Another season draws to a close on the North Coast. Every winter has its highs and lows, and this one was no different.
The flat grey mantle of sky hung over the rolling bald hills of the coast like a slab of cold concrete. A steady wind blew off of the sea and the weather had begun to blow in from the south. An omen of heavy rains to come, but for the beginning and into the middle of the day the rains abated and spared the three fisherman who had driven through the first hours of morning to be on the water in the still dim and dreary light of late winter.
In the first run of the day all three stood idly on the bank rigging up their rods and rubbing the sleep from their eyes when a fresh steelhead suddenly erupted from a greasy tailout below. Nothing raises the heart like the sight of a fish in winter, for these animals are often like ghosts in the rivers and streams they return to in fewer and fewer numbers every year. Yet the countless fishless days spent in pursuit of such an elusive and ghostly creature only seem to add to the allure and adoration nearly all steelhead anglers ascribe to this sea run trout in one way or another. They are perhaps the most venerated of all freshwater sport fish and the last potent symbol of what remains of the wild in the ever shrinking wilderness of the western United States.
So now when the lucky angler out of the trio was given the water where the fish had risen all was nerves and jitters as he stripped the head out from his guides and peeled running line from his reel. It is hard to make a good cast when you know that up river other fishermen, good ones at that, watch with the curious mixture of contempt and hope an angler feels who has ceded fishy water to another. If the fish is to come to the fly it will be within the first three casts. This is what all of them spoke silently to themselves and telepathically to one another as the first cast arcs out over the deep green pool and lands a hands length away from the branches of willow that guard the far bank.
There is no anticipation as great as the anticipation felt by the angler in this moment, as the fly digs into the pool slowly tracking across the run. In his mind the angler can see his fly descending, swimming close to where the fish is holding. He imagines their eyes meeting, that of the fly and the fish, and in that imperceptible moment it happens. The steelhead remembers something as ancient as fossils buried for millenia under the riverbed, deciding in that instant to utterly destroy the fly. The angler imagines the quick hard jerks of line as the fish eats the fly, the violent shockwaves of the rod bucking as the fish tries to shake it off but can't, and finally the chaos of its first run. But this does not happen, and after three casts and not even a whisper of a fish the angler works his way through the rest of the tailout with the usual sense of stoic defeat that has been hanging over his head for nearly three months and running.
This winter steelhead season started on the heels of what had been an exciting fall season for salmon. A wet November saw hopes rise that we would see a continuing trend of rainy weather to mirror the previous two winters and give us a bang to start things off, but this did not come to fruition as many of us had hoped. December saw nearly no rain, making it feel as if we were left holding our breath for the true start of winter steelheading to begin. We continued to hold our breath through January, still waiting for the first powerful winter storms to come crashing into the coast. We had some rain during this month, enough to bring our rivers up and give the feeling winter had finally decided to show up, but this was short lived as an unusually warm high pressure system parked itself over the coast and stayed put. For nearly three weeks no rain fell and we had days so warm that temperatures rivaled highs only seen in summer. A bitter and ominous reminder of the drought years from a few seasons ago. Finally the spell was broken in the waning days of February with the first truly cold nights of winter, and then the rains came. A miracle March has us nearly caught up with annual rainfall averages and has kept those of us hoping for one last shot at a winter fish inside tying flies. So it goes. With the end of each season another begins.
Three months is a long time to go without a fish, even for the most dedicated of steelheaders. At some point desperation sets in, followed by a unique despair. A mild form of melancholia lay hidden within the anglers heart, as stoic and reticent as they may be, that lingering feeling lives there as surely as a seed lives in the soil before it becomes a plant. They may become monastic in their fishing, allowing for the sport to become more than just a means to an end. You might hear them say things like "Any day on the water is a good day." or "It's not called catching, it's called fishing." But in the end they prey for a fish, because in the end it all whittles down to the deep play of being rewarded in the knowledge that you have outwitted something wild and ultimately unknowable, and what makes for a more perfect symbol of either of those two things than a wild dime bright winter steelhead?
The storm that had been threatening since morning finally breaks over the fog lorn hills of the coastal range and spills down into the river valley in sheets of wind and rain. The sky darkens and although the river is low and clear all three fishermen know that if this torrent keeps up it'll turn to coffee within hours. There might be three hours left of good light to fish by, and it is now when all feel the most confident in their pursuit. The Pacific is just a mile or so distant, and the sky shows a gull or a cormorant just as readily and it shows a merganser or a coot. It is the one day in the countless days of fishing that seem to be oddly devoid of other fishermen. Only bootprints occupy the low gravel banks of the river and not a single boat is seen all day. When the first fish comes to the fly it is in a place all of them expected a fish to be. A deep corner hole where the water is still heavy over the pool and opaque and green. All is silent now as the fish, a hen, is brought to hand and the three anglers stoop low on bent knees to admire her. She is still clad in fresh silver and her face shows the brilliant subtlety of something wholly wild. A fine fish.
It has come down to the final run. One last chance before there is too little light to tie knots and hunger and cold get the better of them all. The storm only seems to intensify with every passing moment, and as the unlucky fisherman who has been so thoroughly skunked looks back over his shoulder before he begins to swing through this final run ( a perfect shallow riffle of a run with nice sized cobble and a well defined seam) he watches a hill become totally enveloped in low heavy clouds and vanish before him. The first cast goes all the way across the river, abandoning good fishing doctrine and throwing caution to the wind. She eats it on the hang down, as they so often do. A series of slow tugs turns into a small hen when on the hook set the unmistakable weight of a fish is felt on the end of the line. She fights well, and in the last moments of the day comes to hand as the sky blurs with the surrounding hills and stands of naked alder and finally the day is over and with it the season seems all but gone too.