I didn’t fish the opener of the winter steelhead season this year. Apparently, I have a thing about symmetry as I didn’t fish the close, either.
A combination of real-life factors kept me off the water on these dates. I found solace in a petition to the Steelhead Whisperer for on-the-water reports.
Thus it was that over the final two weeks of the season I received a series of text-postcards from the Whisperer—and nearly lost my mind in the bargain.
Here on the California coast south of San Francisco, the steelhead season runs from December 1 to March 7. Increasingly, the coastal streams in this region don’t blow past the sandbars at their mouths and become available for steelhead entry until January or February, or later.
Moreover, fishing steelhead waters here is allowed only on Wednesdays, weekends and holidays.
Limited opportunities during the winter steelhead season in these parts, obviously. The handful of times I did wet a line I managed only a few bright and spry juveniles. Until mid-February, even the Whisperer, a steelhead savant of the highest order, found no adults.
At last a big swell and a swollen lagoon burst open the coastal stream that is the Whisperer’s home water. And he was on it.
The Steelhead Whisperer has worked for years, first with the county farm bureau and later for Trout Unlimited, with numerous agricultural and resource agency partners to restore fish passage, water quality and dry season streamflows in this drainage.
Maybe the passel of large adult steelhead that came into the stream from the salt in mid-February would have done so without the benefits of those efforts. But the Whisperer’s long commitment to conserving and restoring the primo wild steelhead habitat in this water surely didn’t hurt.
The Whisperer connected with nine large steelhead in this stream over the past two weeks, landing four, in four days of fishing. The fact that on at least two of those days he was the only angler—gear or fly—to sniff a fish is not surprising to anyone who has ever fished, or talked fishing, with him.
Back to losing my mind.
The first of the Whisperer’s postcards—an image of a serious slab of a steelhead for these waters—arrived when I was in a meeting with a state agency, ironically wrangling over angling regulations. I tried to hold off on viewing the image until the meeting concluded.
But it was no use. The meeting table provided cover.
I felt the old stoke wash over me, and struggled to suppress a whoop of elation. If you can’t be on the water, getting tight to burly steelhead in a fickle coastal stream, the next best thing is when one of your good buddies can.
A few other postcards came through from the Whisperer over the next ten days. A glorious yard-long buck, now rosy, and a healthy still-bright hen. One also offered this timeless inscription: “Should’ve seen the one that got away.”
There were, in the end, two significantly larger steelhead that I should have seen. Their explosive acrobatics threw the hook.
It’s hard to measure—or even define—the rewards of fishing. Especially steelhead fishing, with its low encounter rate, and especially if you commit exclusively to swinging or stripping a fly, as the Whisperer does.
It’s less difficult, I think, to understand why an image of your buddy, kneeling at the intersection of pickle grass and dark water, cradling an improbably large fish spawned of a small stream, buzzing on your smart phone would very nearly cause a serious breach of decorum in a business meeting.