Greatest of All Time

Greatest of All Time

Extolling the attraction of chromers.

  • By: E. Donnall Thomas

Stuck on the cusp between dense fog and light drizzle, the moisture in the cool North Pacific air filled my lungs as I broke out of the brush at last. Ten months had passed since my last visit, but my favorite steelhead run was still waiting for me. It had been a bad year for old friendships, and I could only wish that people had shown me as much loyalty as the water.

Swollen slightly by two days of rain, the current looked pleasantly plump and full. Suppressing the urge to rig up quickly and start flailing away, I made myself sit down on a log and study the water. Time changes streams as surely as it changes people, in memory if not in fact, and I needed to study the water’s route through the little falls at the head of the pool and the current’s complex entry to the 20-yard run of smooth water where steelhead like to lie.
I tried to visualize where the fish might be and imagined myself as a Green-Butt Skunk coursing downstream to meet them. Satisfied at last, I removed the four pieces of my 7-weight from the metal case that protected them during a nasty hike through the brush and turned them into a fly rod.

I am an avowed nihilist in the selection of fly patterns for anadromous fish. For the most part, steelhead and salmon are either going to hit what’s offered properly or they aren’t. Most of our devotion to fumbling through fly boxes in search of an irresistible pattern reflects frustration with fish that aren’t hitting (or that aren’t even present). Conversely, the intense devotion we feel toward patterns that turned a day or two around is usually the result of getting the fly—whatever it is—in front of eager fish.

Presentation is another matter. Steelhead enjoy a more complex relationship with current than any other game fish. Flow governs their behavior from the moment they smell fresh water until the completion of their spawning run. Drawing strikes means presenting the fly—again, whatever it is—just so. There are times to swing, times to drift and times to strip, at all levels of the water column. Those are the distinctions that matter, not dithering over fly selection.

Appreciating steelhead demands experience. Of course, acquiring that experience in turn demands willingness to spend years standing in the rain not catching fish, hence the great Catch 22 of steelhead fishing: anyone who has what it takes to get good at it is probably not someone I’d want to have marrying my daughter.

In fact, in my own daughter’s case that figure of speech may not apply, as I recalled with a laugh while threading a leader through the guides. Nicole was barely a teenager when she caught her first steelhead in this same little pool. We’d started out two miles downstream that day, where the road comes closer to the water, just above the tideline. I gave the first good pool to Nicole and my wife, Lori, while I hiked upstream to prospect for fish. I promised to meet them back on the road in four hours.

I didn’t touch a fish on the way upstream to the little pool below the falls, which is probably why I was asleep at the wheel when I made my first cast there. I nearly missed the strike completely, but hung on for three jumps before losing the fish. Three casts later I was fast to a bright hen that took me well downstream and into my backing before breaking off. Over the next half hour, I hooked and lost four more.

When Nicole popped out of the devil’s club, I realized that I’d missed our rendezvous—no surprise given the pace of the fishing. To atone for making her slog through the brush to retrieve me, I handed Nicole my rod, offered a few suggestions about technique and stepped out of the way just in time to watch her hook (and land!) another bright hen. She’s been at it ever since. Those are the days that draw you back through all the rain and mud. As I slid the knot home at last on the eye of the fly, I realized just how ready I was for another fish.

The question arose around a campfire in Alaska a few years back, after it had finally grown too dark to fish. “What’s the greatest game fish in the world?”

A half-dozen of us were working our way through a bottle of wine prior to a macaroni-and-cheese dinner. All were experienced anglers who had spent their share of time fishing around the world. Bonefish, brown trout and permit all received votes by the time the question—and the wine bottle—came around to me. I realized that I needed some clarification before answering.

“Greatest covers a lot of ground,” I pointed out. “Prettiest? Hardest fighting? Most fun to catch?”

“Let’s put it this way,” someone suggested from across the smoldering fire. “If you could only fish for one kind of fish….”

“No question!” I interrupted confidently. “Steelhead!”

I’ve never had occasion to second guess that impulsive call, despite personal experience with most (if not quite all) potential candidates for the title. Picking the fish was easy; as usual, explaining why is the real challenge.
First things first: size does matter (although probably not as much as the ads flooding my e-mail suggest). As an angler, I’ve never paid much attention to pounds or inches. But I do like big fish, simply defined as those that demand a reel with a good drag and lots of backing if you plan to land them. By that standard steelhead keep select company, at least in fresh water. But since I’d rather catch a bright eight-pound steelhead than a 30-pound northern pike, size can’t be everything.

While size can be measured objectively, fighting qualities cannot, which explains the subjectivity of the arguments this subject inspires. My eyes always glaze over when the phrase “pound for pound” enters the discussion. For all I know, the winner in the category could be the endangered, two-inch long snail darter. But there’s no doubt that steelhead, at their best, hold their own against all comers, and that opinion reflects many elements of a fish’s performance on the end of a line: speed, power, leaping ability and endurance.

