By Brian West, Tualatin Valley Chapter member
February 16, 2021
H ow long did it take you to bring home your first steelhead? A few days, weeks, or months? It took me over a year… 410 days to be exact, and not for lack of effort. My adventure began on Black Friday, 2015. I walked into Fisherman’s Marine and bought all the gear to float fish for salmon and steelhead, but none of the store employees warned me how difficult the challenge ahead would be.
I started a fishing journal right away, so I know that on November 23 I hit the Wilson river with a new drift boat owner I met at work. It ended up being a scenic boat ride since we had no idea what we were doing. On December 29, I attempted to bank fish the South Fork of the Wilson River in the rain. When I went to make my first cast, my line got tangled. I couldn’t sort it out with my cold hands, so I walked back to my car, cut the line, and re-tied everything.
On February 13, I attempted to fish the Necanicum and excitedly noted in my fishing journal that I saw a steelhead which, at the time, was a huge win. I tried to fish the Wilson six more times, but nothing happened. It was at this point I had a bit of a breakdown. I had tried steelheading 9 full days and had nothing to show for it. Not even a bite. I questioned my decision to begin this journey… and my sanity. Whenever someone asked, “did you catch anything?” all I could do was say no with my head hung low.
On March 25, something finally happened! I saw a large group of steelhead on the Wilson and cast my bead like my life depended on it. I hooked into a monster dark green buck and wrestled it to the shore, amazed by its power. As I nervously approached, it wriggled off the hook and swam away. I didn’t even get a picture. Over the next six months I kept fishing. My failure only made me more determined. Thirteen times on the Wilson, three on the Columbia, three on the Trask, three on the Clackamas, and one on the Deschutes. I lost four fish.
It was around that time that I discovered the salmon and steelhead fishing group on Meetup, which led me to Northwest Steelheaders. I knew I needed help and met plenty of friendly people willing to show me the way. I learned rapidly after I joined.
Eleven months into my journey, on October 22, I was trolling in Tillamook Bay with Mark Hutchinson, the Tualatin Valley Chapter president. As I was nodding off to sleep I heard Mark yell “you’ve got a fish!” I jumped to grab my rod without even seeing it bounce. I reeled and reeled, fighting the beast in the depths, but I wasn’t making any progress and it kept pulling line. I had never felt a fish so strong. “How do I tighten the drag?!” I yelled desperately. After more yelling, stumbling, and straining my shoulder, I landed a 24lb Chinook salmon. It wasn’t a steelhead, but after 334 days, I can’t express just how relieved and happy I was.
I finally achieved true victory on January 6, 2017 in 19-degree weather. I knew the rivers would be wide open, and growing up in Maine, I knew I could handle the cold. With ice clogging up my rod eyelets, I spotted some water below a drop-off. It had boulders and a choppy surface. It had potential. Using my trusty copper spinner, which had caught (and lost) my last 4, I cast out and let it sink. I lifted and felt the rocks ticking. I knew this was a good cast. It stopped and felt like a snag... until it wiggled.
Fish on! Not knowing what I had, I struggled to bring it to the surface. In the fast, cold water, it never jumped. Each time I tried to land it I hesitated. I did not want to lose yet another. Three times it splashed at my feet and swam off. I would be patient this time. Finally, I reached down and grabbed the fish. I landed a beautiful 9.5lb hatchery steelhead hen and let out a roar of accomplishment.
I bonked it on the head, bled it, and left it on the bank to fish for a second. Soon after, I heard a noise. In horror, I watched what I thought was a dead fish start flopping back into the river. “I did not wait this long to lose a steelhead!” I thought. I threw down my rod and chased it into the river. After splashing shoulder-deep into the frigid water, I gripped its tail. Shivering but relieved, I carried it back to shore.
Don’t let all those glory shots fool you. Salmon and steelhead fishing is not easy. In fact, it was one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever taken on. If you find yourself getting frustrated, don’t give up! I encourage you to find a group of people who are excited to share their knowledge, like Northwest Steelheaders.
When you join Northwest Steelheaders, we encourage you to designate a chapter in your area. Our local chapters host fishing clinics, events, and monthly meetings. They work hard to foster our recreational angling community and serve as your best connection to fishing resources and information.
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