Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Journey of a Steelheader- 'Tis The Season....

*As previously published in STS.
It has always made me chuckle how fishing, a sport that is renowned for its relaxation and soul-soothing, can be surrounded by so much drama.
"Oh God, what the hell are they saying now?" (Dustin Carlson photo.)
Spinning rods, level winds, center-pins, single and double handed (Spey) fly rods, I have endured it all and, consequently, have witnessed the stereotypes and conflicts that have accompanied each of these angling styles.
“Bait Chucker’s”, “Snaggers“, “Fly Snobs”, and “Flea Flickers”, whether you like it or not, chances are you’ve been labeled one or more of these titles at some point in your fishing career.
The truth is being a great steelhead angler is so much more than the equipment one uses, how expensive one’s waders are, or how tight a loop one can cast.  It is not about how many clubs they belong to, how many bragging rights they are entitled to, or how many television appearances they have made.
For the truly great angler, whether they fish a fly or conventional gear, is proud to be an eternal student and strives to read every drop of flowing water and deliver every drift or swing with flawless presentation.
Ultimately, presentation is key.   Name brand waders, flashy rods, and an inflated ego can't help to teach an angler the art of reading water. (Yoshi Aoki photo.)
Similar to the lengthy travels of these sea-run beauties, the aspiring angler will most likely take a metaphorical trip of their own.  Facing obstacles of indecision and uncertainty, it is advancement down a long and endless road that I call….“The Journey of a Steelheader”.
The First Stop in My Journey
Steelhead have always held a special place in my heart.
A woman who has never had much tolerance for abuse or neglect, I suppose it was an ironic species of fish for me to pursue.
The steelhead neglected me, and I, in turn, abused myself, spending countless hours in unbearable weather, desperate to see a flash of silver.
Brrrr. (Trevor Welton photo.)
It was a natural progression.  A teenage loner on the local river, I spent numerous weekends and skipped school hours hunting Chinook and Coho salmon.
As the salmon season ended and the snow began to fall, I was reluctant to hang up my waders and call it quits for the year.
It was at this time when I learned of the elusive steelhead.
Sigh...the days of kitchen shots and blood stained pants...
If at some point in my life someone were to have told me that I would become an avid steelhead ‘fly-fisherman’, I would have laughed and told them they were crazy.  “Why would anybody waste their time fly-fishing, if they could slay ‘em drift-fishing?”
I was good with a level wind, and loved the rush of watching my float disappear into the depths, sucked under by an angry steelhead.
Not a real fan of fishing bait, I used rubber baits, spinners, blades and wool. I tackled B.C.’s mighty winters, hiking through unmarked paths, accumulating matted snow on the felts of my wading boots, all the while seeking warmth in my unflattering brown neoprene's.
A virgin to fishing forums and tackle shop slander, it’s no surprise that I was confused at my first run-in with two fly-fishermen.
I was working my way through a seam in one of my favorite runs, when I heard the voices of several men behind me on the bank.  I turned to see two fly-fishermen, obviously agitated, discussing whether or not they should move to another run.
“Do you really want to fish here?  That gear guy’s already raped and pillaged it.”
They looked at me in disgust and walked away.  I blushed with embarrassment under my baseball cap and thanked my bulky jacket for hiding my long hair.
I drove home that afternoon, feeling belittled and cheated.  What had I done wrong?  I was simply minding my business, searching for a little adventure.  Isn’t that what they were doing too?  Was I truly that revolting because I held a different rod than they did?
I started to get angry as I replayed the whole affair in my head and kicked myself for not saying anything in my own defense.  “Damn fly-fishing snobs,” I muttered the whole way home, falling both victim and villain to stereotypes, unknowingly plaguing my fishing innocence forever.
Good-bye young, blissful, innocence....
A Life-Changing Detour
Years passed and so did my preferences.  Float-fishing began to lose its excitement, and though center-pins temporarily peaked my interest, I found myself longing to learn how to fly-fish.
I flailed away with a hand-me-down 8 weight and before long, was casting reasonably well.  Swinging spoons had familiarized me with prime fly-fishing water, so I headed to a secluded spot on the river to make an ass out of myself in private.
