With a flash of its flawless silver sides, the steelhead turns into the current, and the rod bends. The fish pulses, and the reel sounds its wonderfully familiar squeal. I lay on the pressure, hoping to land her quickly and ensure a full recovery. This is my first steelhead of the season, and a mix of joy and the anxiety from possibly losing her fill me.
While I fight the fish, my mind rolls through some of the many steelhead I have landed or helped my clients land. You’d think that netting yet another fish wouldn’t carry such importance, but the first catch of the steelhead season is always special. It confirms that nature continues to provide its bounty.
Every season, these majestic fish poise themselves in Lake Erie at the mouths of dry streambeds, awaiting a major rain that will bring them to their spawning grounds. For weeks, I’ve been scouting local streams to prepare for my guiding trips. I have an innate need to walk the streams each year in hopes of seeing the first long shadows facing into the current, or to feel the first tug of the line, as the fish slowly trickle into the lake’s largest tributaries. My efforts are usually unproductive, but the walks put me at peace.
The day before I hooked this fish, I walked four streams without seeing a single steelhead. Today, I had planned to fish the lake’s largest stream, which recently had a big push of rain, but I get word that the water visibility is poor. Already in my waders, I drive to the next-largest one. The fall drought has created a shortage of viable fishing water, so it’s possible that many anglers will be funneled into this stretch.
The deep pool where I find my first of the season had been fished heavily throughout the day but is vacant by the time I arrive. I’d made arrangements to meet another steelhead guide, who is a few years older than my son and at least 40 years younger than me. As soon as he arrives, we begin trash-talking each other as we fish opposite sides of the stream.
Conditions are perfect as we swing streamer patterns, but there are no signs of life. Our barbs about each other’s prowess help pass the time. The fish hits my fly — a new pattern I’m trying — about 20 minutes into our banter. Surprised, I yell, “Fish on!” a verbal jost tossed at my young friend, but in truth no one is more surprised than I am. I feel like a boy with his first fish. The steelhead begins to tire, and I bring it to the edge of a cliff that rises over a submerged shale shelf. Removing the fly while the fish is still submerged, I grab the steelhead’s tail, face her into the moving water and thank her. With a few strokes of her tail, she disappears into the deepest part of the pool. My life is richer for the encounter, even as I feel normality slowly return.
I sit on a log and search my rain jacket for a cigar that I planned to smoke in celebration of the new season. It lights quickly, and I savor the series of events that has brought me to this point in my life.