“Dad! I Got A Fish!” – A 15-Year-Old’s First (2) Steelhead

If only indelible events were impervious to Time. But Time always wins. She seeps in, rinsing away details of vibrancy – diluting bits of memory until one is left with a basic structure that inspires about as much as standing in line at the grocery store.

Summer 2019 brought an enriching event into my library of angling experiences. A memory that I will embrace until my old age, or, at least that is my hope. I know full well that my memories are not protected from the weathering of Time. 
So, it seems sensible to record this most fantastic experience that made me ask myself: Is this for real?!

After I arrived home from a family holiday, I furiously repacked for steelhead camp on a legendary river known for technical dry fly fishing. A river that tests an angler’s skill in reading water, wading, balance, casting, and presentation. It’s not uncommon for a novice steelheader to feel overwhelmed in this drainage, and certainly not unusual to hear about a ‘regular’ slipping and creating an extra unwanted rod section either. In the current vernacular: Bring your “A” game.

While I fumbled through my gear, my oldest daughter (15 years-old at the time) walked into the gear room asking if she could come along with me. Not wanting to crush her hopes, I gently reminded her that this was strictly a steelhead trip to one of the most notorious rivers one can wade, let alone to catch steelhead. But I knew she loved camping at this river so when she said “I still wanna go, Dad. I wanna experience steelheading”, I shifted my headspace to be the most accommodating river partner I could be for my girl.

We had two days and two nights reserved. The goal was to keep her safely engaged and enjoying her time. She had fished many times before, but, usually for trout; steelheading requires a different mental resolve. We couldn’t pass the downtime trying to identify bugs or switching flies to match the hatch. This was about covering good holding water in the most conducive light for a chance at steelhead success. No dilly-dallying. She seemed to understand that the odds of her raising these ghosts were slim, part of the steelheading allure was hope amidst beautiful environs.

Per my usual M.O., we arrived at the campgrounds late afternoon. We  set up camp, got dinner ready and relaxed  for the evening in preparation for the next morning. As it neared8pm, I suggested we take a hike down to the river before dark. We spot an angler at our campwater tailout methodically covering water with the ‘dryfly twitch’. Perfect timing: an educational opportunity to explain casts, methods, and holding lies to her. “Aren’t we gonna fish this evening?”, she asked. I don’t know why her question surprised me. “Ummmm….yeah!,” I responded. “Got your headlamp?”

We had an hour and a half of light left. Not yet familiar with the slippery steep trails of that canyon; I knew just the spot for an easy-hike-pool. Thankfully, no cars were present at the roadside pullout so I rigged up her rod, tipped with a small black dry waker: “The Ninja Wang” (an iteration tied by my pal Todd Hirano, originator of the foam pattern: The Little Wang).

Fishing in low light and busy water, I instructed her that sometimes rhythmically twitching the fly on the surface can help bring attention to the small offering and also make it easier for the angler to spot the fly drifting across the pool. She quickly fell into the cadence, enjoying the activity of twitching the rod tip. A couple more steps downstream and I felt it was safe enough for me to leave her to her wading and casting.

She worked her way down almost halfway through the pool and I stepped up on the dry bank; encouraging her. It was a good initial session to get our feet wet for what was to come in the next couple days. With the sun tucking in behind the hills – ambient light was fading quickly. In my estimation, we had maybe 15 minutes left and I almost said aloud ‘just a few more casts’ when she interrupted my thoughts. 

“Dad! I got a fish!”. I vividly remember the moment I looked back and saw the 12ft 6in  6wt rod slightly bent on a trout. Calmly, I coached, “Don’t set the hook, let it run”. “Dad! It’s running!”. She was holding the rod low pointing at the fish with slight tension but then I started hearing the old JW Young reel agonizing with its check. My intensity ramped up. Could it be the “right kind”?

My 15 year old is usually full of optimism – confidence brimming and expectations typically overflowing. I am sure this fish surprised my daughter but not in the way it hit me. She kinda expected it,whereas I was stunned.

Surreal. An out-of-body experience. An exaggerated tale found around campfire stories. A kid’s first steelhead on this revered river with a dry fly? 

I replaced the ‘cheerleading dad’ hat with a ‘referee whistle’ and immediately transitioned to guide/coach mode. 

This fish reached into its bag’o’tricks: a series of multiple long runs, leaps that released tension on the rod, swimming upstream on the opposite bank and tucking behind boulders. At one point, she asked me to reel in the fish so her arms could rest. I refused, telling her, “It’s gonna be all you, kiddo.” 

Meanwhile the sun had set and it was dark. I could no longer see the fish leaping or thrashing. All I could do was watch her rod tip bounce, listen to the erratic purrs of the old click-pawl reel hoping to guess what the fish was doing; anxious about the thought of the dreaded slack line. But, slowly and surely, she worked the leader in and I finally saw the shoulders of the steelhead.

It was an exceptional size for a summer-run fish, thick and deep – it was no wonder that she struggled to bring this specimen close. Outwardly trying to maintain my cool, I instructed on how we were gonna land this steelhead. I was a hot mess on the inside. One can imagine the internal shakes.

