My first trout on a fly rod was nothing to write home about. And yet, here I go.
I got my first fly rod as a Christmas present during my Sophomore year of college. A friend gave me a 15 minute casting lesson and then turned me loose to figure everything else out for myself. Needless to say my first few outings on the river proved fruitless, but the fascination with remaining dry while standing in a river awkwardly flinging fly line through the air proved to be enough to keep me coming back for more.
During my 5th or 6th outing I noticed something different: on the far seam of the current there appeared to be a small splash that to my untrained eyes sure looked like a fish rising. Looking up I saw some small, brown insects flying around and I scrambled to find the closest possible match from a grouping of flies that a local fly shop had told me would work. On my first cast through the seam I lucked into a 5 foot dead drift, and saw a small flick of water near my fly.
My bass and bluegill background took over. I set the hook as I had done countless times on the small ponds and rivers near where I grew up. The fly line flew towards me, wrapping itself around both the rod and my surprised self. “Well,” I thought, “I guess I missed that fish.”
I gathered my line and my nerves, and I moved to make my next cast. But something didn’t feel right–my line flapped through the air instead of its normal glide. It felt slightly heavy.
Dropping my line to the water, I stripped it in to see if I had snagged something in the aftermath of the previous moment’s botched hook-set. As the end of the line came closer to me, it started to dart slightly from side to side. Pulling the line out of the water, I started laughing as a 2 inch trout stared back at me while dangling from the small, brown fly. My first fish: one that I launched out of the water with my hook-set, and then unknowingly cast through the air several times before realizing he was there. “Well,” I thought again, “I guess you have to start somewhere.”
Several more fish fell for that small, brown fly that I didn’t know the name of or what it imitated. But this isn’t an attempt to brag about my first successful day of fly fishing. It’s about the beauty that is a “first fish.”
Often times when we think of a “first fish” experience, an image of a young kid with a huge grin holding a “trophy catch” in their small hands comes to mind….or possibly a “trophy catch” dangling from a line because the child is too afraid to touch the slimy thing. In those instances part of the exhilaration of the moment comes from a new part of the world being unlocked for a child who is still figuring out what all this world has to offer them. It’s a world that exists beneath the surface of the water, is unseen when looking down from above, but is a world that can be interacted with through the use of a few simple tools (each of these are complex and abstract thoughts trying to find footing in a brain that hasn’t yet developed the ability to think abstractly). The other part of the exhilaration comes from a sense of accomplishment: a “look what I did” mentality that comes pouring out through wide grins and wider eyes.
But this exhilaration isn’t only found in youth. You don’t need to look very far in the fishing world to find pictures or videos of someone catching their first permit, steelhead, tarpon, or 24+ inch rainbow or brown trout, and what you’ll see much more often than not is the same smile and sense of wonder in the faces of the now adult anglers. A new world is unlocked in those moments–a bigger world–as well as a new sense of accomplishment.
But this exhilaration isn’t only found in the catching of giant, trophy fish either. It can just as easily happen in the hooking and landing of a 6 inch cutthroat.
Within the past two weeks I’ve had the opportunity to watch three people catch their first trout on a fly rod: a 67 year old named Jerry, a 9 year old named Benjamin, and a 21 year old named Oskar. And while each of these people are in radically different phases of their life, the reactions were almost identical: surprise when the fish hit the dry fly, exhilaration at the feel of the fish fighting on the line, and marvel at the colors and markings of these beautiful little fish. In that moment there weren’t any “I wish it was bigger” reactions; there weren’t any “put it back real quick so I can try to catch another one” comments; there weren’t any “this isn’t nearly as fun as I thought it would be” responses. There was only excitement. And accomplishment.
See, that’s the beauty of a first fish. You aren’t caught up in comparisons to bigger fish or longing for different fish or wanting to speed it up to get to more fish. Your entire experience is right there, that moment, that fish. And so it might actually be best to start with a smaller fish, whether it’s a 2 inch brook trout or a 6 inch coastal cutthroat–you will forever appreciate those small fish for their beauty and their spot in your angling journey. There’s an old saying that the best thing about a small fish is that they’ll grow up into a larger one. But sometimes that isn’t true. Sometimes a 6 inch cutthroat will forever be a 6 inch cutthroat, both in the pictures of you holding it and in your mind, and there’s not a single thing wrong with that.
