Though I have had some really good days steelhead fishing, I keep my standards low. Expectations are the surest way to invite disappointment, so it’s best to let epic days happen on their own terms rather than expect them. By simply hoping for one good fish, satisfaction is much more attainable.
This is especially helpful with steelhead since they are not a volume fish like salmon. It is possible to catch them in great numbers, but a river’s population is miniscule in comparison to the salmon invasion which starts in summer. Spring steelhead are sprinkled throughout a river system. Salmon are poured.
After a solid hour at my favorite spot, my wife and I were still fishless. The water was a little low and there were people in the vicinity but the level wasn’t too low and we didn’t think the spot had been hit. We moved upriver to a hole above a set of falls. There’s a deep slot that takes careful casts and mending to fish effectively. I fished through first and came tight to a strong but not particularly large steelhead. It was plenty big to satisfy my quest to bring a good steelhead to hand.
Abby hooked up shortly thereafter with a corker of a rainbow which we landed without incident. We called it a rainbow because I grew up with the distinction between steelhead and resident rainbow being the intensity and amount of spots below the midline. This is not scientific, it was just the distinction that made sense and has been true in my experience. At least on the rivers here in Southeast Alaska. The fact of the matter is that no one really cares. There are no audits of consequence when it comes to fly fishing memories.
We hit a few more spots then stopped at a wide, shallow section on our way back to our rafts.
I froze mid-step and motioned for Abby to approach slowly.
“Right there.” I pointed.
I felt the context had already been provided since we were on a steelhead fishing trip, but this time of year that can also include bear watching. So when I froze, Abby’s first thought was bear. That’s a good instinct to have. Carelessness, not to mention naivety, causes a lot of problems.
There were three steelhead holding in a foot of water just off the bank. We watched for a few minutes then I crept forward with my camera and took some shots.
Sometimes a steelhead will gently glide away, more irritated or put out than spooked. These three tolerated my movement until I was at the edge of the bank then scattered quickly as though they had a contest amongst themselves to see who could stand the intruder the longest.
There were others in the area, holding among the gentle lumps of the riffle, their dorsal fins creating small V-shaped water disturbances on the surface that are easy to mistake for a rock until it swims away.
I used to never waste time reading water or even take the time to observe a steelhead. They were to be stalked, caught, photographed and shared.
I used to think that I thought too much, but have found sometimes I don’t think enough. There are plenty of times in which simplicity is preferred, if not needed. But often it’s the thinking that supplies the proper amount of weight and gratitude.
It’s hard to believe that it’s already late April and the spring steelhead season is fading. But there is still plenty of time to head to the river armed with my fly rod, what’s left of my winter fly orders and the simple hope of a single good fish.
• Jeff Lund is a freelance writer based in Ketchikan. His book, “A Miserable Paradise: Life in Southeast Alaska,” is available in local bookstores and at Amazon.com. “I Went to the Woods” appears twice per month in the Sports & Outdoors section of the Juneau Empire.