Outside: Fish On The Brain

Giving yourself just 24 hours to catch a steelhead and then setting out on the road to do so is one of angling’s worst gambles. Especially when you must drive three and a half hours along one of the windiest roads in the West, over a notorious mountain pass, just to reach these fish. Steelhead don’t exist in Montana. You have to get to Idaho or beyond to find them.

A friend and I took that bet in November. He somehow convinced me that leaving Missoula at 8 p.m., just after I coached my girls’ basketball team to an overtime loss, was a great idea. I had no voice and seemingly little sense, the latter due to my friend’s propensity to drive at the very limits of physics. On this trip I have to remind him that all that waits ahead are a couple whiskeys and a night of sleep; we won’t miss a thing if he drives a safe 60 miles an hour versus 80.

I say this each time he drives, mostly as a valid mark of concern, but also to see his reaction. “You worry about the songs on the iPod, and I’ll drive,” he says, adding, “You’re just nervous because you’re not used to the sway.”

The “sway” is a sensation brought on by the tipping of his 3,000-pound Lance camper. At each bend, as he hits the brakes and my eyes get wide, the whole truck seems to lift onto two wheels before, miraculously, finding purchase again. On this particular road, Highway 12 between Lolo, Montana, and Orofino, Idaho, we go through this process perhaps 600 times. While negotiating one particularly sharp turn he glances up at me and says, “My girlfriend has to medicate when she rides with me.” I ask the obvious question: “Does she have any of that stuff stashed in here?” By the time we park at an access site along the Clearwater River, I am worn out but glad to be here in one piece, with nothing more to do than swing flies for steelhead.

Just because we made the drive didn’t mean we’d catch a steelhead or even see one. These fish inhabit wide rivers and their numbers pale in comparison to trout. For instance, in any given year Montana’s Bighorn River might offer 8,000 to 12,000 trout per mile. On a standard steelhead river you might find 100 fish per mile, or none, depending on a slew of factors (chief among them timing and weather conditions). And there’s no way to guess how many fish are finning in a particular run. Whereas resident trout pretty much remain in the same pool through most of the year, steelhead are on the move — from the ocean into the mountains — until they find a suitable spawning area, some traveling upward of 500 miles to do so. In addition, unlike trout these fish rarely rise to the surface and they are nearly invisible under it. Imagine elk hunting while blindfolded and you get a sense for how difficult finding a steelhead can be.

These challenges, however, are the real draw. In fact, few anglers wouldn’t trade the last 20 trout they caught on dry flies for one 15-pound steelhead. Think of it this way: Would any of us be willing to deal with long-term parking, security lines, pat downs and jet-lag if there wasn’t an assurance of sand and sun at the end of a long winter flight out of the Rockies? It’s a light at the end of the tunnel thing. Most of the time.

Be warned: You can go a season without catching a steelhead when fish numbers are low. You can easily go a week without one, even on some of the best rivers in the world. During the same week, you can feel like you have these fish figured out or that you know nothing about them. For instance, one year I fished British Columbia’s Dean River, which many anglers consider to be the best steelhead locale in the world. I started out fast and had 13 fish to the beach by the end of the second day. I scratched up a few on days three and four, and then I couldn’t touch a thing. Meanwhile, one of my fellow guests at BC West got on a serious tear. He’d landed only a couple fish during his first two days, but by the end of the sixth day he’d brought 28 steelhead to hand, most coming on the days I failed. Each night he’d report his catch, and the following day I’d be on the water wondering why I’d gone cold and if I should completely switch tactics and flies. Honestly, I didn’t even know where to throw my next cast. It all seemed futile. A couple fish on day six reminded me that the best thing to do while steelheading is stay the course.

Now on the Clearwater, a little after 11 a.m., I am getting that old familiar feeling. I hadn’t touched a fish. Hadn’t seen a fish landed by any of the anglers floating by in drift boats or those wading downstream from me. I wonder if my sink-tip is getting the fly deep enough and whether that fly is even the right color and size. When this feeling sets in — and you will get this sensation if you fish steelhead — I do the natural thing. I quit.

This tactic serves well even if you just take a few moments to sit on the bank, puff a cigar, take a little nip off a flask and just watch the river flow by while you try to identify where your next cast should land. But this time we retreat to the camper.

I’m not used to plush accommodations while steelheading. I’m used to eating my lunch next to the river in the rain or sleet or snow. I’m used to struggling with a campfire in the dark, and sleeping on the ground in a tent, bundled in every piece of clothing I wore that day (minus the waders and wading boots of course). But this camper thing is something I could get used to.

My friend asks, “Do you want the heat turned up?”

“Why yes, I would.”

“I have a microwave. Do you like your sandwich hot or cold?”


“I think the football game is just starting. Should I turn it on?”

