Longtime CCF Member Stewart Alsop and guide Scott Howell with a wild Umpqua River steelhead
Few, if any, salmonids have caused fly anglers greater frustration and despair, and inspired in those same hearts more passionate admiration and love, than steelhead. (The obvious rival would be Atlantic salmon, another great sea-run game fish.) A brief history of my experiences as a fledgling steelhead angler is a minor case in point.
On Christmas day of 1997, just prior to starting my new job as TU's lone California staffer, I received an 8-weight outfit as a present. Two weeks later I woke up at 3 a.m., drove north on Highway 1 to a small Mendocino County stream and, to my great surprise, hooked and quickly lost a steelhead in the second pool that I fished. Two years, and many trips, later, I hooked my second steelhead. This one, a small, spawned-out "downstreamer," I landed. Three years, and many more trips, after that incident, I hooked and landed my third. This was my first "real" steelhead, a bright fish that might well have still been in the ocean a day or two earlier, and sported a fresh seal bite on its flank.
I do not know how many hours I spent thinking and talking about steelhead, driving to and from their homes, and fishing for them, between opening the rod and reel on Christmas day and that January morning on the Gualala River five years later. I can, though, say this: it never occurred to me that all that effort might not be worth it, and I don’t know that I will ever again catch a fish that means so much to me.
Thousands of steelhead anglers have had similar experiences; it is a big part of what makes steelhead fishing what it is. But for the past several decades the business of catching steelhead has become even more difficult, and far more of an act of faith, than it needs to be. Populations of these extraordinary fish, which have a North American native range stretching from Los Angeles to the Aleutians, have shrunk dramatically in the face of a host of problems. Habitat loss and poor fisheries management (especially an emphasis on stocking to support harvest rather than on the preservation of wild fish) are among the chief culprits.
TU has for years been a leader in the fight to protect, conserve, and restore wild steelhead. From instream restoration to water law reform to culvert replacement to hatchery policy reform to dam removal, we have put the same passion into steelhead conservation that we have put into fishing for them. Three terrific recent articles highlight some of this work. In your most recent issue of Trout magazine, Dylan Tomine tells the story of the pivotal role that TU played in bringing down the dams on Washington's Elwha River (pg. 22-29), while Dave Stalling chronicles the fourteen-year history of TU's watershed-scale habitat restoration efforts on California's legendary North Coast (pg. 32-39). Finally, longtime CCF member and famed conservation writer Ted Williams' Fly Rod and Reel piece on Elwha River hatchery policy is a sobering reminder that for all the great work that we have accomplished, much remains to be done.
If you want to catch a steelhead, get in touch with Sarah Davies and join the CCF trip to the incomparable Dean River in British Columbia in July.
Thank you making TU's work for steelhead possible.
Stephen D. Trafton