Last weekend, I fished a small tributary with a young man I mentor and he was fortunate enough to land a small steelhead on his first outing. His smile says it all, although I will always remember his look of disbelief after a steelhead cartwheeled downstream on him and through the fly before he knew what happened.
On Wednesday, I decided to take a break from preparing for a speech the next morning and visit the Rocky. The gauge warned that the river was unfishable, flowing at about 1,000 cfs -- twice as fast as I'd ever fished it. But the height had dropped below 2.5 feet, so there was some hope -- but not much. Through Berea, the east branch flowed heavy and brown. Below the falls, nine cars lined the parkway and anglers stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the muddy water creating a gauntlet along a tight turn in the river. Unappealing in more ways than I care to count.
No anglers were visible in the main river as I drove north. After parking, I wasn't even sure I'd fish. I left my gear in the car and walked into the woods. I admired the yellow flowers rising above the green leaves that carpeted the forest floor. April showers bring April flowers. Aldo Leopold tracked spring by the returning geese. Our geese never leave. I measure spring by the explosion of ramps and the burst of yellow flowers along the banks of Steelhead Alley streams. I walked the trail, knowing that at least I'd have a nice walk in the woods. I cut over to look at the river and was immediately greeted by a small, dark male steelhead porpoising out of the muddy water along the bank. A few more fish showed themselves and I promptly returned to the car.
The spey rod was rigged up with a double marobou spey fly, black and purple, with a red head. The bigger the better for muddy water. I hiked back to the river and stepped into the shallow, swift water and started to slowly strip out line testing the bank for fish. No fish showed and I extended my cast out 10 yards from the bank when a fish interrupted the fly's swing with an aggressive strike. I was lackadaisical on hook set and soon lost the fish. I kept working out toward a mid-river depression that would provide some shelter from the fast moving current.
During the dead of winter, steelhead generally strike as the fly slows down or dangles at the end of a swing. When the water is above 50 degrees, fish often strike early in the swing as the fly begins to speed up. An early strike is usually aggressive and is often followed by a line peeling run downstream. High water inspires longer, even more powerful downstream runs. I thought about this while a female steelhead jumped from the water 35 yards downstream, my tube fly hanging from her mouth. Just a few seconds earlier she'd crushed the fly almost directly across from me shortly after the fly had landed.
I cranked down the drag, thankful for the 25 pound test line and used the leverage provided by the long rod to pull her upstream. I brought her close to the bank, grabbed the line, dropped to my knees and cradled the fish in one hand while trying to pull out the hook with the other. It wasn't graceful, but eventually the fish was freed and quickly swam away into the muddy water.