The Velvet Handshake

If you can’t handle steelheading at its worst, you don’t deserve it at its best.

[By John Gierach]

When we moved into the unoccupied fixer-upper some friends had let us use, Vince immediately spread out his sleeping bag in the living room so I could bed down at the back of the house, as far away from him as possible. This kind of arrangement has become standard procedure when we travel together. Vince snores ferociously, can’t help it, and feels guilty about it. On other trips I’ve seen him hand out earplugs to unsuspecting victims, apologizing in advance.

This place had the musty, abandoned smell that comes from disuse, but it cleared out quickly as we came and went, letting in fresh air with each trip. We had electricity and running water with a bucket under the kitchen sink in lieu of a drain. The furnace didn’t work, but October isn’t that cold in this part of Washington State, and we could cut the morning chill by leaving the oven door open while we cooked breakfast.

We kept hearing what sounded like rifle shots muffled by distance. We thought it might be hunters in the nearby hills, but then we only heard it in the house, never outside, and it kept up overnight. When we finally got curious enough to investigate, it turned out to be acorns falling on the roof from an overhanging oak.

We were spending our days road-fishing for steelhead and our evenings freeloading dinner at a small lodge farther up the valley. It was nothing fancy, just a refurbished ranch house with a few cabins out back and a garage made over into guides’ quarters. Our friend Jeff was managing the place, and he said we should come up for dinner any night. I’m not sure any night meant every night, but that’s how we took it.

When we asked the guides about the fishing, they said it had been slow, which is the kind of report you hear so often on steelhead water that it no longer seems like news. Three years before, when we’d first fished here at the same time of year, conditions had been closer to ideal and the river was full of fish, but this season the fall rains were overdue and the region was stuck in a drought that had kept large wildfires burning for months. The river was low, the sun was bright, and although some steelhead were in, the bulk of the run was still staged below the mouth of the river, waiting for cloudy skies and a flush of water. Or at least that was the guides’ best guess. They were getting their clients into the occasional fish by dredging beads in the deepest holes, they said, but swinging flies had been “unproductive,” a word that had a ring of finality.

We could have postponed the trip. In fact, we talked about it, but I had another trip later in the month that I didn’t want to cancel, Vince had plans after that, then I had something else, and pretty soon it would be Christmas and we wouldn’t have gone steelheading. When the river you have your eye on is a thousand-mile drive from home, the fishing takes on daunting proportions anyway, and if you then start weighing time and expense against weather and stream flow, you can end up dithering yourself right out of a fishing trip. But in the end, we decided the best time to go fishing is when you can, so we did.

You never entirely come to terms with the dead spells in steelheading, but you do come to appreciate them as a kind of moral imperative. Or as Marilyn Monroe said, “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” In fact, you quickly get it through your head that fly-casting for any sea-run fish is a slow game that can still reward persistence. So when swinging flies is unproductive, the accepted solution is to keep swinging flies, fishing out every cast as if this were the one, because it could be. The first time I went steelhead fishing the river was also too low, the sun was too bright, and the fish were said to be either sulking or still milling around in Puget Sound. I fished for days without a pull and then landed my first two steelhead ever within 15 minutes of each other. And on the evening of the last day, one of my partners who’d been skunked up till then got a big bright fish literally on his last cast. We told him it was time to leave. He said, “Okay, let me just fish out this swing.”

Vince and I started by going back to the pools where we’d hooked and either landed or lost fish the last time, a strategy that seems as naïve as it is irresistible. We didn’t have any trouble finding the spots. You might not remember all the places where you missed a trout three years ago, but a lost steelhead is like an amputee’s phantom limb: you know it’s gone forever, but you’ll never forget where it was.

We’d fall into the usual metronomic cast, swing, and step routine, covering water from the riffle at the head of a run all the way to the tailout. This feels like the kind of thing you’d do to kill time while waiting for inspiration—and sometimes it is—but in fact, I’ve caught almost all my salmon and steelhead in this methodical way: shuffling and swinging along for hours at a time, waiting for the velvet handshake.

This is the kind of steady work that quiets the mind, as Wendell Berry said, so it would be dusk before we knew it. We’d walk back to the pickup, stow the rods, and drive up valley toward the lodge, wondering aloud what Jeff’s wife, Jan, was cooking for dinner that night. She’s one of those women who believe that food equals love and, as such, it doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be real good and there should be lots of it.

It would be full dark by the time we got there and joined the usual day’s-end drill. Pickups towing drift boats pulled up in showers of dust, people clomped up on the porch to hang rods in the rod racks, greet the camp dogs, exchange fishing reports, and peel off wet waders. There was the general upbeat energy of a shift ending. As much as you might love to fish, there’s still that feeling of tired relief when you’re finally off the water.