IT’S CALLED “hauling out,” and in the bay 60 miles downriver, seals do it all the time. Noticeably less adept, I manage to plant two hands on the bank and heave my neoprened bulk out of the water. My legs, grown numb from wading the icy currents, contribute only feebly to the effort. I barely gain the bank. Poised for a moment on the edge, resting on my stomach, a fly rod clenched in my teeth, I’m not quite certain what to do. Finally, I inch past the balance point, teeter slowly forward, and come gracelessly to rest face down in the frosty weeds. This, I decide, is best left to seals.

Ten minutes later, feeling aches back into my feet, I don’t dive but have imagined that the “bends” feel just like this. A drift boat slides noiselessly by, two thin streamers of steam rising from coffee mugs. We exchange the fisherman’s shrug. It’s nearly 10 A.M. and none of us has touched a thing. The rest of the world is probably up by now, casting indefinite, exploratory glances into the refrigerator and surrendering to the embrace of an easy chair, where they wait for the Rose Bowl to begin. I’m resting on the bank of a small coastal river in Oregon, looking for my first steelhead of the New Year.

Even under the best of circumstances, hunting up winter steelhead is a formidable affair. Attempting to take them on a fly is a species of delusion so innocent and unavailing it’s often viewed with the same indulgent pity accorded a six-year-old in the backyard who’s trying to dig a hole to China. It’s not to say that the fish won’t hit flies. They’ll take them about as readily as they’ll take anything—which is to say, not very often. Rather, the problem is entirely tactical. Trying to keep a fly drifting deep through a swift run at the far end of a long cast in a frigid river should convince anyone that fly tackle is, even in the most generous assessment, utterly unsuited to the task. Still, some of us not only do it, but cultivate a certain smug pride in the feat. On the bad days, we find solace in the last refuge of the lunatic and insist that there are greater fools in the world than us.

January 1992 cover of Field & Stream
A successful deer hunter paddles back to camp on our Jan. 1992 cover. Field & Stream

That particular comfort, though, is reserved for later. Before dawn, when I set out from the valley over the coastal mountains to the river, the day is still one of unalloyed possibility, an intention as yet uncorrupted, by outcome. There’s optimism tinged with that particular brand of self-righteousness earned by those who are up before daylight, but don’t have to be. Here and there, the mudspattered cars of millhands and the idling diesels of loghaulers nose into the halo of light around a roadside cafe. Passing them, I urge my pickup into the mountains, affecting nonchalance at the shudder in the front end, and expertly feather the accelerator as I shift to keep the beast from dying.

It’s always damp up here. In summer, fog pools thickly in low spots between the hills. In winter, I would meet it on the ridgetops an odd sensation until one day the truth dawned on me that it wasn’t high fog at all, but rather low clouds. The mist closes in, and the visible world shrinks to a tight, yellow cocoon spun out of the vapor by my headlights.

HIGHER UP, the distinction between fog and rain becomes an irrelevant technicality. The pick-up is creeping slowly along—its preferred speed under most conditions anyway—and I top the pass. There is a hinge to the trip, a balance point where the road ceases to go uphill and begins to go down. The streams behind me all fall away to the Willamette in the valley and on to the Columbia. The steep slopes ahead funnel rain to the coastal rivers, which tear a quicker way to the Pacific. The trip pivots on this ridgetop, for it’s here that I leave the past behind and tilt toward where I’m headed.

Where I’m headed is the wettest spot in the state. It is technically a rain forest. I expect the weather to get worse, but it unaccountably improves, and by the time I strike the logging road, the fog has lifted to the treetops. I can just make out the river, which crashes down the vertex of a deep cleft in the mountains. The pickup hugs the road that hugs the slope, eventually dropping down to the river. In north-facing hollows untouched by the sun, hoarfrost accumulates, and the thick rime crushes like sugar cubes as I walk to the river.

