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Friday, March 4, 2011

Groundhog Day steelhead

Lately someone asked me how on earth I could kill a wild steelhead.
This was in response to a picture of a 27-pound buck steelhead in my column last week.
The fish was caught by Rick Perry of Sequim while floating the Sol Duc River last Groundhogs' Day. We  were fishing plugs with 20-pound test line, which some folks might claim is a little heavy but I ain't one of them.
Once a steelhead is hooked they can try to snag the line on every rock and stick in the river like they have them all memorized. 
It's sick to watch a big bright steelhead enter a sunken rain forest to tangle the line in the limbs. Your only chance is to give the fish slack line and hope the fish leaves the brush-pile on its own without tangling. This is often futile.
You watch the fish roll away down the surface of the middle of the river as your entire spool of line is shredded until it breaks.
When Rick's fish jumped I wished we had stainless steel cable for line. Just lucky we were in a big deep hole in the river with only one downed tree soaking in it.
I crashed the boat into the tree to make enough noise to scare the fish back out into the river. It's an old guide trick, or excuse, that actually worked for once.
When we finally got that fish in the net Rick could not believe his luck. He'd quit fishing 30 years ago in South Carolina when he reeled in a water moccasin. Since retiring to the Olympic Peninsula he started fishing again. 
Then he caught a fish that anglers lay awake nights dreaming about. It was the fish of a lifetime, heck 20 lifetimes, but who's counting. Rick could not believe his luck.
“I'll never catch a steelhead bigger than that,” Rick said.
“Not fishing with me you won't,” I told him.
His career as a steelhead fisherman was over. A friend once explained how he wished he never caught a steelhead that big, say a 30-pounder because he would have “nothing left to live for.”
This is my story.
Since catching my first steelhead in 1968 I have caught several more than 30 pounds.
Imagine a life with no hope or dreams of the future. You can fish but it won't do you any good. You'll never catch a bigger one. 
It didn't matter that I turned the biggest fish loose back in the river for brood stock. My fishing career was over.  I haven't caught another 30-pound steelhead since sometime in the 1990s. Since then I have tried to help others learn from my mistakes.
Rick's fish looked close to 30 pounds. Steelheading isn't like other sports.
For example, if you shoot a hole in one in golf, other golfers will want to congratulate you. If you catch the biggest steelhead, that's one less fish for the rest of us. Other fishermen want to kill you.
Out on the river, death threats are the sincerest form of flattery.
I told Rick to turn the steelhead loose. It had an intact adipose fin of a native. The regulations said we had to release native fish. Then we noticed the fish had a clipped ventral fin, indicating it came from the Snider Creek Hatchery. 
Rick kept the fish.  These days he calls me to ask about the fishing once in a while but he knows there's no point.
The Groundhog's Day steelhead saw his shadow and winter is far from over.

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