Dylan Tomine is an ardent conservationist and a lifelong steelhead angler. His new book Headwaters: The Adventures, Obsession and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman blends those two passions. In it, Tomine weaves personal adventure stories with the threats that wild steelhead are facing in North America. It’s both a deeply personal book—and one that gets at broader issues facing the fishing community in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. We recently had the chance to sit down with Tomine to discuss his angling adventures, writing process, the future of steelheading, and more.
Can you tell me about your first steelhead?
I’d spent a year trying to catch a steelhead on my own. I was 10 years old, and my parents had just divorced. I was living with my mom in Western Oregon since she was in grad school in Oregon State. Every Sunday, my mom would drive me somewhere to go fishing. Most of that year was spent trying to catch a steelhead, which I did not.
Going into the second year, my mom asked around town and found a really well-known steelhead guide—Andy Landforce. She tried to book a date for me to go fishing with him, but he was already booked solid. In December of that year, well into my second year of not catching a steelhead, he called on a Tuesday night and said, “Hey, can you miss school tomorrow? I have a cancellation.” My mom said yes. Probably seven minutes into the float, I hooked my first steelhead and landed it. That was one of the great moments of my life.
I remember reading about how your mom would study in the car while you were fishing. That was awesome. So, what is it about steelhead that made them the focus of your angling life?
The thing about steelhead that’s so miraculous is that they present this opportunity to fish for ocean fish in trout streams. Also, from an early age, I fell in love with the techniques for fishing for them and the places where they live. There’s this long history of romance around the fish from all the Hollywood stars that would fish for them in California to the heritage of steelheading the Pacific Northwest. Steelheading really grabbed my imagination.
You originally moved to Seattle to fish the Skykomish. What was so special about it at the time?
Trey Combs had just published a book called ‘The Steelhead,’ which most serious steelhead anglers now refer to as “The Bible.” He profiled all the great steelhead rivers, and the Skykomish was the one that was closest to a place where I could make a living. When I first moved there, I lived in an apartment in downtown Seattle. I could be fishing the lower Skykomish in 45 minutes. At that time, the fishing was still really good.
Had did it feel to witness its decline?
It was heartbreaking—and it still is. That spring steelhead season on the Skykomish that I built my whole life around closed in 2001 and hasn’t reopened. Every year, in March, when I’d normally be getting ready to go fish it, I still feel these pangs of loss.
In your book, you explain all the issues facing steelhead—it’s a death by a thousand cuts. But, if you had to choose, what would say is the single, greatest threat they’re facing?
The single factor that would be easiest to fix is to stop funding steelhead hatcheries. In a lot of our rivers, the limiting factor on steelhead recovery is hatchery programs.
Do you think people are becoming more receptive to that?
The scientific evidence is so compelling that people are being forced to pay attention to it, but there’s a lot of politics involved. Guides and outfitters don’t want the hatcheries to go away. Tribes count on hatchery fish for treaty rights, which is completely legitimate. But it’s still the simplest thing to change because we don’t really need to do anything, just stop wasting the billions of dollars we waste on hatchery production. But politically, it’s not easy.
Are you hopeful about the future of steelheading on the West Coast?
I’m guardedly hopeful. A lot will need to change, but I think it’s possible that with enough hard work, we can make it happen. It will require a combination of litigation, legislation, and public relations. The basic psychology around hatcheries is so intuitive—if we put more fish in there, we should get more fish back. It’s hard to fight that even though all the science shows that when you put more fish in, you actually get less back. Never have there been more juvenile salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Ocean, and never have there been fewer adult fish returning to rivers. A lot of this is being driven by hatchery releases. I’m not super optimistic, but there’s enough of a chance to change things that it’s worth fighting for.
In your book, you write about adventures to some special places. What was your favorite trip?
That’s like asking who’s your favorite child. The place I look forward to returning to the most—and return to again and again—is northern British Columbia. In a lot of ways, the Skeena River system is like my home river, even though it’s 1,000 miles away from where I live.
You got to travel to some places that may never have seen a fisherman before you went there. Do those kinds of places still exist?
Absolutely. I think they’re out there, and it might be as small as some little headwater brook near where you live, or some far-flung place.
I liked your essay “Steelhead, Love and Other Mysteries.” What was it like to write about a romantic relationship and fishing at the same time?
You don’t see a lot of love stories in fishing books. So much of my relationship with Danielle was in the context of fishing that it seemed like a natural way to tell our story. But I had to think about it a lot because there was no easy model to replicate.
Let’s pretend you’re at one of your favorite runs on the Skeena River System, what are you tying on?
It depends on the water conditions. If it’s high and dirty, I’d use a big intruder-style fly. If it’s low and clear, I’d fish something really small and brown, like a size 6 buggy-looking thing. If it’s just perfect, I’d fish a two-inch black woolly bugger.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.