Chrome SteelheadEven at 4:30 in the morning that feeling of anticipation is surging through your sleeping body. The alarm goes off, your eyes snap open, and your wide awake as you quickly jump out of your sleeping bag, waders and all and tie on your boots. It doesn’t matter that the sun’s warming rays won’t arrive and kiss your ruddy frozen cheeks for another 3 hours, or that you’ll have to settle for a cold, day old breakfast burrito and a big hot cup of hobo coffee chased with a mouthful of grounds. The chrome demons that have haunted your dreams and ruled your nightmares are here! Steelhead season is in full swing and winter has crept up and literally kicked you and your fishin buddies square in the nuts! You don’t really care as you can’t feel much of anything anyways! That kind of feeling would detract from the experience. In fact that feeling or lack of it is a seminal part of the experience. That strange blend of adrenaline, caffeine and numbness that simmers and stews in your veins as you rig up and step in the river is something you anticipate. You hope that suddenly there will be a boiling of that biological cocktail running through your body as your prayers to the river god are answered by that take, the savage attack on your fly by a Steelhead. That electrically charged, cosmic slap to your heart and soul. A connection between you and the chrome demons of your dreams, tenuously achieved through a thin pulsing line. Checking your rigging and line you shake out your 12 ½ foot rod of divine intervention and take your place in the run. You peel off line and let dangle the fur and feathered fly you so lovingly and carefully tied just for this occasion. The color matches the conditions, and water color. It’s drizzly and overcast with liquid sunshine dripping from the rim of your hat and tip of your nose, the water tainted and murky from a recent rain, river slightly swollen but slowly returning to its calmer, gentler state. So it’s the deadly black and purple marabou fly you pick. The one with the hot fluorescent orange body that you sat at the vice and devised, musing about how tricky you were in adding that little bit of crystal ice dubbing to the body. Slowed by the temperature around you, everything can be felt in a slow motion. The lift, and swing, anchor and shoot. The essence of spey casting is complex and challenging yet simple, compact and explosive yet wide and sweeping. Out into the bone chilling vastness of the river you send your fly because that is what is required. What is, is just that, You exist to fish as the steelhead exists to foil your attempts, and gain the ancient purchase that is the spawning grounds. You achieve a comfortable rhythm, cast, drift, mend and dangle. Dangle I bit longer, maybe lift the rod ever so slightly and drop again, hoping that slight extra movement might juice some aggravated buck to smack that fly. You step down the run two steps and cast again, dimly aware of the similar dance that your buddies are executing above and below you. Far down the river he catches your eye. An angler out of step, his rod bent and quivering while out in the river a boil of aggravation and frustration erupts as a chrome missile sails into the air fighting to be free, his only desire to complete the mating ritual, the angler an evil roadblock. The battle goes on for what seems an eternity, downriver and back, slowly back. Then as quickly as it started, the give and take cease. All with a simple snap. In the distance you hear a primal scream, something you imagine might come from the Sasquatch, known to inhabit the impenetrable mountains you are trespassing in, and realize that the cause of the cry is the ordeal you just observed. It is the anguished, guttural cry of loss. One you know only too well, it’s happened before and will happen again. It’s a high you crave, and a loss that can cause withdrawl. That slam bam thank you mam. The following struggle as the adrenaline blurs your peripheral vision creating that surreal tunnel vision, the far end a focus of silver and energy, a spark of liquid mercury and anger. Then it stops! Everything goes slack and the bile slowly creeps up your throat with the scream as the adrenaline surges to a halt, nowhere to go but to the pit of your stomach. He’s gone! The chrome demon has escaped your grip like a scoop of ice cream falling to the ground on hot summer day; only this isn’t so trivial and minor. This is real and like ice cream eaten to fast causes a headache but his throbber won’t go away so fast. It’s something not so easily forgotten. A battle to be savored yet ruefully reexamined, and picked apart to the tenth degree. Dissected to see if there was something that you could have done, some minor change to your tactics, anything to avoid what had just happened from ever ending that way again. Deep inside you know that it’ll happen again but at this moment you are Cleo-patriot, king of denial! You refuse to admit anything of the kind this morning.You refocus from the ordeal down river and attempt to replicate the zen you had achieved earlier. Up river is different and you are not the defeated angler cradling his head in his hands wondering what the heck he was thinking when the fish disappeared. You realize that what happened downriver is a precursor of possible things to come. Steelhead travel up river and with the battle below over, a glimmer of hope alights within your chest. Just maybe a chromed demon brother who traveled with the triumphant warrior will notice what you are offering and with vengeance and hunger savagely attack. It is with this hope and faith that you renew your effort. It is as it always is. You don’t fish because it is a sure thing, quite the opposite. Life in these times is unsure and yet you count on the sure things. The love of your wife, the smile on your dogs face as he loads up into the truck for a ride, the sermon from your parson on a Sunday morning. These are the things you anchor your life to, Simple, steadfast and cherished. The