Dreaming of Steelhead

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My Dream Date Photo by Louis Cahill

My Dream Date Photo 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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7 thoughts on “Dreaming of Steelhead

  1. Ahh, if for some strange reason I had never desired to fish with you before reading this (not so), I’d be crawling all over myself for a chance to get on the water with you! What a great piece of writing, so irrevelant yet germane.

  2. “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.”– That might be my favorite line ya’ll have written yet. Is there any other way to describe fly fishing?

  3. Not only should we do it the hard way, we should try and teach others. One of my most memorable moments was watching the excitement of a 65 year old guy hook and land a fussy cuttie that he worked for a while. He had all ready caught a few fish, but this one will be always be special to him. It is was great to be able to expose someone else to flyfishing.

  4. That dream makes perfect sense to me. Of course, I was up at 4:30 this morning here in Oregon and was swinging for steel by 5 so Jabberwocky makes sense right now. Nada – but that’s steelheading. Anyways, a little known fact – back before whirling disease, there were copious numbers of ridiculous looking rainbows down Chukkar Trail – many the size of a steelhead. The dark-water, small-fly thingy is indeed weird – but no weirder than throwing olive colored streamers to those algae eating Gunnison rainbows. Yes, I cannot find the research paper right now, but some intrepid biologist determined that much of the protein in the muscles of those Black Canyon steelh…, er rainbows is derived from plants – yes, those big honking Gunnison rainbows eat algae (and, if my experiences while camping down there are indicative – they taste like it too.) Now, if you do come to Oregon to swing wets for steelhead on the Deschutes – leave those #2 hooks at home. Those in the know like Undertakers and Night Dancers down to around size 8. You might even find a few 10s in my wallet. Sweet dreams.

  5. One of the best written posts Ive read in a while. In our group of slashers or hackers or whatever you call a bunch of guys that silently compete for the best fly fisherman ever award, we razz each other about nymphing or the old purists that only fish tricos or whatever they are doing that we aren’t. Its all good fun and any attempt to catch a fish is an attempt to one up your buddy. whats the difference in catching a 9″ stocker on a 6″ meal ticket or catching a 24″ brown on a size 22 midge its why we go out and do this. fun and the chance we might learn something. I have had very similar dreams Im sure its perfectly normal at least in my mind.

  6. Louis:

    I must have missed this post when it first came out. Gave me a good chuckle AND some things to think about.

    I have coincidentally been fishing in the Gunnison area for the last month. I can confirm that there are no steelhead. 🙂

    The most fun I have had while here is fishing about 8 miles of the Gunnison River just above Blue Mesa Reservoir. I have found myself getting some pretty snotty looks from the dry fly “purists” as I fish the deep holes in the river with my 14′ 2H spey rod using streamers. I have caught about 90% of my fish on either rusty brown or olive green cone head wooly buggers!

    I had the funniest thing happen on the river one day. A guide boat came drifting by with two guys whipping the top of the water into a foam with dry flies and one of them hollered, ” Hey 2 hander, are you lost, this ain’t Oregon!” Just as he was shooting off his mouth I had a hit that I knew was a big fish. While Mr. Smarty Pants watched I worked the fish in, netted him, measured him real quick, and hollered back, ” A 27 inch Brown, not bad for a guys who is lost is it!” I wish there would have been a way I could have gotten a picture of the look on their faces !!

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