It's that time of year, where chrome bright winter steelhead start moving up the rivers. The first part of the run is now mostly hatchery fish, but there are still a few resilient early natives mixed in. Yesterday I met one.
It was a classic NW Winter day. Low cloud cover, mid-40's temperature, and drizzle where the green of the forests is almost washed away by the oppressive gray pushing down from the sky. The river was dirty with about one to two feet of visibility, adding another surface of gray to the pallet. I worked my way downstream floating and fishing. I arrive at the run I wanted to focus on and start fishing. The fly is swinging well and about twenty casts into the run I feel a grab, and then nothing. The grab always feels like lightning going through your veins, but the lack of connection is always disappointing. This time of year, the question with a large grab is "what was that?" Was it a king, coho, or steelhead? A question I will never know.
I continued to work down the run as the current mellowed the fly started ticking the bottom and hanging up occasionally. The answer was a lighter tip, so I looped on five feet of T-14 and continued to fish. Then a swing was interrupted once a again by a pull. My mind quickly shifts back to fishing from gazing at the bald eagle squawking on the tall river side tree. I feel a second pull, then feel line start coming off my reel, and then come tight to a fish. Instantly the fish is running. I look towards the line streaming downstream and see white, the color of backing. Then a jump, and all I can see is a distant flash of silver in the air. I start moving down the gravel bar gaining back some of the line. This fish is strong and feels heavier than the fish I saw jump. I wonder if I have foul hooked a salmon because of the heavy feel. But I can gain line easily when the fish stops so that thought passes. Another couple fast runs and one of my favorite types of jumps happens. The fish jumps ten feet to the side of where your line enters the river. I work the fish quickly towards the beach. As I get it in the shallows I see that it is a steelhead with a big fat adipose fin and any thoughts of being foul hooked are gone when I see the fly lodged in the fish's mouth. I quickly grab the leader and tail this magnificent twelve pound hen as the hook falls out. I take a quick look at the perfectly clean fins and release my grip. She quickly charges off back into the gray water. After the release I am struck by this fish. The power and speed combined to make this one of the hottest fish I have ever hooked, including fish on rivers notorious for their hot steelhead.
I fished for a few more hours with the only other grab was a small bull trout, but I am struck by what a rare experience I had today. Early run native winter steelhead were historically much more abundant than they currently are. Decades of hatchery plants along with non-selective harvest have made this segment of the steelhead population a rarity. The fact that native fish continue to hold on in the face of everything we can throw at them amazes me. Sometime we fishermen get to see and hold a trace of the past, but far too often we are only left with the stories from old timers of what it used to be like. At least for today those are not just stories.