Monday, May 02, 2011

Big Wild Great Lakes Steelhead

Let's start this one by saying that it almost didn't happen.

When the clock struck 5am, I was really tempted not to get up. I hit snooze a couple of times. The bed was warm, and I was tired enough: we have 5 year-old twins, still very young and very energetic. And on the previous evening, I'd found out that all my prospective partners for the day were either incapacitated, disqualified or otherwise occupied. Dan, Bill, Dave, JP, Khalid, Richard, Mike; no one was coming with me. How much easier then, to just turn off the alarm clock and go back to sleep...

But I owed it to myself to get out of bed, and I guess I owed it to Laura too. She almost stayed in Peterborough for the whole weekend, instead of coming home on Saturday night as previously agreed. One of her cousins had not been able to make it to the Friday night Royal Wedding Mulligan ladies' jamboree, and her arrival on Saturday evening almost spelled doom for any trip on Sunday. We had to be at my sister's on Sunday afternoon (so I only had a half day anyway) and I certainly wasn't going to deny Laura an extra day's rest: if she decided to stay longer, I was going to take my lumps like a man and go fishing some other time. But she had missed her little boys and, though she didn't say it, didn't really want to disappoint me. So she came back.

So she came back on Saturday night, and I got up on Sunday morning at 5:30am. I packed my things into the trunk, slipped off the driveway, swung out to Tim Horton's and sped down the highway. As I neared my destination, I caught a glimpse of the sun rising over a hill in a farmer's field. I stopped and took a few pictures. Except for birdsong, the world was quiet. What is the saying? "Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning." But it was going to be an entirely different kind of storm that I was going to get into.

It started with the first drift, in the same stretch of river that Dan, Bill and I had had to ourselves on Friday. The float went down, and in minutes I had my first fish of the day on the bank. It would be the only male of the day, and the only one to take roe. After that, things got a bit blurry. There was a good deal of see-sawing, as I went from pool to deep green pool, of fish on and fish off, fish landed and fish lost.

There were two very notable losses. First, a large hen that seemed like it had only recently arrived in the river. She leapt a few times right in front of me, then zipped down river, between two thick, tangled stumps. My line got messed up with one of the stumps and she pulled further down river. We fought like this for a while, and I saw her big tail come up - with not a mark on it - but eventually the tippet could no longer take the pressure, and she was gone. Magically, my rig came free from the stump and I was able to resume fishing without too much re-tying. Only a few moments later, my float went down for what I first thought might be a log but turned out to be one of the biggest steelhead I've ever seen! She seemed somewhat grizzled as she took to the air, and my heart stopped; and skipped a beat when she hit the water. Anyone walking by would've attributed the sound to a boulder or a heavy log falling into the water. It's hard to tell how big she really was, since emotions tend to magnify everything, but I'll never know now: the hook pulled, and I was left shaking a little in dismay and amazement. The fish, in the picture above, I landed a little later and, though it was around 7 or 8 pounds, it seemed tiny in comparison to the behemoth that got away.

Eventually, though, the lightening coloration of the river started to dawn on me, and by mid morning I thought I should try a different spot, lower on the river. It's one of my favourite stretches and I thought to myself that it could be holding more drop-back fish than the upper stretches and so, possibly, offer even more action. Either way, I'd had a brilliant morning so far and I was not concerned about not catching anything else, if that were to happen. Which it didn't.

Let's fast forward to about an hour later, and there is a madman sitting in the river. He looks up wistfully at the trees, and down again at the river, surveying the eddies in the current, the deep green of the water. His waders protect him from the cold flow, so he is impervious to the current that flows all around him. He pulls out a schtoggie and lights it, and he sits there a while longer. Sighing and going on about something big, to no one in particular. Of course, that was me and I was enjoying the moment.

Fifteen minutes before that, I had gotten myself into an unprecedented string of hits, of stolen worms and solid takes. I think that the two or three drifts that preceded that fateful take had all produced a fish and/or a fight. In any case, when the float went down for this latest one, the extreme power of the fish was immediately evident. In a split second, my line and rod went from being limp and loose, to nearly breaking. The pulsing in the line and rod was electric. The fish broke the surface and somersaulted two or three times, came at me, decided that that was a bad idea and shot downriver like a train. I could not keep up. The reel spun so fast that it knocked my knuckles and I could barely keep it pinced. She flew down past the end of the run, through a pool, over a shoal, down into another pool, under the branches of a fallen tree and finally pulled and tugged and battled with me in the deep, fast water behind this tree.

I thought for a long moment that she might be snagged, as I had so very little control over her. After I caught up to her, though, I could see by her zigs and zags that I well and truly had her in the mouth. But she was quite large, and I don't think that our small size 12 hooks hurt bigger fish as much as they do smaller ones. I hauled and pumped and pulled this way and that, and I was finally able to reach down and grab her. Victory! She was a gorgeous, thick-bodied, almost fully recovered post-spawn steelhead, and a classic example of a wild eastern Lake Ontario fish. Large head, big and slightly hooked tail, well rounded and thick; somewhere in the area of 14 to 16 lbs; many of these don't make it out of the clutch of their captors. But I took my time reviving her. My shoulder was still screaming at me from the strain of the fight; I can only imagine that it was ten times worse for the fish, and so care was needed in the release. I think I did a good job of it, because she eventually left me with a powerful stroke of her tail - swoosh - leaving no doubt as to fullness of her strength.

I did catch a few more after that - you can see some of them just above (whereas the big hen appears below)-, but I was only out for a half day. So I eventually folded up my rod and headed back to the car. By quarter to two, I was home, and now there's a fresh bouquet of tulips on the mantelpiece. It was the least I could do. Mornings like the one I had don't come often. Getting to enjoy them is a gift, and that sort of thing always deserves a thank you.

p.-


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