Dreaming of Steelhead

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My Dream Date Photo by Louis Cahill

My Dream Date Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

I woke three times last night dreaming that I was fishing for steelhead.

Not epic, fish hoisting, hero shoting, steelhead fishing but, ass backwards, pointless, penitent steelhead fishing. Swinging tiny flies on floating lines in the turbid, chocolate waters of spring run off (and this is my favorite part) in Colorado’s Black Canyon. If you’re not a steelheader, I’ll break this down for you C.G. Jung style.

The steelhead is, in freshwater at least, the iconic challenging fish. The “fish of a thousand casts.” If you were forced to fish for them in high, stained water, and I have been, you would use big flies and heavy sink tips or better yet a steelhead bullet and an egg pattern and it would still be very, very tough. Lastly, the Gunnison river which flows through The Black Canyon does not contain steelhead. So, in my dream I am fishing for the hardest fish I know of, using tactics and gear that I know are wrong, in a river where this fish does not exist. Clearly I need professional help. A psychiatrist or a guide at least.

This dream was so vivid and persistent that I couldn’t help but wonder what it meant. Admittedly, it’s been way too long since I held a steelhead. I had to cancel a trip to Oregon last month and from talking to my buddies on the west coast it doesn’t sound like I missed much. It’s been a tough season. I heard about one experienced angler in Washington who swung flies for sixty days without a fish.

I touched base with a good friend in Seattle to see how his season was. He told me, “We did fine on the O.P., the swing-only nerds did their fair share of complaining. I still swung fish, nymphed fish and float-rodded fish.” I read that as, ‘Yes, it was a tough year.’ With all of my attempts to virtually fish steelhead by text message, they have been on my mind but that hardly explains that fucked up dream.

In my dream, I was fishing with my friend Michael White. Whitey is a Spey god with serious street cred. He was genuinely excited and kept insisting that, “Steelhead love these tiny flies when the water is way up, this is going to be awesome!” In spite of the fact that I know Whitey would never say this it made me excited too. Maybe it would be awesome? But, of course it wasn’t.

By lunch time I decided to blame Jay Zimmerman of Colorado Fly Fishing Reports. I remember seeing a Facebook status that Jay posted the other day. It read as follows.

“The sooner we all admit that this game we play is NOT about catching fish at any cost, the better off we’ll all be. Fish eat cheese, marshmallows and corn too. Flyfishing is SUPPOSED TO BE more difficult!” — A Wise Man I Know.

I can blame Jay for for my dream tactics and even my location and my west coast friends for the query and Whitey for my blind faith in his fish mojo. That’s what psychiatry is all about, right? Placing blame. But where am I in all of this? I’m curious about what my buddy in Seattle said. Am I a “Swing Only Nerd?”

I don’t think of myself that way. I have caught my share of steelhead on egg patterns but it’s been a while. Years in fact. Ever since I started feeling really comfortable with my two hander, I’ve only fished the swing. Holy shit, am I turning into an elitist hippie?

Doing things the hard way certainly sounds like me. I may do less of that in fishing than any other part of my life, but if all I wanted to do was catch fish I’d use bait. Live bait, power bait, jail bait! Once you start down that hedonistic path, who knows where you end up? But that just doesn’t do it for me and it’s honestly a little hard to say exactly why.

Yes, I do enjoy a challenge. That’s a big part of it bit it’s not the whole picture. If fly fishing was easy I would surely have gotten bored with it long ago. Although some days it is easy and I really enjoy those days. Admit it, don’t you? Those days when everything is perfect and the fish throw themselves on whatever fly you tie on are the best. It’s a contradiction. We love the challenge and the only thing we love more is when it’s easy. But not every day, that would suck. Maybe we all need professional help.

People always say its about the experience and 99% of the time if they mean anything at all they don’t know what, but that really is the thing. Even when that experience is penitent. For me it’s not just about being out there, it’s about being more. It’s about growing, learning, experiencing something that makes me think or question or smack my forehead. Fish are for me a tool for personal growth. So much so that they invade my dreams when for some reason I can not get to them.

I feel sorry for the know-it-alls. The guys who can’t wait to get out on the river or down to the fly shop and corner some poor sap and tell him all the things he’s doing wrong. The guys who want to argue about whether fishing beads is ‘Fly Fishing’. The ones who look down on anglers who fish nymphs or streamers or whatever. The guys who want to compete and have casting competitions to prove that they are ‘Better Fisherman’ than everyone else. That’s not the journey I want to go on.

I’m excited about swinging tiny flies for steelhead in The Black Canyon during run off. That’s the trip I’m on. Let’s not be fishing robots, let’s do something fucked up that makes no sense and see what we learn. Let’s do it the hard way. And when we meet an angler who’s doing his own thing, whether it’s swinging or nymphing or tenkara, let’s treat him or her with respect and try to see their side of things.

Maybe Whitey is right, maybe it’ll be awesome!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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10 thoughts on “Dreaming of Steelhead

  1. I don’t know if that could be considered a nightmare or just a “wet” dream… BUT, the Gunnison area of Colorado is an untouched destination of mine.

    Dreaming about fishing is not as good as doing it, and the doing doesn’t really have a proper way. My oldest boy has been known to tie on a Flatwing in front of a Popper when spin fishing for Strippers! Go figure.

    I just don’t bust people’s chops about stuff. I remember Bob Clouser telling a story about a guy telling him that he was tying a Clouser Minnow the wrong way. Like patience, silence can be a virtue…even if you’re dreaming.

    Just go out, have fun, and don’t come home ’til dark.

  2. The black canyon just after runoff is where you can still get wild steelhead sized rainbows to take drys. The bobcat hike down there will test your windpipe, but the only cougars to distract you will be the wild ones.

    and by the way, the gunnison is an excellent fishery to exploit the 12 inches just off the bank for some of the best fish. during normal or especially high flows, the fish seem to favor hanging near the bank. You can make a steelhead appear if you approach it with this in mind. quit swinging for the fences; they are right at the tip of your wading boots. no kidding.

  3. Haha! Jung referenced in fly fishing article. Nice piece of writing and opining. Yep, I don’t much care for the know-it-alls either.
    Let us know if your next dream has you jumping tarpon on the Gunnison.

  4. Amazing article – you nailed it. Thanks! I remember floating a river out here in mid summer with my guide pal. I suggested we “Mouse” all day, following up with, “makes no sense, but if we get a blow up, it’ll be spectacular.” He loved it. One blow up, right away, then – nothing. Great trip!

  5. Great dream. A lot better than you can’t remember the combination to your high school locker. Are you taking any special meds at bedtime? If so, I want some.

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