Using a Feather to Chase Steel

I’d never targeted steelhead trout. All I knew about them is that they fight like nobodies business and are often referred to as “fish of 1,000 casts.” Knowing that these anadromous and threatened beauties are considered by California’s Dept. of Fish and Wildlife as a unique native trout I wanted to catch one. It’s a bit odd though that the state will differentiate this species based on lifestyle not genetics. According to the state, steelhead are coastal rainbow trout. However, it seems that a few rivers are frequented by steelhead of a different phenotypic expression: redbands. There is a big difference between O. mykiss irideus and O. mykiss gairdneri. California does not recognize the presence of gairdneri in its local waters. However, the ancestors to the McCloud redbands and golden trout were in fact redband steelhead that made there way through what is now the Golden Gate.

Steelhead are known to travel remarkable differences. Scientists have confirmed that steelhead returning to Alaska to spawn have frequented Mexican waters. Given that range, it’s no stretch to believe that some gairdneri strain redbands can still migrate south to spawn rather than “go with the grain” in AK, BC, WA, and OR. If gairdneri strain redbands are coming to CA and working their way up the Feather Rivers and Upper Sac watersheds they likely would have some degree of introgression. But strong numbers of these gairdneris traveling together would mean that decent numbers of gaird. eggs would be fertilized by gaird. sperm thus limiting hybridization and naturally allowing a strong phenotypic (and perhaps genetic) presence of gaird. subspecies steelhead to still run in CA.

Enough scientific theorizing for now.

A connection I made invited me up to Oroville, CA to target Feather River steelies as they migrate inland in pursuit of salmon roe. We worked the main river and also a smallish side stream that separates from the river for about 200 meters before reconnecting. This “stream” is chalk full of spawning steelhead. But, at the entrance, vibrant pre-spawn silver bullets were making their way though a small cascading riffle. The hope was that a few of them would be willing to take egg patterns right as soon as they exited the white water.

Seth was onto a fish almost immediately. I, on the other hand, was struggling. I was out of my depth with a 7 wt rod, strike indicator, and egg imitations. It took me quite a while to become comfortable casting what felt like a telephone pole compared to a 2 or 3 weight. Also, having the weight of the strike indicator above the fly required a different casting approach and method than I’m used to. I’d say it was a good hour or two before I could cast to my intended locations.

We made our way out to the river where more space afforded me a bit more grace to get a feel for casting. Once again Seth hooked up quickly and brought a lovely steelhead to hand. I was able to get a couple hits but was not able to set the hook and thus could not even qualify myself for a “long distance release.” Mid morning become late morning, became noon, became afternoon. Seth needed to go. I needed to catch a freakin’ fish. Frustratingly I said goodbye to my friend and kept at it. It began to rain and with the downpour so went my spirits. I was really discourage and even though I’d spent hours trying to learn the hang of this style of fly fishing it just wasn’t working. The rain slowed to a steady drizzle. I gave it one last-ditch effort.

Returning to the side-stream, I removed the strike indicator, put away the egg patterns, and went back to my normal style. I tied on a braided leader, a strong tippet, and a size 16 copper john. I was going for broke and any respectable steelhead pro would scoff at my ridiculous setup. I slogged back to the bottom of the run where the fresh pre-spawn fish were still steadily trickling in. Two casts later and boom! Fish on! I could not believe. After a good 8-10 minute battle of trying to keep the trout from slipping back down the riffle while also countering it blitzing rushes upstream I brought my first ever steelhead to hand. I was certain that one of the 30-40 yard tears down or upstream would break me off. What a rush it was to land this amazing sea-fairing trout. I could not get over how incredibly gorgeous it was. Seth’s fish were chromers. This fish was gold and red.

It honestly looked like a giant redband and the ensuing research provided me with the insights in the intro to this post. Unfortunately my GoPro died and my cell phone was wrapped in a celephane to protect it from the rain. The photos are poor but they work. Careful examination also revealed that this fish still had its adipose fin meaning that it was a natural and wild steelhead that was not born and raised in the local hatchery. This fish was the proof of successful management efforts to restore self-sustaining and growing populations of wild steehead. I could not have dreamed of a better “first.” I was overjoyed and honestly had to sit back on the bank for probably 10 minutes just to think about what just happened. I know that sounds odd but every know and then something so unexpected and beautiful happens that its just overwhelming. This was one of those moments for me.

After a bit of reflection and afterglow I tried again and within minutes had another steelhead in my hands. Then another. Then another. Four steelhead in less than 35 minutes. I could not believe it. I’ve fared worse in remote streams where fish six-inch fish are literally jumping out of the water at my flies and here I am jack-poling steelhead…with nobody around to share in the experience. Unfortunately my phone died after one picture of my second fish. Exhausted and soaked to the bone I trudged out of the water and headed back to the car. The rain finally let up a bit and I was able to change into dry clothes, grab a can of coconut water, and slam down a package of crackers. I filled out my steelhead card noting the 1 wild and 3 hatchery steelies that blessed me on that fine day. What a day indeed.

Here’s a video of the steelhead spawning further up toward the top of the side stream.


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