Dreaming Of Holiday Steelhead

If you’re celebrating Christmas or other holidays this month, we hope you and your loved ones best wishes for a great experience. Here’s a steelhead fishing adventure for you to be thinking of a dream Alaska trip as you celebrate the season

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Life is filled with contradictions.

The only ones that make sense to me are the ones that involve fishing. So when I kept setting the hook and missing on an afternoon trout trip in the Alaska Panhandle, I decided to adjust my approach. I wouldn’t set the hook. I’d wait and let the rainbow do more of the work.

I sent my fly into the current, watched the line form a tight arc and then swing across the current.

Bump. Bump. I waited. Bump. Waited. Boom.

After the fish shook, I pulled the tight line through where I had it pinned to the cork and swung my 5-weight to the side. Fish on. You’d think that if a fish bites all you have to do is yank and it’s on, but there’s a lot that can go wrong. The current will ultimately take your fly line downriver at different rates of speed creating a giant U or a W or two between you and the fly. When a fish takes, a hook set will often pull the slack, but not move the fly into the corner of the fish’s mouth. That’s why it’s important to mend the line – to make sure you are as connected to the fly as possible.


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This is also why I like to swing flies. Cast it downriver, let the line get tight, then follow the swing as it moves across the current to a true dangle directly downriver from my boots. It’s an easy way to stay connected to the fly.

However, hook sets can be tricky. If you set the hook backward, you’re pulling the fly upriver. Since the fish is facing upriver, you’re likely pulling the fly from its mouth. By waiting a second to make sure the trout takes and turns, you can get a good hookset. You can also get a good set by setting to the side, rather than directly back.

If nothing else, the contradictions in fishing keep it fresh. That’s why people can fish and fish and fish and fish without getting bored – especially with a
fly rod.

You constantly have to think, OK, I need to get this fly under that branch. That means I have to shoot the line under that other branch, have it unravel and drop the fly upriver from where the fish is holding. I have to do this without backcasting too much because there are trees and bushes behind me.

So I have to figure out how to do all of this, and then when it’s time to hook up … do nothing. Just stand there and feel the rod bounce in my hand, and rather than instinctively pull, I have to wait. Pause. Hold. Delay. Then set.

It’s difficult but it works. The next day I caught the biggest fish I ever had in that river, which shall not be named.



Then, of course, there are situations when a half-second matters most. A few days after I mastered patience and was rewarded with some beautiful, fat trout in a small stretch of thin water, I went to a larger river for a weekend of camping in the rain and catching steelhead. At least we hoped as much.

I was using my new favorite steelhead pattern – one that I tied but am sure I did not invent, even though I have never seen it before. It sinks quickly but isn’t too heavy, and is perfect for even water up to midthigh depth. It’s a compact design with no extra material, so every hit can find the hook.

I was fishing a run that was parallel to a downed tree on new water. It was at the edge of my longest roll cast. Because the water was clear and maybe a little low, I didn’t want to get too close and spook anything holding more toward the center.

I was using an indicator and saw it dip but didn’t react. I let the rig swing out, then stripped and cast again. Same spot, no dip. I had missed a strike. The oral coordination of steelhead is often incredible. Their ability to take with such calculated caution causing only a subtle change in the direction of a fly is almost unfair – especially considering once the fish is on, the fight is so violent. I kept throwing to the same spot to make sure I gave that fish another chance, but it had either moved or was onto me.

I moved to the tail end of the run and fished where the top of the tree pointed. I knew the indicator would disappear. I really knew it. I stared through the cold air. My eyes watered, but I dared not blink.

Nothing. Nothing. Bump. Bump. Hook set. Nothing. Too late. Bump. Wait. Overzealous-oh-my-god-that-was-a-steelhead hook set. Way too late. Catch tree branch behind me.

These weren’t those fun little trout in the unnamed creek. These were steelhead in an unnamed river. These demand angling excellence.

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I dialed in and almost tried to guess when the hit would come. I sent the fly to the same spot. I felt a pull so strong I almost dropped the rod. I didn’t have to do anything, which was great because I may have messed it up. The steelhead jumped from the water, but rather than tail walk, it went end over end and did water gymnastics rather than dance. I laughed and kept tension. I was connected to the fish of a thousand casts. Then the line shot back at me. Hookless. Bad knot.

I felt almost sick.

I worked downriver, trying to convince myself I’d get another shot. It was still early in the morning. I had brought a 14-inch rainbow to shore and hooked up with a brute of a steelhead. There were fish around. I just had to stay focused.

I continued to work downriver, covering as much water as I could and making quick sets on every tink.

Near the end of the run, I felt a pull and before the pull stopped, I yanked back. Fish on. I lifted the rod, but the fish stayed down. Solid. Still on. Game on.

I moved it toward the bank, maneuvered so that I was facing it, then dropped like a catcher blocking a pitch in the dirt. I trapped the fish in a few inches of water between the shore and I.

I reached into the water, grabbed the tail, turned it on its side and looked down the flank. Not the prettiest or biggest, but you don’t think about those things in that moment.

You don’t think about the unsuccessful elk trip a month earlier. You don’t think about the bad knot that cost you a fish. You don’t think about those dry spells when you are sure that if you had to live off the land, you’d starve.

You think about that moment and how you made it work. You figured it out.

You won.

This time.

Editor’s note: Jeff Lund is the author of Going Home, a memoir about fishing and hunting in Alaska and California. Go to
JeffLundBooks.com for details.