I was tying flies when my phone rang: it was my buddy Nate Koenigsknecht, C.F. Burkheimer pro-staffer and steelhead guide extraordinaire (541 602-2927). He was asking if I wanted to join him on a certain coastal river where he was certain a pulse of dime-bright winters had just come over the bar. When Nate invites you to his off-the-radar haunts, you don't say no.
The next night, I met him well after dark and drove to Nate's preferred camp site, started a fire, and preceded to stay up half the night watching our firewood dwindle. It was twenty-something degrees and every logical thought demanded we go to bed, but there was the sound of the river, its riffles chrome in the moonlight, and damn--we just couldn't get over the fact that winter had finally arrived.
See, for Nate and me and most the folks we fish with, winter IS steelhead season. Summer steelheading is a damn fine way to pass the time between winters.
In winter, the casts are tougher. The wading harder. The rewards fewer, but so much bigger. Winter steelheading is to summer steelheading as summer steelheading is to trout fishing. Simply put, winter steelheading is that much more steelheading.
We didn't have to wait long the next morning to find our reward. As we walked down the beach toward the run, Nate said, "You're going first." I replied, "No frickin' way. You invited me, you go first." Nate refused. "I won't hear of it." So I finally folded. "Fine, but I'm only going first so that you can score the fish-karma of gifting your buddy first water." That fish-karma worked. Nate was twenty minutes into the marginal tailout above the prime run I was fishing when he came tight. I looked up to see him water-buffaloing to the shore, his rod doubled. A few minutes later, we tailed the bright fish in shallow water, a wild buck with a gator head. Nate's first steelhead of winter, and a damn fine one at that.
The next morning, we put my ClackaCraft in at dawn and spent the day floating. At our second run, we got into a pod of fresh fish. Within moments Nate was tight to a solid fish, which grabbed from fast water that wasn't more than three feet deep--then was gone.
Now, we were on high.
Moments later, Nate got another fish, a buck of about seven pounds. He fought the fish in close, had it rush back out, then come close again for a final tailing. I was there to hold the rod as he released it.
When I went back to my run, I was feeling good about my prospects. Just ahead was a slick of a inside shoulder, four feet deep, with fast current on the outside. I stripped out three feet and cast into the fast current and let the line fish as it landed. I was just coming into the best looking bucket on my side when the rod came to life. The fish had plucked and spit, but hadn't felt the hook.
On my next cast, I put a downstream belly in the line to speed up the swing, and the fish came again, this time harder. It was already headed downstream when it hit, and my reel lost its running line and a few spins of backing in a matter of blinks. There, way off in the tailout, a streak of silver cartwheeling. I walked the fish back up to where it had struck, and was just coasting it into the shallows when the hook pulled free. But no matter. It was a wild hen, and she saved me the trouble.
Moments later, Nate got another buck of about the same size. His too came unpinned a little early, but no matter. Our day couldn't get any better, and it was only 8 AM.
By noon, we were wading into a long deep run, me on one side, him on the other. Our casts took turns landing in the middle. Near the tailout, just as my fly swung still on the inside, I felt fish lips on the fly: a rapid-fire tugging. Then down goes my rod and the fish is turning downriver. I struck, but maybe a little too soon, and the fly came free.
We fished our way through a dozen prime runs that day, everyone of them riffling, green, and wearing a frosting of white bubbles. Nate has taken fish from all of these places, and each time we pulled the boat aside, he pointed his rod to the best buckets, and insisted I go first. The mensch.
My favorite run of the day, maybe, wasn't the most nuanced holding water or the fishiest looking slot. It was a non-descript tailout just above a heavy riffle. As I dropped the anchor, we spotted a splashing Something in the riffle below. We stood and blocked the light, and there: a chrome steelhead thrashing its way into the very run we were about to fish. Even though that fish would go unhooked, every cast for the hour it took to swing the run came across with heightened anticipation: it could happen now.
And maybe that's part of the pleasure of winter too, knowing the fish are always on the move and headed your way.