Reflections on the Ritual, and Moments of Truth, Found While Fishing on the River

The pinnacle of freshwater fishing is the catching of a steelhead on a fly rod. I have been fortunate to devote much of the last 20 years perfecting that craft in our beautiful Deschutes River. As of a couple years ago, I’d about done it all when it came to steelies—all but a baptism.

So, there I was, surveying a gorgeous piece of water. I popped my earbuds in, started an Americana playlist on my iPhone (safely housed in a waterproof wader pouch), tiptoed stealthily out to the head of a run, and began gently rolling my line out. On the end of my line was a hook with a strip of dyed rabbit fur attached, known as a leech. The colors were black and chartreuse, and it could have come directly from the locks of Billie Eilish. It felt fishy…so fishy. Sometimes you just know. And sure enough, on my third cast, “WHAM!” A big boy chomped my fly and turned to head downstream. As is required, I pulled back on my rod to bury the hook in his lip. And that’s when my life went into slow motion.

The first thing I noticed was that the rod had come out of my hand and was lying on the water in front of me. My inner monologue began narrating the spectacle. “Hmm…that’s weird. My rod is in the water.” Then, it occurred to me that the fish was taking it downstream with him. “Oh (expletive)! There goes about two thousand dollars’ worth of gear…and a big fish.” I was wading nipple deep in the river and had little ability to make forward progress by running.

So, I leapt.

And went under.

My mental alert went off: “COLD WATER IN WADER WARNING! Arriving in crotch momentarily.” But I missed the rod handle and struggled to get upright. Leap number two: “Missed again! Swim for it!” Three crawl strokes later my hand hit cork. “Yes! Now get the fish, dummy…and by the way, your earbuds have been donated to the river gods.”  I stood up, pulled the rod and saw the fish was still on. Time reverted to normal and I reeled the line in to find I had a hatchery-born steelhead, as evidenced by a clipped adipose fin, which meant I could harvest it—and I got my baptismal revenge that night on the grill.

On Steelhead:

The steelhead is a rainbow trout that spends much of its life in the ocean but returns to its freshwater birthplace to mate.

The Deschutes River is unique for its bountiful population of healthy rainbow trout but is also one of the country’s best steelheading opportunities.

Steelhead may be caught with traditional spinning rods, one-handed fly rods, and for the purist, via the two-handed Spey rod.

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