The Lure of Wild Steelhead

Toby Swank BC Steelheading 1

For Toby Swank, chasing steelhead on the Pacific Coast is about more than catching fish.

photo by Toby Swank

Steelheading has never really been my “thing,” as all of my experiences up to this point have been characterized by countless hours spent standing in an unknown river searching for something that either is or isn’t there. I’ve heard the stories, seen the DVDs, and have given it an honest crack. So, when some friends asked if I wanted to join them on their annual trip to British Columbia for wild steelhead, I said, “Hell, yeah.

Toby Swank BC Steelheading 2
photo by Toby Swank

Any great fly-fishing adventure is more about the experiences in between the trudge and the tug, so I’m always up for something new. There was little doubt that this trip would deliver on the trudge side of things. After two days of driving in which we crossed the never-ending northern plains well into Alberta and then a seemingly endless string of mountain passes through the Canadian Rockies, we ended up in some little logging town closer to Alaska than to Vancouver.

Steelhead are anadromous, moving upstream from one piece of holding water to another as they make their way to do their duty to the continuation of their diminishing species. Oblivious to hatches, they are only there to spawn, after which they ride the high water of next spring back to the Pacific for another year or two of doing whatever they do until the next time they decide to give spawning another go. To say that they’re not like any trout I know would be an understatement. It’s the chance encounter with one of these amazing salmonids that has given purpose and focus to many a lost soul on their way to becoming what we affectionately call a “steelheader.

Toby Swank BC Steelheading 3
photo by Toby Swank

This trip was my chance to see not only the fish, but also the infectious obsession that steelheaders are best known for. The tug is their drug, and in its pursuit, all other priorities seem trivial at best. Black or purple is a much more important concern than a hotel reservation. Being the first in a run far outweighs the significance of bringing lunch or grabbing breakfast. Remembering that wallet full of shooting heads sits much higher on the list than double-checking the gas tank.

Many a diehard steelheader has spent day after day swinging flies through countless runs without a pull, knowing that as each fruitless swing is finished they are that much closer to their next hook-up. I’ve given it a few tries over the years, and I was of the opinion that this is one fish that I’m not meant to catch. So I figured I’d take the camera, make a few casts here and there, while enjoying the various moments along the way to wherever it was that we were all headed.

Toby Swank BC Steelheading 4
photo by Toby Swank

The rivers we fished were all beautiful in their own ways, with towering conifers coming right down to the river’s edge everywhere we anchored the jet boat. Spey fishing was not just an option, but the rule. With no formal lessons in my background, it didn’t take me long to figure out that a Skagit line is a good thing and that my routine would go something like “duck, chuck, swing, step, and repeat.” I’d like to say that my skill set improved after a few days, but the reality is my aching muscles just got used to the movements after awhile, and ibuprofen really is the miracle drug! Though I won’t be asked to do any guest Spey-casting appearances anytime soon, I still managed to marry my fly with the mouth of several truly wild steelhead in the course of a few day’s fishing. The other anglers managed to make that event happen more often than I, so I’d say that the steelhead were eating pretty well, if that term can ever be applied to these fish.

The “thing” I’ve come to appreciate more and more every year is that I just enjoy fishing in cold, clean water. I’m just as happy to prowl the banks of a small stream, row down a big western river, or stand in frigid water hour after hour. When a fish is on the other end of my line, there is a sense of completion to the cycle that starts all over again once it is released.

Toby Swank BC Steelheading 5
photo by Toby Swank

There are countless moments in between the first cast and the tug, all of which have their own significance in making the “bigger picture” just a little more clear. If I know anything about fishing for wild steelhead, it’s best characterized by an abundance of “in-between moments.” But when that remarkable fish comes to hand—and along with it the realization that this animal has survived countless hardships only to eat this size 2 Leech with a chartreuse head—here is an unmistakable feeling that we are all connected. I’ll be back there next year.

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