On Sasquatch and Unicorns…
Occasionally I find myself watching a T.V. show based around the search for Bigfoot. Perhaps my fascination with this search is as a result of watching the movie “Harry and the Hendersons” one too many times as a kid, or maybe I just get a kick out of listening to them turn the word “Sasquatch” into almost every conceivable part of speech (obviously as a noun; as a verb: “we’re going Squatching”; as an adjective: “that’s very Squatchy”).
The only downfall is that every show plays out the exact same way: hosts full of confidence that this particular location will produce an encounter, interviews with locals who swear they’ve seen a Bigfoot, fancy cameras and sound recording equipment to capture a glimpse of the creature, and then “close calls” during their night-time investigations. But it’s all for naught. There’s never an actual Sasquatch sighting. Show after show they produce no hard evidence of the existence of Sasquatch, even though they continue to talk about “Squatches” as if they come across entire flocks of them once the cameras stop rolling.
Occasionally I also find myself chasing steelhead in the Winter flows of the Pacific Northwest. The results over the last 8 years, unfortunately, have been eerily similar to the “Squatchy” shows: a whole lot of talk…not much action.
This lack of action certainly hasn’t been as a result of a lack of effort. Countless hours have been spent on almost all of the Puget Sound rivers of Washington, several Columbia tributaries, and a handful of Olympic Peninsula and Oregon Coast rivers. I’ve used single hand and double hand rods, covered big rivers and small tribs, swung flies and (on occasion) even drifted a few nymphs. I’ve fished alone, hired guides on a couple of unfamiliar rivers, and spent days fishing with friends and other guides. All of this has resulted in two brief hook-ups (both on the same day), and a grand total of zero steelhead landed. Yes, you read that correctly.
At this point you’re probably saying to yourself, “I wonder if this guy has ever considered that he’s doing something horribly wrong?” My answer to that question would be, “YES! I wonder that every flippin’ time I go out!” At the end of every fruitless outing I replay the day in my head: should I have fished that run differently…with a different fly…with a different sink tip…standing on one leg…singing a different song in my head…with my socks inside out? Every day I attempt to try something different, or implement a new technique I see experienced steelheaders employ, and every day I’m left chasing my own tail. Put me on any trout river in the world and I like my chances. Salmon in Puget Sound and the rivers? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Steelhead? I’m sitting on roughly 8 years, 3 months, and 31 days of futility.
Here’s where things get crazy though. If my friends and fellow guides spent these days on the water catching fish while I was repeatedly putting up goose eggs, I would simply concede that I’m a crappy steelhead angler and move on with my life. But that’s not the case. In all of my days pursuing this creature, I have never even seen one caught–not by my friends, my fellow guides, a random stranger down river of me, or by the scores of anglers I’ve drifted past on my way to the next stretch of river I’ll practice my casting on. I’ve seen a lot of things in my life, but a living, breathing, in the flesh steelhead isn’t one of them.
Allow me to give an example of the ridiculousness of it all. This past March, a friend of mine (who is a native of the Northwest, and no stranger to catching the “Oncorhynchus mykiss”) and I set off for two days of floating the Methow River in North-Central Washington. The Methow had just reopened for a few days in hopes that some of the hatchery fish would be harvested, thus easing the strain on native returners looking to spawn. While the Methow wasn’t our first choice of where to spend our prime-time early Spring weekend, the decision was made for us when a storm blew out every Olympic Peninsula River we had hoped to fish. Reports of 8-10 fish days on the first few days of the reopening didn’t hurt matters either. We knew that these reports came from nymph-based anglers, but we loaded my buddy’s truck and raft and headed east with the mindset that if 8-10 fish were falling for nymphs, surely we could find 1 or 2 that would chase a swung fly. I was just a few hours away from washing the smell of the skunk off of me.
You know how this story ends. We caught nothing. We hooked nothing. And in the middle of our catching and hooking nothing, we heard stories from everyone we passed of how they had caught 2 or 3 that day. The only moment of excitement came when a borrowed switch rod shattered on a cast, leaving me momentarily imagining the joy of removing pieces of fly rod from my hands and face. While the conversations with my buddy were great, the river scenic, and the weather beautiful, the steelhead once again proceeded to give me the middle fin.
In my mind there are 4 possible explanations for this futility: 1) I have the luck of a two-legged cat, which not only dooms my own ability to catch one of these beautiful fish, but also the luck of everyone around me on the river; 2) it’s all a giant hoax and I’m the punch line–steelhead don’t actually exist, and everyone is getting a kick out of watching me flail away in pursuit of them anyway; 3) steelhead are an underwater cross-breed of a Unicorn and a Ninja–mythological creatures with the ability to move in and out of reality with an uncanny elusiveness; 4) the numbers of steelhead in most Pacific Northwest rivers (and especially the rivers of Puget Sound) have dwindled to the point that a bump is a good day, a hook-up is an outstanding day, and actually landing a fish is far and away the exception and not the rule. This is unequivocally the case for those pursuing these fish on a swung fly.
While number 1 from the above list is highly likely, and numbers 2 and 3 are ones I can’t officially rule out, you really only need a half-way decent set of eyes and a brain to realize that number 4 is the ugly truth that these magnificent fish face (if they, you know, do actually exist). A simple Google search will pull up studies showing that steelhead are only returning in somewhere between 1% and 4% of their historic numbers, and a quick check of the Washington fishing regulations will show you that the Puget Sound rivers are closing earlier every year in hopes of giving the returning fish every possible chance of a successful spawn. Without a doubt the situation is extremely dire in most of Washington, and the discussions about a solution are ones that too often end in a stalemate of finger pointing and name calling because of the political, scientific, cultural, and economic implications that are raised.
And all the while, the fish swim on. While we fight and squabble over a multitude of issues that are almost entirely about us and not about the fish, steelhead return to their natal rivers with only one concern: survival. Perhaps that is why I continue to wade waist-deep into the icy flows of a Northwest Winter without having tasted the slightest bit of success. It’s not about catching a fish so I can hang a picture on my wall. It’s about the opportunity to do battle with a fish and a species that continues to fight an uphill battle against almost impossible odds, and it’s about the hope that my generation, and the generations of my children and my children’s children will continue to respect these magnificent fish enough to not let them disappear forever while we are too busy pointing fingers to notice.
Who knows, maybe I’ll never get the chance to battle one of these fish and then hold it momentarily in my hands. But if that’s because they are simply too smart or too elusive for my meager skills to outwit, and not because they cease to exist all together, then so be it. I, just like the hosts on the “Squatchy” shows, will continue to throw caution to the wind in my pursuit, and I will continue to talk about them in the hopes that my next day on the river will find my fly swinging into the middle of a dozen of them.
(For more information about the fight to save wild steelhead, and what you can do to help, check out the Wild Steelhead Coalition’s website: http://wildsteelheadcoalition.org/)