You've hooked your first steelhead.
My indicator made the drift from left to right as it had so many times before, but on this run it stopped abruptly and was dragged under the surface. I stood dumbly watching the little piece of orange and yellow balsa shoot upstream through the current. The hook set itself - almost involuntarily - as the line drew tight against the rod. A steelhead - a real steelhead, not a skipper, not a ghost - somersaulted out of the water, turned, and ran back downstream.
I never brought the fish to hand, which is - I suppose - why it swims still in my memory. My buddy suggested the chromed-up hen weighed at least 15 pounds. Who can say? She was big. She was strong. She was fast, and she was one hell of an introduction to what is arguably one of the finest - if not the finest - game fish found in freshwater.
Fast forward fifteen years to the weekend before Thanksgiving, 2011. The boys and I are on the second day of a three day steelheading bender. We did well enough on the first day, but our metal-lust was hardly sated. Joining us for day two is Shawn Combs, a native Kentuckian who has never caught a steelhead. As the day progresses, he watches as the rest of the group hook fish after fish, and I can see in his eyes the same fatigue and hopeful anticipation, which I had felt so many years before.
|Shawn Combs ... wishing it would happen.|
"When is it going to be my turn?"
And slowly the morning haze gave way to noon day sun; noon eventually made its move toward night. The hours slipped away, and Shawn went without a pull. Eventually, there were just minutes left in the day. Like soldiers defending a fallen comrade, we converged on the crestfallen Kentuckian. Tippet is cut. Knots are tied. And then with only moments left in the evening ...
Shawn hooked a steelhead. A steelhead - a real steelhead, not a skipper, not a ghost - takes Shawn's fly and shoots off downstream. Shawn tried frantically to bring the fish under some semblance of control, and just when it seemed he had gained an advantage, the fish turned straight back at him. It leaped only a few feet from our intrepid steelheader, and just as it quickly as the chaos began, so too did it end. The fish was off.
As we shouldered our gear for the trek back to the car, I took a moment to console Shawn.
"I lost my first one too."
"Yep. Schooled me. You did a much better job than I did."
"There's hope then."
"Hell man. This is steelheading. All you ever have is hope."
I didn't have the heart to tell him I lost my second, third, and fourth fish too.