October 28, 2021
This article was originally titled "Eastern Steelhead" in the Seasonable Angler column of the June-July 2016 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
I have some West Coast friends who occasionally ask me to donate money to help in their battles to preserve their steelhead fisheries. I give what I can. I understand the genuine distress they feel over the decline of one of the greatest fisheries on the planet.
The steelhead trout is a creature whose mythology is well deserved. The most common description is “a rainbow trout on steroids.” That really doesn’t come close to getting there. Genetically, the description is close. To put it in perspective, we share 50 percent of our DNA with a banana, 60 percent with a fruit fly, 75 percent with a mouse, 80 percent with a cow, and more than 98 percent with a chimp. Small amounts make big differences. So much so that the people who are in the middle of these conservation battles want different strains recognized and protected. The fish have evolved differently in each drainage, meaning steelhead have a slightly different character from fishery to fishery. Like sisters from the same parents. Some have asked if I can sum up what makes a steelhead a steelhead? It is simply a rainbow trout that took an anadromous turn. It was this genetic left turn that also required the fish to get tough to hack it in big water. Very tough.
Occasionally, I get invited out to the West Coast and partake in traditional fly fishing for steelhead. There are some places located on British Columbia’s Skeena watershed I absolutely adore. Regrettably, over the years I have noticed the decline of steelhead in some of the more traditional rivers. I know the debate rages over causes and cures. I live on the other side of the continent. My ability to help is limited to the $20 I can stick in an envelope. I love the fish, but geography can be a great barrier.
Sometimes there can be other barriers, as well—the walls we erect in our hearts and minds. These same people who invite me to fish with them and help them ball right up at the mention of Great Lakes steelhead.
The Great Lakes steelhead program has a long and interesting history. In 1876, Michigan began planting Campbell Creek and McCloud River strains from California, and also fish from the Klamath River in Oregon. Recent creel studies have shown that the Michigan steelie has become wild and evolved into its own animal. The Great Lakes have had steelhead, and biologists have managed them for 120 years.
In my neck of the woods in New York State, most of the steelhead came from Washington State and they usually amount to six to twelve pounds of bad, bad, bad temper. The experts explain that the juvenile fish imprint on the unique odor of the watershed. This is mostly true. I believe any little tributary with a gravel bottom and a similar smell will capture steelhead runs. I more than believe it; I fish it.
I do fish the better-known streams in Western New York near the Great Lakes, and the fishing is wonderful. Steelhead fishing usually starts in September with the fish following the salmon (also stocked in Lake Ontario). Our Great Lakes do a fine job of mimicking the great salmon food cycle in the Pacific Northwest.
The tributaries of Lake Ontario never cease to amaze me: in August you could swing a cat and see neither fish nor fowl; by early October you could catch three kinds of salmon and three kinds of trout all better than 10 pounds on the same day. I have not done that, but I have come close. (Atlantic salmon are very rare here.) Though the major tributaries are wonderful and provide room to cast, my favorite water does not appear in any brochure or web site. It won’t appear in this story, either. It really cannot.
It is a small creek that for some reason, manages to attract steelhead. At its widest spot my creek is perhaps twenty yards; most of it is much smaller. There are really four pools, which I have poetically named Pool One, Two, Three, and Five. Four was a mistake and had to be dropped. It seems my creek, at one point, must have smelled like one of the stocked tributaries. Some steelhead found their way there. Some still do, but a fair number are now born there. The New York State Department of Conservation clips a fin of the fish it stocks. About half the fish I catch are without clipped fins. You can tell a bit about the fish from the clip—sometimes you can even determine the hatchery it came from. Those without a clipped fin are either stray fish or are wild. It is estimated that thirty percent of the steelhead in Lake Ontario are now wild fish. I like the idea that I am fishing a wild steelhead stream.
My friend Joe from Oregon is one of the most hardcore West Coast steelhead guys I’ve ever met. He encouraged me to use a Spey rod for the first time.
I told him about my little stream. I told him about my secret stream because in the past, my invitations to fish for Eastern steelhead have been met with anger and disdain—mostly because it was a stocked fishery and he feels the experience is a type of mockery.
I thought that the invitation to fish my little stream with its wild fish would be the ticket. As small as it is, I have had ten-fish days there. I wonder how long it’s been since Joe saw a ten-fish day? The last time I fished with him in Oregon, we caught two fish over three days. I did notice this was considered good, and it was part of the paradigm of some of the Western steelhead rivers. I didn’t mind. Fishing with an old friend is one of life’s simple joys.
So I laid it on thick about my stream. I gave Joe the used-car salesman treatment. I told him about all the wild fish and my pretty little stream. How it has a Pool Five when there are only four. That we would have it all to ourselves. I thought I was making some headway with him when he just blurted out “Look man, I am never coming East for steelhead. I will for whitetail or brown trout, but fucking steelhead have no business there!” I sensed I may have gone too far.
I have other friends in the West who have similar feelings. There is a big difference between Eastern and Western fly fishers. It is a cultural thing with roots running deeply into geography and history. Whenever I fish in the West, I always feel like a stranger in a strange land. I love it. It always feels new and brash and craggy.
When I watch a Western guy cast a fly line, it is so pretty. It almost makes me want to cry. I can usually tell where a guy is from by the way he casts.
I sat and thought about my conversation with Joe for a while. I knew he was pissed at me, but we are friends and I knew that in a couple days we would be okay again. Grumpy old men have a code.
I love Johnny Cash. I was lucky to get to know him a little when I was in the entertainment business. If you have not heard his version of the song Hurt, you need to. The video was voted the best music video of all time.
I remember getting a call when the song first came out. “Hey, Johnny made a music video. You have to look at it.” Okay, it sounded urgent, so I watched it, and was stunned by its overwhelming power.
The song was originally written by Trent Reznor. It was about the anguish in his young life and it had suicidal overtones when his band Nine Inch Nails first recorded it.
It was probably Reznor’s best song. Then Johnny Cash infused it with a hard life’s worth of experience, and made a video to the soundtrack that chronicled his life—and in ways, every life. It is what artists are good at.
What about Reznor? These were very personal feelings. How did he feel about his opus being commandeered? He said: “I pop the video in, and wow . . . Tears welling, silence, goosebumps . . . Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore . . .”
I wondered if it was like that for Joe about steelhead. If he felt like he lost his girlfriend.
I think I have a feel for the way some of my friends feel. I hope in the end they realize these fish are really their “children.” I can see a scenario in the future in which some of these Great Lakes fish are sent home to California and Oregon and Washington and British Columbia to help rebuild the decimated stocks there.
In my heart, I would like to see both East and West fisheries thrive. I am a fisherman and the more places I can whip water, the better I like it. I have stopped bugging Joe. He has promised to come out for some fall brown trout. He may accidentally hook a steelhead. It happens all the time. That will be in the hands of the fishing gods, and that is where I will leave it.
Jerry Hamza is the author of the new book Outdoor Chronicles: True Tales of a Lifetime of Hunting and Fishing (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015). This article is an excerpt from Chapter three, “Eastern Steelhead.”