A STEELHEAD LESSON LEARNED
By Dave Hadden
Steelhead anglers often develop a certain degree of expertise relative to locating and catching their quarry. This comes about through a combination of factors involving experiences, observations, successes, failures and lessons learned from other anglers. Some anglers, however, seem to be slow learners. Here is my favorite story of one such guy.
I lived and worked in Gold River on Vancouver Island from 1967 to 1973 and learned a few fishing spots, which always seemed to hold steelhead, varying only with water levels, barometric pressures, tidal influences, time of day, state of the moon, season of the year and state of sobriety. None of these variations proved to be a problem for the educated angler that I claimed to be and I was very successful at a couple of favorite spots, especially the Heber Junction Pool.
In those days there was no industrial park in Gold River and one could drive in past the CP (Canadian Pacific) Transport building, through the campsite and end up within 50 feet of the pool. As I only fished steelhead in the spring, when there was enough daylight left after work, this was an easily accessible spot and was subject to much of my effort. I came to know the place intimately and caught a lot of steelhead there. I knew exactly where they would be with just a simple glance at the water levels and caught many fish on the first cast, not a rare thing to an experienced steelheader. When you know where they should be it is no great feat to cover that area first and, if they are there, one often finds out quickly. You can basically draw a map of where they tend to hold.
I arrived one evening during a period of fairly high water, the result of the late spring run-off, to find another angler standing exactly in “my” spot. I recognized him as a tradesman from the pulp mill although I couldn’t and can’t remember his name. I asked how he was doing and he replied in the negative.
“Nothing here today,” he stated. I watched him fling his lure, a spinner as I recall, well out into the river where it was immediately swept downstream, perhaps sinking a foot or so before swinging around and hanging in the current below. He repeated this process several times as I pondered what to do.
In those days, the river was different than it is today insofar as it hadn’t been filled in too badly. The current from the Gold flowing down and around the corner at this particular pool encompassed the whole width of the river, finally gathering itself for the mad rush down the rapids which are far away on the lower left side as you look downstream. I had learned that the steelhead would fight their way up the rapids and then swing over to rest, right in front of where we stood. He was making 80-foot casts, the fish were 20 feet away.
I am not shy about offering advice to other anglers although I never do it with an air of superiority or smugness, realizing all too well that I once knew nothing myself. Rather, I offer it with the pure intention of assisting my fellow angler and, perhaps, helping him to learn from my experiences. I’m just too good to be true.
“You should put on a bit more weight and lob it up above,” I ventured. “The fish are right out in front of you.” He nodded, then made another beautiful cast, 80 feet out. “Hmmm,” I mused.
I knew that he couldn’t stand in the water forever as it was very cold, being most recently snow and ice, so I hung my rod in the big cedar tree that overhangs this pool, and lit a cigarette. I would wait him out.
He made several more casts, all the same length, and all totally useless. He would die of old age before ever catching a steelhead under these conditions, casting way out there.
I thought about fishing above him but the cedar was in the way. I’m an ethical angler and don’t believe in crowding another person when they have the optimum spot. I lit another smoke.
Finally he waded out of the river, shaking his head in dismay and indicated that he was finished. I asked if he minded if I took over the spot. He said that was fine with him, there was nothing there. I waded in.
Lobbing my heavily weighted spin-n-glo 20 feet upstream and 20 feet out, neatly missing the overhanging branches of the cedar, I waited until I felt my offering ticking along the bottom. It hadn’t gone 10 feet before I felt the take and set the hook into a fish. “Fish on!” I whooped, secretly enjoying my incredible display of angling prowess.(I’m only human, after all.) It was a summer-run fish of eight pounds or so and gave the typical flashy fight so common to these wonderful gamefish. It ran, it jumped, it ran some more, it jumped again, it sulked and then grudgingly started to weaken. I realized that with the high water conditions I would have to move around the cedar tree and beach the fish above me, as there was no suitable place where I stood. I managed to get around the tree and was slowly leading the fish towards me when my new acquaintance waded in as if to give me a hand. “It’s okay,” I assured him. “I can handle him myself.” By his excitement, I could tell that he had never seen a steelhead this close before, and indeed he confirmed that he had never caught one.
I tailed the fish in a foot of water and quickly slipped the hook from its jaw. I fully intended to release this fish as I had no use for it and it had fought well, but my companion thought that I was going to keep it. He kept commenting on what a beauty it was and was noticeably startled when I slipped it back into the river. In fact, he took several steps after it, almost as if he thought it had slipped away from me and he could retrieve it before its escape was complete. I smiled inwardly and told him that I released most of my fish as I caught quite a few and as a single guy living in the bunkhouse I really couldn’t use them.
A couple of days later I returned to this same spot to discover that my friend was there again. This time he was standing where I had landed the fish of a few days past, launching long arching casts halfway across the river. We exchanged greetings and I asked if he minded if I fished below him, the exact same spot from which I had caught the fish before. He nodded approval and I waded in. Lobbing my ever faithful spin-n-glo rig upstream and about 20 feet out from where he stood, I was rewarded with a take and another hookup. He couldn’t believe it but graciously moved away so I could beach my fish where he had been standing. I revived the fish and released it, all the while attempting to convince him that the fish were holding in tight, not out in the middle. He nodded again, as if he now understood, then indicated that he had to go. I wished him well and continued fishing.
A few days later I returned to this spot, only to see that this same fellow was there ahead of me. This time he was on the other side of the river, 150 feet away! I waved and he acknowledged with a curt nod of his head. I cast to the very same place as before and hooked up immediately. The fish screamed across the river and then jumped right in front of where this fellow stood, almost as if to spite him. I landed the fish and released it, all the while contemplating what had happened.
First, I had told the fellow where the fish lay and suggested that he might have a better chance if he covered that water. Then I showed him how. Lesson number one.
Next, I caught another, right in front of him, in exactly the spot I had pointed out to him the first time. Lesson number two.
Lastly, I caught the third fish, right where I knew they were, and right where I had shown this fellow twice before. Lesson number three.
I learned a valuable lesson myself over the course of these events. I learned I’m a lousy teacher.
Dave Hadden, an avid fly fisherman, lives in Campbell River, British Columbia.