How to Waste Your Time Steelheading

The flight from Vancouver to Terrace, British Columbia is one of the best in the world. It’s 1 hour and 45 minutes of pure glacial and mountain porn, interrupted only briefly by a winding logging road or a mysterious cabin. The number of river systems you pass over in this short flight will make you squirm.

I was sitting in the exit row with my feet up on the seat opposite me, drinking a Bloody Mary and thinking about what it might be like to catch my first steelhead – something I’d been trying to do for 19 days. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I’d spent the better part of 3 weeks on some of the world’s finest steelhead waters without even a tug. August on the Deschutes, November on the Salmon River (the NY one), and I’d even been up to the Skeena before for a few weeks of glorified spey casting practice. I wasn’t even scared of not catching fish this trip, I was much more scared of hooking one and fucking it up somehow. Not catching fish I can deal with. Blowing my one chance, I can’t. Needless to say, my expectations were low.

I did feel that I deserved one – that I’d put in my time and the steelhead gods would reward me. But steelheading is a bit like drinking. It requires a certain kind of aloof and objective awareness that what you’re doing is unlikely to produce results and probably a big waste of time and money. You’re going to do it anyway though.

At this point, you might think I’m going to tell you about my first steelhead. I’m not. That astronomical relief came the second day on an “unnamed” British Columbia river. Another angler had borrowed my rod and tied on an egg pattern. I walked guiltily about halfway to the river with it still there before I just shook my head and tied on a meaty piece of blue, black, and pink marabou. After 19 days, it wouldn’t have been right to succumb to the alluring promises that an egg pattern can provide. And the steelhead gods did reward me for that righteous show of fortitude with this lovely creature.

This story is really about my last day on a Skeena tributary, which is the only day I really think about anymore. We’d started early, drinking a few Caesars (Canadian for Bloody Mary) here and there, saying “nice cast” to each other, playing with the dog, and just kind of having a good time on the river. Fishing hard, but rotating into the pool so there was always some bullshitting going on. I had hooked and landed two that week, which tied me for top rod amongst 6 anglers.

At around 1 that afternoon, we jetted down to my favorite pool on the river where I had landed a nice buck two days earlier. Ten minutes into the new pool and I snagged up a bit earlier than usual. 2,000 casts between fish will leave you a bit jaded, which is probably a good thing so you don’t react too fast and trout set the hook. Suddenly the reel made a few clicks faster than normal and a big piece of silver rolled where my fly was supposed to be. “Fiiiiiiiish!!!!”, I yelled as I pulled hard to the right. But it was too late. The fish had rolled over the line and the barbless hook popped straight out. “Fuuuuuuuuuuck!!” I yelled, with my arms hanging limp by my sides.

I took a minute to myself – analyzing everything I had done wrong over a cigarette. The water needed to rest a minute anyway.

My buddy Lucas Young was upstream, stripping back out the line he had reeled in after I yelled “fish”. I took a deep breath, put my extinguished cigarette butt in my waders, and made a double spey.

I have found that the key to steelhead fishing is pretending like you don’t care. I had landed one fish earlier that week when my rod was under my armpit and I was trying to make a wet lighter ignite. These fish know when you’re not paying attention and that’s the time they choose to strike. You will fish best when you’re zoned out, thinking about the mountains or the river or ideally not thinking at all. As a young angler, it’s hard for me to not pour all my concentration into the tip of the rod and the anticipation that something might bring it to life. So, I have to pretend that I’m not paying attention in order to fool the steelhead into taking my fly, much like a criminal whistling past a police officer on the street.

That’s exactly what I was doing when the second strike came, not more than eight casts later. “Fiiiiiiiish!!”, I yelled again. I always try to say something cooler when it happens, but that’s the only thing that ever comes out.

The belly of the line had drifted downstream of the fish, and as I pulled the rod over my left shoulder and reeled down, the line peeled through the water with a sound similar to pulling saran wrap from the roll until it finally came to full connection with the fish. He didn’t like the newly acquired tension, and shot off downstream into the current as I staggered backwards towards the shore, laughing like a madman.

Lucas came running down the bank with his camera and grabbed the net out of the boat on his way. Our guide and close friend Scott Young was galloping over rocks on his way back from some water he was scouting upstream.

This fish was bigger than any of the others from that week. Much bigger actually, and I was trying to keep him out of a massive log jam I was fishing close to. Leaning hard to the left and gaining line now, he was coming closer and closer. He was maybe 20 feet away, and Lucas and I could see the space between his dorsal fin and his tail fin. It was a big fish, probably around 17 or 18 pounds and colored up beautifully from his time in the river. Lucas got close with the net, but when the buck heard the splashing he took off on his second run towards the log jam.

Scotty was full on hugging me now as I was fighting the fish (we’ve been through a lot of fishless days together) and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. What a perfect way to end a trip.

The fish had been on for about 8 minutes now, and that damning thought flashed in my head as the fish and I were deadlocked in the current. It was too good to be true. I knew I was going to lose him.

Lucas was right there with the net and the fish was in his final moments of fight, but a bad roll popped the hook out of his mouth and that was that. He was gone.

I guess I could have fought him harder. My SAGE One 8 wt could have handled it easily. I could have tightened my drag a notch or two, could have pulled him harder to the left, reeled harder, stood my ground, controlled my emotions a little better.

But I didn’t do any of that. Not this time anyway.

Almost all photos by Lucas Young