I have never caught a steelhead.
I have tried to find them in Lake Superior’s North Shore tributaries. There, they are crowded out by stocked Kamloops rainbows and I was crowded out by territorial bait fishermen.
But there is something about steelhead. Something beyond their size and power and beauty that draws fly fishermen to them like few other species. It’s a tradition born in the green rivers of the Pacific Northwest and brought to the tributaries of the Great Lakes along with the fish themselves.
So I have begun trying again, now in Michigan, so far still without success. But not catching steelhead is more rewarding here — you can fish Lake Michigan and Lake Huron tributaries in the winter, when Lake Superior’s are frozen solid right to the bedrock. In the winter in Michigan you can catch brown trout incidentally and have the snowy river to yourself.
In the past weeks I have become an adept builder of egg flies and flashy streamers. I can tie my leaders with almost no feeling in my fingers. I have learned the value of a hot cup of coffee from a thermos at lunchtime. I have become a roll caster and stack mender, though my attempts at line control are often crude and unpleasant to watch. My partner and instructor — a wizard of this particular river — divines fish out of pocket water with ease and skill, after letting me try each likely spot first.
The steelhead are not forgiving of an imperfect drift. It’s strange that they will eat something that is made of sparkly plastic and feathers, of a shape and color nowhere occurring naturally on this earth, but if it does not drift perfectly they will refuse even the most perfect stonefly imitation.
Fortunately, some will eat a fly on a perfect drift even after I’ve swum one past their face nauseatingly. This means that my partner might hook it and I will get to help land it — get to lift from the water a round, healthy fish, outlandishly large for the size of the river in which it is a transient: a giant annual intruder. It seems to be changing color from silver to dark rainbow before your eyes, as it acclimates from its blue great lake environs to the confined and dark holes the river offers. We keep it from the water just long enough for a picture before it angrily shoulders its way back to the dark cut bank.
So he catches some, and we kill none, though I would not hesitate to eat a hatchery-born fish. I keep trying, missing strikes and feeling for a moment one heavy fish shaking its head somewhere on the end of my line in a black-green hole.
As the season turns, the snow melts, and the waters and temperatures rise. Fresh, aggressive fish enter the river from the lake in large numbers, and the fishing improves drastically. But I suspect it will be at the price of the solitude and beauty the winter woods have enamored me with. Soon I will be elbowing for space among a host of hungry bait fishermen, with their fillet knives ready to kill and bleed the bright, wild fish onto the muddy bank. My chances of success will be much higher in the coming months, but I find myself dreading the spring.
It occurs to me that what I fear is not the company or even the killing of fish but instead the diminishing of the fish and the river itself as objects of my pursuit. Their mystique fades as they become a commodity managed by the state for angler consumption rather than a wild animal to be understood. I fear the woods will change from quiet solitude to trampled trails littered with trash and fish gore.
It feels backwards, but for the first time in my life, I’m wishing winter would remain a bit longer, so I can keep fishing.