As previously published in Fly Fusion magazine.
With frosted edges and delicate tips, it landed on my nose before softening and disappearing into the warmth of my skin.
It was winter in western Canada and the trees were awaiting their new dress. They stood naked and bare, lining the secluded river bank, shivering in the wind and grasping for my back cast.
They, like me, were only moments away from the season’s first coating of fresh snow.
A light wind floated the flakes gently downstream and they lingered and danced in the air with each gust.
Evening had fast been approaching but the sudden snowfall lit the moody sky and I smiled at the extra thirty casts I may have just been gifted.
I pulled up my hood, burrowed my chin into my fleece and watched the blood rush into my hands as I gripped my Spey rod firmly. With a current that ran as smooth as melted butter, my confidence soared and my heart beat faster.
Boulders and troughs played hide and seek though the river’s glare, cheating the fish and giving away their hiding spots. I loved this game…
Alive and excited, I stood with my back stiff and shoulders tensed; a posture of dedicated concentration.
An obtrusive fluorescent green fly line filled me with a false sense of security, connecting me indirectly with my fly as it swung through the current.
My eyes pierced the water intensely, straining and drowning themselves in deep thought.
I envisioned the fly, quivering and darting through the flow enticingly. “C’mon, eat it…” I mumbled.
My fly hit its dangle as the line swung parallel with the shore and I waited for a grab…nothing.
Refused and neglected, I stripped in my running line, took two steps downstream, and proceeded to do it all again.
This scene is a familiar one for a small and unique group of anglers.
From British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California in the West, to Ontario, New York, Ohio, and other Great Lakes states in the East, winter steelheaders escape the hectic stresses and aftermath of holiday hype by seeking recluse on the abandoned riverbanks.
‘Tis the season; not of shopping malls and home renovations, but the season where we hold our breaths as we turn down back-roads until we’re greeted by puddles of unbroken ice.
Yes, to put it bluntly, it’s the long awaited time of year where we can rely on the weather to single out the die-hards and open the waterways to those willing to sacrifice feeling in their toes for a single fishy grab (if we’re lucky).
As a fishing guide and booking agent, I find myself spending a lot of time answering questions from anglers looking to book a summer steelhead trip.
Usually I am thrilled to answer the expected questions; “What gear do I need?”, “What will the weather be like?”, “How far will I need to cast?”, “When do these fish enter the system?”, “What’s the average fish size?”, “Can we take our fish home?” (Huh? No!)
Like a family fishing Doctor, I have seen and heard it all. It’s a rarity when someone takes me by surprise and it is even more infrequent to find someone who can make me wince (with the exception of thoughtless back casts when I’m standing in the line of fire).
This said, there is one question that inevitably makes me cringe just the slightest: “How many fish can we expect to catch per day?”
It’s a fair question really, a question that I can answer and one that is relatively easy to answer consistently.
The truth is, I cringe because this is the cybernetic moment where I find myself discriminately gauging the experience and dedication of the angler I’m corresponding with.
I respond in red text below their question, “Typically a good day of fishing will result in one to three fish, though more productive days are not uncommon”.
Then I wait.
For some, standing in the water all day to possibly hook into a couple of steelhead simply isn’t an option. Regardless of the comparatively pleasant conditions that summer steelheading brings, there are some anglers that this sector of the sport just isn’t cut out for, and that’s quite alright.
But every so often, something beautiful happens; my inbox lights up with a positive energy, an exclamation mark or smiley face icon illuminates a sentence’s end, and an ecstatic response confirms to me that one or two fish hooked per day sounds brilliant!
In this moment, it is made clear to me that I am most likely in communication with a fellow winter steelheader.
Winter steelheaders are some of the most committed freshwater angling enthusiasts in North America.
Often battling freezing temperatures, bone-chilling winds, icy guides, frozen boots, slippery slopes, and high maintenance fish, it is the winter steelheaders who truly understand and demonstrate sincere appreciation for a successful day on the water.
As can be expected, winter-run steelhead aren’t exactly famous for their willingness to bite.
Notoriously a stubborn species, they often hunker low in the water column and taunt fishers with lock jawed tendencies brought on by their frigid environment.
I have witnessed gear anglers drift bait over winter steelhead so many times that the gooey stink almost hits the fish in its snout. Standing above the bank, I’ve watched them nonchalantly stray five inches to the left or right, only to return to their holding spot as if they couldn’t be bothered to entertain the desperate plea of 100+ casts.
Thankfully, most fly fishers are low enough to the water that they can’t observe this behaviour and they are saved from having to endure such torture and refusal.
While I am somewhat unfamiliar with the productivity of the Great Lakes fishery, I am quite confident to claim that one hook-up per day is a success for most any winter steelheader.
True, there are some days, fisheries, cycles and months where several fish can be coaxed into taking a persistent fly, however as a general rule of thumb, one landed winter-run steelhead typically results in one radiant smile, one very happy angler, and a whole lot of instilled confidence.
On occasion, however, the winter clouds will rest and the sun will flaunt its rays.
The day, though still cold, is welcoming and even the most depressed of trees seem to come to life as the orange glow pushes through their limbs and remaining few crisp leaves.
The water displays a brilliant green and sparkles like diamonds while the sun’s warming touch heats exposed flesh, dark clothing and sour attitudes. Uplifting and comforting, these sunny days are long-awaited and rarely go unnoticed or unappreciated.
With the good must come the bad and, like all quality fisheries, there are days when the fishing is hard and the energy is drab.
As the sun plays coy, the water loses its charisma and the featureless dark, tarlike currents drain the enthusiasm of many an angler who shows up to play.
Days are often quickly cut short by an extended coffee shop visit or by an excuse to linger in the warmth of a heated truck. Fishing buddies hold out on their secret desire to surrender until the other has displayed a mutual frozen fingered misery and they finally look at each other and agree that lunch sounds “really good right about now”.
It’s fantastic to watch and even more fulfilling to experience; anglers pushing themselves to their limits, each one of them ending the day with rosy cheeks and a smile, content and proud that they put forth the effort.
It is a mentality and a temperament that I only wish could be inherited by all freshwater anglers.
It’s one that cannot be taught, passed down, preached, pushed or posted on the net. Rather, it’s one that comes with the cliché gospel of blood, sweat and tears; one that is authentic and sure to change the patience of all those who are up to the challenge.
They are the appreciative, the deserving, the elite and the knowing. They are the old-school breed of ‘work hard to reap the rewards’, ‘no pain no gain’ mottos and ‘appreciate all that encompasses the sport of fly-fishing’; they are the winter steelheaders and I am thankful for every one of them that I meet.