A spoon caught steelhead.  Yes, those cheeks are as chubby as they look....leave them alone.
My heart beat fast as I faced my long-awaited challenge and it didn’t take long for me to recognize that fly-fishing had been my missing link.
I accepted my position at the bottom of the learning curve and prepared to learn again from square one.  To my delight, many of the tricks I had learned while gear fishing applied directly to being a successful fly-fisher! My revelation knocked down any walls of intimidation, and I began to fish with confidence.
I observed the surrounding fly-fishermen that I had once feared, and felt foolish for ever feeling inferior.  Most of them were kind and humble, indifferent to whether I chose to fish gear or otherwise.
You're not all so scary...(Tom Jull photo).
Some taught me valuable skills that no book or self-educating could ever offer, while others let me witness many of their mistakes.  Mistakes that I had learned not to make while fishing conventional hard-ware.
I watched them stand out too far in the water, when the fish were sitting in close; I watched them worry more about the aesthetics of their cast, rather than where they landed their fly; I watched them walk through fishy pocket-water to get to fishless, shallow, sweeps; and I watched them squirm with insecurities, just as I had that day when I decided all fly-fishermen were snobs.
I quickly re-adjusted my attitude and vowed to banish any hostile stereo-types that had defined my ignorance.
The Road Less Traveled
I am well aware that to publicly announce that fly-fishing for steelhead is the next step to becoming an accomplished angler, is like voicing your true opinion on a shark-infested fishing forum.  In fear of being eaten alive, they are just two things that you do not do.  However, for me, that is exactly what fly-fishing was; the next step in my journey.
Greg Thomas photo.
I’d be lying if I said I caught as many fish as I used to, but I’d also be lying if I said it wasn’t worth it.  A satisfaction like none other, as confused as I once was when I questioned why anybody would waste their time fly-fishing, I am equally as confused now as to why anybody wouldn’t!
I love you. (Adam Tavender photo.)
I understand that this may not be the preferred method by everyone.  In fact, there are certain anglers whose eyes instantly glaze over the minute I even briefly suggest the possibility of learning.
For some, it is simply not their time, and for others, it never will be.  But for many, it is a new-found way of life, and upon finding it, they can never comprehend why they ever lived without it in the first place.
Still a student in my own exciting journey, it is not my place to preach, rather to suggest alternate routes for other traveling anglers.
Step By Step
Whether they will admit it or not, most fly-fishermen started off fishing gear.  Granted, there is an exceptional minority to which this does not apply, but for the most part a worm and bobber (or something of the sort), was the initial foundation in paving the road.
This is why it frustrates me so, to see so many of my customers and clients too intimidated to give fly-fishing a try.
Why does it have to be hard?  The beautiful thing about advancing from drift-fishing to fly-fishing is that most previous knowledge is easily applied!
As many anglers already know, reading the water is one of the most important parts of being a great Steelhead stalker.  Although fly water is slightly different than typical gear water, for the most part, if the fish can be found, then with a little knowledge and finesse, it can most likely be caught.
The casting is simple enough.  In the time it takes for a beginner to learn how to use a bait-caster (bird’s nests included), they could learn to fly-cast competently enough to tempt a waiting Steelhead.
After all, half of the time, the fish are hugging tight to the bank, seeking refuge from unnecessary strain in the harsh current. Between the internet and an abundance of certified instructors with “how to” DVD’s, the excuses are beginning to grow meek.
Lastly, consumer friendly prices no longer exclude “regular people” and a full rod, reel and line combo can be purchased at a more than reasonable price.
Thumbs up to good deals through the boys at Urban Angler, right Richie?  Seriously though, ask your local shop and you just may be surprised at how affordable fly-fishing can be....
Really, the hardest part about getting into fly-fishing is making the first step.
Ready to Fly?
The aforementioned endless road of advancement is non-discriminatory to which style of fishing you choose to partake in.  It is long and winding and never lets you see what is around the corner.
There is always more to learn, more to see and more fish to catch.  So whether you choose to make the trip crawling, walking, running or flying, the road to becoming a better steelheader is a journey designed for us all.