In the weeks leading up to our departure, my dreams were all-consuming. And not just at night: My waking hours were filled with flashes of chrome, too. But these dreams were only that. I’d never seen a steelhead in person before, let alone attempted to connect with one, so my imagination willingly took over. Dreaming aside, my partner Dave and I agreed to let go of expectations on our upcoming trip to seek out steelhead with friends in Oregon and Washington.
We’d both spent the majority of our angling lives trout fishing in high mountain creeks and meandering rivers—nowhere that housed anadromous species. Yet, we’d long understood the rarity of steelhead. Our friends who devote their lives to swinging a fly in search of these “unicorns” would share their stories of success and of letdown. We’d relish their wins and sympathize with their losses. Because of them, we were well versed in what to expect, or in the case of steelhead, to not expect.
As the term unicorn suggests, steelhead aren’t easy to find. They’re always moving. Just getting to the right place—where you think they might be—can prove puzzling. It requires local insight, a daring driver with more than a good set of tires, and a little faith. It’s a quest.
The first day of our quest had us feeling a bit muddled from the night before, but giddy from our surroundings. The forest we arrived at was nothing like the alpine desert of home. Instead, we were beneath a lush canopy of green, surrounded by a blanket of moss and ferns. What awaited us on the other side of this was even more enticing—a river so green you’d think someone had dumped Gatorade into it. And if the beauty alone didn’t make your head spin, the nearby waterfalls surely would.
My friend Kayla’s “You’re up!” snapped me from nature’s trance, as she signaled me over to where she was. Wading waist-deep in the teal-colored river, she was ready to give me my first lesson in Spey casting. After some close calls with my fly and the back of my head, I started getting the hang of it.
Shifting locations over the next couple of days, we found ourselves under yet another vibrant green canopy. This time, though, in the distance was the faint but non-mistakable crash of ocean waves. The verdant foliage was made brighter by occasional shifts from grey sky to sunshine.
Letting go of all expectations was surprisingly easy. It helps when your friends will search for rocks with you, suggest a long lunch of burgers and milkshakes, and even shoot off a few rounds to keep things interesting. Then we’d return to casting: swinging, sipping coffee, stepping-and-repeating the process twice or even three times through a run. It was a no-pressure pace that suited me.
On our final day of fishing, I found myself cautiously wading through a deep, slightly off-color run. We’d been there for over an hour, slowly working our way through. Nearly to the end of the run, I glanced upriver to watch Dave work on his newly acquired Spey casting skills. Hungry, tired and a little hazy from the night before I knew there wasn’t much time left; soon we’d be loading up and beginning our drive back.
I took a breath, and enjoyed a moment of calm before saying to myself, “Make your next ten casts the best they can be.” That’s all the remainder of the run would allow for anyway, so I might as well make them count.
“Set, sweep, send,” I think and out my line goes. “Hey, that one felt good,” I said aloud. Then suddenly, halfway through my swing, I felt it: A pull. “Oh shit,” I thought. Then a take-off, “I’m on!” I yelled. And a jump! Before I knew it, Jay was tailing the fish, Nicole was cheering me, and Dave was prepping the camera ready to capture the moment.
It wasn’t until I was kneeling next to her that I could believe what had just happened. A bright, shimmering white body told me this was real. Face to face with 10 pounds of chrome, I fell in love. It may sound cliché, but I’m not worried about clichés when swinging for steelhead.