“Well, sure.”

“Doesn’t the rain pattering down on the roof sound cool?”

“Didn’t even know it was raining. But now that you say so, yes, yes it does. Sort of comforting, in fact.”

An hour later, warm and full, we head downriver to find another run, somewhere to start fresh. And that’s when we run into a problem that haunts steelheaders from Idaho to California and all the way north to Alaska — competition. Fishing is not a foursome in golf. Fishing is not pickup basketball where you need 10 to do it right. Fishing is not tennis where you must have two. Fishing is something you’d rather do by yourself on a river devoid of anglers, so that your flies cover fresh fish all day. Or if not by yourself, with only one or two friends, people who are dedicated to the task, people you can share tactics and flies with; or at the very least, people who have warm campers on the backs of their trucks.

The first place we want to stop, a long, deep run that swings a fly just right, has a boat floating through the center of it and three bank anglers casting Spey rods as far as they can, protecting the near water from the floaters. Next desirable run? No boats, just another couple “bankies.” Ditto on runs three and four. Pretty soon, we wonder if we’ll find a run without anglers in it. That’s when my friend looks out the window and says, “What about that?”

This corner run isn’t perfect: a little too short and fast for my liking. But it is empty. And we agree it is worth a try. Especially because, after driving for an hour, we feel the day sliding away from us. It is 1 p.m. Cloudy. With sunset scheduled at 4:30, the 24-hour experiment is going awry.

I take the very head of the run and my friend slides into the deep middle portion. From the first cast, I don’t like the water I am fishing and truly feel like I might be doing nothing more than practicing my cast. But 15 yards downstream I start seeing deep slots between large boulders in water that I still call a little too fast, but manageable. The river is 90 yards wide. I work a slot 20 yards out, over and over. It is just 6 feet wide and maybe 10 feet deep. That’s where I think a steelhead could be. I cast upstream and let the fly drop before tightening the line and raising it from the bottom. Nothing. Not in that trough, not in the next, or the following.

Just before I reach the water my friend had fished, I work another slot, this one a little farther out. When the fly rises from the deeper water, I feel a subtle tap. I yell, “I think I just had a little grab,” then wade back upstream 10 yards and repeat the cast. When the line comes tight I feel life on the end. Seconds later, a 10-pound steelhead launches from the water. It runs across the river, jumps again, and briefly becomes snagged on a rock before I can work it to the near bank.

We admire that wild fish for a moment, then free it back to the river. I wouldn’t say I’d completely lost faith, but that fish had arrived as a surprise and now, as I look across the breadth of the river and all available water it could have been in, it feels like a little miracle for my fly to have swam just a few inches in front of its snout and for the fish to actually strike. Twice.

Blindfolded, hunting elk in the woods.

The following day, back in Missoula, I start figuring a way to get back on the Clearwater, if only for a day. Another 24-hour experiment. I consider a major looming editorial deadline. I think about freelance assignments coming due. But mostly I think about having just three days before I’d get my girls back for a 10-day straight run. And then I think about washing sheets. And cleaning bathrooms. And hitting the grocery store. And vacuuming. And 5th grade girls’ basketball practices. And a full Thanksgiving dinner to be cooked.

My friend calls. “You in?”

“Dead off the water,” I declare.

Then a voice in my head says, Next up. I get on the phone and call sources in British Columbia.

“How about seven days on the Skeena and Kitimat in late February? Or helicopter flights out to coastal rivers?”

“Could be good,” the tourism director responds. “I’ll work on it.”

That takes care of March, maybe.

Then I call a friend. Killer fly tier. Great Spey caster. Guides for a steelhead lodge in northern B.C.

“What about late March or early April?” I ask.

“You should come stay with us!” she implores. “We’ve got cabins. A sweet lodge. You can do guided, unguided, or a combination of both. Would be awesome to hang out.”

OK, there’s March. Maybe.

Now how about the Dean in late June?

I dial. “Hey, it’s Greg,” I say. “I had a blast the last time I was with you guys. Got any slots on the Dean in 2016?”

“Not a chance,” he says. “It’s bonefish at one of our other lodges or nothing.”

“No deal,” I answer. “I’m consumed by steel.”

“I get it,” he says.

This is how it happens when we have some success while chasing one of the world’s great game fish. Marlin. Tarpon. Permit. Atlantic salmon. Musky. Western steelhead. All low-odd endeavors. All offering high-end returns.

These fish can dominate our attention, empty our wallets, ruin relationships. I’ve heard the stories. It’s our own versions of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch where there’s a dull, yet demanding pull, not completely overwhelming but definitely there. Something that reminds us of what makes us feel best. It’s an ailment we all know, a mild addiction for sure, and most of us call it fish on the brain.

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