Photos by Arian Stevens
It was January when I moved into a dilapidated trailer in the vineyard country of Sonoma County, a young writer looking to live cheaply while he finished his first novel. Mice scuttled through the heating ducts, but I ignored them as I did the leaky roof and faded shag carpeting. The Russian River, one of the most productive steelhead streams on California’s north coast, was less than 50 yards from my back door, and I was willing to overlook almost any privation to fish it at my leisure.
I knew very little about steelhead at the start. They belonged to the same family as rainbow trout, but I had no idea how tenacious they are. They don’t always die after they spawn, as salmon do. Some steelhead make the river-to-ocean journey two, three, even four times. They venture far afield — to the Bering Sea, to Japan and Baja California — and travel solo rather than in schools. Steelhead are almost impossible to track at sea and seldom wind up in commercial nets. A genetic trigger reminds them when it’s time to begin the spawning run and return to their natal stream, recognizing it by its chemical composition.
I couldn’t wait to fish the Russian, even though I was poorly equipped. All I owned in terms of tackle — other than my fly rod, which was much too light — was an old spin rod and some trout lures I hadn’t used in ages, but they’d have to do since I didn’t have a penny to spare. Early one morning, I put on my hip boots and walked downhill through a wintry landscape typical of Alexander Valley. A ground fog blanketed the dormant vines, and the temperature was in the 40s. I could see my breath and felt my fingers numbing.
The Russian formed a sort of oxbow below the trailer. The water, slightly off-color, carried a bit of silt, but the visibility was still good — ideal conditions, I later learned. I tied on a silver spoon and began to blind cast, the only angler around. The property where I lived, a 14-acre estate, was for sale, and the realtor had slapped a lock on the gate. To reach the spot where I stood, you’d have to trespass. The grape growers didn’t take kindly to that. They’d been known to run off folks with a shotgun. In essence, I’d been granted my own private beat, a quarter-mile or so of the river.
I kept up the blind casting for a half-hour, increasingly doubtful that I’d ever raise a fish, when a powerful strike nearly ripped the rod from my hand. Soon the rod was bent double, and I worried it would snap. I prayed I’d at least get to see what I’d hooked before that happened. As if on cue, a bright-silver steelhead leaped into the air, shimmery in the morning light. Dumb luck was on my side, and I hung on until the steelie tired and I could drag it onto the bank — a beautiful, freshly run buck of 7 pounds covered with sea lice.
That initial success spoiled me. I figured steelhead were easy to catch, a huge miscalculation. Quite the opposite is true. If I had to guess, I’d say I put in a dozen or more angling hours for every steelie I hooked — not landed, just hooked. I never caught a bigger one than the first, either. Steelhead in the Russian don’t grow to great size, although the lower river, closer to the ocean, yields a few trophies every season. The fishing could be hard work, too, in cold, wet weather, but I never regretted it. There’s no freshwater thrill to match the electrified feeling when a steelhead strikes and begins its blistering run.
Eventually I scraped together the money for some decent gear. Although I loved to fly-fish, I decided against it for the moment. The old timers all swore by bait and lures, so I picked up a sturdy Eagle Claw rod and a variety of spin-n-glos, spoons and corkies. For bait, I bought skeins of salmon roe, often frozen, at our tackle shop. You cut off a chunk, wrapped it in red mesh, tied it into a “berry” with red thread and dusted it with Boraxo. (Nobody ever satisfactorily explained the Boraxo angle to me.) The trick was to bounce a lead weight along the stream bottom with a berry above it on a dropper.
I tried the tactic for days without so much as a nudge. I might still be out there casting if an old timer hadn’t come to my rescue. Jack Stritzel was a steelhead fanatic and a neighbor, the only one with a key to my gate. Well into his 70s, Jack had strong Germanic features and piercing blue eyes set in a largely bald head. He seldom went anywhere without his dog. In the brutal summer heat, he wilted and looked his age, but he came alive again in November when the steelies began to arrive. He fished every day when the river was in shape, and when it wasn’t, he showed up at the trailer with a six-pack of Brown Derby beer, looking for a game of cribbage.
