The One that Got Away - Steelhead

One Christmas Eve, two years after the Rainbow Incident, I trudged through and under brush and saplings and over mossy logs to fish a run on the Sol Duc that a handful of us call Varsity. It’s one of the juiciest runs on the Sol Duc, with a delicious, easily fished top that requires a longer and longer cast as you go downstream, until both the wading and the casting are for experts only. It’s a proving ground on what is an all around challenging river to fish. I had hooked a few steelhead on the Sol Duc in December, and I had a good feeling about the water conditions, which were about three feet in visibility—welcome color in an often near perfectly transparent river. Scanning through my winter steelhead fly box, I noticed a well-tied, two inch long, orange and purple intruder that had been sitting in my box for months. The proportions were just right, the colors were just right, and the brand new barbell eyes would sink at just the right pace. I had to fish this fly.

Unfortunately though, I had tied the fly with the trailing wire loop, onto which the hook is threaded, too short to fit a proper winter steelhead hook. Ignoring this major fault with the intruder, I chose a smaller, thinner, shorter hook than would fit the fly instead of simply using another fly with a bigger hook. It would be fine, I thought.

I carefully waded over basketball-sized rocks, pulled off a few feet of line and flopped it out with one hand, lengthening my cast about three feet after each swing. My Skagit line sliced through progressively wider swaths of perfect steelhead water as I cast and worked my way downstream. I hadn’t made ten casts before that special intruder was grabbed and yanked by what felt to me was clearly a steelhead you would need two hands to lift. I had made thousands of casts, shivered, waded over my waders, waited whole seasons on this river without hooking a steelhead. And now it was happening. I had found a winter steelhead! I had won the lottery.

But three angry head shakes was all it took to bend out that light wire hook and pop it out of what I can’t help imagining was a heavy, kyped, crocodile jaw. It would have been one of relatively few steelhead I had ever landed on that river. It probably would have been my best steelhead ever. And it was all my fault.

I’ve broken several trout off with almost nothing felt whatsoever, including what could have been a twenty plus inch rainbow trout on the Yakima River, what must have been two very large sea run cutthroat on Puget Sound, and what was probably a hog of a tiger trout in a lake that until very recently held the state record. The near total lack of weight and struggle on the end of the line makes me think that those barely perceptible fish were large and broke off extremely quickly, with little acceleration on their part.

Whether it was from excessively light tippet, bad luck, mental errors, or purely my own overactive eagerness, I have had to repeatedly come to terms with the reality that I’ll never be good or lucky enough to land every fish I hook. Unfortunately, big fish are rare and if you lose them they probably will never come back. Some—especially that Alaskan rainbow—are like an old festering wound, resurfacing every so often with a shot of pain. “Those are the fish that keep you going all winter,” everybody always says. And that, as people are also prone to stating, is supposedly what makes it fun. 

Cliches aside, it is undoubtedly true that landing every fish would get kind of boring before too long.  I’ve lost five steelhead in a (very painful) row more than once, only to land the next five. Did I treasure each one of those five I tailed even more after losing so many? Probably. I’ve missed dozens of vexing sea run cutthroat strikes in a season, only to wader up on the last day even more enthusiastically than the first. 

The line between exhilaration and devastation is finer in fishing than in most other pursuits. There is some balance between the satisfaction of landing fish and the pain of losing them that keeps the sportfisher motivated to come back instead of surrender in dejection or take up sudoku. Perhaps the randomness of it all, the surprise, keeps us going, as in gambling. Regardless of skill, much relies on simple chance.

And there is clearly something in human nature that makes the permit and the steelhead of the world the most sought after fish in the hierarchy, when there are plenty of fish species that take a fly more readily and put an equivalent bend in the rod. For whatever reason, fishermen and hunters have a deeply alloyed affinity for a challenge—a challenge that inevitably involves losing some number of big fish or game animals. Repeated failure seems to engender appreciation. 

I am lucky to have landed three out of four of the “best” fish I’ve ever hooked: an Alaskan rainbow trout, a Pacific bonefish, and a permit. I landed each one of those fish, beheld them intensely, and set them free, knowing I would never see them again. But in addition to a powerful momentary experience, I took something permanent from each of them: their image. Without a photo of those fish, they would have just been a “huge rainbow with an amazing red stripe” or a “giant bonefish” or a “nice permit.” Without a photograph, a fish’s spots, its eye, its fins, and its brilliant iridescence become a hazy memory, soon forgotten or clumsily described in a few words to people who only halfway believe you. I want to look at a photo and be transported back in time, to a fleeting, unrepeatable moment, one of relatively few such moments I will ever experience. I acquiesce to my urge to covet, amass, even if it’s not the flesh of a fish I’m seeking. For the memory impaired, which includes several of my family members, that photo might be all they have to remember one of their most special moments.

I think that releasing a big fish, the kind that would feed a family, can satisfy whatever deep hunting and gathering urges I may harbor. The desire to harvest and roast a fish over a fire seems to lie on the same circuit board as simply cherishing the presence of a special creature, capturing a photo, and setting it free. I had that New Zealand trout as good as landed. But I wanted something more than a blur of a golden brown trout rolling away and off of the hook. I ended up having an excellent trip down under. But no multi-fish day could fully take the place of that first stunning brown. 

Some lost fish are soon forgotten. Some are remembered as fond memories of things done and gone almost right. Others ache for years. I’ve often said it never gets easier, but I’m not sure that’s true. Losing special fish, and fish that are hooked in picturesque places or with challenging techniques, still hurts. But not as badly as it used to. There will be more chances, more shadowy logs to drift a fly under, more heavy fish holding in tailouts. At least that’s what we have to tell ourselves when we lose what we think is the One.

As many anglers mature both in years and in their fishing passion, the primacy of ego, and the craving for the grip and grin, start to wane. Years spent fishing, and the importance of landing fish, seem inversely related. At some point, I imagine, there’s nothing to prove, or perhaps simply no interest in proving it. Fish, as they say, are just a bonus, a few drops in the panacea of water.  

Waterfall with green moss

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