I’ve long nurtured the dream of catching the iconic symbol of the Northwest, the wily steelhead trout.
Previously on these pages, I have chronicled my pathetic attempts to achieve this goal, all of which ended in futility.
Astute readers may guess that this time the story has a happy ending (for me, if not the fish), but first I should recap my previous slapstick adventures in steelheading.
My first trip was on a chilly autumn day on the Methow River. I was attempting to catch a steelhead on a fly, which I now realize is a very effective way not to catch a steelhead. (In fairness to fly-fishing, this is just one of dozens of effective ways not to catch a steelhead.)
The Methow Valley was gorgeous in late October, with sumac leaves blazing crimson and apple orchards glowing yellow. The river was rolling majestically, if frigidly, as I stood thigh-deep for hour after hour, wondering if somewhere down there my toes still existed.
After about two days, I was beginning to doubt whether the Methow even contained a steelhead. Then a gleaming, silver-and-rose beauty leaped out of the water, toward my fly – and then right over it. It continued swimming cheerfully upstream, having either (1) not seen my fly, or (2) deemed it unworthy of notice.
Just when I concluded that this had been a hallucination, it happened again. This time, a fish practically belly-flopped over my fly line, clearly by accident, before it made its jolly way upstream.
Then, in February 2003, I went steelheading with my friend, Steely Dan, to the Snake River. Ah, the Snake River in February – doesn’t that just evoke images of swaying palm trees, bikinis and coconut oil?
I mean, frozen sagebrush, woolen long underwear and Smelly Jelly?
Smelly Jelly is the anchovy-flavored fish attractant that we used to entice the steelhead into striking our bait. Apparently, the Snake River steelhead are not that keen on the taste of fermented anchovy, since we didn’t get a single strike. But I can testify that anchovy adds a piquant flavor note to a ham sandwich, since Smelly Jelly was all over my gloves while I was eating lunch.
So, to sum up, I never had even a single strike in four days of fishing, but I did have an easy way to answer the question: What’s the coldest you’ve ever been? Answer: Every time I have gone steelheading.
Which is why it was such a miracle that, two Fridays ago, I went steelheading on the Snake River in Hells Canyon and (1) stayed nice and warm and (2) caught a steelhead.
This time, my friends and I had the good sense to actually hire a seasoned steelhead guide, Pete Paolino of Pete’s Fishing Guide Service. He knew the river and had an effective method for actually catching a steelhead (back-trolling plugs, with no Smelly Jelly necessary).
Pete also had a nice boat with a heated, covered cabin you could retreat into if you got too cold. What an excellent concept.
And then, just an hour or two into the day, my fishing rod started jerking spasmodically, which caused me to grab hold of it and start jerking spasmodically, too. In a minute or so, I landed my first steelhead.
All five of us went home with steelhead that day, three of us for the first time.
So, not only have I checked off another goal from my lifetime list, but I also have been lunching on outstanding smoked steelhead.
This is a flavor that evokes the Northwest – even more vividly than Smelly Jelly.