commit to fishing it.
We spotted an open stretch of water that looked promising – from the car. I’m sure everyone can relate to the feeling you get when you see water that looks so good you feel like you can’t get out there fast enough…upon closer inspection, this spot was pretty much the opposite of that. It looked like a wide, flat, shallow riffle with plenty of rocks to snag on. Matt, trying to remain optimistic, pointed out that there was a deeper run on the far bank that we may be able to reach if we could wade out to it. I took the top part of the run and began to work my way out to the middle, inching closer to the deeper water with every cast, scrambling to find footholds to brace against. When I finally reached a spot within casting reach of the deep run, I glanced down at Matt just in time to watch his rod bend in half.
I admired another fish in the net with mixed feelings, relieved that we weren’t getting skunked, but frustrated that I had yet to connect with a single fish. The moment his fish swam out of the net, I grabbed my rod and scrambled back out to the middle of the river. A few casts later, I watched my indicator drop and I set the hook as I had done at least a hundred times already that day, prepared for five minutes of tug-of-war with a rock. Then, I felt it move, just a few feet at first. I felt the familiar mix of excitement and nerves, knowing that hooking a big fish is only half the battle. As he made a short run, I tried to slowly let the line slip through my fingers, while Matt ran downstream with the net. After a brief moment of panic when the fish swam into and immediately back out of the net, I was looking at my first steelhead of the season, a beautiful, colored up buck.
There is something indescribable about putting your hands on a fish that has the power to swim to the ocean and back. Regardless of where they began their lives, the fact that any of these fish are able to make it back home, with the odds stacked against them, amazes me. As I watched him swim out of my shaking hands, an immense feeling of relief washed over me. We looked out at the little, unassuming stretch of water that had made our day and laughed about how close we had been to driving away before even wetting a line.
After a few more hours of hole hopping, we returned to our spot one more time late in the afternoon. I watched Matt put plenty of good drifts through the spot where we had our success earlier in the day, but it seemed as though our luck had run out. When he reeled his set up in and headed back to the bank, I couldn’t resist wading down to where he had been standing to get a few “last casts”, just in case. I was so surprised when I hooked a fish that I waited a few seconds before I said anything. After confirming that I was actually hooked up, a few minutes of slight chaos ensued before I had the first hen of the day in the net.
We left the river that day feeling both grateful and humbled, with a few valuable lessons learned. Leaving your comfort zone and fishing new water, or targeting a new species can be frustrating, but if you treat every day as a learning experience, the reward is absolutely worth it.
Maddie Lewis is a talented fly angler from the western USA. Be sure to check out her other awesome content on Instagram @m_lewis_!
Photos courtesy of @mattbregartner and @m_lewis_.