The yell from behind me was some combination of surprise, excitement, and “what the $&@# just happened?” I turned to see one of my two clients for the day, a twenty-something named Marko, hooked into a nice fish–the type of fish that we spent an extra 45 minutes in the car to find. The fly rod was doubled over, the reel was singing a frantic tune, and the look on his face reflected what I had heard in the yell.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised by the size of the fish thrashing at the other end of his line, seeing as how I had spent several parts of the morning’s drive telling of 16+ inch fish that we had seen on this small trickle of a mountain creek. But on the other hand, perhaps you can’t fully believe a fish story until the water explodes where your previously dead-drifting fly used to be, and you are suddenly attached to a ticked off rainbow whose ancestors most likely left this very river on a thousand mile journey into the ocean, returning wearing the badge of “steelhead”. Perhaps you can’t fully believe a fish story until you are smack dab in the middle of writing a similar one.
And so Marko was launched into a fish story of his own. But as the initial seconds of surprise and excitement still hung in the air like the mist formed when a warm Summer morning’s air meets the cold mountain water, suddenly the fish shouldered its way into the faster current and Marko’s expression changed. It changed because of a sobering realization forming in his brain: the rod that connected himself to this particular specimen had only moments before made a 10 inch fish feel like a real heavyweight…and this particular specimen could probably eat that 10 inch fish.
In that moment, and in that realization, life was breathed into the fish story. Marko’s knees suddenly didn’t feel so steady, his palms began sweating, his heart began racing. The fight was on. The fish story was unfolding, and the main question left to be answered was would the story end with this likely descendent of an anadromous fish hardwired to fight for survival landed in a net, or slowly swimming away after breaking Marko’s line–and his heart.
I stopped and watched for a few seconds with a smile on my face. Then I grabbed my net and head down-river to get a front row seat for the fight. Win or lose, I knew my job as a guide was being accomplished in that moment: I had presented an opportunity for a story to unfold, and then given them the space to write it for themselves.
Forecast for Seattle on Thursday, May 22nd: Sunny, no wind, with highs in the mid 70’s.
While 99.9999998% of the city was overjoyed at this prediction, I comprised the 0.0000002% of the population that saw that forecast and immediately though, “crap….I hope there’s some clouds.”
See, I was supposed to fish Puget Sound with a friend who was in town for an overnight layover on a flight to Alaska, and I knew that an intensely bright day with no wind to break up the surface of the water in the late Spring all combined to create tough fishing conditions. And while the rest of the good people of Seattle spent the day trying to take advantage of every conceivable chance to get out in the sun, I spent the day looking to they sky for a solid bank of clouds that would move our chances of hooking some fish from “dern near impossible” to “maybe.”
Two small fish did come to hand over the course of 6 hours of fishing hard, but to call the action “few and far between” would be an understatement.
See, when the forecast for Seattle calls for “ridiculously clear” this late in May, the forecast for fishing on the Sound more often than not reads, “mostly casting practice…with chances of catching a tan.”
This weekend I got the chance to fish Puget Sound with two guys from Philadelphia, Caleb and Brian, who were in Seattle for a 3 day convention. The weather was everything you’d expect of a March day in the Northwest: constant rain, fog, and just enough bite in the air to keep things interesting. One thing that was missing from the day (surprisingly…..and thankfully), was the wind that can turn an unpleasant day into an unbearable one. One thing that wasn’t missing from the day: fish. We saw fish jumping, and had swirls and takes on every beach we stopped at–a bit of a rarity for this time of year.
On the ferry ride back to Seattle we were some mixture of soaked, tired, and content from a successful day of chasing cutthroat on the Sound. All in all, another day in paradise.
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/)
It was a short trip out on Puget Sound Saturday morning. Barely 10 minutes out of the car was all it took for the sting to creep from our fingertips down through our wrists. By the 4th cast there was a thin coat of ice formed on the fly line. By the 10th, the guides were frozen solid. The sun offered no relief, as it was still an hour or so from peaking over the top of the hill behind us.
We took a moment to process our options. The tide was pushing toward the drift wood around us, picking up the logs lying the lowest on the beach and rolling them around with a discomforting ease. It hadn’t even reached high tide yet.
At some point during mornings like this the lyrics to the old Kenny Rogers song become applicable: “you got to know when to hold ’em…..know when to fold ’em.” A fish swirled a few feet away from us, but we were already moving towards the car. Maybe another day.