Headwaters: Steelhead, Love, and Other Mysteries
In an essay from his new book about steelheading, the author reflects on the time a relationship built around fishing reached its breaking point
Fly fishing for steelhead is an act of faith, a practice entirely dependent upon belief in the existence of an unseen force responding to your prayers. Most other forms of fly fishing are visual—you spot a fish, or the rings of the rise it made, and cast to it. But steelhead fishing is different. There is no proof, no empirical evidence, that somewhere beneath the river’s surface, there are fish present. You are left, then, to perform a kind of liturgy, a ritual of cast, mend, step and swing, and hope that your devotion will be enough.
We agreed to part ways a month ago. After a lengthy period of intense long-distance dating, fishing and adventures, and the past seven months of more intense, but good, day-to-day life, we’re calling it quits. Danielle’s clock is ticking too loudly to ignore any longer, and after countless deep and sometimes painful hours of introspection, I’ve come to two conclusions: One, I don’t think I can live up to the future she envisions, and two, I can’t let myself stand in the way of her dreams. In many ways, it’s my fault; when she packed up her life and moved west to be with me, I believed—we both did—in a different outcome. I’m the one who dropped the ball. And yet, we are enjoying each other’s company so much, neither of us knows what to do. A hovering, opaque sadness waxes and wanes between us. On a long drive to fish the Columbia River one September afternoon, we finally accepted it was time to let go.
But first, a steelhead. We’ve caught five species of trout, grayling, king and coho salmon, Dungeness crabs, razor clams and spot prawns together; hunted crystals, antlers, morels and chanterelles, and along the way, we learned to live together. Our first real date was to the Clearwater River for high-desert steelhead. Our second date was ten dark, wet days spent swinging flies on the Olympic Peninsula in bitter February weather. She’s learned to Spey cast, to mend her line so the fly swims across the current, to read the water. She’s hooked steelhead, too, but so far, each encounter has ended only in heartbreaking loss.
In retrospect, that second “date” to the Olympic Peninsula probably wasn’t the most auspicious way to kick off a budding romance. After seven days of dark-to-dark fishing, much of it spent submerged waist-deep in 39-degree water while battling rain, wind, snow, and the awkward, unfamiliar Spey rod, I could see more than a little doubt creeping into Danielle’s thoughts. I hoped the gorgeous twelve-pound steelhead I landed would lift her spirits, but it only raised her frustration and boosted her resolve. A kind of grim determination set in. I could feel myself falling in love.
On the morning of the eighth day, we cleared a skiff of fresh snow off the windshield and drove down to the Hoh River through the hush of snow-shrouded rainforest. At the river, we rigged up under the tailgate light, and when I reached to tie a new fly onto her leader, she stopped me, saying that it was time for her to do it herself. Then she waded out into the dark river to wait for daylight.
My friend JD’s truck came crunching onto the frozen gravel bar and parked alongside. He and I sat on the back bumper, drinking coffee, watching as Danielle started fishing her way into the run. In the grainy gray light of what passes for dawn on the Olympic Peninsula, we watched her pull more line off her reel and step downstream. “She’s almost to the sweet spot,” JD said.
Danielle’s line pulled tight and she staggered backward, her fly rod bending deep into the handle. The fish ran upstream and just as it cartwheeled into the air ten feet in front of her, her rod sprung straight. “Did you see that?” she screamed, running out of the river toward us, empty line trailing behind her. When she reached the truck, she held up her leader and discovered a curled end where the knot had unraveled. JD, the grizzled guide, took the leader, held it up to the light and said, “I bet that’s a mistake you won’t make again.” She cried on the way home.
And so it went. For all her success trolling for salmon, casting dry flies for trout, and pretty much everything in between, steelhead eluded her. We fished hard, started early and quit late, made long pre-dawn drives fueled by fast-food drive-through breakfasts and murder-mystery podcasts. Whenever I landed a fish, she cheerfully took pictures and celebrated with genuine happiness. In the short, dark days of Pacific Northwest winter, her enthusiasm was often all that kept us going. Danielle’s steelhead became a pilgrimage of faith we were making together.
So now we’re on the Kispiox River, working our way through the Home Pool on our first day in British Columbia. It’s October 5th. When we arrived last night, Bob said the river was just coming into shape, that we should get up early and fish first water. So we rolled out of bed in the dark, and shivering, slid down the steep, muddy trail by the bright cones of our headlamp beams. Above us, stars wheeled across gaps in the canopy of spruce and birch.
