A quick glance at the swell chart showed one of the offshore coastal buoys reading 5 feet of swell with 15 seconds of interval. Most of fall and winter, the North Pacific has ranged from 15 feet to 25, coupled with winds and rain. Today however is boasting small swells, clear skies, and offshore wind coming from land blowing out to sea. Creating one of those extremely rare days a surfer salivates over.
The nearby river mouth has dumped thousands of pounds of sand and sediment just offshore creating a sandbar, shaping waves beautifully. The thick wetsuit gets pulled on, booties are strapped around my feet, and the wax gets rubbed onto the board while my fingers do their best to work in the brisk morning.
The immediate feel of the cold Pacific Ocean shocks my core, but the offshore waves cresting in the wind, painted beautifully by the sun, helped the paddle out to the empty lineup.
Once out, the sight before my eyes blessed me with a large green wave, warming my stomach and exciting me for the ride ahead should I catch it. With the wave bombing right for me, I spin my board around, paddle as hard as I can against the wind, and let it catch my board and glide me to me feet. And in that moment, as I feel the swiftness of the wave carry me, my line comes tight.
Fall and winter have plagued the rivers of the PNW with chocolate milk for days and numbers of fish so low it begs the question of why we even consider swinging flies for them.
However, the long-term forecast is predicting a week of sun without a drop of water coming from the heavens. Like surfers reading offshore buoys, I too gander at the data and river flows seeing one of my favorite steelhead rivers dropping into shape.
I wake before down, make coffee, put base layers on, and prepare for a frost-ridden morning of this pacific northwest winter day. Slipping my breathable waders into each leg while tying my boots, I pull my 13-foot spey rod out of its tube and feed line through the guides.
As the sun crests above the towering trees along the riverbank, otters scatter at my site, and a bald eagle flies overhead. I step into the turquoise water and instantly feel the cold rainwater these fish live in. I pull out line from the reel and begin making my casts. Snap, cast, step, repeat. Until one cast, one swing made all the effort worth it.
The rod is bent, and line careens out of my reel and quickly into my backing. Feeling the weight of the fish, I run downstream to the best of my ability in order to ensure it doesn’t snap off. The tail splashes water and the silver flashes of body flare through the turquoise waters. Several minutes of this ensue before the fish slowly comes to hand, blessing me an opportunity at a rare conversation with this long-distance traveler.
I keep the beautiful hen halfway submerged, making sure water is going over her gills. I unhook the barbless fly and release my gentle grip on her, giving her access to be unbothered by me and hopefully anything else for the future of her trip on this river.
As she powerfully strokes her tail, splashing water into my face and down my waders, I stand up on my surfboard and feel the power of the wave drive me down its face.
The offshore winds blind me at take off, making me read brail as I go to stand up. But with decades of experience, I know where to place my feet and the balance follows as this over-head, green wall of a wave peels down the new sandbar from the outflow of the river mouth. As I bottom turn, the crest of the wave begins to break over me, folding a wall of water, shooting outward creating space for me to fit into.
With this cascading water surrounding me, that moment paints the picture of the reward that patience struggles to remind me of and a mist of water shoots at my back from deep within the wave. Firing me out the end of the fold like a train coming out of a tunnel.
The barrel made the morning worthy that no coffee could recreate. The shivering of pulling the wet and cold wetsuit onto my warm body resisted, but the reward was apparent without a soul in sight to share it with. Like the loneliness of the long-distance runner, the journey was necessary for the enjoyment these two activities bless me with.
The differences between surfing and steelhead seem apparent. One is practiced almost entirely in freshwater. Anglers narrow our chances down at an encounter greatly by meeting them on these freshwater highways instead of the giant swimming pool of the ocean. Surfing is practiced largely in saltwater, despite having surfers in the Great Lakes or other large freshwater lakes.
However, the similarities are what I have pondered for years practicing both sports. The connection between fly fishing for steelhead and surfing are shared by the ocean. We do know that steelhead replicate the life cycle of the salmon, to an extent. They are born in the river but leave when ready to head out to sea, fattening up and maturing before returning to the same river to spawn.
Like steelhead, traveling thousands of miles, waves also travel long distances. Gaining speed and strength while they fan out from the storm that created them. These same storms also bring rain to the coast. So not only do surfers and steelheaders share the knowledge of studying swells and rain, they are connected through the same storms. With what a surfer salivates over from a storm for waves, steelheaders share this mouthwatering sensation as it brings rain to the rivers, granting fish passage for when they shape up for us to have an encounter.
Depending on the type of surfer you are, the storms that often bring rain to the rivers bring huge waves as well. Only a few spots along the coast can handle such power from the ocean and therefore surfers travel up and down the coast, chasing these small pockets of coast that are protected. Surfers and steelhead chase these storms as one grants us enjoyment and exercise, while the other grants passage to finally return home and spawn.
The conundrum of it all is when the rivers do shape up and drop, the ocean too is calm, with waves often firing. For the most part, however, the coasts fire on the same days that the rivers grant us passage to cast and that is a decision I am uncertain I’ll ever be able to make appropriately.
Many of the surf spots up and down the coast where steelhead rivers flow into the ocean, often have sand bars created from the outflow of the river. So, a day where I do decide to surf instead of fish, there is still an odd connection to the river and fish despite being in the ocean.
The final chapter of the connection is at the river mouths themselves. Rivers range in outflow. Depending on the river, some have constant flows into the ocean no matter the rain, or only breach when the right storm discharges the right amount of water. Surfers know this fact as to when large flows enter the ocean, so too does sediment and sand that create sandbars that shape waves into rideable entities. So, when steelhead enter the rivers at the mouths, often this could coincide with a surfer being at that literal mouth to catch waves.
Most river mouths are protected from fishing, therefore granting fish unmolested passage upstream. However, river mouths can be fantastic, if not some of the best surfable waves on the coast, it doesn’t make them safe by any means.
If there is an ecosystem where the entire food chain can be seen from the beach, it is at the river mouths of salmon and steelhead rivers. Along the Pacific Northwest as I am sure around the world, the salmon and steelhead swim around these mouths, waiting for the tide to change and begin pushing water up stream. The seals know this and wait at the mouths for their catch. Because of the seal activity from the salmon and steelhead, they attract the attention of sharks. Where if you’re a surfer, is your worst nightmare.
No matter the choice, no matter the sport, the connection between the two activities has spawned a near 25-year obsession of mine studying swell charts and river flows. Almost to the point of memorizing buoy numbers and river flows up and down the coast to read what is coming and knowing what is flowing. Paying attention to moon phases and understanding tides has nearly caused multiple relationships to fail as I would spend more time studying these analytics than paying attention to the sexy lingerie my girlfriend decided to wear.
Putting on breathable waders or that 5 mil wetsuit, rigging up that spey rod or waxing up the surfboard, the obsession and connection it seems is through water. An unpredictable and relentless source of energy.
The way I see it, surfing and steelheading are just a way to recharge batteries, and because of that, I will continue to find ways to plug in. Keeping this connection to water, whether it is through casting into the rivers or paddling into the ocean, one storm at a time.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Sean grew up on the California coast where he spent years surfing and steelheading the coastal areas. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.
Cover photo Kirk Blaine.