Father, son steelheaders have method to their madness
In a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein, it’s said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
By that standard, you might watch Eric Stein, 47, of Yakima and his 15-year-old son, Brian, on a steelhead fishing trip and question their sanity.
But they say something is different about each cast, whether it’s the location, the bait or how it’s being presented.
Perhaps it settles gently into the water a foot to one side of the last cast, thereby testing a different “seam” in the current. Then the next cast is another foot beyond that one. Then another foot. And so on, as if filling in a grid.
“Sometimes with steelhead,” Brian said, “you have to put it practically right in their mouth before they’ll take it.”
If they won’t take it then, the menu changes.
Father or son will switch to a different rod rigged with another color from their array of homemade jigs, which they pair with shrimp under a slip bobber. Then another. If none of those works, Eric will reel a spinner through the current. Brian will bounce bait, usually steelhead eggs harvested during an earlier fishing trip, along the river bottom.
If nothing works, they move on to the next hole.
Nothing is haphazard. Every action has a purpose.
“We fish at a very methodical pace,” Eric said. “There’s a method to my madness.”
And it works – so well and so consistently, in fact, that after coming away with five beautiful hatchery steelhead, none shorter than 28 inches, on a 1 1/2-day float down 9 miles of the Klickitat River in early August, father and son were disappointed.
“We’re spoiled,” Eric said.
“This might seem successful,” Brian said. “But it’s not.”
Father and son would have caught more steelhead if it weren’t for all the trout they had to release. “Trout farm,” each would occasionally grumble while replacing bait stolen by a nibbling nuisance.
“They’re annoying,” said Brian, a high school sophomore. “They’re all over the bait, and the steelhead’s not going to touch it if the trout are all over it.”
Despite their best efforts to avoid them, Brian and Eric each reeled in more than 100 trout.
“I have a real hard time catching a 12-inch trout and going whoo-whoo,” Eric said.
Steelhead are a different class. Eric is nearly obsessive about measuring and recording every steelhead or salmon he and Brian catch in both photo album and video recorder, noting the exact time and location of each catch, and what bait or lure the fish was caught on. He also makes notations about the ones that got away and how it happened.
So Eric can physically document those seemingly exaggerated memories, such as the 2010 day when he hooked 79 steelhead and reeled in 60 on the Grande Ronde River – releasing all but the daily limit of hatchery fish, of course.
Or the day he won first and second places and Brian won the youth division at a steelhead derby on that same southeast Washington river.
Or the 42-pound, 42-inch salmon Brian caught when he was just 12, and not much taller than the fish was long.
Both love doing battle with enormous fall chinook season because, Brian said, “They wear you out.”
“When you set the hook and it just stays there, you’re at his control. You’re not in control,” Eric said. “And that’s a rush, because you want to see it: Just how big are you?”
Wild steelhead are tops in rivers for their explosive fight and cunning, Eric said.
“If you get one of the wild ones that’s been hooked a few times, they know what to do,” Brian said. “We’ve had them where you’ll get him on and he’ll go straight to a log and go under it, then jump back over it and it’s game over.
On the early-August trip, father and son each recognized almost instantly on four of their five catches the fish on the line was “fightin’ hatch.”
The hatchery fish will usually make one strong run, maybe 10 to 12 feet, Brian said. “Then they’ll just come right in.”
One of their five steelhead on this trip could have fooled them both.
They were “boondogging,” floating with the anchor up or lowered just enough to tick along the bottom and slow their progress, and were between two whitewater riffles at what Eric calls “a sleeper hole” – one that just doesn’t look like steelhead would hold there.
But while reeling a spinner through the current just below the first riffle, Brian hooked a fish that gave him a fairly epic battle as Eric maneuvered through the riffle and around a bend. More than 100 yards downriver, Eric was able to beach their drift boat long enough for Brian to hop out and continue the battle for another 75 yards on foot, contorting his body to keep the fish under control and the line taut as he worked his way down the rocky shoreline.
When Eric finally netted it, the steelie turned out to be a hatchery fish after all – but, at 31 inches, the biggest catch of the trip.
They aren’t the ritziest anglers on any river.
The 16-foot, 54-inch-wide Alumaweld invariably looks something like a floating pincushion with its array of nine or 10 rods, each rigged for a different color, bait or presentation. The boat is 18 years old and, Eric said, “has seen better days. The bottom of it sure has, anyway. All I need is something to get me from Point A to Point B without sinking, and I can catch fish.”
Being competitive comes naturally for both father and son. Eric was an all-state defensive back in high school, an All-America punter at Eastern Washington University (where his 57-yard field goal remains the longest in school history) and had a brief stint as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks. Brian is cut from the same cloth, taking his baseball and basketball seriously.
That drive carries over to the river, where father and son take pride in being the best boat on the water, the boat bringing in the most fish, the boat other anglers are watching enviously and wondering, “What are those guys using? “
The answer to that question, of course, is that they’re using everything.