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Northern Exposure

Updated: May 13

“Be open to your dreams, people. Embrace that distant shore. Because our mortal journey is over all too soon.”  - Chris Stevens

I showed up late to the “steelhead game.” It wasn’t until I had been harassing trout for about fifteen years that I waded into my first steelhead river. The classic mistake that we make is  assuming that our understanding of trout would seamlessly translate over to steelhead. Genetically, they are the same fish, or so I believed. 

It was around 2000 that we made our first road trip to visit my wife’s family in Portland. I was instructed to “bring my fishing pole because there was good fishing out there.” It was then that this obsession with steelhead began. Steelhead would haunt me through the rest of my days. We mostly explored the coastal rivers around Tillamook, but we also checked out the urban rivers around Portland and those gems along the Columbia in both Washington and Oregon. The man responsible for this was my wife’s uncle, Mike. He would eventually leave an indelible mark on my steelhead story.  A few things you need to know about Mike, he is an unapologetic, old-school, gear and bait fisherman. For the record there is nothing wrong with this approach, many of my teachers were of his mold. Mike is of that time and generation, where his belief in simple independence and not having “big brother” interfere in his business was the norm. In those days, these character traits were still somewhat charming, in a John Wayne western kind of way. Mike is a guy who enjoys just about any kind of fishing, but he has always been partial to catching big chinook salmon. When I first met Mike, he knew that I was a “fly-guy” fishing for snooty trout in Montana. He became fixated on this detail as a source of his own personal amusement. He would tell me in his soft-spoken voice, equal part, charming, equal part, condescending, “You know these salmon are more of a handful than those trout you play with on fly rods in Montana.” On the surface, Mike resembled a big teddy bear with gentle eyes and an easy disposition, but like most guys from his generation, he had an opinion on most things and as I got to know him, some of his salty beliefs were strong. Like a dog marking his territory, he immediately drew a line in the sand, expressing his contempt for those “elitist fly fishermen.” He was never outright rude to me, but his hazing ritual was relentless at times.  He would tell me that his Walmart gear was highly more effective at landing these larger ocean-run fish than my expensive fly rods. He was persistent in trying to convert me to his methods, never shying away from a good debate. The joke was on Mike though. While he was busy pummeling me with his jabs on fly fishing, the reality was that as a novice steelheader, I was completely clueless, and his humor was lost on me. His disparaging comments would regularly go over my head as I tried to figure out what I was even doing. 

This “Odd Couple/Karate Kid” relationship with Mike was in hindsight, exactly what I needed. Mike would become my first and most unlikely steelhead sensei. I am grateful to him to this day. Mike was typically generous in showing me his secret waters, revealing his means and methods, but he was also somewhat passive aggressive in his competitive nature of catching fish. If you started to show him up by catching more fish than him, he would leave you to fend for yourself. He wasn’t the kind of guy to help you land a fish, or give you tips, since he didn’t fly fish. He also wasn't the guy to give you a pat on the back when you caught a decent fish. With Mike it was very simple, you would either sink or swim. As a new steelheader, I wasn’t in the habit of catching a lot of fish, but Mike’s approach forced me to learn quickly.  Surprisingly though, I did catch some fish in those early days, recognizing the fact that my fly was usually in good water. Through trial and error with my ineffective and elitist fly rod, I eventually got the hang of it and realized that steelhead were not as particular about specific flies as trout were. The flies were part of that “elitist thing” that Mike would drone on about. One could argue that he isn’t completely wrong. The steelhead fly, while to some is a work of art, actually ends up being more important to the angler’s mental state than it is to the fish itself. To each, their own, I love beautifully tied flies that are aesthetically pleasing, but I also like to catch fish. As we've already discovered, catching a steelhead on a fly isn't the easiest method, but rather a conscious choice that reduces our odds significantly. Like playing tennis with one arm tied behind your back. Many of the rivers that we fished near Tillamook were smaller and intimate in nature. I learned to be somewhat stealthy in my approach. The more I fished with Mike, I began to realize that he was one of those “fishy” guys, the type that had good instincts, determination, and knowledge. He was always around fish. I also realized that it really didn’t matter what his preferred or most effective method of catching was, there were skills here that I needed to learn. Mike’s fishing, political, and social preferences were far different than my own, but we shared the same river and were targeting the exact same fish in the same runs. In that regard, we weren’t very different at all. As time went on, I grew to respect him, appreciating the times we shared on the rivers. He taught me quite a bit in those early formative days.

Alaska has this sort of anti-social reputation of attracting people who are not very “peopley.” You know the type, those folks, who for whatever reason, just can’t be around others. Their internal wiring makes it hard for them to make meaningful memories with other humans, especially strangers. I was in a shop and two elderly Alaskan gentlemen were having a conversation that I overheard. The one gentleman asked how the other one was doing and his response was, “Fine I didn’t have to see anybody today.” It is said that citizens from northern Idaho and northwestern Montana move to Alaska to get away from other folks. If you’ve ever been to this region of the northwest, you know exactly what I am talking about. Being an east coast, extroverted, interloper, I find it funny that I can easily relate to this vibe now that I have grown older. If you don’t want to be found, the odds are still pretty good that you can find a piece of the “Last Frontier” that will suit your needs. Alaska is vast. I liken it to Montana on steroids. One must have a healthy respect for your natural surroundings because there are a lot of things here that can kill you or at least mess you up pretty fast including some of those non-peopley, people. It is not about being afraid, it is just about having a presence of where you are. I am sure that this reputation about Alaska may be a bit overstated. Certainly, one can encounter all sorts of neighborly folks in the forty-ninth state, but as a general rule of thumb, it is probably not wise to pry into your neighbor's business, if you even have a neighbor.

