A First Steelhead, in Fading Light

Most of us don’t remember our first fish, but a first salmon burns deep into the memory banks. And a first steelhead, well, that’s one you will never forget. For Judah Oakes, of Vancouver, it came late on a winter’s day, when he got the last place on a congo line of anglers – and made the best of it. His email tells a timeless story about the wonder of getting a first steelhead to the bank.

Story and Photography by Judah Oakes

Today I was a little reluctant about heading out to fish as the weather wasn’t the greatest. But I but made my way out anyway at about 7 a.m and drove solo to the Chilliwack River, just outside Vancouver, to fish for steelhead even though it was early in the season, especially for fly fishing.

I had heard a few were getting caught here and there but mostly by guys float fishing with gear rods. I fished for about three-and a-half hours. It was raining pretty good and the wind picked up and got pretty cold.steelhead2

There were tons of gear guys out, as there usually is on this popular, hatchery river, and the favourite pool I like to hit was stacked up with a bunch of fishermen, so I went farther upstream and fished down. After a couple of hours I got back to the run and there were still five guys float fishing through it, so I waited my turn at the head of the pool and fell in line to start swinging my fly through the pool. Cast, swing, step and repeat. You know the drill.

The gear guys all fished through in front of me and had nothing to show for their efforts. No one was behind me and it looked like I would be the last and the only fly fisherman on the run that day.

I fished through to the tail-out where I could see the gear guys had moved down to the next pool. It was getting really cold from the wind and my hands were freezing and I seriously felt like packing it in for the day, but said to myself ‘No, I’ll finish this run off then pack up and head home.’

I cast out a bit up stream, let my sink tip take my fly down, straightened out my line with a quick mend and watched the fly swing through the tail-out. Halfway through the swing I feel a grab, but missed it. It was so quick. Was that really a fish or did I snag bottom? I’m like hmm….

Instead of stepping down in the run I recast to the same spot and do the exact same thing, swinging my fly through to the water where I felt the bump – and bam, fish on!steelhead3

I thought, no way, it can’t be a steelhead. I was expecting it to be a bull trout, then I saw it roll and a chrome side flashed in the light. Then there was a jump and a long run began peeling line off my reel. My heart skipped a beat and my legs were actually shaking when I realized I did in fact have a steelhead hooked.

The gear guys were looking back up the run, seeing the top water commotion, seeing I had one on and I was just grinning ear to ear. The whole time I was so scared I was going to lose it, like the previous four I had hooked and failed to land over the past few years of targeting them. But I had hooked this one good and so just kept the pressure on and tired it out and eventually pulled it in to the beach. Unfortunately, as I was fishing solo, I had no one to help me get a proper trophy shot, the one of me holding up my first steelhead, but I took a couple of quick frames of it lying in the shallows – a chrome steelhead, fresh from the sea – before I released it back into the river.

I’m sure you know exactly how I feel when you remember back to catching your first steelhead on a fly rod. I’m still glowing and smiling and am quite proud of myself.

Thank you Steve and Jeska for introducing me to fly fishing years ago as it’s a marvellous, amazing thing and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it for the rest of my life, or as long as I am physically able to.

I have finally brought what they call the fish of a thousand casts to hand, after quite a few years of fishing for them and not being very successful, losing the ones I did hook. Guaranteed I’ve put in a lot of time and probably upwards of a hundred thousand casts, so today was indeed a huge payday for all my dedication, research and patience. Sorry for the long email but I had to share this fish story.steelhead1