Friday, April 22, 2011

Huge, monstrous and other truths about steelheading

Here’s the 101 about an exciting sport

Express Staff Writer

Steelhead in full glory—this is what all the fuss is about. Courtesy photo by Hunter Churchill

Growing up in my house, learning to fly fish was not an option. It was something you did.

At the age of eight, my father tucked me into my first pair of sweltering, stiff hip waders, put a rod in my hand and walked me out into a clear, gravel-bottom river on a warm sum-mer's day. From then on, I was, er, hooked.

Fishing took us on some of my favorite travels: To the North Island of New Zealand in pursuit of big, native rainbow trout; to Key West to double haul cast for bonefish; to Cal-gary and Bozeman and Yellow-stone, not to mention the Wood River Valley.

Here, in 1983, we began an ongoing quest for rainbows, cutbows and browns, as well as Silver Creek's infamous snobby, "can't be bothered" residents. I have had hatches up my nose, in my ears, and matted on my hair. I have dropped nymphs off "hoppers" and tried to convincingly work emergers in the riffles.

But no matter my fishing acumen or interest, there was one trophy that eluded me: the steelhead. And steelhead fish-ing eluded me not because I didn't possess the skills to do it, but rather, because I was never invited to the party.

Steelheading, for some odd, unknown, reason remained the last men's-only club in my normally very equitable fam-ily. For years, my father, my brother and later my former husband and his friends would disappear for a week each spring into the waters around Stanley to pursue these epic, mythical fish that, evidently, demanded testosterone to fish for.

I was miffed, but too busy with babies back east to be overly miffed. But I certainly was curious. The men in my life would all return with fish story after fish story. The water was HUGE, the current MON-STROUS, nearly impossible to wade. The steelhead them-selves, well, Melville's big fish was a fingerling by compari-son.

Headquarters for this boys club was our friend and guide Scott Schnebly's cabin on the Salmon River in lower Stanley. Photos came home of the men sitting on a gray deck, over a gray river. Bottles of red wine stood open on the table. Piles and piles of food were laid out. The anglers in the pictures sat with waders rolled down to their waists, in layers of sweat-ers and fleece, looking very, very smug.

Over the years, I became more miffed. What was it about steelheading that was such a big deal? They were, after all, just big dumb trout, weren't they?

For those of you who have also been excluded from steel-heading, here is the 101.

Steelhead are seagoing rain-bow trout longer than 20 inches, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. In our area, they are found in the Snake River drainage be-low Hells Canyon Dam, the Salmon River drainage and the Clearwater River drainage. These rainbow trout migrate all the way to the Pacific Ocean and return to fresh water to spawn.

Most, the so-called "A" run, return after spending one year in the ocean. These fish gener-ally weight 4 to 6 pounds and are 23 to 28 inches in length. The rest are designated as "B" run steelhead. They spend two, or occasionally three years in the ocean, grow as large as 36 inches and often weigh in at the 8-10 pound range. Most of the fish you go after are hatchery fish, though natives are mak-ing a good show this year.

By the time they get back to the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery south of Stanley, these fish have navigated 900 "uphill" miles, including going around, through or over eight dams. So much for them being big, dumb fish. They are, in fact, pretty amazing.

Three years ago, minus the husband, and now living in the Wood River Valley, I was fi-nally, finally invited to try my casting arm at catching one of these behemoths. I think, since getting to the Salmon River no longer involved airplanes, lodg-ing and unwashed, unshaven groups of men, I was finally invited to the dance.

I was excited, but nervous.

What if I was swept away by the MONSTROUS currents? What if I had no idea how to land such a big fish in fast, tur-bulent water? What if my cast-ing got sloppy because the rod was heavy and the line had to go so far? I decided to brave it.

After all, I had something to prove.

I learned a lot that first day, and more in the subsequent steelheading trips I have taken.

Here is the truth: Stanley is cold in the spring. It is espe-cially cold when you are chest deep in water with soaking wet fingerless gloves, trying to keep your footing in a river whose bottom you cannot see, with a cold, brisk, often snow-laced wind blowing in your face.

Steelheading is hard. Unless you spot the occasional, obvi-ous, moving dark shadow near the shallow banks or over the sandbars you are blind casting for the very few of them in open, deep, opaque water. If you're lucky you may have someone else spotting fish to which you can cast.

In my case, this is usually my father, standing far above me on a bank scanning the roil-ing river for dark shadows that occasionally move.

"12 o'clock! No, more like 1 now. Back to 10! More line! Mend! More line!" Always, more line. Always mend. Then, if you manage to hook one, it is a frantic race not to lose it. "Rod tip up! Strip in the line! Bigger strips! Get it on the reel!"


However, if you do land one, it is easy to see what all the excitement is about. Those smug faces in the photos begin to make sense. Catching a steelhead is like hooking a large, athletic, log; a log that runs away from you, zigs and zags across the river, occasion-ally leaps out of the water, and finds boulders to hide under.

Steelheading is exciting. It is an adrenaline rush. Carefully holding one of these huge trout before putting it back in the river to finish its journey is quite humbling.

In other words, steelheading is fun. Spin fishermen think it's fun. Fly-fishermen (and women) think it's fun. Catch and releasers think it's fun, as do those who keep their allot-ment of steelhead to eat (smok-ing works best).

I am steelheading this week. It has become a seasonal fa-ther/daughter outing. After all these years of standing in riv-ers together, he still, more of-ten than not, takes the fish off the hook for me and cannot help but making suggestions about my casting, my retrieval. It always makes me smile.

According to all the fishing gurus, the run is in. The air is warming up. My timing should be perfect. "Should be" is the antecedent of all great fishing tales.

No matter my luck on the river, I love to go steelheading. The early morning drive up and over Galena is stunning. The river sublime. Every April day in Lower Stanley is a great day of fishing.

It was worth the long wait for the invitation to the boys' club.

And, by the way, I will be taking my two daughters, as well as my son, to Stanley to steelhead—just as soon as they are tall enough to fight the river as well as the fish.

Da Rules for Da Fish

If you want to try your hand at steelheading, here are Da Rules, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

You will need: both a season fishing license (resident or non-resident) as well as a steelhead permit. Licenses are available at any local outfitter. There are different rules for children un-der 14, so please ask.

Only single-pointed barbless hooks are allowed. Only fish hooked in the mouth or jaw may be kept when fishing the Salmon in Stanley.

Any angler to attain the bag, possession or season limit must cease fishing for steelhead in-cluding catch-and-release.

Steelhead with an intact adipose fin must be released. They are wild, not hatchery fish. Hatchery steelhead, with a clipped adipose fin, may be kept. The limit is 3 per day with 9 in possession.

The steelhead season in Idaho ends April 30.

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