This past Wednesday was a day like so many others have been, recently. Time is of the essence. I get to a river by daybreak, fish for a few hours and leave. The forces that pull me from the flows are few, but they are powerful. Sons, a wife, employment, responsibility.
The worst thing about it is that, if I make the wrong choice, I don't have time to change course or leave one river and go to the next. I have to stick it out, eek what fish I can, or catch nothing. The best thing about it is that I am learning, more precisely than ever, how to pick the right place to go.
But even so, it may not always go so smoothly. I may be my worst enemy and wake up late; which I did this last Sunday, getting to the river after first light and finding two gentlemen already combing my favourite spot, under my favourite conditions, and basically in the place I love to catch them the most - right out in the lake - and they were catching ungodly numbers of steelhead while doing so. Fish where they were fishing, and you can do the same. Fish ten feet further out, and maybe you won't have any success. Still, experience says that if you don't throw your line in, you won't catch anything at all. I managed to score a small strip of palatable water on the fringe of where these two guys were working their piscatorial magic and, by dint of trial and patience, managed one lovely fish. The buck glistened like jewelry on the wet pebbles of the bank. Barely an hour later, when the time to leave had come, I turned my back on the river with only a wistful look over my shoulder at the two fishermen who were still fishing, but where things had slowed down somewhat...
Fast forward three days, to Wednesday (where this story began), and I am on a different river, with different conditions. I had expected dirty water, but find that the recent 20mm of rain only managed to stir up the slightest green tinge, and at least 2 feet of visibility present themselves to the eye. These are not great conditions, but they are good nonetheless. The wind is out of the North East, the sky is gray and dull, the waves on the lake are plentiful but not too big.
I start fishing.
In the first hour, I have some good success. I land a small hen, a slightly larger male and miss three fish. The male takes me much longer to land than his size would seem to belie. After a few leaps and a couple of zig-zagging runs, he points his nose to the bottom, finds the deepest water available and attempts to remain there as long as possible. Eventually, though, the pressure from the rod and line are too much and he comes meekly to shore. I snap a few quick shots and release him.
The next two hours are slower. I see a couple of fish caught by other fishermen, and things slow down overall. I move a little up river, a straggler behind the line of the other men, all sifting for the same reluctant silver. Things perk up a little. I miss another male fish, probably in the 6lb range: he pulls the hook just before I can get him to shore to take his picture. Shortly after - or before, I don't remember now - a small female of about 4lbs slaps my float down, comes up rolling and shaking her head, and escapes the hook. And things slow down again.
I look at my watch. Not a lot of time left. I have to go soon.
I look up river and down. There's a fair bit of pressure from other anglers. There are seven or eight of them, spaced neatly up river from where I am. The water is clearer than any of us probably expected, and as such the fish have likely responded to the pressure either by forging on upstream or holding a little further down. My positioning on the river gives me an advantage if the latter is true and, if it is, I have to switch things up a little and offer something slightly different. Maybe if I offer a larger roe bag than the others? Also, I've been using chartreuse and hot pink... maybe white? I decide to try it.
My strategy pays dividends almost immediately. Before my first drift gets past 10 feet, the float begins to bob a little. It looks like a sunfish has found the bag and is nibbling it. Sunfish nibbles mean one of two things: it is either a smaller fish, such as a goby or a smolt, attempting to engulf a gargantuan meal, or it is a larger adult steelhead (or salmon) cautiously mouthing the proffered bait. I wait a second or two. The float stops and I set the hook; whiffffffffffffffff! Air! Nothing.
I compose myself, making a slight adjustment to the placement of the roe, and try again. This time, the float has not travelled five feet before the nibbles recommence; then stop. My heart starts to beat enough to shorten my breath. A couple more feet and they start again. Pop, pop, pop. The float dances downriver for maybe a foot or two, then stops and surreptitiously, almost as with the most furtive touch of a mouse's tail, it goes down.
I set the hook. Nothing moves. It's a log? No, the log begins to stir, and shake its head. I put lots of pressure. The fish comes up a little, and the float crests above the water. But this fish has other ideas. He powers suddenly forward and the float zooms down under water. I am suddenly helpless, riding on the back of a bull. I can do nothing with this fish. For a moment, I fear that I've actually snagged it. It takes a run up river and I yell "coming up!" at which four or five of my compadres remove their lines from the water and watch my line careen upstream like the smoke trail of a race car. He goes up quite far before finally running out of steam.
Or so I thought; because his downriver course is suddenly far too swift. I find myself in a clumsy madness of reeling, trying desperately to keep some kind of tension on the line. Finally, he runs out of river almost at my feet and turns again. I put the "boots" to him as hard as I think my tippet will take, and I see his sides flash as he massively shakes his whole body, lighting up the deep green, in an attempt to throw me. I pull hard upriver and he responds by heading down. We're so close to the lake here, that I am risking him running for it. But I want to land him on cleaner gravel, not in the mud, and roughly 40 feet downriver is the only place that that can happen.
But he's getting tired now. He does make a run for it, but I stop him just as he reaches the deeper water off the gravel bank. My arms and my right shoulder, by now, are burning. I can only imagine how tired the fish is, putting all his might into his attempt to escape! I see his tail come up, and my heart wants to burst through my throat. The last time I caught a fish that big, my boys were one month old - now, they are almost 6 years old. Finally, I managed to heave the behemoth steelhead buck ashore, and I am tired but elated. The fight has lasted a little over ten minutes.
I give myself no more than 30 seconds, or so, to take as many pictures as possible; although in truth it's hard to tell when so much adrenalin is coursing through one's brain. He kicks before the photo op can start and gets some water and grit in the lens. I do the best I can with what I have, take five or six shots of both sides of the fish. On his left, he has a huge lamprey gash, and the vestiges of past attacks. I take one last snapshot, for posterity, straight along the length of the rod, so I can get an approximate measurement afterward.
From the silver line at the butt of my rod, to the furthest blue strip on the wrap above the hook holder is 26 inches. The butt itself measures 21. So, using this picture as an imperfect measure, the steelhead had a length of about 34 inches. The reel has a 5 inch diameter, so the thick-bodied fish also had a very good girth. His weight was probably close to 15lbs.
But while he's still lying on the river's edge, all I really care about is releasing him. I bend down, position his head in the current - marveling again at his size - and let the water freeze my hands for a few minutes. I give him ample time to revive. Such an adversary deserves no less. A fish like this is worth a full day of fishing, and then some. He has filled me with an elation that I seldom feel, but it has washed away so much weariness that his release is like the ending to a kind of ritual of renewal, the momentary return of the fresh newness of childhood.
When his muscles start to strain my grip on his tail, I waggle him a little side to side, then let go; just as he gives a mighty swoosh of his tail. He darts away, like a shadow and a memory.