New Year, But An Old Obsession

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Happy 2015 everyone!

This is the start of my second full calendar year here at ASJ, so I hope the ride continues to be (mostly) smooth as we attempt to bring a taste of Alaskan adventure. Our January issue is now available, and in the next couple weeks we’ll tease a little more on our website with a story on Anchorage native Matt Carle, a fishing fanatic who just happens to be one of the more reliable defensemen in the National Hockey League. Our first issue of 2015 had a winter theme, also featuring ice fishing, a ptarmigan hunt on snowshoes hunting sea ducks in the unforgiving Aleutians.

Our Southeast Alaska correspondent Jeff Lund of Prince of Wales Island also contributes a winter story this issue. But one of Jeff passions is also a big part of the Lower 48’s West Coast anglers: winter steelheading.

Here’s Lund’s full story, which captures the obsession that overcomes so many of us this time of year:

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By Jeff Lund 

 

It’s finally here.

They might not be, but it’s that time of the year that you won’t know for sure unless you go.
Special care is put into assembling the suit because you’re a steelheader now. The warm days of summer salmon are over. You dressed warm during hunting season, but you weren’t standing in water in the dead of winter. This is a different program.
The socks are wool – high-quality wool that will stay put, stay warm and isn’t so thick as to cause crowding in the boots. The boots might be new along with the waders. If not, the holes better be patched because cold water is colder when you have time to notice it. And anyone who has fished for winter steelhead knows all about time.

The excitement of being out slowly wanes after a little while. The initial focus is numbed. You tricked yourself into believing that by being the only, and probably the first, one out there, there was a good chance that there was a chrome hen waiting to be caught. But when that doesn’t happen after the first cast, the first 15 minutes, the first half-hour, the first hour – eventually, the cold becomes more palpable. You were hoping to get lucky. As much as you know and are willing to put in the time, it sure would be nice if you didn’t have to.

You cast and watch your warm breath get overwhelmed by the sharpness of the heatless air.

Then, on an otherwise unremarkable cast to a spot that doesn’t look any fishier than the others, comes the tink. Was it bottom? You didn’t hit a rock on the previous swing, so why would there have been that disruption on its path that time? Frozen guide? You cast again. Nothing happens. Maybe it was on a different line. You try to replicate the cast you made two casts ago which is starting to fade into memory. Three casts. Four casts. Seven casts. By cast No. 11, you’re sure that one of them had to replicate the one that hit the rock you now know is a fish.
That was your chance. If you were going to get one pull the entire day, this was it. The hot girl let down her guard for a second, but you asked her for directions to the bathroom rather than her heart.

So you continue to move downriver, maybe a little more careless and sloppy than before. The pressure is off. The chance has passed.

You’re back to the routine when the line stops, then runs. Fish on.

You wonder what you did but don’t have time to analyze because the excited panic sets in.

It’s all happening. It’s now. A month ago you were hunting for deer. You walked for hours, saw one and it was over in a matter seconds. This is taking minutes. There is a fight you feel in your body, not a pull you feel in your finger. You forgot what this felt like and all you can think to do is focus and keep tension.
Nothing is cold anymore; you feel your way over rocks downriver and toward shore in those clumsy boots. You hadn’t planned a place to land it because it seemed a little presumptuous to do so, as if calling your shot.

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The fish leaves the water; it’s heavy and mean below the surface, then it’s running. It works through a variety of tactics, but you’re still connected. The line comes in slowly. Then it leaves. Back in, back out, more in. You’re gaining. The fish doesn’t break, but it does tire. The first grab around the tail is rejected sternly and the swish of its tail sends icy water up your sleeve. You don’t care, at least not yet. You get the line back, reach for the tail and it lets you. You drop the rod, turn the fish on its side and stare at its flanks. You caught fish during the summer because there were so many around. You were just hoping for one chance at one fish today; luckily, you got two.

As overwhelmed as you were by the tussle, you know that it can’t stay half-submerged on this sandbar for long. You wanted to catch it, not kill it. So as much as you want to admire it, you only deprive it of water for a few moments, or however long it takes to document the moment digitally. You let it slide from your grasp, feeling the slickness as it leaves you. You follow it move swiftly.

It slows, puts its snout into the current and then becomes part of the river. You keep staring right at it, but can no longer see it.

 

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You haven’t thought about being cold for a long time. Rather than go right back to fishing, you stand for a few minutes or even find a log to sit on. You’re still alone – the only person out, maybe the first one out. This moment doesn’t happen often. You catch steelhead, but that first winter fish is always special. You’re a year older, but you’re still at it.

You hope every winter starts like this. If it does, you’ll forever feel like you’re living, not just breathing.

 

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