Warning her that I would attempt to tail the buck – it might go frantically slipping out of my hands,  “be ready to clear the fly line and let it run”. It’s exactly what happened. The fish bolted out of my grip back out into the main flow. I have tailed plenty of steelhead but I am still amazed at the burst of energy they reserve – especially when one touches their tail – of course it makes sense: steelhead endure the gauntlet of predators and formidable river obstacles – they’re in a constant state of fight-or-flight. As you leader them, they’ll play possum but their motor is always at the ready.

My daughter yelped “Dad! Don’t let it get away!” I could tell it was the steelhead’s last stand but seeing the small dry fly precariously hanging on the edge of the jaw – I was nervous. One gator roll or head shake and that barbless hook would fling out. To lose my daughter’s first steelhead would really change the dynamic of what I define as a  ‘landed’ steelhead.

“It’s okay. He’s spent. Apply pressure and keep his head up. Back up slowly”. I feathered the leader until I was at arm’s length. This time my grip was sure on the tail and I rolled the steelhead upside down to gain more control. Elation, relief, joy, insert words of a dopamine dump here.

That was the first evening at steelhead camp. I didn’t sleep too well that night – pinching myself as I tossed and turned to make sure that my daughter’s first steelhead was not some sort of dream event. “Dad. Dad. Dad! Wake up! I thought we’re going fishing this morning” 

“Huh?” snort…hrumppph…”Wha…? Oh. What time is it? “. I had finally fallen asleep and overshot the wake up call. “It’s 7:30”, she says.

Bolting upright, “You caught that steelhead last evening, right? Holy smokes that was unreal! Let’s make a quick breakfast and hit the river!”

She paid her dues that day. Sliding down loose gravelly trails. Scrambling over logs and boulders. Waking her dry fly all day.

Never wavering in her optimism. She had two separate suspect rises. One late in the morning on a Lemire GreaseLiner, the other an afternoon attack on a McMillan Steelhead Caddis. Neither connected with the pointy end of her flies.

Tired but content, we reeled in, calling it a good day steelheading. Celebrating that dry fly steelhead the evening before, we had already hit the jackpot and were now playing with house money. At camp that evening, my daughter joined in with friends’ steelhead stories. She’d experienced the essence of summer steelheading and now has a lifetime invitation to the “High Rollers Club”.

I offered her an option that evening: no need to prove her mettle, we could break camp and drive home. Her response made my heart flutter, “Let’s fish in the morning, dad”.

Swell! O’dark-thirty? “Whenever we wake up”, she clarifies.

That final morning, feeling more laid back than usual, I had no plans on what pool to fish. Basically, whatever is open, we’ll fish. I park the vehicle at a stretch of river that I think might still be in the shade. She starts at the usual top of the riffle asking me, “Have you ever raised steelhead here?” 

“No, but really good anglers have raised steelhead here,” I admitted.

I started rattling off steelhead-related stories to occupy the time during swings. She remained focused on her new fly, a freshly-gifted Hirano Bivisi-Wang (by the originator himself), as it twitched and waked across the shaded target zone. The morning sun was stretching its rays, soon the pool would be exposed and I would call it a day.

One doesn’t really expect lightning to strike the same person at different locations. I was being nonchalant when the waker swung near the softer seam of the dangle. The Wang pattern (and its numerous additions) has an unmistakable presence in the river: gaudy, obtrusive, nearly unsinkable, and very aggravating to steelhead. An angry spray of water brightly lit by the sun enveloped where her fly was last seen. 

“Whoa!” I yelled. 

“Was that on my fly?!” she excitedly responded

Like a disappearing magic act, there was no foam bobbing on the surface any longer. The brief hesitation between a dry fly steelhead’s initial strike and the reel’s gear engagement is usually a questionable moment. Is the steelhead on? Seconds later, the scream of the old Hardy St. John diffused any of our doubts that the fish had climbed on. 

A bright fish leaping multiple times in the air with the background of a dark pool and morning light reflecting off its scales is a sight to behold. Couple that with the laughter of your child and an old reel screaming – you’ll have the makings of a fantastic memory. To experience steelhead on a dry fly is exhilarating, to witness your child’s dry fly steelhead is indescribable.

After lunch, we visited the ‘Riverkeeper’ at a cold water sanctuary. It’s a pool where steelhead congregate seeking cool refuge as they make their way upstream. Every day, the Riverkeeper guards these fish from poachers at this exposed location. He provides education to those who visit in reverence of the steelhead journey. Solemnly, we observed the large pod of steelhead milling about. 

After a few minutes, he asked my daughter “Have you been fishing?”. Bashful, she told him she had been. This is when the ‘dad hat’ gets put back on and I interject mightily, “She got two steelhead, both on dry flies!”. The Keeper’s eyes lit up. He was as excited as I was. He asked her name and said he wouldn’t forget it (being the same name as a title or lead character in a book he cherished). In comparison, he mentioned the many years it took him to get his first steelhead on this river and that her accomplishments were no small feat.

With stories told and farewells said, we hiked back up the short trail to the rig. I opened the door for the new celebrity and she sat down; the Riverkeeper was briskly walking up the trail towards our vehicle. Did we drop something as we visited? “Before you take off,” he said., “I just want to shake the hand of your daughter. It is remarkable for anyone to catch their first 2 steelhead on a dryfly. Thank you for sharing your story.”

A weathered steelheader’s hand reaches out. A small hand adorned with a high schooler’s chipped nail polish reciprocated, bringing closure to the significant events of this trip. May these wonderful memories last.