Monday, November 5, 2012

A Steelhead Strike!

I'm not accustomed to failure.  I'm accustomed to succeeding at things as long as I put in enough effort and hard work.  That's how it's suppose to be, right?  As long as someone sets realistic goals and works hard to reach those goals, there's no reason they shouldn't succeed.  At least that's what I thought before I started the obsessive pastime of chasing steelhead in Northern Wisconsin.  I'll admit that I became a little obsessed this season with steelheading.  Over the past three years, I put in close to a hundred hours on the water with only minor results.  Sure, I landed a steelhead last year, but being under 20 inches, it wasn't a REAL steelhead.  I had also had a fish on briefly before it broke me off, but neither of those events were enough to satiate my steelhead appetite.  I wanted to land a real steelhead--I wanted to feel its power through the zipping line and see its beauty up close.  So after getting skunked on my first trip of the fall, I pushed aside my swinging tunnel vision and spent time tying new flies and planning a new approach.  If swinging flies wasn't fruitful the next time out, I was ready to trail an egg pattern behind a weighted nymph and dead-drift the runs, even though this went against my stubbornly purist tendencies.  Desperate times called for desperate measures.

There's a chance I may have blocked it out of my memory, but I honestly can't recall a point in my life when I wasn't able to accomplish something I set out to do. Growing up in a family of strong-headed men and women, "can't" has never been in my vocabulary, and being the competitive person I am, I've just always worked at things until I achieved them. Quitting is rarely in my radar, but my steelheading failure was really throwing me for a loop.  I even began to question whether I subconsciously gravitate towards activities I know I'll excel at and avoid those things that don't play to my strengths.   Maybe I wasn't cut out for this steelheading thing and I should just stick to casting dry flies to Driftless trout.  So what if I can't land a worthy steelhead?  I can be good at other things.  I could tell the steelhead slump was really working me over because I was already making up excuses in my head for continued steelhead failure, which was totally unlike me.

With all these thoughts going through my head, I called up a good friend who lives near the river and arranged to stay with him for a few days. I had two full days on the water set aside.....three if necessary.  He joined me the first day, and we took turns swinging through the deep runs of our selected stretch.  A few hours into the day, I had a grab at my fly, which had never happened to me before.  The two fish I had had on in other years never took my fly with much power.  They certainly didn't hit like a freight train, as some people have described them doing.  Instead, they felt like another snag on the rocks; there were no huge tugs on the line.  One minute my line was swinging and the next there was a fish on.  In contrast, the grab I felt this time shook me to the core and got my heart racing.  I definitely could tell it was a living thing at the other end and not just a snag.  The power transmitted through the line was awesome.

After several more hours of inaction, I decided I had given the swing a good chance, but it was time to switch to the weighted nymph and trailing egg pattern.  I re-fished the runs on our return hike but still had no results.

After a tailgate lunch, we headed to a different stretch of water a bit further upstream.  We planned to fish each run twice:  once with his swinging and once with my nymphing.  We hiked down to the first hole, and my friend started casting to the top of the run.  After about the fifth swing of his fly, he hooked into a beautiful steelhead.  Neither of us had a net along, so I stripped off my gloves and waded into the water to lend a hand.  He guided the fish towards me, and it became the first real steelhead I had the opportunity to hold.  It was beautiful.  In a way, it felt like a shared fish.  I remember thinking that it was almost as good as catching one myself.  Almost.

My friend had been fighting a bad cold and decided to stay home on the second day, which meant I'd be fishing solo. I was actually looking forward to a day alone on the river. At this point I had seen a steelhead landed on the swing and knew where the fish should be. On the drive over, I was very confident that I'd finally land a true steelhead this day; I could visualize it in my head.  I also wondered, though, how I would react at the end of the day if I were heading home skunked once again, which was a very plausible scenario.   Would I give up steelheading because I can't stand to fail, or would I become even more obsessed with it because of repeated failure?   I had a keen sense that the day of reckoning was upon me. 

I pulled into the parking lot of my chosen stretch of river expecting to find too many cars, which would force me to decide on a plan B.  Amazingly, only one car was there.  I took my time gearing up and adding to my multiple layers of clothing.  My friend generously sent his switch rig with me, which meant I could swing flies the entire day.  It was a good feeling to have no backup plan this time.  I would swing my flies and leave the nymphs and eggs in my fishing bag.  I crossed the river and hiked past the other fisherman who was trying his luck at the first hole.  I skipped ahead further downstream until I came to a run where I had seen fish previously hooked.  I took my time and quickly got into a rhythm.  Glide the line back, roll cast, swing the fly.  Glide the line back, roll cast, swing the fly.  After fishing to the end of the first run, I continued downstream.  Being on a stretch of river that normally has a good number of fishermen on it at any given time, I felt very fortunate to have no one downstream from me.  I could take my time and make my way down river without wondering whether a run would be occupied or not.

The third hole I fished was the spot I had been subconsciously approaching.  A fishing partner on my last steelhead outing had caught several nice fish in this hole.  I began swinging my fly through the top of the run.  The repetitive rhythm of the casting easily allowed my mind to wander to other things.  After half a dozen casts, I felt movement at the end of my line at mid-swing.  I raised my rod tip and felt the fish on.  As the rod danced up and down, I caught glimpses of silver as the fish rose to the surface.  Because I had visualized this moment so many times, I was surprisingly calm after I realized there was a REAL steelhead at the end of my line.  I let it pull some line out when it ran towards deeper water, and reeled line in when it gave me the chance.  The 12' rod forced me to land the fish on the bank, and after a quick snapshot to make sure the moment was real, I thanked the fish and delivered it back to its watery world.
The feeling I had in that moment was pure elation.  I had finally accomplished something that had eluded and frustrated me for some time, and it made all the previous fishless days evaporate from my memory. 

Did I owe a huge portion of this fish to luck, persistence, or both?  With the number of hours I spent on the river, had it been just a matter of time before a steelhead connected with my fly?  If the parking lot had been full that morning, would I still be in a steelhead slump?  Would this fish have grabbed an egg if I had been nymphing rather than swinging?  Regardless of how or why I finally landed a REAL steelhead, catching one on the swing with one of my very own flies makes me a very satisfied girl.  I can now enter the real offseason of fly fishing in Wisconsin without any regrets.