An Old Dark Buck

by Scott Sadil

The river was high, forcing me downstream along the steep bank before I could find a safe place to cross the inside channel.  Below the tailout, which was deeper than I expected, I got a good look at how the current, intent on carrying me away, gathered itself in a narrow slot, rushed through a wake-like V, and then settled into the head of a deep pronounced run, a steelhead holding lie as familiar as the contours of my own creased brow.

What did that guy say to me thirty-some years ago, when I was first trying to figure out where to look for steelhead, not to mention maybe eventually catch one?

“They’re right where trout would be – just deeper.

I had my sights set, however, on the water along the far bank, the deepest channel, a run a couple of hundred yards long, depending on the flow, where I generally find that my fish—sometimes steelhead, sometimes salmon, usually trout or whitefish—come downstream to feed on the eggs of the spawning anadromous fish.  Water, anyway, I wouldn’t want to risk having somebody fish before me, even if the chances of that are slim on a cold, gray, midweek December morning.

But as soon as I put my line in the water, and the heavy current swept it quickly downstream and into the shallows where I stood to cast, it was obvious it was unlikely any fish would grab the fly, especially with both water and air temperatures down in the low forties, when you can’t expect any cold-blooded animal to do much but lie low and watch the world go by.

I made my pass through the far-bank run and then re-crossed the river and waded upstream, getting into position to present a cast into the gut of the narrow trough that had given me pause when I first reached the bottom of the steep bank.  If there’s one thing you eventually learn when fishing for steelhead, maybe more so than with other fish although it’s sort of true across the board, it’s that you get most of your fish by fishing specific lies, trying to present the fly to a precise spot where past experience has either revealed a fish, or which fits your criteria, at least, as a spot that looks likely.

It’s the difference, of course, between swinging a fly through a run, hoping it finds a fish, and putting the cast in a spot where you expect a fish to lie—between shooting into the forest, hoping you hit something, and finding an actual target you aim at.

This one was right where it was supposed to be.

At least that’s what I thought—until I slid it up onto a ridge of wet sand left behind by recent high water.

An old dark buck, wild, its adipose fin untouched.  By old I mean it had a beak and genuine kype; by dark, I mean dark green like the skin of an over-ripe avocado.

All of which begat the question:  What the heck was this thing and what was it doing here now?

Here’s the point:  Steelhead, we’re told, spawn near the end of winter—March, say, give or take a month.  It’s the same for both summer steelhead—fish that enter freshwater drainages near the longest days of the year, often after traveling hundreds of miles inland—and winter steelhead, which show up during our short stormy months and get right to the business of spawning, generally in coastal rivers.

But this one?  He looked too dark to be waiting around for March.  Could he have already spawned?  Maybe as long ago as the previous March, and only now be headed downriver, returning to the ocean for another cycle, the way a percentage of steelhead, unlike salmon, can eventually spawn more than once in their lives?

I asked around, talked to biologists, other anglers, anybody who might know something I don’t know.  No one had a good answer other than to agree this is another thing we like about steelhead—the fact they can behave unpredictably, show up in unpredictable places, live lives that still hold mysteries beyond our ken.

That’s true, at least, for the wild fish, those that contain the genetic diversity or randomness, call it what you will, that translates into behaviors and characteristics, shapes and sizes and even colors, that don’t fit neatly inside anybody’s bell curve, that couldn’t possibly be devised by any algorithm or artificial intelligence 

Nobody has figured out steelhead.

And if that’s not a happy holiday message, I don’t have one.

Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil is never more surprised in fishing than when things work out as planned.