Matt Dickerson: The adrenaline rush of steelhead

Rich lay sprawled out on his backside in the frigid January waters of Oregon’s Trask River. His guide, Gil — realizing his client was now cold and soaking wet, and had possibly gotten injured — was desperately trying to help Rich off his butt. He didn’t realize Rich’s foot was still stuck in the seat of the boat he been trying to exit, making it impossible for him to regain his feet. Rich, however, had his mind on other matters. A big steelhead was still at the end of the line attached to the fly rod that somehow had stayed in Rich’s hand when he tumbled out of the inflatable boat as he prepared to land it. Bruises and wet clothes Rich could deal with. Losing a steelhead would be the real disaster.
For freshwater anglers, there is little that produces a rush of adrenaline like hooking into a big steelhead fresh in from the ocean. Until recently, it was an experience Starksboro resident and avid fly-fisher Rich Warren had never had. This would be his first steelhead if he could land it.
Unlike their Pacific salmon cousins (cohos and monstrous chinooks), steelhead do not necessarily die when they come upriver from the ocean. This means two things. First, after spawning they can return to saltwater and get even bigger, repeating the cycle two, three or even four times over their lifespans. Pacific steelhead weighing over 15 pounds are not uncommon. Second, even after starting their upriver journey, they are still healthy, lively and ready for a fight.
Oregon is especially known for its winter steelhead. Rivers up and down the coast from more famous waters like the Rogue to lesser known streams like the Kilchis boast runs of wild as well as hatchery-supported steelhead. So do many inland rivers draining into the Columbia Basin or the Willamette River Valley. The state record (taken from the Columbia in 1970) weighed over 35 pounds.
So when my plans were finalized for a two-day research visit to the National Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle for two days in January, it seemed obvious that I should stick around for a three-day weekend to chase steelhead. What was not initially obvious was which Vermont friends I could find to join me. My brother Thanh agreed to take a day off and puddle-jump up from San Francisco for the long weekend. But it is a much longer trip from Vermont.
Then I thought of Rich Warren. Rich retired in the spring of 2012 from a career including many decades of service to the Coast Guard (five years on active duty and many decades in reserves) and more recently 15 years teaching programming at VTC. Since his retirement, he has been filling his time with a variety of fishing and hunting experiences including several angling trips to Pennsylvania and Maine. So I sent him the details. When he heard the word “steelhead,” Rich said “yes” almost immediately, and a couple weeks later he was down at my house spending an evening tying up “veiled assassin” flies to prepare for the trip.
And finally the day came. Thursday afternoon when my work at the lab concluded, I headed down to the Seattle airport and picked up Rich and Thanh. Four hours later, we had crossed over the Columbia down into Oregon and were pulling into the small coastal town of Manzanita. We shared a small seaside hotel across one street from a good pizza place, and across another from a pub featuring a large number of local craft brews — the other thing Oregon is as famous for as its steelhead.
At five on Friday morning we were up and getting dressed. Thanh and I would spend the day with one guide on the North Fork of the Nehalem, just upriver from Manzanita. Rich would spend a day with another 40 minutes south on the Trask. The idea of fishing different rivers with two guides was to gain as much info as we could so we would know where to fish the next two days when we would not have the luxury of a guide.
The fishing was slower than I hoped. The forecast for clear blue skies and temperatures warming from below freezing up to 60 degrees proved accurate. Furthermore, Oregon has been experiencing a dry winter, and water was running low and clear. So while it was a perfect day to be outdoors and on the water, it was not a good day for fish to be active. Steelhead typically wait for higher, off-color water that comes after rain to provide cover before they begin their run upstream, and hadn’t even entered most of the local rivers. The fish that were in were playing cautious in the clear water, ignoring all the interesting flies we tied and taking only small beads.
Fortunately, the Trask and the Nehalem were large enough that rain the previous weekend had drawn fish in. During the morning Rich was able to hook up with his first three steelhead. And he landed all three — including the largest one that he fought in part while sitting in shallow water after tripping while getting out of the boat. Once he realized that Rich’s foot was stuck under the seat, guide Gil helped him up and he was able to finish fighting the fish. Over on the North Fork of the Nehalem, I managed to hook up with four fish, but one monster broke my line and another spit my hook, so I landed only two: a 33-inch wild fish, and a 28-inch hatchery steelhead.
The next two days were slower as the water cleared and levels dropped, but we managed to see a few more fish and we explored some of the waters recommended by our guides. Even when the fishing was slow, the surroundings were beautiful. Bald eagles flew right over our heads on multiple occasions, and three elk walked right past me once when I was sitting still on the streamside tying on a new fly.
As Vermont temperatures plummet once again, I can think of worse places to be and worse things to be doing than sitting on my butt in an Oregon river with my foot stuck in a boat while I’m trying to land a 15-pound fish.

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