Rod: St. Croix IPC 13'
Reel: Islander Steelheader
Though seemingly innocuous, the waking chime of a cell phone alarm holds the gavel over the land of slumber, especially when the clock illuminates late-in-the-morning digits, eyelids glued shut during the maturation of the morn. To make matters worse, the pursuit of a lethargic set of fins and scales included masochism at it's finest; howling winds and frigid rain pounded heavily upon the soil ahead. For the pursuit of adventure, creature comforts must be forsaken, and how forsaken our comforts would be! Thus the morning began, to the tune of Sparco rims dragging through the compact snow, like a teenager headed to first period class.
I never thought all roads leading to steelhead would have ended like this, the culmination of zealot-like discipline and sacrifice eventually leading to a more meaningful type of social bonding. After all, the olive-backs only draw us to the river; it's the person nudging our dominant casting shoulder who solidifies the experience. Be it fishing partner, friend or foe, we all meander the same clandestine route, to the same glorious location. And one day, I hope the Wild Fish Conservancy comes full circle to understand this -- that hatchery fish play a beneficial role in our society. Yes, your gear fishing counterparts are indeed rough around the edges, and though less elegant in technique, remember how sport angling actually helps some of these "rough edges" figure out their problems, out on the water. Eradicating the entirety of supplemental sport fisheries, too precludes many philanthropic and beneficial sects of society -- may you see the picture sooner than later. Higher minds call it "Piscatorial Therapy;" I call it life. And after pushing aside such troubling, late morning thoughts, the festivities began.
They call him "Loudmouth Johnny." Standing 6' tall and perpetually clad in tattered ACUs' covering needled-pierced-flesh-work, he's become quite the angler -- infamous to many, yet loved commensurately. The rate of progression for our relationship has been astounding; from acquaintance, to student, to friend. He'd been faithfully working winter seams since 06:00, without a prick beneath his float nor poke to his jig. He did in fact succeed in priming the waters for the silver-silhouettes, as they took kindly to my offering by second flick. I always remind Johnny to work the inner seams, though I suppose he found gratification this particular morning in watching his float approach mach speed, bobbing happily down the spine of the river, unequivocally a fascinating sight indeed. So the day continued on Wallace cast #2, with a zealous winter buck orchestrating the day's events, signaled by the now head-banging extension of graphite, clutched tightly between nitrile-clothed hands. Venturing out from his final hiding spot, he inhaled my iridescent-peach headed, 1/8th ounce jig, tethered beneath a Crayola green, 20 gram DNE float. After the initial shake-and-bake steelhead writhe, he sprinted down towards the tail-out, belting out notes from my Islander Reel, alike a child puffing on a primordial, hand-me-down Kazoo. 10 minutes of bending the 13' St. Croix, tucked amidst the softer water, left him weary as blood-shot eyes, eventually accepting his fate as a smoked-delectable -- to be vacuum sealed and delt out like cards, come Christmas. So the winter buck became another inscription on the multiple reprint of catch card; score one for the late rising angler.
Johnny catches on quickly. After a swift "jig weight and pattern consultation," he was quite literally "hooked." Not 15 minutes passed when he ushered his war cry, stout Lamiglas X11 bowing gently towards the river, furiously recovering line stripped from his Pflueger Supreme, a "gift" from his shorter, more bait-friendly and wide-screen visioned mentor. Judging from the forlorn fight, I took solace in seeing the removal of his genetic code from the hatchery gene pool -- even if the water was cold enough to accommodate such lackadaisical demeanor. After a few additional head-shakes on the opposing end of Johnny's #8 Maxima leader, the battle had been won. In death, some shine brighter than in life, his final purpose taking precedence over his days while 6 feet above ground. What winter fish lack in fight, they most certainly make up for in appearance! On the bank went the buck, another successful conquest by the embodiment of the reason Lisa and I were riverside this particular day -- one of friendship. By this time, Lisa's hands were inoperable, no thanks to just-before-freezing rain, piling on her hands like cake batter. Off she shot up the trail to warm up at Johnny's cabin, while we continued our labor of love working the steelhead green riffles and seams, to remove hatchery fish from the mighty Skykomish. And remove we did.
Casting a center pin is like driving a high-end sports vehicle; one millisecond late on the double clutch or rev match, and the entirety is spoiled. Though no longer bird's nesting nor inadvertently short casting, I still find perfect timing to be the challenge at hand; the battle goes naught to the swift nor strong, but belongs to the angler of precision. While working the rockery along the inside seam, I arced out a picture-perfect wallace cast upstream; though she accurately sailed a country mile, one coil lay hastily abandoned in my reel. While extenuating the circumstances a quick glace above revealed the absence of my float. Had I been float fishing this whole time? A quick rip backwards on the Croix' sent line screeching off of the spool in the direction of the tail-out at a most alarming rate -- fish on! I watched helplessly as the chrome-armored hen relentlessly tore line away from me, on haphazard path into a remnant of braided line from a novice angler. As quickly as I hooked her, she had been lost -- or so I thought. Much to my surprise, my #6 Izorline XXX held up long enough for Johnny to secure the snagged line to a spoon, backed by #15 Power Pro. After 10 minutes of watching the once ferocious hen flop helplessly atop the river surface, I began to strip my layers. Hell, I supposed it was time for a bath; it had already been a day, or two. And not a moment too soon had my last shirt covered my eyes during the process of removal, as an old friend appeared through the bushes. Only the influence of a 20 year Navy veteran--an experienced water craft operator who shuttled SEALS in Zodiacs, to and from "work"--was enough to get me to re-clothe, sit down and shut up. Possessing #40 Power Pro braid came in handy, making quick work of all 3 lines surrounding the fish, and one inside her jaws. I'm certain that God smiled upon Mike this afternoon, having preserved another Asian, skyrocketing up the ladder for the winning spot of this year's "Darwin awards." In short, his kindness saved me a hazardous dip and recovered 2 of my jigs, along with a gorgeous winter hen. All proceeds--fins and jigs-- were donated to the "Save an Asian Foundation." He deserved more than a fish, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
It's funny how life has a way of weaving patterns so intricate, they're beautiful, even if they appear muddled or disfigured at first glance. Seeing how a fish nearly lost rekindled a friendship, I hope to see many more "lost" fish this season ahead. For those of you struggling to procure opportunities to "lose fish" this season, come take an early January fishing break at ReelPriorities.com. Peruse exclusive winter steelhead articles, or take a sneak peak into my on-the-water, personal steelhead journal; you'll be dialed in to all the facets of steelheading on the Skykomish and surrounding rivers, in no time at all.
May your reels gush line, leader rolls empty and jig hooks remain ever-dulled, by an overabundance of steelhead tearing your gear to shreds. Thank you for reading -- Reel Priorities, out.