Steelhead, Karma and the Art of Showing Up

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

I know of no more mystifying fish than the steelhead.

Everything about anadromous steelhead is a mystery. An esoteric exercise in chaos theory beginning with an inexplicable choice to swim to the ocean and ending with an equally mystifying decision to eat a swung fly. The more we as anglers try to impose reason and method on these fish, the more they defy us. This fuels a sort of brain fever in the steelheader which, unchecked, can manifest itself in self loathing, delusions of grander, obsessive behavior, mysticism and other antisocial behaviors. There is an element of psychology to all fishing but none more than steelheading.

Swinging a fly for steelhead is wonderfully technical. The finesse, the attention to detail and the absolute focus required to do it right are staggering. And while all of the technique is absolutely essential to master and crucial to execute, it often has nothing to do with the catching of a fish. That’s where it gets really mind-bending. I’ve seen it time and again. Talented anglers making perfect casts and swings time after time to no avail, while another angler does everything wrong and is rewarded with a fish. I have personally been on both sides of that equation. It’s a real thing.

In the long run I am convinced that good technique prevails, but in the short run it can often seem random. In the end, there is nothing in steelheading more important than being in the presence of a fish who is ready to eat a fly. End of story. For those of us who believe we control our destinies, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. I firmly believe, however painful it is to hear, that the fish chooses us, not the other way around.

So what is the angler hoping to catch a steelhead on the swing to do?

The best thing I can tell you is, show up, stay positive and do the work. That’s what puts fish in the net. This year on the Deschutes Steelhead Camp I saw a classic example from my friend Mark Haffenreffer.

I’ve known and fished with Mark for about a decade, in saltwater and fresh. He has attended the Steelhead camp for the last three years and is always one of my favorite folks to fish with. Last year was a tough year on the Deschutes. The run was down and the conditions were far from ideal. We all worked for our fish, but none of us more than Mark. He fished his heart out. He hooked fish and lost fish but at the end of three days never held one. There’s no shame in that. All of us who fish for steelhead know that a big blank is always an option. It’s part of the game. Still, when you have fished hard for three days and done everything right, it’s a tough hand.

Photo Louis Cahill

Photo Louis Cahill

Pretty much everyone who fishes steelhead has heard the doom and gloom about this year’s run. It is absolutely a bad year for steelhead. All of us who headed out to the Deschutes this year did so with limited expectations. Many did not go at all. Most of my friends decided to take a pass this year. When we got to the river, we were all surprised at what we found. Great fishing. The best I’ve seen in three years. Chaos theory.

Mark showed up, and like a true steelheader, he brought a great attitude. When he landed two in the first session, that attitude got even better. For all the disappointment he had suffered last year, he was richly repaid. At the end of the trip, after nearly getting spooled, he landed this beautiful B run hen, no doubt headed for Idaho. A special fish on any river. Mark smiled like a kid on Christmas.

“It’s my best steelhead yet,” he told me.

“Well,” I answered, “This river owed you.”

So practice your casting. Be diligent about your swings. Get your rig dialed in. Tie the perfect fly and sharpen your hook. Do absolutely everything right. But most of all, show up, stay positive and do the work. Your best steelhead is still out there too.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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6 thoughts on “Steelhead, Karma and the Art of Showing Up

  1. Right on! I was there and watched Mark land that beautiful fish. I was there last year, too, and witnessed Mark fish hard for little reward. I experienced the same randomness–being at the right place at the right time. Last year, as a rookie on the Deschutes, I hooked two steelhead the first evening, and five more folowed in the next two days. Then, I went without a hookup for three days. This year, three days of persistent swinging, and only a single pull. Fortunately, I had three more days to fish and knew my luck would change. It did: four fish in two days plus watching Mark land his trophy right in front of Lewis’ camera. By the way, Lewis landed one of those big Idaho brutes, also. Deschutes Steelhead Camp is a special experience, and one not measured by numbers of fish caught.

  2. I personally would never say someone was owed a steelhead, except for Mark. Last year at camp you could tell he was on a mission, always first up and first to hit the sack at camp to ensure he was well rested and prepared for the next long arduous day on the river. He always held a positive attitude despite what happened that day as well as genuine enthusiasm to hear all of the other anglers results from the day. In my opinion, this is what it takes to be a great steelhead fisherman and this year Mark was finally rewarded. Although I could not make the trip this year due to having to make adult decisions about upcoming trips, albeit fishing trips. My hand to god I thought… ‘I hope Mark lands a nice fish this year’ as I sat wondering what was happening on the Deschutes while I was effortlessly searching for tailers on the lower Laguna Madre one Saturday morning. When I saw his picture posted with that beautiful hen I felt like I was there holding that fish with the sense of accomplishment that is evident in his facial expression.

    Jeff Hickman, his wife Kathryn and Barrett Ames run a first-class operation like no other that I’ve personally witnessed in my angling travels. In addition to that Lauren, the campsite chef is one of the best out there and is always there to meet you with a smile and have that coffee brewing before sunup. Louis has struck gold with this offering.

  3. Thanks for the kind words Louis & Kyle. It is an honor to fish with the great guides of Fish the Swing- Jeff, Barrett, & Curtis as well as the incredible support staff of Kathryn and Lauren. Add to that legends like Louis and the great anglers he draws to his trips and you have the makings of magic. Memories forever. KARMA happens…I’ll be back!

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