They rule the back eddies of the Pacific Northwest. Known to anglers as a most holy prize, the faithful pursue the feisty steelhead despite their fickle nature. What fuels the spiritual pursuit of what many call “freshwater chrome”?
STEVE SCHMIDT IS A LIFELONG fly fisher. In the mid-80s, Frontier Farwest Lodge in the Bulkley Valley, near the small town of Smithers, BC, hired the Ohio native as a steelhead guide. Today he’s a “dry-fly” steelheading proponent, the technique where a fly that skates across the water’s surface is used, as opposed to one that swims under it. Going dry is not the most effective way to dupe the elusive steelhead. It is arguably the most exciting way to fish for them. By coaxing a hunkered steelhead to the river’s surface, you have the advantage of seeing it bump, nudge, sip and, sometimes, smash the flyy. That visual, like those acquired when flipping through your first Playboy, is hard to forget.
Schmidt hasn’t forgotten. Like visiting Mecca, the 61-year-old returns to the scene of his first dry-fly steelheading experiences annually. “I’ve never been the same,” he says. After they are born, steelhead travel hundreds and even thousands of river miles to reach ocean estuaries as fingerlings, some wander-ing through vast saltwater landscapes for years before returning to the river of their birth, one of nature’s incredible stories. “One has to marvel at salmon, too, but from a numbers standpoint, there are far less steelhead,” Schmidt adds. “And that makes this sh’s journey much more fragile.”
FLY-FISHING FOR THE hard-to-catch steelhead, like religion, can test our faith. We may hang onto God’s teachings, but we don’t necessarily hang out with Him. He doesn’t send texts or birthday cards or belly up next to you at the bar. Steelhead are equally ephemeral. We go to the river because we believe in their presence. We offer a hand-tied fly out of respect. We genuflect on the water’s edge and investigate the rocks at our feet, or a stray feather, or take a sip from a flask on an overcast Pacific Northwest morning. And every now and then, out of nowhere, a steelhead crushes our fly and reminds us that minor miracles are possible.
Our experiences with native West Coast steelhead are so transitory because these fish of a thousand casts are everything from non-committal to just not there. Catching one during the course of a day means a great session for an above average fly fisher. Landing, even hooking, any more than that is kinda remarkable. And it’s not that steelhead are terribly hard to fool; they’re just terribly hard to find.
If god made steelhead, our devotion for that fish could bring us closer to him. And the river, for many anglers, is the place to achieve those connections via the worship of spectacular creations
Biologists use four defining H-words to under-score that frailty: harvest, habitat, hydro and hatcheries. One can always add a fifth H—humans—to the mix. During the past several decades, these H-factors, in combination and on their own, have triggered wild steelhead declines from coastal California to the tip of their northern range in Alaska. Wherever there is over-harvest, habitat degradation, hydro dams and wide-spread use of production fish hatcheries, steelhead have suffered.
Blatant examples include Seattle’s Puget Sound and Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, where wild steelhead numbers in both zones have fallen to a fraction of their historical abundance. Puget Sound crashed in the 90s. Its steelhead are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. And area fisheries such as the Skagit-Sauk system are now entirely closed to steelhead fishing. On Washington’s Olympic Peninsula the situation is similarly bleak. The Hoh River, which runs off the shoulders of Mount Olympus and winds through thick rainforest and then broad valley before reaching its terminus at the Pacific, in 1920, saw 35,000 to 59,000 returning steelhead. According to Washington’s Wild Steelhead Coalition Y2K was a doomsday, with total abundance dropping to fewer than 4,000 wild fish that season. The Hoh is a victim of irresponsible native gillnets, archaic catch-and-keep regulations, changing oceanic conditions and in 2004, its wild steel-head rock-bottomed at 2,539 returning fish. That scarcity lends steelhead a certain degree of sacredness. In the fly-shing community, they are revered to the point of worship. And that kind of adoration might seem like sinful behaviour to some. Idolatry, after all, could smell like unwashed fly fishers, waving their poles around, chasing false gods. But there are worse things to be stuck on than natural wonders, such as a dwindling population of hard-charging Oncorhynchus mykiss.
Laurence Krieg of Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan, learned a similar, famous lesson at the age of nine. Whether or not Krieg was a steelheader, we do not know. He was, however, an avid reader of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia as a 1950s child. One day, Krieg let it slip that he loved Aslan, the lion in the series, more than he loved Jesus. Krieg feared he’d become an idol worshipper. So his mother penned a letter to the publisher explaining her son’s predicament. Ten days later, pre high-speed wireless, they received a handwritten response from Lewis.
“Tell Laurence from me, with my love,” Lewis wrote, “[He] can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus…. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. When Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.”
