April 12th, 1999
First Winter-run Steelhead!

by Bob Margulis


It is March 23rd and is the 34th time this year that I have gone in search of my first winter-run steelhead. Having taken up fly fishing last June, I had already figured out how to catch three summer-run fish last year. The next logical step was a winter-run. Although I fished through the hatchery returns in December without touching a fish, the natives were returning in good numbers now that Spring was here.

I had been out with Mike Kinney a couple of times and although we caught no steelhead I learned a hell of a lot about what I was doing wrong, as well as what I should be doing. We caught a nice chum in December, but it's been fishless since then, assuming you don't count the few 12" cutthroats in the past week. Waters that had been around 40F all winter were now 46F and every day I became more and more convinced that a fish was in my immediate future.

Last week I went out with Dec Hogan and Dave Victor for a guided day on the Skykomish. Dave hooked a fish in our first hole and promptly broke it off trying to set the hook with the force of a hook hanging off a jet landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. As envious as I was, at least he had the courtesy to not land the fish.

After fishing (I like to think of it as 'improving my technique') last weekend, here I was back on Tuesday taking a couple of hours before work in the hopes of finding my first winter run. In order to get to the hole, I needed to go across property clearly marked NO TRESPASSING. But then again it was also marked Game Preserve, and below that indicated No Dogs, Guns, or Hunting. So did that mean that fishing was OK? Well, why else would they have removed one bar of the fence to provide passage for someone inclined to climb through? English is a very tricky language and as testimony to that fact, the occasional passing fellow fisherman would clearly indicate that NO TRESPASSING didn't mean ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING!

I climbed through the fence and walked the ten minutes down the road, past the deserted dairy feeders, to the river bank. It was a beautiful cobblestone bank/river bottom with walking speed water, 3-7 feet deep and green. Perfect steelhead water.

I had fished this hole four times in the past two weeks without a touch, but was convinced that this was as good a place to be as any. It was a cloudy morning following a night interspersed with rain. There was a break in the clouds on the eastern horizon and a narrow band of sun shone through. I was alone on a freshly rising river.

I arrived ready to go: shooting head, 9 wt Type IV tip, and a blue/black maribou fly with a purple and flashabou tail. I started in close and added line to each cast. I didn't try to cast for maximum distance as the river was moving quickly and I was expecting the fish to be holding in softer water; nonetheless I was putting out 60+ feet on each cast. About half way down the hole, which goes from very fast, necking down to even faster, and then slows coming out the bottom of the throat, my fly was swinging through each cast into softer water.

That's when I felt a pull and set the hook.

It had only been a few days before that I had caught a cutthroat in about the same place, but a second later I knew that this was no cutthroat. The steelhead began peeling line off my reel like it was a hungry horse heading for the barn. I held my rod up as he took line and noticed that the line was not longer buckskin (my shooting head) or orange (running line) but was surprisingly green.

What was going on? I believe that the term for this is 'into my backing'…a place I had never been before. Before I knew it half my backing was out nd it was my turn to take line. As Mike says, either he's taking line from you, or your taking line from him. I began reeling and to my delight the fish took a couple of jumps. On the first I got to see just how big he was…and he was big. He had a lovely rosy brushstroke along each side. After his jumps I got to reel and began to work my way downstream as he got closer.

My goal was to get below him and make him fight cross-stream to use a bit more energy. I could not only see him clearly only about fifteen feet away, but at the same time could see that all of my time invested was worth the return. Each time I moved him towards shore he would make a short run. I didn't want to rush anything and had actually been quite calm throughout the entire process. I decided to pull out my camera and try to get a picture of him in the water. There I was, rod in one hand, camera in the other. Quite a sight. Someone should have been there to take a picture of me.

Winter Steelhead - not mine

I got my newfound friend to the bank to take a picture of him lying next to my rod. Unfortunately, he was uncooperative and not only flopped around while I snapped a picture, but then headed between my legs to the river and I was scrambling to grab my rod and stop him. Disaster averted. I removed the hook, which was on the left side of the roof of him mouth, the last place I would have expected since I was fishing on the opposite side of the river and expected it in his jaw.

I wish I had the time and presence of mind to take a tape measure to him. I thought he was 15# but now that I look at the 20# fish in a flyfishing mag ad, I think he was closer to 20 (in reality, he was probably 14#). It really would be better if they came with tags indicating their weight, but after all, these are wild fish.

I unhooked him with my forceps and felt badly that his palate bled a bit. His wrist was way larger than I thought and I couldn't grip him as well as I expected at the tail. Guess that's why I've got two hands: that, and for the Spey rod I know I'll buy for next winter. I brought him into deeper water and helped him recover for a few minutes. While my hands were very cold, I would freeze them before I let him go if that's what it took. A few minutes later and off he went.

Words can tell of the event, but never describe the experience. All of the time spent was worth it, and then some, as now I have the expectation that I will catch many more winter steelhead in the future. ~ Bob Margulis


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