If the steelhead only knew how coveted a species she was. If she only knew the tales and lore and science that went into understanding how she thinks and acts and re-acts. Because if we understood her better we could predict her movements, her likes and dislikes, and — to be blunt — predict where she might be at any one point and at any one time in this long stretch of river.
But she is reluctant when it comes to sharing information. Mostly she keeps to herself.
We aim for steelhead the way we aim for a win at the tables in Vegas. After loses we commit more time and more money. We start showing up early, before the others. We make friends who give us tips. And we start believing those friends.
We who put our faith in statistics have already noted the location of submerged rocks, the temperature of the river, and the velocity and height of the water. We’ve made note of sun and rain. We know what the steelhead counts were in the years before this one. We know where the boats do and do not drift.
But still we come up empty.
If you are sick with steelhead fever you start to follow little rules, minor traditions. These gloves and hat, not those. These waders not those. These socks. Those sunglasses. This blend of tea. Or no tea at all (or how about coffee?!). Bananas? Oh, for the love of Chri…
We look for an edge in our guide but how often has a $200 day ended with a net lighter than air?
Chris arrived with the right gear, the right guide, the right attitude, on the right day. And fishing the right runs. I saw a still life in certitude. And yet.
The Smith, Chris told me, is a pristine river. Untrammeled. Unspoiled. In large part unaffected by the hand of man. Other rivers do not compare (though he did speak with reverence about the Umpqua). When he walked me to a spot high above one of the runs he’d been to earlier in the day I looked down at the deep and clear water, the wet rocks, the moss in blues and greens and could have sworn it was a different river then the one I’ve lived next to for five years.
From our spot in the rocks above, we watched steelhead swimming in the water below. Chris saw them first. I studied the water for 15 minutes before I could spot one. The fish, enormous even from 50 feet, were resting above a long chute of white water and a slower upper riffle, pausing before heading upstream to some other creek or another side riffle.
These were the steelhead he’d be back for he assured me. I had no doubt.