The decision to embark on a new steelhead adventure is full of mixed emotions. In reality, it generally is a crapshoot. Of course there is the excitement, expectations, and anticipation, but there is also the fact that you are not familiar with the water, the program, the guides, their preferences, or the other anglers on the trip. Who knows, you might end up fishing next to some introverted psychopath all week, which I have been told are common in this part of the world. Then there is the weather and water conditions. I always try to keep my expectations in check. If it turns out that we have good conditions for half of the days that we are fishing, we are doing pretty good. At that point, I can expect to experience something resembling those hyped-up videos on the websites, provided of course that I do what I am told and can reasonably execute the tasks at hand. Still, I am extra nerdy about doing my research and planning months in advance gathering whatever nuggets of information that I can. I will never forget what Gary LaFontaine told me. He said, “Tony your most valuable fishing tool is knowing the water.”

Bananas and boats have been something of a conundrum since the 1700’s.  Maritime superstitions go back to ancient times and are as elaborate and colorful as biblical stories.  Personally, I can understand sirens and sea monsters, but bananas? Come on, really? Yet these rituals and fairytales hold strong in our modern world.  It was alleged that during the rum trade, English boats would mysteriously show up with nobody alive onboard with nothing but rotting bananas. Sometimes wreckage of a boat was found, and you guessed it, there would be pieces of the wrecked boat and floating bananas in the water. Yah, bananas do actually float, how weird is that! There are several other disconcerting issues with bananas and sailors of past centuries. Banana spiders would stow on board with loads of bananas. These spiders would hatch thousands of babies from eggs during their extended journey and bite unsuspecting sailors, making them sick or even die. If that isn’t bad enough, bananas off-gas ethene as they begin to over ripen. This would cause other fruit and vegetables in the sailor’s pantry to over ripen quickly as well, spoiling the food, causing crews to go hungry on these long voyages. The off gas is also somewhat flammable and when combined with old wooden boats and open flames, which was the major source of illumination in those days, one can imagine boats mysteriously combusting spontaneously. Because of these mysterious tales over the centuries, many modern sailors have a no banana policy when stepping onboard their vessels. Today, bananas get a bad rap, being blamed for unscheduled mechanical issues with boats, they are also the cause of horrible, unpredicted weather conditions, and not catching fish. What this has to do with steelhead fishing, I couldn’t tell you. Quite frankly, it all sounds bananas. If you are inclined to think this way, you may want to read your fortune cookies and consult your magic eight ball before taking to the high seas.

For some people, “the 1%” conjures thoughts of the uber rich. It can sometimes bring negative connotations when discussing financing or the perils of capitalism.  It also can be a more positive reference. We hear about philanthropic folks who donate 1% of their profits to some cause or non-profit to make the world a better place, but no matter how you look at it, 1% is very small. To clarify, it is not zero, but it is equivalent to a drop in the bucket when measuring something. 1 % in some ways is even worse than zero, because zero is absolute. In the world of steelhead, make no mistake, 1% is where we tortured souls’ dwell. The pursuit of steelhead is not like going out and catching 15 or 20 trout, or filling up your boat with walleye or bass, no, most times it is the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. For me personally in dealing with my sickness, I have come to embrace and thrive in that 1%. I liken it to Stockholm syndrome. One needs to be comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. You find yourself following whims and premonitions, to get results, breaking away from the norm and the routine. One will start to take ridiculous chances, defying logic and reason. My guide was looking at a steelhead in an impossible lie in crystal clear water. The fish was brooding with his nose burried in the rocks. My guide was above me on the bank and turns to me and laughs, "You are now in the Dewey Decibel realm here, you have a less than a 1% chance of hooking this fish." These are the situations that I must embrace, this is why I am here in this moment. I eventually execute the only cast that will hook this fish. Why? How? Who knows? My guide is as surprised as I am when my line goes tight, and the fish runs through the hole. I would wrestle this fish for what seemed like an eternity. In reality our encounter was just a fleeting moment. Keeping the line tight and the rod angle low, despite my best efforts eventually that chrome demon would turn abruptly downstream, throwing the hook and swim free just a few feet from my grasp. We would pause laughing at the whole amazement of this scene. I later pleaded that anybody could catch a steelhead in a 90% cast, but it really means something when you get down in that 1% range.  

I am grateful because this week turns out to be the finest steelhead experience of my life. Not because we caught steelhead each day. Not because we explored new waters each day, all while never encountering another human being. Not because the steelhead experience was so much different than anything I have ever done before. This was a transformation. In the end it just required me to have an open mind. The outstanding, intense, and passionate guides/hosts did the rest. I have learned more in one week about the habitual and quirky nature of steelhead than I have in the past two decades. Hell, I didn’t even have to fish next to an introverted psychopath all week. As it turned out, my fishing partner would be Sergey, A brilliant Russian nuclear physicist who moved to the U.S. decades ago and became an American citizen working on nuclear power plants. For this one week, he and I would experience the Alaskan wilderness together like few are ever fortunate enough to do. What are the odds? It must be less than 1 %.



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