The day I quit fishing for steelhead was a normal Washington, December day (drizzle and upper thirties air temp). My friend and I got to the Barrier Dam launch on the Cowlitz River at 4:30 AM and we were 5th (5TH!!!) in line to launch my drift boat. We were not fly fishing. I could hear some arguing about who was in front of whom and statements like “Where did you learn to back up a trailer. Go home and practice.” The mood was as dark as the clouded night sky. But the fishing reports had been good, so we just wrote off the inconsiderate jerks who couldn’t stand the thought of someone getting on the river a few minutes before them. As it turned out, this was just the beginning. It was very crowded on the river and fishing etiquette just wasn’t tolerated. It seemed to me that every trip was getting more crowded and less fun. My friend was in his element (very competitive when it came to fishing) and he was having a good time. I was wishing I was more like him in accepting the fishing conditions, but I just couldn’t get over the feeling that this wasn’t the tour I signed up for. We got a fish or two, but it was very little comfort to me.
There were two things that prompted me to say to Bill (my friend) what I did on our way home. One was the weather; I was tired of rainy, windy (usually blowing upstream) days with the air temps in the 30’s. The second was described above. I asked him “Did you have fun today?” He replied “I sure did.” I then asked him, “Do you want my drift boat? Why don’t you keep it and use it like your own. When you get tired of it or get one of your own, give me a call to take it off your hands.” I kept in touch with him but continued not steelheading. He did call me one day and told me he had his own boat and what did I want him to do with my boat. I told him to take it to a friend’s house and put a for sale sign on it. It was sold in two days. I never saw it from the time I gave it to Bill. It was strange. I didn’t feel anything about steelheading or boating the rivers. I didn’t miss the boat at all. For a sport that took such a firm hold on me years ago, it just left me on that day on the Cowlitz.
I didn’t steelhead for a few years. I moved from Seattle to Wenatchee and opened a Fly Shop (Blue Dun). A few months after opening, a friend came over to Wenatchee from the west side to fish summer-run steelhead on the Wenatchee River. I had been really busy and I didn’t even give fishing a thought until he knocked on my door one morning and said “Get your fly rod, we’re going steelheading.” I figured I should give it one more try.
The sun was up in bluest sky I think I’d ever seen and the temps were in the 70’s by mid morning (my kind of fishing). He took me to the Sand Hole, bordered on the north side by Hwy 2 at the top of a steep bank and on the south by a huge apple orchard. It is a beautiful run and as Joe and I stood on the south shore talking, his girlfriend started through the hole. There was no one else in sight. She had fished about 20 minutes and I was watching her cast her way through the run and listening to Joe talking (about something or other) and I saw a steelhead rise behind her. She kept swinging her fly downstream rather than going back up and trying for the fish. I decided to start in behind her. I waded in (in shirt sleeves) above where I saw the fish rise. I was fishing a sink tip. I remember the fly pattern; it was one of Joe’s (Joe Butorac) Skpade (Tail-fine natural brown bucktail; Body-Black Sparkle chenille; Wing-White bucktail extending to the bend of the hook; Hackle-Black, tied in front to blend into the wing (Steelhead Fly Fishing by Trey Combs)).
This was so different than the last day I had steelheaded. Fishing for steelhead does not have to be in cold, windy wet weather, nor crowded with assholes trying to elbow their way in front of other anglers. My mind was free. Flowing like the current in which I was standing. I was truly mesmerized by the river, the current pushing against my thighs and the river sounds. I made a cast, not really paying attention, and my line (it hadn’t been used in a couple of years) tangled and as I was pulling the knot free, I was surprised to see a steelhead jump in front of me…… honest to God; With My Fly Stuck In Its Jaw! The line was flying through the guides and luckily the tangle straightened out and I was fast to 9-10 pounds summer chrome. I played it and released it as quickly as I could. I was in disbelief of what just happened. I waded ashore and sat on a rock, opened a beer and had a serious conversation with myself. Why had I let so many years go by without getting back in the river to remember why I had first become obsessed with steel. It all came back to me. I loved every aspect of steelheading and regretted not wading the rivers for the last few seasons.
I now avoid crowds and don’t let the weather bother me too much. I even enjoy fishing while it is snowing. I cannot describe the utter white silence that occurs while wading in a strong river as the snow is painting my view of the opposite riverside like an old grainy picture. At times I am almost wishing a fish does not interrupt my peaceful existence during these times. Not 100%, but close. Any day I can have my fly rod in my hand and my waders on I just dress for the weather: 100 degrees in August on the Clearwater or 10 degrees in December on the Thompson. It doesn’t matter anymore. For some reason, it ALL makes good sense to me now.