The explosion of the rod and reel in my left hand brought my heart into my throat. It was just the beginning of the greatest fishing experience of my life.
The canyon walls towered above on a typically cool November day on the Deschutes River. It was nearing the Magic-Hour, and I was set to meet a friend down-river for the last fishing of the day. I reluctantly climbed up the banks of and walked to my car.
As my hand reached out and touched the cool metal of the door handle, I paused, glancing back longingly at the river. I froze there, debating internally about the selfish desire to make one more run-through or to keep a previously-made commitment.
I reasoned I’d lose 30 minutes of prime-time, only to gain 15-20 minutes of fishing with my friend. My friend lost out. I told myself, if anyone would understand, he would.
Throwing my conscience under the bus, I sprightly walked back to the top of the run and began working my way downstream.
As there was no surface activity, I was using a nymph rig, with split shot and a size 14 Hare’s Ear.
As the lighting was fading quickly, I didn’t bother to add the typical 4X tippet to my leader. Fortune smiled down, as I instead tied the nymph well up into the stiffer butt-section.
The detonation occurred at the upswing end of the 5th cast. I was totally unprepared for this moment. Within a matter of seconds, the biggest “trout” I’d ever seen launched what appeared feet above the water three times, and left my fly-line in an 80’ long z-pattern from the bank to about mid-river—already into my backing.
The sweet screaming of the reel drowned out the rush of the river. I howled multiple monosyllabic exclamations, unable to form actual words.
Finally gathering some tiny degree of sense, I started reeling. Frantically. Really, I wasn’t doing much to make up for the slack in the line—the (I finally realized) steelhead was cleaning up my mess by flying downstream.
At this point I knew I was screwed.
I’d only seen the fish from a distance and I was determined to get up close and personal. I ran downstream as fast as I could—only to find a downed tree overhanging the river, beyond the point where I could safely wade. I palmed my drag-less reel as much as I safely could, as I passed the rod over, under, through the leafless branches.
At one point the fish made a strong run, leaving me to pick fly-line from the branches like a tangled leader. Minutes later, I cleared the tree to find myself facing a steelhead in a deep fast flowing trench, with a wall along the bank that would not allow passage.
I decided to make a stand.
I refused to let more line out of the reel. I began dragging the steelhead back upstream slowly through the swift green water. Constantly in fear I’d break it off.
Finally, about 30 minutes after the initial eruption, we both lay exhausted, gasping for oxygen along the east bank. I cannot adequately describe its beauty, but I still see it more clearly in my mind than any other fish I’ve caught. After spending time to revive the fish, I gradually loosened my grip until I felt the powerful surge of the steelhead as it swam away. I thanked the steelhead, and the River, for providing me such an amazing experience.
I’d never fished for steelhead before that day. And while since I’ve spent quite a bit of time steelheading, nothing compares to my first. The amount of luck and fortune involved in landing my first steelhead amazes me to this day. As the saying goes, you make your own luck. But the biggest lesson I learned was: Screw your buddy and fish until dark—it’s totally worth it!
This steelhead success story was brought to us by Shannon, who I have had the privilege of spending more that a few days on the river fly fishing for steelhead. If you want to get in touch with Shannon, leave a comment at the bottom.
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