And now, the familiarity of stepping into dark water. We wade by braille, sliding our boots around algae-slick boulders, searching for solid footing. I’ve already promised myself I wouldn’t fish until Danielle catches one, so I’m mostly just here to act as a human wading staff as we feel our way into one of great steelhead pools on earth.
At home, when I look at the night sky, I always search first for the Big Dipper, then follow its lines to find Polaris, and dream of this place. At least for the moment, I don’t even need to fish. Just being here is enough. It helps, too, that Danielle is fishing well. I watch her line straighten on long casts and hold my breath each time it starts swinging across the current. She gets mad at me for over-coaching (a bad habit left over from my days as a guide, or perhaps a personality defect) then gets mad at me for staying silent. After some unknown duration, when the dream state of steelhead fishing has, as usual, warped my sense of time, we are about two-thirds of the way down the pool. Danielle, this kick-ass fish woman from Idaho, who’s killed elk and antelope, who can bust brush and climb rocks like a mountain goat, is running out of steam. I can tell her faith in the idea of steelhead on the swung fly—in me, really—is fading.
Without warning, the curved arc of her line straightens and leaps from the water. A flash of pink and silver out in the main flow appears under an enormous boil of water. The fish bulldogs, fighting to stay in the trough the way big steelhead often do. Danielle pulls back, reeling, and the line goes slack. The color drains from her face. I tell her there’s probably another one in there, to keep fishing, the water’s perfect. I don’t think she believes me.
But she sticks with it, mechanically now, a born-again atheist still going to church on Sunday. Our friends Rick, Colin and Aaron, who took the raft upstream earlier, arrive at the head of the run. Thinking Danielle could use some space, I get out of the water and walk the trail back up to the top for a report. Just as I reach the guys, a scream cuts through the white noise of river rapids. Oh god, bear attack, I think. But there’s a timbre of pure elation in the screams, like the hysteria of teenage girls overcome by the Beatles in old newsreel clips. “You better run,” Rick says.
At an all-out, full-tilt, sprint, I cover the ground between us, skidding to a stop only to grab the net Bob left leaning against a small spruce. The shrieking continues. I slide down the bank and plunge into the water. She’s deep in the heavy current, leaning back against the fish, which, hearing my splashing entry, streaks away across the tailout like a skipping stone. Every time the fish jumps, Danielle shouts something, but I can’t make out any actual words.
As I’ve heard said, if I was a praying man, I’d pray. I’m not, but I do anyway. And eventually, the fish stops running, holds for a moment way out on the far side, then begins to yield. Danielle gains ground, pulling back and reeling down, her jaw clenched now in silent concentration. The knuckles on her right hand, the one holding the cork grip, turn white.
One more moment of panic: We are backed up against a steep bank covered in willow saplings and thorny brambles. Pulling the rod back to land the fish would tangle the line in the brush. The fish, though, is beat. With one half-hearted run and a wallowing leap, it tips over and allows me to slip the net under it. Danielle lets out a howl—part war whoop, part cathartic release—and reaches to touch the ghost we’ve been chasing for so long. She cradles the fish in the water, running her fingers along its flank as if to confirm its existence. A small miracle has been granted. When it revives, the fish torpedoes away, disappearing into the moving green depths as if it never existed.
Danielle hugs me so hard we stumble and almost fall into the river. She raises her arms like a referee signaling a touchdown and exhales a long breath, eyes closed and face turned up to the sky. In a few months, she’ll be gone. I will miss her more than I could’ve known. We will each move forward into a future different from the one we imagined. But this fish, this moment, and the seasons that led up to it, will always be there—beneath the surface, perhaps, but no less real because they can’t be seen. I have faith.
Excerpted from Headwaters: The Adventures, Obsession, and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman © 2022 by Dylan Tomine. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia.
Dylan Tomine is a father, writer, conservation advocate, and recovering sink tip addict, not necessarily in that order. His book, Closer to the Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, in the Woods and at the Table, was a National Outdoor Book Award honorable mention. He is also a producer of the feature-length documentary, Artifishal, which has been watched by more than 3.5 million viewers. He lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.