Anadromous fish are born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean and return to their natal streams to spawn.
A litany of factors play into how many fish return to each river, each year. Salmon and steelhead are counted individually as they fight their way up several fish ladders connected to the Columbia River Dam system. By the time these fish reach the Grande Ronde River they’ve traveled 400-plus miles and navigated more than eight of the largest dams in the lower 48. Along the way, Fish and Game conducts dam counts, providing some insight as to how many (or how few) fish annually return to any given river system each fall.
The sound of my sleeping bag zipper always gets my heart beating. Gas hisses through the lantern while rich fumes from the french press fill the tent as I slip into my leaky waders. Headlamp on, peeling the tent door back, my heart fills with hope and anticipation. Walking out of camp and into the field, the first bit of light illuminates the run. I feel around and find my footing as I wade out to make my first swing into steelhead territory.
There’s a buzz in the air as we load up the boats. For the next five days, we will wind our way down a 45 mile stretch of river, deep into steelhead country. All the unknowns trickle through my headspace. I’m optimistic and everyone is riding their own high. I guide 150+ days a year in Utah and I rarely escape from my home waters in the summer. The Fall and Winter are “my time”. I chase big browns, go fishing with my brother (who is also a slave to his home water) and, chase wild steelhead on remote rivers in the PNW.
We pull into the first run. It’s everything you look for in a steelhead lie. Submerged boulders slow the flow to walking speed. Two riffles border the holding water, a perfect place for a fish to rest after pushing through a rough patch. I’m casting well. My leader is kicking over and the fly is landing where I want it. The run basically swings itself. Cast. Swing. Step. Repeat. One run down, countless more to go.
A few suspect tugs, but no confirmed encounters. The mood amongst the crew is still good. Everyone knows we have plenty of river ahead of us and anything can happen. I went 10 days once without a single sniff and then, out of nowhere, I got freight trained by a 14-pound hen…. That night the whiskey makes a few circles around the campfire and I’m off to the tent.
I don’t subscribe to a traditional concept of faith, yet as an angler, I cling to the ideas that my fly is fishing, that there are fish in the system and that there are players in the run. I’m all in when it comes to pursuing steelhead with a swung fly. If you’re not, stay home. One more run for the rest of us.
Much like Day 2 with a teaser. Our guides Ryan, Dax and Todd put us in all the buckets. We fished good water and had a blast and had our first confirmed encounter. My brother Eli hooked two fish, back-to-back, with the hook pulling out on both. Harsh I know, but that’s the name of the game. It’s inexplicable. If you let it, your mind will play tricks on you. Just keep your chin up and keep swinging. The day ends and optimism wavers slightly. We fill our guts with an amazing meal, crush a few beers and head to bed.
Day 4 and 5 are “fishy” AF! Light drizzle, overcast, no wind. Everything is lining up to get into a pod of grabby fish. But, the steelhead gods think otherwise. Both days we swing for the fences…and miss. Floating lines, traditional wet flies, skaters, tips, and leeches find their way through all the deep slots, shallow riffles, and smooth tail-outs. No fish. A couple of suspect tugs, but no confirmed eats.
Excuses, Excuses…. Now, here’s the deal, there were just no fish around. They weren’t in the system yet. It doesn’t matter how well you cast, what fly you choose or with what run you’ve had past success. Steelhead are either there or they’re not. As anglers, we can blame this on a variety of factors: ocean conditions, thermal blocks, run cycles, competition or the gradual disappearance of wild fish. Situations like this separate the checked-it-off-the-list anglers from the passionate ones. Luckily this group had passion. Dax, Ryan, and Todd bled perseverance and it stoked the crew out the whole trip.
The 2016 summer steelhead run has been dismal, to say the least, a sign of the times. It’s still early, but so far, only around half the number of fish (compared to the 15-year average) will distribute through the Columbia River and its tributaries. Steelhead and salmon runs have been declining since the development of the Columbia River Basin more than 100 years ago. Many great races of fish have been lost to impassable dams, hatchery mismanagement, de-watered rivers, irresponsible logging practices, and over-fishing. To give you some scale of their demise, 11 of the 14 steelhead populations in the U.S. are listed as threatened or endangered. You may be asking: with populations in dire straits, why even pursue these fish with hook and feather? My answer: Fish need friends. The connection with a wild steelhead has bedeviled the minds of fishermen for 200+ years. These anglers have evolved into stewards and have become the fish’s best chance for survival. We have become their voice.
My friend Tracy Allen once told me, “She (the river) gives them (steelhead) to you when she (the river) thinks you deserve them.” Swinging flies can turn an atheist into a believer if you let it. I continue to chase fish because of the people I meet, the places it brings me and the lessons it teaches. I fish steelhead because I care about the future of these icons of the Northwest, the communities that rely on them and ecosystems they support. I’m planning my next trip Northwards as we speak.