spey rod and the Steelhead are instruments to explore the vast unknown and a portal to that which cannot be touched so simply. This is a small part of the essence of fly fishing. It is also why we are here this unforgiving cold morning. It is with faith and the grace of God above that the battle will commence. These are the things we pray for, the situation we anticipate, and seminally what reinvigorates our soul.It is here in these musings that it happens. It always does. You are in that place of utter tranquility, nestled deep within your psyche. Trying desperately to shield your inner mind from the extreme cold and pain that is the physical you. Waist deep in a cauldron of cold wet heaven, you are snatched from that womb of inner reflection and vaulted into the brutal, bone chilling cold of battle royal, spey style! When spey fishing, it is seldom a subtle take, more often than naught it is visceral and savage. The anger you feel on the other end of the line is frightening! In the unknown of the river who’s to say that you even have a chrome demon on? Could this be the time when some river dwelling hell spawn, a creature from some other dimension has awakened and decide it is you who will pay the price for all the mortals who dare to trample the sacred ground that is its river home. With a sudden eruption, exploding out of the river in a shower of glory and defiance, with relief, we recognize the shape and form of our piscatorial foe, the steelhead. What is it about this fish? Is it the mystique of his surroundings? The gloomy, moss covered forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest. A place shrouded in fog and rumors, ancient and foreboding, rough, impenetrable and totally unforgiving. Accidents out here are more often than naught fatal or severely critical. Is it there life story? Born in the river, a steelhead is nothing more than a rainbow trout with a hitch in his get along. Something in his DNA clicks and the decision to head for saltwater springs forth as driving a passion as the one that will someday bring him back very nearly to the spot he was spawned. He will return to the river to spawn but unlike salmon, who give their very lives in the sacrifice of procreation, the steelhead turns and heads back to the ocean. An animal this crazy is as worthy a quarry as any on the planet. You know the steelhead has within its DNA something other than a desire to head to salt. It holds an inner drive, something akin to being stubborn to the point of being ornery, ticked off and savage. The adult steelhead is sturdy enough to make such an arduous trip numerous times. That is another reason you brave the elements and stand in his liquid kingdom, a chance to touch something with that much passion and drive.So here you are, in the middle of the river, rod in hand, furiously calculating all that is needed to subdue a creature that’s sole goal is escape, and your humiliation. After belligerently breaking the surface and assaualting your fly, thus signaling that the battle had commenced, the creature that shall not be caught decides that the comfort and safety of the bottom of the river is where he will stage the first volley in the battle of wills. You grit your teeth and take a snorting deep breath. Freshly invigorated by the sting of water in your nasal passage, the adrenaline pumping with renewed purpose through your veins you quickly check your drag and wiggle your feet deeper into the rocks, giving you slight comfort in your steadfast position. He shakes his silver head violently, dodging nimbly side to side steadfast and static in his resolve. Then you realize it wasn’t fright that drove him to the bottom at all. It was just a pause as if the fish was reassessing the situation and had somehow devised a foolproof escape route. With renewed vigor he bolts. Thence commences the song of the reel. That sweet high pitched whir which starts as distinct repetitive clicks and culminates in a siren song of wailing, as if the steelhead were hoping that the wail would hypnotize you into a lull and therefore give it the upper hand and disengaging you from your fly, his freedom. A high, quivering launch of chrome into the atmosphere followed by the tail walk from hell is all that he had left. Not! You will not give in to his superior swimming skills and he would never consider surrender! Not while there was blood coursing through his veins and water through his gills. You let him go again, aware of the reels singing and on guard lest the sweet sound lull you into a moment of rash indecision. Twice then thrice he goes, interspersed with head shakes and trips to the bottom the battle wages. Slowly but surely you gain. Little by little the lactic acid in the steelie’s muscled body build and he begins to tire. With a few final flurries and dashes the behemoth of silver fury turns into a placid and exhausted steelhead. Your closest buddy has watched with a strange obsessed fascination and sidled closer camera in hand as you slowly begin to come down from the high that was the battle. With your arms twitching and shaking like feeble noodles and legs that feel ready to buckle you kneel and cradle the beauty and grace that is The Pacific Northwest Steelhead. You revel in what was, holding by the tail the creature with whom all your hopes and dreams for the day had nestled. Releasing the fly from his kype you admire the color and revere the strength that you hold in your hands. You gaze deeply into the eyes of the chrome demon and psychically send the message that this day was yours, that you realize how fleeting and short the relationship between you and the fish has been, how grateful you are for his acquaintance, and your wishes that he have a safe and eventful journey. Maybe next year my chrome plated friend. With that and a few hastily snapped pix, you release your foe, making sure he is revived and ready in case another gentleman up river has the pleasure of meeting his company and praying that this next time the chromer would win.