Photos by Arian Stevens
Any last hope we had of catching a summer steelhead on a dry fly that cold morning late in the year evaporated when we encountered two fishermen on their way downstream. Bomber, my longtime fishing partner, and I had driven through the predawn, thrown on packs and hiked through forest and canyon to reach this section of the river, a place where fish tended to congregate and we rarely encountered other anglers. When we saw the two bearded men with long rods ahead of us, we swore in unison.
Bomber knew the guys. He had worked at a fishing shop for several years and knew just about anyone we ever met on the local rivers. Bomber traded around a can of Copenhagen, and we listened to the story they told of their morning. They had fished the very water we hoped to; they had fished it carefully and with fresh bait; they believed the steelhead had continued their migration upriver.
Bomber and I watched the men continue their hike out. I asked him, “Do you believe they caught nothing?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Those two brag loudly when they catch fish.”
We stood there in silence, our breath showing in the cold air. We were both weighing the options: hike out and drive somewhere else, or fish the water on the hope we’d get lucky.
We were there to accomplish what most of our friends considered impossible: raise a steelhead to a dry fly late in the year when the water temperatures were in the 30s. Summer steelhead are known for taking dry flies in warm water, especially when drizzle is falling from a dark sky. Raising a steelhead in winter was, in the minds of everyone we knew, a hopeless proposition.
Bomber admitted, “I guess I have my heart set on getting skunked here on these beautiful pools.”
I followed Bomber to the base of a big cliff, where the river tumbled through a rapid and made a sharp turn. The roar was enough that we had to shout. On our side of the water was a cobbled beach, and midriver, below the rapid, were several large boulders, a couple of which protruded from the surface. Bomber won the rock-paper-scissors and waded in to his knees. I walked upstream to fish the pool above. Our reels sounded as we pulled off line and began casting.
For the next couple of hours, we worked our way downstream, leapfrogging each other, pool by pool. We were sure to focus our casts on the most likely water, especially those slicks below rapids. Steelhead, which are journeying from the ocean toward the headwaters where they will spawn, tend to rest for long periods of time below heavy rapids like these.
The going was quick. When you cast a dry fly for steelhead, you take big steps between casts. Rather than trying to persuade a particular fish to eat, you are hunting for the rare creature fiery enough to explode on a cylinder of trimmed deer hair about the size of a Tootsie Roll. Fly color doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the action. As the fly skates over the surface, you flick the rod tip, causing the fly to jerk and wobble.
Bomber and I had a secret addition to our technique, not one we invented but one we had learned from old-timers with decades’ more experience. Men with gray beards had told us to riffle-hitch our flies from the throat — essentially putting a square knot in the leader, looping it over the deer hair itself and pulling the knot tight. The result was ugly as sin, but when jerked in the right rhythm, the fly actually darted from side to side in the surface film, creating the kind of action that would tempt any fish, from largemouth bass to snook. When we asked these same old-timers if they ever tried dry flies when snow was on the ground, they laughed. “Hopeless,” one of them said.
By lunch, predictably, we hadn’t found a willing steelhead. We had covered the best pools. Accomplished anglers using techniques known to produce in cold weather had fared no better. It was time to come to our senses and leave the canyon. We could warm up with burgers and college football at our favorite bar on the way home. We had tried and failed in this beautiful place, which meant we had achieved our expectations. Yet Bomber said, “I know it’s hopeless, but I want to fish that first pool again.”
“The one a half-mile back upstream?”
“I know. It doesn’t make sense. I’ll meet you at the truck if you want.”
I had fished with Bomber long enough to trust his intuitions. We returned to that first pool, and this time I took a seat to watch Bomber work through the water. He surprised me. Instead of fishing from the cobbled shore as he had before, he waded directly through the water I expected him to fish. The river rose to the top of his waders. He kept his elbows high, then set his rod on one of those midstream boulders protruding from the surface. With a jump and a hoist, he was kneeling on dry land, midriver. I saw what had caught his eye: a slick of water on the far side of the river.
I made some snarky comment about the far side always being better in the small minds of steelhead anglers. Bomber stripped out line. He called over this shoulder, “I bet nobody ever casts to this water.” I couldn’t miss the note of boyish hope in his voice.
One thing about steelhead late in the year is they tend to be social. If you find one steelhead, you have usually found several. Likewise, late in the season, whole miles of good water can be empty of fish only to find the mother lode in one tail-out or declivity. I knew Bomber was casting to this slick of water on the far-fetched chance that the steelhead hadn’t moved upriver, as the other anglers believed, but instead had selected this one seemingly random place to congregate.
I’ll admit, in that moment, I was not a believer. I was so sure of our skunking, I had already cut my fly from my leader and broken down my rod.
As Bomber’s first cast landed, I saw a swirl of silver underneath the fly. He kept working his fly through the surface, and the steelhead returned. It broke the surface, a thick tail throwing a wall of water, but missed the fly. Bomber knew what he was doing; he hadn’t set the hook, and his fly was still working. This time another fish, a larger one with more color, took the fly in what steelheaders call an “alligator grab.” A long snout emerges in the air and chomps down on the fly.
The fish shot through the air and landed on its side, shattering the surface. As it charged upstream and near my perch on the bank, I saw two other fish following it.
It took a few minutes to get control over that first steelhead. Bomber leaned into his rod and brought the creature near, and I tailed it. He pulled the fly from its lip, and we turned it back to the river. The air between us quivered with electricity. “Your turn,” he gasped through an ear-to-ear grin.
As my fly landed, I had every hope that a steelhead would rise.