We drove into the river, the ranges of grassy hills casting shadows over each turn we made through each river bend. The river looked bigger than I had imagined. I was intimated and excited at the same time.
I have heard many stories of anglers catching many fish out of these waters and as optimistic I like to be, I have been humbly reminded that I have spent the last four years swinging for these anadromous fish. However, I keep reminding myself these fish have been in freshwater longer than the ones I am typically going after — in theory they should be easier to catch. But it's still fishing, and it seems with each new year, fewer and fewer fish are returning from the salt. When we finally approach the campsites it’s pitch black and we cannot see a thing. They all look full from what we can tell and we continue to push on in search of a vacant space. We tirelessly just park in a pull out and call it a night.
We wake to the high desert nightly temperature drop. I can just about see my breath in the van. We take a look at our surroundings and drive to a run we’ve heard of to see if there’s any room. As we drive, and pass site after site being so full with people waiting in line to swing the run next, KC gets discouraged and argues with himself if this is worth it.
He says "I don't fish to be around people, I fish to get away from people."
I laugh and tell him it’s his call. He begins leaving the river. Deep down, I keep feeling regret as we drive farther and farther away. We didn’t drive all this way to not fish this river! I say to myself.
After contemplating and a bit of persuading on my part, we turn back around. We get to a site that has a promising long run, so we park the van and set up camp.
At about 3pm we gather our gear, get our waders and boots on and trek down to the river. We start fishing behind two men that are swinging the “juice” of the run, as I like to call it.
KC has a skater and dryline on and I am swinging a light sinktip with a small Green Butt Skunk. I am watching the sun slip behind the ranges around me. This place has a way of making you feel so small as you look around. I watch October caddis bop up and down on the water surface, and with each bop I picture a fish coming up to chase it into its mouth. This never happens.
Just when I have the Steelhead Zoneout (if you don't know what this is, it's when you are stuck with your thoughts and silence for so long while swinging that you start having full conversations with yourself), the guy at the very end of the run hooks into a fish. KC turns to me and yells, "He has one!"
He quickly brings it near shore, snaps a couple pics and releases it. Then they're off, both men leave the run.
KC and I press on with each swing, with a new found confidence after seeing the landed fish. It feels as if an hour has gone by, twilight hour is approaching. With he transition from daytime to night fall, the air is getting cooler and I take a few steps after my swing and as I move my left foot, I feel a flood of water flush in, hitting my calf and trickling down to my heel and eventually covering my entire foot. Great.
My foot is already numb and I just started in the “juicy” zone of the run so I can’t get out now.
I swing through the entire run and even farther than I really needed too. It's dark now and I can’t see the rocks in the water anymore, resulting in each step being a little more cautious. I have made up at least four songs about steelhead fishing in my head and have talked to myself more than I ever have by now. Steelhead fishing really has a way of making you feel crazy at times. I accept defeat and head back to shore where KC has been waiting.Even though I didn’t catch anything I genuinely enjoy spey casting and attempting different techniques and improving on current ones.
There is something about steelhead fishing for me, I never think I am going to catch a fish when I’m out. After four years of swinging I think I have just convinced myself that I am just casting. Now, I have hooked two and never landed them so don’t get me wrong, I want to land one and am adamant about getting one swinging but in the meantime, I am ok just enjoying standing in the river with nothing but silence and my thoughts.
When we get back to camp there are three older gentlemen that are camping next to us with a dog named Quill. They have packed up and are about to leave. I spoke with them and they told me they have been camping here for 20 years and they stay a week this time each year and this year has been the worst fishing they have ever witnessed. None of them got a single fish.
Walking away I didn’t really feel much of anything from them telling me that, because I was never convinced I was going to get one anyways.
We wake up the next day and swing the same run along with many others. No one hooks from what we saw.
As midday hits, we make food and hang around camp for a bit. We get new neighbors, two older gentlemen from Whitefish. They ask how the fishing has been and we reply with a somber "slow."
They set up their tent and when 3pm hits, KC has already started the trek to the run to swing it again.
He changes up to a heavier sink tip, thinking that maybe with the colder water the fish are just laying deeper. I am slowly duct taping my waders and getting my gear in order. The older gentlemen next to me says, "Here, try this fly" I reply with a "Really!?" It was a hot pink stonefly looking fly with rubber legs, he calls it the "stupid fly or the ugly fly."
I think him and open my soap box of flies. The man says, "Let me show you mine!"
He opens his fly box (that had dollar bills covering it all over) and he has an immaculate organized box of beautiful flies. He hands me two more and one of them looks like something I would use on the coastal rivers I am used too: traditional hairwing with bright blue with pink and flash but still small.
When I get to the river, there is one person above KC, so I jump in below and swing, step, repeat.... we fish all the way until the end and head back to shore and walk down to find a new run we haven’t fished yet.
Once we get to it someone is fishing the "juice" zone on the opposite bank. KC says just start high... I reply, "No you go first," but he insisted that I go since he started first the previous run.
I cast just a small amount of line out and swing through the faster, deep, plunging water — water I typically would not have thought to swing to be honest.
I make a few steps and cast again, and look back at KC with a squishy face after I just made a shitty cast, he shrugs and then…. all of a sudden, I feel it.
My line goes tight.
I feel line starting to pull from my reel. I am scared as I lost my last steelhead setting the hook wrong and messing it up. I don’t do anything for a moment and then finally set and before I knew it I was fighting a fish.
I am screaming "No way, no way! This isn't happening!"
I am shaken. I can’t even think. I am standing on granite like rocks and am trying to run down with the fish a bit, I feel each pull so vigorously. KC keeps yelling at me but I can’t even make out what he is saying. The fish jumps and I see my first glance at what I am up against.
It's beautiful chrome belly shines at me. I concentrate on my line, my rod tip, and keeping tension as the fish runs up and down. As she tires, so do I. I bring her into slower water and KC tails her. I've done it. A beautiful 30" hen steelhead, chrome bright and clear fins. This fish has swam 400 miles upriver to get here, and fast! I am nearly in shock — I have caught my first steelhead!
Unbelievable, that’s the only word I can think to describe it.
With each gaze at this beautiful fish I think to myself, persistence does pay off and I am proud I stuck it out.
KC & Kayla's Picks
Words: Kayla Lockhart
Photos: KC Badger