Winter Fish

by Scott Sadil

George fishes two holes.  After thirty-five years, returning annually to the coast to look for winter steelhead, he feels his best chance to find one of these elusive fish is to return to water he knows, water he believes in, water that will hold fish if they’re anywhere in the system—always a question as you cast and cast again without any response more emphatic than the bottom of the river grabbing hold of your persistent offerings.

Even without evidence of fish in his two holes, George can stay and fish there all day long.  He recalls the number of times he’s caught nothing, seen nothing, only to end up getting a take—and a fish to the bank—well after lunch, sometimes even late in the afternoon.

“It happens,” says George.  “Don’t ask me why.”

The reason, of course, is fairly obvious: George keeps fishing.  He carries three rods to the water, three spinning rods, fully rigged, and a backpack, stuffed full, big enough to carry gear for a long weekend in the high country.

Near water’s edge, George leans his trio of rods against the branches of a winter-bare willow.  He unshoulders his heavy pack and swings it to the ground.  On a patch of sand, halfway down the hole, left behind by high water where the current eddies and all but ceases to flow, George spreads a small bath towel and begins pulling out boxes of gear: hooks, lures, floats, bait, gewgews and gawgaws, the likes of which, in many cases, I’ve never seen before.

Liquid Wrench

George is the first to confess he has a little problem collecting or hoarding gear.

“I see a case of Blue Fox Spinners on eBay for a buck a piece and I can’t help but buy them.”

George lifts an example from a box and holds it up for me to admire.

“I’ve got a hundred of these at home,” he says.

In the fast water at the top of the hole, just below an obscure pocket where I once hooked the only 20-pound winter steelhead I’ve ever landed, I spot a long three-colored rubber float hung by a line in the current.  I send my two egg flies through the slot, feeling my split-shot rattle along the rocks.  Sure enough, I’m able to snag the float line—and by the time I drag it to me, I’ve got two floats, a couple of lead-headed jigs made with yarn and who knows what else, plus three kinds of lines and a couple more bait hooks.

“Recognize this?” I ask George, displaying the tangle as I walk his way.

“No.  But if you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”

George sorts through the mess, clipping off this, stashing that in the appropriate spot in the open plastic boxes on his towel.

“Probably belonged to this guy here yesterday who was bobber doggin’.  Said he’d caught several.”

George adds air quotes before dropping a sinker in with others.

“I saw him hook and lose one. So it wasn’t all b-s.”

Several.  A word like that, when it comes to winter steelheading, makes my stomach turn, my heart ache.  My buddy Chas Letner, who also fishes with bait and gear, tells stories that leave me hurting all over.  These are all wild fish, all caught less than ten miles from the ocean, many of them within scent of the salt.

There’s nothing else like them anywhere else in the world.

But only two holes?

I’ve been down through this one at least twice today already, fishing as carefully as I can, trying to probe every possible nook and cranny with my pair of imitation salmon eggs.  George lets me have whatever water I want; he’s hoping to see somebody catch a steelhead on a flyrod, something he’s always wanted to do himself, he says.

It occurs to me, finally, that besides decades of success on these two holes, George is able to stick it out here so long because he has so many different ways he fishes, so many different options to choose from off his crowded towel.  He tries this, he tries that. Watching him drift a bobber through the slow water in the bottom half of the hole, I decide to get rid of my eggs, flies and split shot, and tie on a little Liquid Wrench, a fly I once used in Alaska, with great success, for silver salmon pooled up in slow side channels of the main stem of the Kisaralik.

A couple of flicks with the two-hander and I’m immediately delighted to be casting the floating line without a chunk of lead affixed to the leader.  Although the fly is submerged enough that I can’t see it, I can tell it’s swimming on a long, slow, tantalizing swing.  I’m talking to George, telling him how my interest has been revived by this return to a conventional fly-fishing presentation, when I feel something touch the fly.

“A smolt,” I say, raising my rod tip.

Suddenly my line is taut, the rod bouncing once, twice, again.

Just as suddenly, the steelhead is gone.

“I hate when that happens,” says George.

Gray’s angling editor, Scott Sadil, is happy to report that recent heavy rains do nothing but good for West Coast winter steelhead.