A Forest for Winter Steelhead

Dawn was muffled in a gray cloak. Snowfall settled on cedars and softened our footfalls through the dark wood. Majestic white pines surrounded us on a high bluff. As we reached the lip of the high bank, we could see the dark river below, a ribbon of black, wending its way through the hardwoods that love the flood plain. A kingfisher skirted the glassy flow.

We reached the river bank. No wind. No footprints. No trucks or trailers at the landing several miles below, meaning no one has set out from the landing several miles above. A Cooper's hawk circled overhead. An occasional mink slipped along the far bank.

In the stained flow, in the shadow of red oaks hovering over the banks, we could see patches of white gravel in darker surroundings on a shallow bend. Tell-tale signs of spawning activity, where brown trout or coho salmon recently deposited their hope for the future. For many fish that spawn here, in one of the most stable rivers on earth, the forest will allow that hope to succeed. As discussed in an earlier post, it's the forest that brings life to steelhead, trout, and salmon — not the other way around. We crossed the river, being careful to avoid those patches of white gravel.

The river is low and clear, which means winter steelhead are both sparse and wary. Spooking a few fish isn't so bad when the river is up and each good wintering pool holds 50 or more giant rainbows. Spook one in these conditions and you may not find another chance to hook up for several miles. So I work my way slowly into position, careful not to throw a heavy wake. I bait up after establishing the most strategic spot from which to approach the run, allowing fish to get used to my presence.

Oh, they know you're there. But that doesn't mean you can get away with brash, threatening motions and clumsy footwork. When ready I make a short cast, to the edge of the shallow sand, where the bottom is just becoming indistinguishable. The next cast is just a few inches longer, and so on, allowing the fish in the pool to get accustomed to the rhythm of sinkers and bait cutting into the flow with as little disturbance as possible, accomplished by stopping the rig just above the surface.

After several short casts, sinkers begin finding gravel. The familiar and gratifying "tap-tap-tap" hums through my old G. Loomis STR1141. Like Kevin Costner in that movie about baseball, evoking the "mechanism" that filters out the crowd — those kingfishers, Cooper's hawks, and minks fade into the winter postcard background and consciousness soon has room for only two things: The river and my connection to it. I automatically extend the rod with my downstream hand, following and stretching the natural drift of the bait. Time seems to hover in a space between heartbeats.

In all of fishing, few things are harder to describe than the the typical "strike" of a steelhead. Little trout feel like little perch, bap-bap-bapping away at the bait. A big trout just closes its mouth on it. The tapping of sinker on gravel is barely interrupted. The sensation is dull. The rod tip bends down a quarter inch. As if triggering an ancient trap resting between synapses in a mind immersed in this activity for decades, the rod snaps back over my shoulder almost automatically. The tip snaps down, the blank begins to thrash, and the drag begins to sing.

As it finally tired, a small steelhead was slipped onto the snow-covered knee of a fallen oak lying on the river's floor. Following the winter fashion of its kind, the rainbow lived up to its name, providing a bright exclamation point of color in a gray and white world.

"My waders are leaking," Mary says, still snapping photos. Nuts. That's no fun when it's 20°F and the water is just above freezing. Oh, well. Walking out would warm that foot. One steelhead is all a great day requires, so, naturally, I wanted her to catch one. Apparently that wasn't going to happen, though we dabbled along in pools where she could fish from the bank.  Luckily, she wouldn't need waders in the days to come, as we jumped from river to river, and boat to boat, trying some things I've never tried before — with surprising results.

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