All names have been generalized to protect the innocent
It was a Sunday just after Christmas and it was an unseasonable 40 degrees in Western New York. The morning arose and it was a grey, overcast scene. A few days earlier I had skillfully (in my opinion) invited myself along on a trip down to The Big River to chase some Steelhead on the fly. Let me be honest I tagged along under the guise of taking pictures fully knowing I was going to watch two seasoned anglers do what they do best. The first, my Uncle who aside from my Dad has had the most influence on me and the man I have finally grown into.( I preface with finally as some find maturity along lifes natural path and some of us take the long way). The other, Uncles life long friend a hometown boy who has taken his skills out west to guide and chase wild trout. Let me say that I am sure wild can describe for a lot that happens with Friend out west. He is that kind of guy. See I have heard storys of their exploit for most of my 32 years.
I never planned to do any real fishing this day. My intentions were innocent, all I wanted to do was observe these two, learn and maybe come away with a few good pictures down in the gorge. I wanted to take advantage of witnessing there masterful approach to better my own odds of hooking up my next time on the water. Well it was not in their nature to just let me watch.
The trip started out a little before noon. We meet up in the parking lot and they begin to gear up. I am instantly impressed and slightly intimidated. The thing is I am a total rookie when it comes to fly fishing. I have so much to learn to even become a novice. But that is the adventure isnt it; the learning. I love it. When I hit the water I have my small pack, a hand-me-down rod and waders,( both gifted to me of coarse by Uncle a few years back when he learned of my new found obsession) and a small single fly box. Instantly I know these are true anglers. Looking like full page adds from the Simms and Sage catalogs I have studied for years and I must admit its pretty god damn cool! I have my backpack with a coat and gloves my camera and water bottle, we are all set and head down to the water.
We hike down the path a ways and get to their life long spot. I take away that they have come to this spot over 30 years now. These two know every inch of this trail and know every rock on the waters edge. So much to the point that Uncle points out “that rock your standing on, that’s Friends Dad’s rock. He put that there years ago; its his spot.” It is not too long before I truly recognize that this area, this execution of fishing here has a storied history for these guys. They are sharing with me what is to them, a sacred ground that they respect like a war torn battle field.
Uncle and Friend are all rigged up and start there casting. With this I start my investigation. Question after question, I was going to get to the bottom of this whole Steelhead fishing thing. What weight rod is that, how long is your leader, what size tippet is that, what size is that fly? Inquiry after inquiry. To their credit they answered each question with enthusiasm and never got frustrated. Time is passing; as it likes to do and the fishing is slow a few hits but no hook ups. This does not deture these intrepid sportsmen; the lack of action on the water just opens up more time for stories, jokes and the kind of ball breaking you can only find with two guys who’ve been friends for decades.
The time has come now; they want the rod in my hand. Uncle patiently shows me a proper roll cast. At first I am chopping the line. “Slow it down, don’t force it.” It takes a few minutes but I am picking it up and dropping that fly out there. They show me how to let it swing out and focus on that indicator. I cast for a bit with no takes and I give Uncle back his rod. I am so thank ful just to be able to fish a bit there with them. They fish a little longer then we walk down stream a bit. We regroup with some coffee, some water, power bars and some delicious wasabi soy almonds. Uncle and Friend start fishing again. The stories keep being traded back and forth. Friend, being a guide is regaling us in jest with the always popular bullshit excuses for the I am a guide handbook. “When the sun hits that ridge be ready the fish will turn on”, “must be this warm front pushing through”, “moon cycles”“should have been here yesterday.”
The day is getting late and I can see that they are starting to feel its not gonna happen today. Graciously Friend gives me his rod and lets me have a few casts. My fly is swinging and still so are the storys. At this point we have been skunked and I am 100% ok with that. It has been a great day. Nice warm weather for a late December day on The Big River. I have learned so much and just had a great time I could not have asked for more. I have picked up so much hands on experience and information.