However, steelhead are not always at their best; prolonged stays in streams sap vigor from anadromous fish. But, even though a fresh silver salmon can jump circles around a lot of steelhead that have been in the river for a while, I’d rather catch the steelhead.

And so the discussion reduces to intangibles, none more relevant than the places the fish call home. Perhaps as a reflection of my Pacific Northwest upbringing, I love steelhead water, the wilder the better. My favorite steelhead streams range from walk-in waters on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to small, road-inaccessible streams in southeast Alaska that don’t even have names on the map. The only thing I miss at our Montana home is the sea, which is why our second home lies in the heart of coastal Alaska steelhead country. From tides to tumbling freshwater currents, steelhead habitat combines the best of both worlds.

Then there is the element of mystique. Close your eyes and imagine a permit on the end of one fly line, a comparably sized crevalle jack on the other. Do you really think you could tell the difference? It doesn’t matter, because only one of them is a permit. That is mystique, and steelhead enjoy more than their share, with good reason. First, consider the absurd fact that plenty of steelhead angling takes place when the fish aren’t even there. That’s a hard concept for novices to grasp, but anadromous fish come and go by nature and all the theories in the world cannot guarantee accurate prediction of their presence. While low-water conditions may allow sight-casting to fish, more often than not the steelhead angler must rely on faith alone to maintain attention on the stream. That’s the kind of uncertainty that either drives you crazy or leaves you eager to return for more.

The same can be said of the illogical approach to technique I referred to earlier. “What are they eating?” a friend from Montana asked years ago as we eased away from shore in my drift boat at the start of his first day of steelhead fishing.

“Nothing,” I replied.

“Then how do we know what flies to use?” my worried friend continued.

“We don’t.”

“And if they’re not eating, why do they strike flies at all?”

“We don’t know that either.” And so it went until, in a classic example of beginner’s luck, he hooked and landed a 15-pound fish, at which point he abandoned common sense and became a steelhead angler. He has remained one for 30 years.

This aura of mystery helps explain the distinction between steelhead and garden-variety rainbow trout, although the two are biologically identical. (We did not always recognize that fact, but I am not sure if the modern classification of all these fish as Oncorhynchus mykiss really represents progress.) Granted, most steelhead are bigger than most native rainbows, though I’ve caught rainbows in places like Bristol Bay, New Zealand, and even Montana that were bigger than some steelhead.

Those big ‘bows ran and jumped and otherwise excited the hell out of me, but they weren’t steelhead. Matching a tricky hatch with exquisite imitations is science; catching a steelhead that might not have been there, on a fly that doesn’t look like anything, is magic. Science has its place at the streamside as it does elsewhere in life (and I say that as having been a physician in my professional life), but I’ve always been a sucker for rabbits pulled from hats. Perhaps it’s all a left brain/right brain dichotomy in the end.

I feel something in common with almost everyone who enjoys fishing, more still with those who fish with flies, more still with those who…. No matter how tightly you refine those Venn diagrams, there’s something qualitatively different about the common ground shared among fly-rod steelhead fanatics. That’s not to suggest that we all get along. How could we, given the strong strains of eccentricity if not outright sociopathy that run through the ranks?

But knowing that you are talking to someone who sees nothing irrational about spending days alone in the rain catching nothing cuts through traditional social barriers of class, politics, gender, and so on with remarkable ease. Maybe more of the world’s warring factions just need to go fishing.

Here I am again, alone, beside this remarkable little piece of water, at least until my wife Lori finishes working her way up from the tideline, where she’s chosen to start today. While the naturalist in me can’t ignore the harlequin ducks swimming across the tailout of the pool or the Sitka blacktail deer browsing along the bank, my heart lies in the water… under the water, as a matter of fact, examining the world from an imaginary steelhead’s point of view. Born from an egg fertilized a few miles upstream, the fish that I’m pretending to be migrated from this river as a smolt, swam halfway to Japan and somehow found its way back to this exact spot with no navigational input other than some inscrutable dots and dashes from its lateral line. Figure that one out… rabbits from hats indeed.

But my alter ego must indeed be imaginary, for an hour’s careful attention to the water hasn’t produced a single bump. With Lori in sight at last, a hundred yards below me, I declare my next cast the last of the morning. In fact, I’m actually reeling in slack when the leader defies the laws of physics and starts to move upstream.

I do not deserve to hook this fish. Technically that’s the hardest part of the game, if only because it’s so difficult to stay focused and alert after hours of futility. But today I’m better off being lucky than good.

Soon the leaping hen has my hissing line halfway downstream to Lori, becoming another entry in five decades’ worth of steelhead memories, the inspiration for who knows how many more steelhead dreams.

Don Thomas and his wife Lori divide their time between homes in rural Montana and coastal Alaska. Thomas’ latest book is How Sportsmen Saved the World.