Jack broke my heart with his tales of the glory days. He could remember catching eight or 10 steelhead in a single afternoon, but that was in the distant past before dams, pollution and poor habitat management reduced the population. Thirty years ago, the annual run of steelhead in the Russian was estimated at 50,000 fish. That may sound like a lot, but the river flows for about 110 miles. There are fewer wild fish than ever now, although stocks from a hatchery bump up the numbers.
Jack set me straight about berries: Mine were worthless, bad juju. Frozen roe? Forget about it. What I needed was fresh roe — steelhead, not salmon — from a recenly caught hen. That made all the difference, he confided, and treated me to a small skein from his stash, swearing me to secrecy and handing it over a little reluctantly, as he might a $500 bill. The transaction had the curious flavor of a drug deal. In effect, Jack was my dealer. I imagined he must store the roe somewhere under lock and key.
Sure enough, Jack’s roe worked wonderfully. I hooked a steelhead right away, but trash fish like suckers and hardmouths gobbled up the stuff, too, and they cleaned me out of bait. That was my excuse, anyway, for keeping any hens I caught. In retrospect, I’m ashamed I was so greedy. But it wasn’t only the roe I coveted. Steelhead make for splendid eating. I cut them into steaks and fillets and pan-fried or roasted them. I made a version of gravlax. Steelhead chowder was on the menu, and so was sashimi. Fortunately I came to my senses before I collapsed under a load of bad karma, relying on Jack to hit me up with roe when he was in the mood.
Late in the season, at the end of February, I switched to a fly rod when a run of smaller fish arrived. They weighed between 2 and 3 pounds, and they were almost entirely silver, with no sign of a rose-colored stripe. Jack called them bluebacks. They came when the last Pacific storms had passed, so the river was often as low and clear as a trout stream in the mountains — perfect for flies, even dries. The same was true of the creeks where steelhead spawned. I was able to watch hens use their tails to sweep away the gravel and create a redd for their eggs, and see a milky cloud of milt when the bucks fertilized them.
When Jack saw me with a fly rod, he eyed me suspiciously. It was as if I’d revealed myself as a city slicker, somebody who shopped at Orvis instead of Bob’s Bait, Bullets & Beer. He thought I was foolish to forego his berries, but I proved him wrong. Bluebacks had a lot in common with freshwater rainbows and reacted similarly to the flies I cast, although I didn’t bother matching the hatch. Steelhead eat little or nothing when they’re on the spawn, attacking the fly out of irritation as much as anything else. Marabou streamers worked best for me in such gaudy colors as pink, orange and chartreuse, and that added to Jack’s dismay.
I liked to fish just above the mouth of Maacama Creek, a prime spawning ground. The technique was simple to master. I would cast in a straight line and let the fly swing with the current, mending as necessary. Almost without exception, the bluebacks struck at the end of the swing, having followed the fly before they committed. They were daunting battlers on light tackle, leaping two or three times when hooked. They didn’t hunker down the way larger steelhead did, conserving their strength in deep pools and refusing to budge. Instead, they ran like lightning from the start and often broke off in the first minute or so.
The season officially closed April 30, but it was really over when the bluebacks disappeared. The days grew much warmer, the smallmouths took their turn at spawning, and the grapevines burst into bloom. By early autumn, the air was thick with the smell of ripening fruit. Trucks loaded with gondolas of chardonnay and cabernet rattled over the back roads to wineries, while the pickers worked long hours to keep pace. In my local bar, the Mexicans preferred Bud to Tecate. I drank bourbon and dreamed of fishing for steelhead.
In November, just before Thanksgiving, I drove out to Jenner, a fishing port on the coast, and parked on a bluff above the mouth of the Russian. The sea lions convened down there made a godawful racket, swiping at the steelhead still trapped in the ocean. A sandbar blocked the fish from starting their run upstream, and only when the rains came would it be washed away. Four days later, 5 inches fell in the valley, and five days after that, as the river began to clear, I put on my hip boots and grabbed my Eagle Claw rod. Another season was underway.
When I first moved into the trailer, I planned to stay only as long as it took to finish the novel. That turned out to be two years, more or less. Despite my labors, it wasn’t a very good novel — although I believed differently, of course — and no one wanted to publish it. To my credit, I didn’t reach for the bourbon bottle, but got back to work instead. A full five years went by before I signed a book contract. When friends ask how I survived such a difficult period, I tell them, quite honestly, I owe it all to the steelhead.