Winter here in the Pacific Northwest often means hues of grays filling the skies and one rainy day after another.
But within that abundance of wet, gray gloom comes the ever anticipating time to me: steelhead season.
Steelhead are an anadromous rainbow trout that migrate to the sea ranging from one to four years, growing to substantial size before returning to spawn in their natal rivers. Unlike the Pacific salmon species with which they share the genus Oncorhynchus, steelhead often survive spawning and may spawn multiple times throughout their lives.
From December to March, anglers of all varieties make their way to rivers all over the Pacific Northwest in search of steelhead on their winter run to the rivers in which they were born.
Steelhead are my favorite freshwater fish, as they offer so much for sport fishing — and as an angler I choose to fish for them one of the hardest ways there is.
Getting these fish to eat is just one of the many challenges. Add in waking up early to fight for a spot on the river, wading through frigid cold waters, climbing over slippery moss-covered rocks and getting dumped on by an abundance of rain at times. Put that all together and you got the gist of fishing for steelhead. It’s incredible.
My favorite rivers to fish for steelhead are Oregon’s beautiful coastal rivers. On a February day I traveled to some new waters in southwest Oregon. Since I would be fishing waters that I am not familiar with, the best, most productive way to spend time on the river is with a local guide.
I met up with Kenton Bansemer of Bansemer Fishing at 6 a.m. to make the trek to the river we would be fishing for the day. The conditions of a river play a huge role in fly fishing for steelhead, or really for fishing in general.
On this day the river ironically needed that Pacific Northwest rain, as much as I was enjoying the sunshine. Fishing low and clear rivers are not ideal, but you know what they say, a day spent on the water beats a day spent in the office.
So we piled ourselves and our gear in the raft to start the day. We spent our time fishing the runs with a spey rod, which is a two-handed fly rod that in length is longer than the single-handed rods most trout anglers use. With the longer, two-handed rod comes the technique of spey casting.
Steelhead are well known to be the “fish of 1,000 casts” so to me, I might as well be experiencing the most enjoyable casting technique.
The sun is shining in and out of wispy clouds. I find myself standing in the river and begin to feel all the worries and stresses that consume me from my day-to-day work grind slowly slip away.
My mind becomes in a meditative state as my eyes focus on each movement my body makes with my cast. I follow my line and rod as they begin to synchronize in unity and dance with water into the run in front of me. My eyes begin to travel with the line as it swings from one corner of the river to the next, allowing my fly to cover as much water as possible. Even though my fly has not run into a fish yet, I find myself having a great time, shaking off some of that cabin fever that creeps in on you during these winter months.
We break for a beautiful and delicious riverside lunch prepared by our guide Kenton. It’s just what I needed after covering a good chunk of water fishing half the day. Soon though we’re back out in search for the steel.
There are just a few more spots left to fish as our day is coming to an end. As we push on, Kenton suggests to my husband, KC, to head up from the spot we pulled into and fish the run. KC walks up about 200 feet from us and begins his casts.
Not even five minutes have gone by before KC is yelling to us that he is hooked up! We run up to him with contagious excitement. The fish is cartwheeling down the river, using the current to its advantage. KC travels with the fish, continuing to fight his way down. Like a ninja, Kenton meets the fish with his net and perfectly scoops the fish up — and then the real excitement sets in.
I begin cheering for KC, knowing that this is his first steelhead. He admires the fish he just spent years casting for, the bright chrome shining through the net, bouncing off the reflections of the water. It’s mesmerizing to look at.
After a few short moments we send her back so she can continue what steelhead are here to do. We always remember to keep the fish wet and in the water at all times and ensure a quick and safe release.
We both hugged Kenton, knowing how much of a role he had in this perfect ending to an already incredible day.