The Steelhead Run

A powerful, magical, idyllic sight

by James Egan

Maybe on a cool spring evening you come down into a little valley of the low Sawtooths, the type of mountains that give us the idiom “older than the hills.” The woods are open, with far line of sight. No leaves on the trees. Still so chilly each day and night that the buds have yet to start opening. The dead grasses are flattened by the heavy snows; maybe there is still snow. Maybe you’re walking your dogs; maybe you’re just walking. Or maybe you’re carrying a fishing rod.

If you walk well enough or long enough or wisely enough, you come quickly on a stream, running cold but not clear. Runoff from the winter snows or spring rains lifts it and dirties it. But this rust color is from freshness and not age. Maybe there’s still ice.

You might hear a splash up or downriver. It could be a beaver or muskrat. It could be your dog. The splash comes again. And when it comes again, you better locate it. There. Something in the shallow riffles. Come upon it gently and quietly and revealed is a great fish in water so shallow that its back is naked. Then another, alongside, both steadying themselves without effort in the too–shallow fast riffles. Then they lay, each on his or her side, and flap their tails together, splashing, not fighting the fast water, not struggling in the shallowness, not fighting instinct.

These are spawning steelhead. For some, the “king of fish,” or “the fish of a thousand casts.” The great migratory rainbow trout of the Pacific Rim of the Northern Hemisphere. And this is the season they travel roaring rivers and quiet rivulets.

This particular freestone stream flows down from the Sawtooth Mountains, through shadowy canyons or meadows of brown and yellow. Down high falls or low falls and cascades to Lake Superior, the big lake they call Gichigami on Minnesota’s North Shore. Past iron and concrete bridge structures and corrugated culverts. Under Highway 61 that Robert Zimmerman from the Iron Range made world famous.

The painted picture is idyllic, but the reality for steelheaders can be challenging, if not frigid and wet and fruitless. Only the steelhead in migration can be tempted with a fly or lure. Actual spawning fish have other things—really only one thing—on their minds. The fly fisherman requires heavy terminal tackle—tungsten split shot sinkers, copper-headed nymphs, steel leaders—to get down deep quickly into dark pools and runs in fast, high water, and thus requires bigger, powerful rigs. Weather conditions can vary from steely cold with sleet or snow, to warm with a bright sun. Ice might linger on river banks. And the best water temperature is a chilling 40-some degrees.

But the sights of mating pairs of twenty-five inch fish cruising upstream in shallows or riffles, or especially, the steelhead driven by desire, challenged by gravity attempting to climb ten foot tall falls or rock faces or chutes—that’s a powerful, magical, idyllic sight.

Whenever we can, we try not to use stock photos. And honestly, where would you ever find a stock photo as good as the one at the top of this page? James can tell you all about it.

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