You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to. - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving
I first wet a line in New York's, Salmon River nearly twenty years ago. Shawn Brillon - a dear friend who now works for Montana Fly Company and calls home Columbia Falls, Montana - introduced me to the water, the region, and some of the people who once frequented its banks. Our first trip was one I'll never forget but not because I caught my first steelhead. I did not catch a steelhead on that trip or even on my next trip. In fact, I did not catch my first steelhead for several years after Shawn first dragged me to the river; I was a most reluctant passenger. Instead, that first trip left an indelible impression because the whole experience was so unlike anything I had ever encountered.
Until the day Shawn first took me to the salmon-centric towns of Altmar and Pulaski, my fly fishing had been relegated to the days between April 1st and September 30th, which at the time marked the length of New York's regular trout season. In those days, I chased trout and smallmouth bass. Occasionally, I'd wet a line for panfish or carp. I fished when the weather made for a comfortable day of fishing; winter run steelhead were completely off my radar.
Winter fishing seemed an aberration. Why would any bug chucker, who by my juvenile understanding was most concerned with dry flies and rising trout, willingly consent to fish in the middle of a lake-effect snow storm? What was a Korker? How in God's name was I supposed to cast half an ounce of lead on a 10', single-handed rod? At the time, spey rods were as foreign to me as camel racing and switch rods had yet to be born. What the hell was Estaz, and why would any self respecting, out-sized trout eat something I might otherwise hang on my Christmas tree?
I remember being wholly miserable for most of that first trip. I was nauseated from the three hour drive to the river (Shawn drives far too slowly and indulges in the brake pedal far too much for my tender constitution to bear). Several hours with my lower extremities submerged in the near frozen, gelatinous currents left me in what must have been the early stages of hypothermia; no doubt a consequence of my own ignorance, inadequate clothing, and the brutal November storm that drove freezing rain into our faces on a near horizontal axis. At any point, I would have happily packed up, gone home, and never returned to what I thought may have been the final, frozen circle of Dante's, Inferno. And then Shawn hooked a fish.
Nearly twenty years have passed and I can still see ten pounds of platinum silhouetted against the blue-black slate lining the Salmon River's banks. The hen somersaulted from the water and cartwheeled twice before slamming back home with such force a passerby might reasonably have thought a pony had fallen from the sky and plunged into the pool. Nearly twenty years, and I can still see the fish and the smile on my friend's face.
Much has changed from then to now. Like many Salmon River anglers, I quickly graduated from running line and slinkies to floating line and indicators. Eventually, the bobbers (let's call them what they are) disappeared and my single-handed sticks were replaced with switch rods. In recent years, I've laid aside nymphs and eggs entirely. Now, I swing flies - some big, some small, all of them beautiful in their way - along the seams in which the river's steelhead reside.
Unfortunately, as my fishing has evolved the fishery itself seems to have devolved along a contrary arc. The past two seasons have been especially discouraging. By all accounts, salmon and steelhead returns have been somewhat diminished from their height in 2011 and 2012. Evidence for reduced numbers of returning fish is largely anecdotal, but far more disturbing than the possibility of a reduced return (which may happen for any number of reasons, be perfectly innocuous, and part of a normal cycle) is a confirmed steelhead die-off, which is in its second year and shows no signs of abating. Fisheries biologists claim the explosion in steelhead mortality is the result of a thiamine deficiency, which is in turn caused by a staple in the steelhead's diet: the alewife.
My most recent trip to the river drove home the implications of such a die off. After a full day on the water, I had only one tug. As my fly (a diminutive #6 purple heron) swung across the lip of a tailout, it was intercepted by a large steelhead intent on making a fool of me. In one instant I was into my backing, and in the next moment the fish was gone. Of course, one pull - on a swung fly over the course of an icy January day - is all any bug chucker can reasonably hope for. Most days, I would have left the river feeling quite content and satisfied with myself.
Instead, I spent the drive home thinking about the three dead or dying steelhead I saw drift past me as I worked my fly through the run. Eight hours. One hookup. Three dying fish, and two of them were hens. Plump, egg-heavy hens. What makes this especially unfortunate is that I've seen this death dance repeat itself on nearly every trip I've taken to the river over the past year. Lately, a day wading the Salmon River leaves me feeling like I'm watching a friend battle cancer, like I'm watching a friend die. The Salmon River has become a killing field.
So what's a bug chucker to do? I suppose it would be easy to turn a blind eye or to give ourselves over to despondency, but neither ignorance nor despair get us anywhere. Instead, I suggest we begin by using some common sense, but first let's be clear about something. The Salmon River that we all know and love, is an artificial fishery.
As its name implies, the Pacific salmon is indigenous to the left coast, not the Great Lakes. Kings were originally stocked and today exist in Great Lakes tributaries only so they might combat the invasive alewives that are at the heart of the steelhead's trouble. To be clear, the Salmon River's steelhead enter the river in the fall to feed on the eggs of the fish whose purpose is to feed on the fish that is killing steelhead. If this were a Star Trek episode, this would be the point when someone mentions a tear in the space-time continuum.
And this is where common sense comes into play. If we want the fishery, complete with all its artificiality, faults, and ironies, to survive and to flourish, then we need to help it along as best we can. Fewer fish means those remaining stocks are all the more precious, which means we need to become kinder, gentler anglers. I suggest we all agree to the following:
- Let 'em go. There is no good reason to keep a steelhead when the future of the steelhead fishery is uncertain. Yes, it's legal. Yes, you can. You can also grind up a Budweiser bottle, mix it with hamburger, and feed the fatal mixture to your dog. But why would you (either drink Budweiser or feed a bottle to your dog)? It's a heartless thing to do. It's a douche move. Don't be a heartless douche. You love your dog, and you love your steelhead.
- Keep 'em in the water. If you want to take a photo then make it a quick photo. If you need to weigh a steelhead because you think it might be a personal best, put the damn Boga grip on your net, weigh the fish in the net, and then - once you've revived and released the fish - subtract the weight of the net. I assume you're capable of simple math, and steelhead weren't made to be hung in the air from their bottom lip any more than you were. If you know a guide, please forward this to him.
- Stop snagging 'em. Here, I am speaking foremost to my fellow bugchuckers, especially those who frequent the lower fly zone in Altmar. Some of you guys need to cut it out. You know you're lining fish. You know you're lifting them. You ... know ... it, and you know who you are. If a steelhead won't move to your fly or bait, then chances are good it hasn't the energy to survive a prolonged battle at the end of your line (perhaps as the result of a thymine deficiency). This may seem awfully preachy of me, perhaps even a little hypocritical given I've only been swinging flies for a few years, but for God's sake, challenge yourself. Fish in such a way as to give the fish an advantage. Be beyond reproach. All this leaves aside the fact that the LFZ has some beautiful swinging water if only people would rotate through the runs and fish them that way.
- Preach on brother. Preach on. When you encounter someone riverside who's doing the wrong thing, encourage them to do the right thing. Model the correct behaviors, and if encouragement doesn't do the trick, then be abrasive. Call them out on their nonsense. I can guarantee they're more afraid of conflict than you are; they won't dare mess with someone who has the moral high ground. The same ego that pushes them to snag a fish is also their Achilles heel. They're not afraid of you, but they're terrified of being mocked by their friends and fellow bug chuckers. They're piscatorial pussies. Embarrass them. Shame them.