My friends Kevin Peterson and Jim Spencer took me steelhead fishing for the first time about six years ago. There was ice on the rod guides and you could see their breath as they gave me advice. They were nice to the rookie and I managed to catch a little brown trout. Later, when Kevin held a chrome bullet train that he landed on a homemade stonefly, I was blown away. It was my first look at a Lake Superior steelhead. A fine rainbow trout. Now, I sit straight up in bed with the cold sweats because of that darn fish. In six years of trying, I’ve never caught one.
The DNR says it takes an average fisherman ten hours to catch a steelie. I’ve spent…oh…a lot more hours than that flailing my line at the water. I’m faced with one undeniable fact: I’m a bad fisherman. The guys are nice to me. They show me how to set up a steelhead rig, which is unlike any “fly-fishing” I did out west. They show me the subtle difference between your sinker bouncing along the stones at the bottom of the river and the bite of a fish. They would know what a fish on your line feels like. I wouldn’t.
That’s not completely true. (This is a fish story after all.) One spring, I stood in a North Shore stream and a steelhead took my hook. It sent my reel into a high-pitched whine as it rocketed down the river. While I was trying to horse it into the net, I, of course, lost it. A flash of silver and it was gone. Fuel for several more years of nightmares.
My friends would say, “Steelheading has a long apprenticeship.” It was a nice way of saying, “You don’t suck. It’s just tough to learn.” But there’s a limit. Once the boys decided I’d been taught enough, they had a little fun. In the spring, I regularly get emails with photos attached. It’s one of the boys, standing in a river with snow on the banks behind him. There’s a giant shiny trout in his hands, gleaming almost as much as his smile. One guy photoshopped my head onto another guy’s body who was holding a steelhead so I could pretend I caught one. One buddy says I want it too much. The truth hurts. A lot.
I found a diversion. I fish for salmon in the same rivers in the fall. Uncrowded rivers with all the fisherman gone to set up deer stands or grouse hunt. Falling leaves and remarkably large fish. I’ve landed a few king salmon on the North Shore after adrenaline charged fights stumbling knee deep down the river. But they weren’t steelhead.
The symptoms are starting. I’m doing my taxes. I dig drainage ditches in my yard so the ice and snow will melt off. I look at the forecast for a blast of rain. Soon, it’ll be time. I’ll go down to the river with my polarized sunglasses and peer into the water for a little flash of white. I’ll try not to want it too much as I repeatedly flip my yarn and sinker up river. I’m not terrible. It’s just a long apprenticeship, that’s all.