This allegory can also be applied to fish addiction. If God made steelhead, for instance, our devotion for that fish could bring us closer to Him. And the river, for many anglers, is the place to achieve those connections via the worship of spectacular creations—either God’s or nature’s. Hale Harris is a pastor and avid steelheader, who also runs a bustling fly shop on the Bighorn River in Fort Smith, Montana. The idea of the river as a place of worship, like a church, is something that rings true in his life, as well as in the messages of his sermons.
In the fly-fishing community, steelhead are revered to the point of worship. And that kind of adoration might seem like sinful behaviour to some. Idolatry, after all, could smell like unwashed fly fishers, waving their poles around, chasing false gods.
“It struck me a while ago that there are many issues to explore regarding the question of why people don’t go to formal worship services,” he says. “Maybe they’ve been inoculated from true faith by bad experiences with judgmental church people, or by religious traditions they couldn’t understand. It could be any number of reasons.” But at the end of the day, Harris believes a lot of us fly-fish for the same benefits that stem from church. “There is a beauty in the surroundings, and the practice of fishing is a spiritual exercise,” he says. “We find fellowship, whether it is with the ones we’re fishing with, or with the one who created the places where we fish. For some of us, rivers are our churches, and fishing is a form of worship.”
EGYPT’S MOUNT SINAI is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Mecca is Islam’s holiest hot spot. Judaism has Jerusalem. Buddha found enlightenment sitting under a peepal tree at Bodh Gaya in the Indian state of Bihar. For the fly fisher, rivers denote our promised lands. And the steelheader’s most hallowed pilgrimage remains northern British Columbia, where the four Hs have yet to sully the panorama. Although threats, such as natural- gas pipelines and the potential for mineral extraction in the head- waters of the Skeena system loom.
Skeena tributaries are good places to live a monkish existence in pursuit of steelhead. Bob Clay is a bamboo fly rod maker who does just that from his home and workshop on the banks of British Columbia’s Kispiox River. The Kispiox flows southeast toward its confluence with the Skeena near the hamlet of Hazelton and is home to a genetically distinct breed of large, summer-run steelhead that migrate into the system in August and continue pushing upstream through the brisk days of fall. As an agnostic, Clay is not big on the word “church” but he does liken his backyard fishery to a place of spiritualistic significance. “We all have our churches,” he says. “Some people go to church to worship God. Other people are out on the river and one with nature, where we can reflect on our lives and think about the things we can do better.”
There are a lot of good concepts in religion, too, he adds. For many people, that’s where they learn the basic morals of society. “And there are good things that Jesus guy said… like, ‘Turn the other cheek and take care of the poorest of the poor.’” Clay says. “All of those concepts are really good. But you have to be careful with steelheading, because it’s easy to fall into the church of me.”
Likewise, the quest for big fish has led to some inflated egos, and wanting a fish so badly can bring out the greed, lust, and envy in any angler. But the act of steelheading can also have the opposite effect of uniting kindred spirits. Relationships are bonded from a commonality in the experience that all starts with this incredible fish and expands over time.
Schmidt has witnessed steelheading friends and family come and go during his years on the water, adding both new meaning and finite elements to his fishing. He recently spread the ashes of a dear friend on the Morice and Bulkley rivers. And several years ago, during the time leading to his aging father’s death, he was standing in the Bulkley on a cold, rainy September morning. “I remember getting cell service for the first time in several days and calling my dad,” he says. “He was in great pain and suffering, and I felt a sense of guilt for being where I was, but I knew there was no better place to prepare for what lay ahead,” he says. “Over time, places like this mean more to us than catching fish. They are places we come to heal and to make sense of the world. These are places where in many ways we become who we are.”
IN OUR HOME we do not pray for steelhead, me and my wife, Kat, and our 11-year-old son, Sam. Today, church is limited to holiday stints and occasional prayer is reserved for big-picture more than big-ticket items. We don’t pray for lottery windfalls. We do pray for family; for guidance and patience; for health and wellness; and for happiness and lasting love. The kind of stuff that can meander into your thoughts while exploring the rivers that hold the fish we’re not praying to catch.
We don’t ask, because karma is a bitch that will bite your steel-heading ass through a pair of Gore-Tex chest waders. Because trying to smuggle fish prayers into the mix might red flag the Big Guy of some trivial pursuits. And because self-serving sentiments are often times better left unsaid. But we cherish steelhead nonetheless.
That’s why we play them quickly and carefully to hand. Cradling these native fish, ones plucked from teetering populations, puts us in the presence of greatness. Catching steelhead isn’t a matter of conquest. It’s a lesson in gratitude. So they are released into the river with a thank you. And somewhere between all those casts, the answers are revealed.