The thing about fishing with true Jedi Masters is that, (a) you never know when they’re watching, and, (b) because of (a), you can get tight and make the kind of technical errors that will elicit commentary, even from the most laconic of partners who would otherwise prefer to spare you the humiliation.
So it is when I wade into coastal steelhead waters with the Steelhead Whisperer.
The Steelhead Whisperer is an angling maestro in every way. He has a PhD in reading water. He skillfully utilizes all kinds of fishing gear, depending on circumstances and his whim. He can get steelhead to take a fly when all around him are, by the end of the day, trying hard to convince themselves that a kiss off the bottom might actually have been a bump.
And it is one of the Rules of the Fishing Universe that he always—always—happens to observe when I fail at some point to execute a decent cast, strip-set, or delivery of a fish to the net.
So it was on our recent outing to one of the Whisperer’s home waters, a small coastal stream that churns out steelhead seemingly far out of proportion to the size of the watershed.
It is rare that the season opener finds the Steelhead Whisperer absent from this water. But a storm and series of king tide events kept him away on Dec. 1 this year. So he determined to go at the first decent opportunity—three days later.
I dangled an offer of driving my car in hopes that he would take me along.
Understand that fishing with the Whisperer has both benefits and costs. If you have even a smidgen of ability to absorb useful information just from watching someone who really knows what they’re doing, it’s a crash course in angling competence.
On the other hand…see fourth paragraph from the top.
We drove north through a series of spitting squalls for two hours. Then, a few miles south of our destination, the clouds lifted just enough for the rain to cease and the cast-thwarting wind to wane.
Another local Jedi, Jack, ambled over as we prepared to wade in. He throws plugs and spinners and probably has caught more steelhead in his life than 99 percent of those with a steelhead card. But he reported a distinct paucity of fishy interest in his wares.
In what my field research indicates is an entirely predictable phenomenon, the Steelhead Whisperer then stalked to a bend in the stream and proceeded to land three juvenile steelhead on his first four casts.
I plied the water a bit downstream of his position. After perhaps an hour I had had maybe three half-hearted nudges and one small fish to hand. But not before I had over-reacted to what I thought was a snag and basically trout-set on a take.
I hunched my shoulders into my hoodie for the inevitable conveyance of gentle wisdom from one of the Jedis, and sure enough the Whisperer—graciously acting as though he were muttering to himself—said something to the effect of that being a way of setting the hook largely employed by Ewoks.
We took a snack break and a third local Jedi, Steve, appeared. Steve ties distinctive flies just for this water that aim to replicate a key food source for steelhead here and his record of success with them is comparable to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s in dispatching agents of the Dark Side of the Force.
After a bit Steve repositioned himself downstream of me. Even without Jedi powers I became aware that his rod was getting bent on every cast.
I would never poach another guy’s water; that’s extremely bad form. However, it is possible that inadvertently I shuffled a few steps in his direction.
After this action had been inadvertently repeated several times, Steve waved me over and made room for me. I thought I detected a faint smile play across his Jedi features.
I began to get grabs on nearly every cast, and Steve’s rod continued to dance with the vigorous response of 8-12-inch steelhead. From well upstream the Steelhead Whisperer felt the vibrations in The Force and came on down, too.
What ensued was perhaps a half-hour of active rod-bending, with dancing O. mykiss so silvery we wondered if perhaps they were regularly going in and out of the estuary.
Then The Force opened to me just for an instant and amazingly enough I set properly on a fish that had far more heft.
The fish blasted toward me and as I tried to keep tension in the line, I endeavored to shift my feet. This would have been a simple physical maneuver had they not both been encased in six inches of mud with the consistency of concrete.
I toppled straight back into a face-up supine position in perhaps knee-deep water—which immediately sought out every crease and crevice in my waders.
Remarkably enough The Force was still with me and the fish did not come unbuttoned. I staggered to my feet and over to the bank to land it. It was thick and strong and in the 15-16 inch class.
A fish like that, caught in the presence of Jedi Masters? It was tempting to think I might actually have picked up a clue about how to comport myself with a rod and reel.
Tim Frahm, aka the Steelhead Whisperer, is more than a steelhead fishing Jedi—he is also the coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Central Coast Steelhead Program. He has for decades advocated for habitat and fish passage restoration in steelhead streams between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. For the past six years he has managed major restoration and streamflow enhancement projects in vital steelhead waters like San Gregorio and Pescadero Creeks, and the Carmel, Big Sur and Arroyo Seco Rivers. Read more about this work here. And go here to read about a recent San Mateo County RCD-led project in this region on which TU is a partner.
But then I got real. There was only one possible explanation: the Jedis had taken pity on me.
Like Luke Skywalker, I was nowhere near completing my Jedi training. I had only gotten a taste of what is possible when you are able to bring all of your faculties into focus at the same time.
Steve and the Steelhead Whisperer just nodded at each other, then resumed their dedication to the art. I stepped back into the water to try again to raise the Starfighter out of the muck.