Landing an Olympic Peninsula steelhead with an intact adipose fin means you’ve caught a wild fish.
You’ve caught a fish that hatched amid the cobblestone bottom of a river like the modest Sol Duc, the broad Hoh or in some small tributary. After spending a year or two in freshwater, the steelhead smolt, now 4-8 inches long, heads downstream to the Pacific Ocean.
It is there, in the deep open waters off the Aleutian Islands, that steelhead grow – big – for the next two to three years.
Now adults, the steelhead return to those natal waters of the Peninsula, to spawn and start the cycle again.
It is those rivers and streams that attract thousands of anglers each winter, each hoping to catch a wild steelhead.
They don layers of fleece to ward off the cold that leave knuckles aching and slow to grasp a spinning reel. Gore-Tex jackets are a must to shed the rain and snow that seem synonymous with a steelhead fishing trip. Some days a propane heater is as important as flies or lures for boat anglers.
It can be bone-chilling cold; the rivers can be flowing too fast, too low or too clear; it might seem like more water is falling from the sky than is moving past your legs; the fish may be as aloof to your offerings of bait, lure or fly as an iPod-connected teenager on a family road trip.
But when you hook and land one of these creatures – be it a chrome bright fish fresh from the ocean or a colored specimen ready to find a mate – you too are hooked.
RIVER OF RENEWAL
That was reinforced for me on a recent float trip down the Sol Duc River. I was with friend Justin Tenzler, who has his own guide operation, Olympic Peninsula Outfitters, and also works at the Gig Harbor Fly Shop.
Justin and I met a year ago when I joined a steelhead fishing clinic offered by the shop. After a session at the store, the group reconvened in Forks for a day of casting, trying different rods and chasing steelhead.
I didn’t catch anything that day, but Justin and I agreed to try a trip together another time.
That opportunity came last month. Justin had a guided trip on a Saturday and wanted to know if I was willing to do some scouting the day before.
To some, the heavy snow that fell on the Peninsula the day before our trip could have been a bad omen. In my short steelhead career, it was business as usual. Bad weather means good days of fishing is what I have learned.
So we dropped Justin’s 13-foot raft in at the Riverside launch, and made our way downstream.
After shaking off the fishing cobwebs on a couple of scrappy whitefish, I was ready for steelhead.
No, no, I wasn’t.
The first solid take, I flubbed the hook set.
Justin kept pointing out where to put my cast, educated me about the ways of steelhead and was willing to put on a new double set of beads or flies when I snapped them off on a snag or rock.
There are places in a river where steelhead just have to be, Justin said. He opts to concentrate on those areas.
We were in such a spot as we drifted through a right-handed bend in the river. Just as the fast water slowed in to a large pool, my strike indicator bobbled and I set the hook.
This was no whitefish. After a few minutes of the fish tugging and me reeling, I got the fish close to the surface.
I could see it was a steelhead, bringing a smile to my face. I also noticed something amiss – I had foul hooked the fish in the tail. That explained why the fairly small fish was putting up such a fight.
When I got the fish to the surface, it started doing its imitation of an alligator spiraling in the water as it attacks its next meal. After a few spins, I watched the fly come loose and the fish quickly swam away.
The clouds that quickly blotted out what little blue sky we saw that morning reflected my mood. I was now 0-for-2.
A few more whitefish revived my flagging spirits, and soon we were drifting through another likely spot. Justin seemed pleased when I put my cast where he wanted, allowing the set of pink-orange beads to float along a rock ledge under the surface.
Again, the indicator went down. Again, I set the hook and felt a power at the other end. Again, the fish got off.
There wasn’t much time to sulk.
BATTLE IS ON
We were soon in another smooth run with a rock ledge – same scenario, same cast, same take.
This time I set the hook properly, I felt a power at the end of the line, and I was working to get the slack fly line onto the reel. As I felt the line slip through my fingers, I looked down into the water. Apparently Justin did too, because a collective “Ohh” came from the raft as we watched a large shadow steadily move upstream.
My pulse raced as I anticipated the fight. That fight was mere seconds from beginning, when I felt sudden tension on the line, too much tension. The fish continued to power upstream and snapped off my rig.
“What happened,” I asked myself. As I assessed the situation, I found that a small loop of fly line caught on the reel handle. With the reel unable to spin to allow line out as the fish swam away, the tension quickly grew too much for the leader.
I slumped to the seat in resignation, upset at myself for not better controlling the line.
“That was a nice fish,” I finally muttered. Justin agreed, wary not to sting my already bruised ego.
As I sulked, I recalled a lesson I learned along time ago in Canada. You can’t catch fish if your fly’s not in the water, a Bow River guide pointed out.
So I was up again, casting where the fish might be holding.
The number of streamside houses and cabins told me we were close to the end of our trip at the Sol Duc salmon hatchery. But I kept at it and was finally rewarded.
This time, the fish, my skill, Justin’s expertise and a vast amount of luck all met in a perfect confluence of success.
The seven-weight fly rod bent as the fish powered this way and that, all while I kept the pressure on. Just when it seemed I had tired out the fish, it would head for the bottom with powerful strokes of its tail.
In my memory, the fight seemed to last a long time. Whether it did or not, at its conclusion I know we had a beautiful buck in the net. It’s cheeks blazed in pink, it’s olive-colored back was stimpled with black dots, a faint pink stripe running down its silvery-green flank to a deep belly.
As I held the fish while Justin took photos, I could still feel the power pulsing in this 8- to 10-pound fish. It was like holding a mini-torpedo, ready to launch as soon as I released it tail.
I gave the fish one last glance before I let go, and there, just in front of the tail, was an intact adipose fin. In my hands was a wild fish, one hatched amid the rocks that line the bottom of this very stream only a few years before.