I move down a few yards; cast and swing, cast and swing, cast and swing. Friend is behind me sipping some coffee explaining to me other local spots to hit up for some trout in the summer. We are chatting back and forth and I cast and swing, cast and swing. It has become almost robotic now cast and swing. We talk about mutual people we know and I am for a moment distracted and BOOM!!!! Friend yells “set it!” Fish on!!! Its my first Steelhead on the fly. I set the hook and let the fish run out my excess line and she is on the reel. This 2 seconds feels like 10 minutes and I am trying to keep pace and in control. Excitement blankets me as I watch line tear off the reel and run downstream. I have never hooked a fish with this power. Like a torpedo she runs and runs and runs. “Rod tip up! Let the reel do the work” Uncle explains. This is a quality fish on great gear. I have never been in fight like this. I am palming the reel because on my rod when I hooked a Carp earlier this summer I had to assist my reels drag so the fish did not run me out of my backing. This is completely different. This was a top of the line American made fly reel with a top of the line drag system not my “major retailer” starter reel. “Rod tip up!” Uncle exclaims, at this point I think he maybe as excited as I am. I am reeling in as the fish pauses for a rest my right arm starting to feel the burn from keeping the rod up and line tight. I continue to reel and BANG she takes off again. She almost laughs at any progress I made to bring her in. She was not ready to give in to my wills, not just yet. This is the ultimate match up of man and fish both fighting for every inch. Neither Steelhead or myself are going to give up without a fight. Like we both have something to prove, it is give and take back and forth. Determination is going to be the only advatage either one of us has over the other and today it is going to be mine. I watch the line, like a laser cut through the water as she shows me she is no slouch.[ I must confess at that point(and still today) I have no clue if this Steelhead was male or female I just always apply anything in nature to the female. I find more beauty in it that way I suppose.] Back to the fish. 4 times we have gone through our dance her running out and me bringing her back. Arms burning from pulling and reeling and hands shaking with antisipation of meeting my opponant face to face we begin the final act of our saga. I can tell she is running on fumes and starting to give in. I am reeling in and guiding towards Uncle with the net. Keeping pressure on the line I have fought hard and do not want her spitting the hook at the last moment because I lost focus and contol. She is parallel with the shore line now I take 4 steps backwards and she is in the net.
It is official I have hooked and landed my first Steelhead and she is beautiful. A modest 24 inch or so with picturesque coloring. A dark glowing olive back, fading to perfect chrome belly with the sharpest contrasting pink lateral line. I kneel to the net to find a perfect corner of the mouth hooks set with Friends size 12 or 14 (not sure never asked) chartreuse egg pattern fly. I am ecstatic I grip and grin for a few quick photos, yes of coarse I was not going pass up this memory for myself. I set her back in the water and let her collect and compose herself before we say a final farewell. She is ready to go right away. I didn’t wear her out as much as I had though. A couple of tail shakes in my hand and she is off.
I have read about and heard countless tales of Steelhead, I have watch hundreds of videos and movies about Steelhead fly fishing and not one of them represented even an fraction of the excitement and experience of the actual fight. From that minute on I have been hooked, no pun intended. Well a little bit intended it is a narative afterall.
I cannot thank Uncle and Friend enough for their time on the water. I have for almost 3 years tried here and there on my own to learn how to winter fish for Steelhead with absolulty no success. I have heard from others in the past to go fish with someone with experience. Go out with a guide, find anyone who can show some proven techniques and correct any self taugh bad habits and information. They were all right! Having someone to work with you hands on will raise the bar on your fly fishing in one afternoon more then 3 years of reading and watching YOUTUBE ever could. Trust me I know this first hand now. I am not saying that going forward I am going to know what the hell I am doing by any means. I will in no way be the one to go out with and help another angler for a long long time. But for now I feel at least I am equipt with enough knowledge and experience to be able to limp through a day of succesful steelhead fishing and love it! Maybe even hooking up with a fish or two. In time maybe even I could be to one to take out, educate and inspire some the way that Uncle and Friend did for me.
It has been iced out around here lately and have not gotten back to any water since that day. But spring is coming….and I am going to be ready.