I have been more contemplative than usual with the approaching fall steelhead run. The greater Oregon area has seen a drastic decline in native steelhead populations, with no indications things are going to get better. The Willamette system had a return of 500 fish this year. This is a system that averaged 10,000 fish runs in a not too distant past. Things are not much better looking over to the Deschutes and other famous steelhead water in Oregon.
It's with this mindset that I'm processing what has been the best July and early August on my home water for steelhead. More than ever I am grateful my home water has managed to thrive in tough conditions. These fish are truly a marvel, traveling halfway around the world throughout their lives and they are too easily taken for granted. I am as guilty as anyone of this, but recent events have changed my perspective and caused me to see each steelhead as something to be thankful for.
The first fish came in a usual honey hole for us. The strength of these fish is shocking, especially this early in the year. These are fish that were in the ocean just a week or two ago. They are chrome and still have their sea weight on them. This fish pulled me down through the tailout hard and forced me and my buddy to give chase. We managed to land him in some slack water and stood their gawking at this stupendous 28.5" fish. A hatchery fish no less, so after a quick bonking we had him on the stringer and were back at it. We usually keep hatchery fish because that's what they're for. And because I thoroughly enjoy steelhead tacos.
This is also a fun time of year because there are Chinook salmon in the river that have been known to grab flies occasionally. Doing a float after work one day, I talked to a friend who was fishing from the bank. We anchored downriver a ways, but still in sight of him. After fishing our hole out, we went back to the boat for a beer. It was then we noticed our friend on the bank doubled over with what looked like (even 100 yards away) like a monster. He had no net and gear anglers were downriver from him and afforded no help. We sat there watching him for 15 minutes and eventually decided it must be a salmon. Assuming the hook would bend out shortly, we pushed off and rowed down river.
That night we get a text message of him with a beautiful native salmon. He had caught this fish on an 8 weight that had apparently broke as he was pulling it to shore. He had grabbed the line and got a grip on the fish's tail before it could get away. If this story sounds ridiculous, my brother in law thought the same thing while I'm relaying this story to him. The next day, however, we are on the water at first light and we see him fishing the same spot, but with a spinning rod. "Dude, did you see that salmon I caught last night!? It broke my rod and I don't have another 8 weight so I have to wait for the company to ship me a replacement!"
This is also a great time of year to take people new to fly fishing and try to get them into their first steelhead on the fly. People truly have priceless reactions to their first steelhead on the fly. A friend's uncle got pulled so hard it put him on his butt. He had to sit there helplessly while the fish shot out of the water higher than I've ever seen a steelhead jump. As he's trying to get tight to it, the fish runs up river and performs the 2nd highest jump I've ever seen from a steelhead, shaking the fly in the process. Another friend landed his first steelhead and just stood staring at it repeating "Holy sh**!!"
The most memorable ones to me though are the ones that get away. On a particularly hot and exhausting day I come tight to a fish that I though felt heavy. They all feel heavy at first, but I thought this one might be different. It didn't do much when I hooked it giving Ben time to run back to the boat and grab the net. It had been a couple minutes of this fish probably not realizing it was hooked when it finally got the picture. I stood there stupidly with line flying off my reel for several seconds before Ben said "dude, most of your backing is gone." That seemed to pull us into action and he ran back to the boat to pull anchor and I ran downstream after the fish. The sweet spot of this run is about in the middle of the tailout and occasionally a hot fish will take you through the tail out into the minor white water below. I chased this fish farther than I had chased any other down into this white water knowing time was against me. I look back and see Ben in the boat just coming around the corner and only 30 seconds or so away. I move to get into better position and the line goes slack. We both saw it at the same time and I imagine the light went out of my eyes much the same as it did in his.
We are still a month away from what is usually "prime time" here, leaving me to wonder if the rest of the season will finish as good as it has started. I feel partially guilty about this knowing the predicament many other steelhead rivers are in, but not guilty enough to stop fishing or to be more liberal with sharing my favorite spots.