After moving to the Olympic Peninsula for a travel nurse job, I learned quickly that there was a reason why steelhead were referred to as The Fish of a Thousand Casts.
I was at the point where I was just starting to gain confidence in my fly fishing, and the pursuit of this amazing creature humbled me down quickly.
Winter steelheading is not for the light-hearted. It is an addiction, to say the least. It’s waking up before sunrise to get a few hours in before a long work day. It’s spending countless hours in the blistering cold water even when you’ve lost the feeling in your fingers and toes. It’s about spending many nights researching, learning the life cycle of these majestic fish. It’s also about knowing where to find them and how to hunt them. Finally, it’s about certainty. You have to be certain that when you go to make your first cast in the river that it might be your only chance for the day so you can’t mess it up.
I lost five fish this winter and because of this, my hopes of catching a steelhead were not high. Now I was well aware that people go months without making a connection with one. I told myself, maybe I was lucky enough just being able to catch a glimpse of one. Anyone who has been bitten by steelhead addiction knows that catching one is a challenge. A challenge that only drives you harder, and if finding a steelhead wasn’t hard enough, landing one was just the other half of the equation.
With my fishing, I had reached a point where I was beyond disappointed with myself. Every time I lost a fish I remember thinking, “What am I doing wrong?” I never seemed to have any trouble previously landing fish so why now?
It wasn’t until a cold morning on an Olympic Peninsula river with my friend and guide, Andy Simon, that it really hit me. I had just hooked and lost another steelhead when he turned to me and said, “Natalie, when you feel that tug you have to stop trout setting and you have to set it like you mean it or they will spit the hook every time.”
That was all I needed.
After that, I proceeded to gather my line to make one more cast but something was different. For a flicker of a second, I thought about why I loved to fish and not so much about catching a fish.
I put my heart and soul into that last cast. As I stood there, watching my line unravel before me atop the crystal blue water, I went to make my first mend. It was at that moment that I felt a jolt in my hand. It was an old, familiar feeling that I knew so well. I didn’t have to think twice. I just knew that this time, she was mine.
Then something strange happened. I had a blackout moment because I don’t remember getting her to the net nor do I remember holding her in my hands. But I do remember one thing that I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt when I released her into the cold water so she could continue on her journey or the warmness that spread through me as I watched her swim off.
At the end of it all, I sat there for what felt like an hour with a smile painted across my lips. I thought to myself, “That’s the feeling.” What feeling? The feeling I try to continuously explain when people ask why I love fly fishing.
This article was contributed by Natalie Ulicny, you can find her on Instagram @natalieann425