From the dark highway you can make them out far off on the lip of the horizon. Strange orbs of light oscillating on a seemingly endless expanse of empty space. They cast a phosphorus glow beneath them and upon the water that engulfs them, like some vision of small cities scattered over a dark prairie.
They are crab boats, and it is winter, and on a lightless highway you drive the familiar route in the early morning hours you have driven so many countless times before. The boats out at sea have become a reassuring and welcome sight, their appearance a harbinger for a time you have waited patiently for and now that time has come again. Over the years you have come to find a solidarity with the nameless folks who stand aboard those distant ships, for they brave the bitter cold and violent seas of winter in search of something that lies unseen, and you, on your way north, are in search of the same. You manage one last look out to where a line of them appear and disappear in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, and wonder if any of the men on those sparkling islands of light look back towards the land and see you. A dull blip of light snaking along the winding road that hugs the sea as you make the pilgrimage north to fish for steelhead.
As winter steelhead anglers most of us come to understand certain truths that transcend our individual means and methods of targeting these fish. Namely that catching one is really fucking hard. Especially for those of us that at some point choose to live the more monastic life of a fly fisherman, and further so for that band of individuals who decide for one reason or another that they will solely swing flies when targeting this one unique species. I never grew up with these fish or these rivers, so for me they will always hold some exoticness; a singular otherness that I feel deserves extraordinary means when seeking them out. That is how I came to cast my allegiance to swing flies for these fish without exception, but I have always found it odd and intriguing how many of the people I've met through this pursuit come to a similar decision. Even more perplexing is how that other bastion of steelhead anglers, who hold the same fish in their hands when they are lucky enough to meet one, can think only that it will make for a triumphant photograph to display their prowess as a hunter and nothing more. Perhaps this goes to the heart of that unbridgeable gap between fellow fishermen who meet on the banks of anadromous waters? For what is to some a creature of mythical reverence is to others just a fish, like any other, and while they are the hunters of those fish, often by any means necessary, we have become something else in our pursuit, something apart.
Winter steelheading can bring revelries that are hard to explain or imagine to outsiders. We must seem like a bunch of half possessed nut jobs when we gush and exclaim the intimacies of a grab, or the way a fish peeled line, often devolving into some strange protolanguage of dramatized whines when we describe the sound our reel made. A series of:
Or, Whub Whub Whub REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
And I was like: WHOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
...........Or something like that. But isn't it that way, after all? At times there's that strange electricity right before it happens, and the sureness of the moment when it does. The flush of fear when a big fish takes and turns and you know you've really done it this time, that perhaps you hadn't bargained for all of what is to follow? The way the butt of your rod seems to hum in your hand as that heavy tackle cuts deep and you know that big leggy fly on the other end of your line is down there in dark water glowing like a lantern. You silently chant to yourself; Right now. Right now. Right there. Eat it. Eat it. Eat the fly. A strange voodoo that always seems afoot on the one in a thousand days when you luck upon not just a single fish but many, and suddenly catching a winter steelhead on a swung fly becomes like any other fishing for the briefest of moments in time. You hook one and bring it to hand clean and fair on a fly you tied the night prior while thinking of the very water you now find yourself on knowing that what you had imagined was made possible through sheer attrition and dedication alone. The quiet pride and self assuredness you find in the waining minutes and hours that follow a good fight and release. The light and air of the place. The stillness. The clarity that overcomes your doubting self when after all of those hours spent searching and swinging and going for broke you are ultimately rewarded in that infinitesimal moment when the line wrenches tight as a fish comes from some unseen place and utterly destroys your fly. It is enough of a thing to change a person, to convert them in their beliefs. And if you could live for a thousand years you would never let those far away memories of when that fish finally grabbed be diminished, because it was as if you had discovered the last bit of magic left in a world deplete of wonder.
Standing atop a high rock of ancient stone a lone figure is seen peering into green water made brilliant by the dampening winter sky. He is quiet and still for a long time as he stands there motionless with a rod in hand that is cartoonish in length. Adorning the straps of his waders are strange fluorescent things that flutter in the breeze and seem to come alive only to become inert and still again. He does not notice you, or if so does nothing to acknowledge your presence. He is focused solely on the water that thrums before him, searching for something unknowable. You watch him from your vantage point on the opposite side of the river, all the while wondering how it is he came to be there in that spot. Becoming envious for it is the better place to fish, you suddenly realize that the figure has vanished from his lookout and is gone.
You fish until all of the light has gone from the run and the canyon below now lies mostly in shadow. Although the day has been unseasonably warm you are sure that another bitterly cold night awaits you back at camp. You step out of the run, but not before climbing onto a high slab of boulder and turning to look over the water one last time. It is water you have fished many times before, countless times, but today is different. Today it has offered two fish. One brought to hand, another lost at your feet. How uncanny and mysterious these winter fish are. Materializing like apparitions from their shadowed keeps, the water glowing as if lit from within. The sheer jubilation of it still radiates fresh through your memory. You silently tell yourself to remember this feeling, to hold onto it and guard it, for they do not come easy or often and there is no substitute for it. You think of the fish you brought to hand. A hen. Not a single mark on her body. Amazing for a fish that has swam through the water between this place and the sea. A gauntlet of class 5 rapids and bolder strewn runs. Yet she is perfect. Still chrome bright, her pectoral fins translucent. Her sides shimmering like mercury. Perhaps she has spent two or three years out at sea, and you wonder, as you have always wondered when you get the opportunity to bring one of these creatures to hand, about the gulf of time and space that laid between you both until this day. The enormity of it. The strange nuances and disparate events occurring simultaneously, and how none of them could have transpired in any other way for either of you to have met. It sounds like I'm talking about falling in love. Perhaps it is so.
You make it back to camp just as the last light of day seeps out of the sky. A fire is started and food is made and you relive the revelries of the day with friends as the frost from your breath becomes thick as smoke. And you do smoke, and share some whisky. The stars come out and you wonder if you can find Andromeda out there amidst the glistening firmament. You fall asleep thinking of the fish that grabbed and bucked off the line. What was it? Was it another hen or a buck maybe? How many more were in the run...Tomorrow you will rise and go searching for the next one.