A steelhead river can be high and low at the same time, above summer flows but below flood. In January, at midseason, the river hits just the right balance, and it takes on a deep emerald luminescence. It’s the color of faith. The water ahead of me has just such a look, sluicing out of a bedrock chute and running 200 feet to the rocky lip of the tailout, slowing before it pitches down a broad, foamy rapid.

I am hardly a sentimentalist, but I believe the man who can kill game without regret cannot be trusted—not because he is dangerous, but because he understands nothing.

It’s taken me the 3 hours since daylight to work this run—180 feet in 180 minutes…1 foot per minute…three casts per foot… In the flat repetition of casting, the mind drifts into stupefying jags, locking up when confronted with three-figure calculations. At the tail of the pool, I haul out to thaw.

I idle my way through two overstuffed fly boxes, filled with redundant patterns. Fine distinctions in pattern seem pointless to me in this kind of fishing. I’d do anything short of finding a job to get just the right shade of Pearsall’s silk for a trout pattern, but when it comes to steelhead flies, there is only light or dark, large or small. Anything beyond that is merely a crutch to prop up the weak hopes of those who can’t hack it. I change flies—big and bright to small and dark—and shake the last bit of numbness out of my legs by walking toward the head of the run for another shot.

The take of a winter steelhead is an almost paradoxically gentle thing. Filtered through 10 feet of fly rod on an icy morning, it’s easily mistaken for your own shivering. Add to that the hours of fruitless casting, the fatiguing bolts of adrenalin intermittently sparked by snags, the slowed reaction time, and the dulled wits, not to mention your own incredulity, and it’s a miracle that a fish is ever hooked. And most days it doesn’t happen.

Today it does. The fly halts with a brisk, erratic pulse, like the bob-and-feint of a bantamweight. I take a deep breath, lean hard on the rod, and break the news.

Fifty yards isn’t much—it’s well within the acceptable limits of accuracy for a capable goose hunter or a decent quarterback. But high up on a small coastal steelhead river, strung between you and a hot fish, 50 yards—a 100-foot double-taper and half that much backing—is the balance point, the fulcrum of the whole contest. Nine times out of 10, a fish that levers you around that much line will be chugging purposefully around a bend in the river, or blowing down through whitewater with the cool irrevocability of a titanium nosecone. You can chase it, but in time deep water or impassable bluffs will force you to either take a stand and bear down, or get spooled.

MY FISH PAUSES at the tailout 50 yards down, momentarily balanced on its own in decision, reluctant, like any wild thing, to show itself. At the very lip of the pool, the steelhead retreats from the shallows to the reassurance of deeper water. The line shears upstream, throwing a tiny roostertail behind, and I exhale.

A few minutes later, I skid the fish up on the cobbles, an 8-pound buck, not ocean-bright but still dully metallic—the color of a spent nickel. A missing adipose fin and crooked fin rays mark him as one of the inestimably lucky survivors that began life as an eyed egg percolating gently in a hatchery tray. I can affect the purist’s scorn for all stocked fish, but in private, I draw my own lines. Hatchery steelhead are worlds more than the pellet-stuffed, hothouse, grown-to-spec technotrout that are dumped by the millions anywhere they can survive for the week it takes to fish them out. But even if it’s born in a hatchery, a steelhead must make its way to the ocean, endure the general tenor of things there, and get back. If there is anything amiss about hatchery steelhead, I’m told, it’s the weakness of their genes. But you can’t detect this by looking at them.

Nor is this deficiency uppermost in my mind when I dispatch, bleed, and gut the fish. I take few steelhead, and never wild ones, and so each time I dress a fish, I am freshly struck by how disproportionately small the viscera are. Compared to the thick muscling of its back and flanks, the body cavity seems impossibly tiny, and fully half of it is given over to long, fattening sacs of milt. What’s left isn’t much, and you wonder how it’s possible for such a modest engine to drive a fish of that size for so great a distance.

There is no finer table fare than winter steelhead. Still, I feel a little bad about taking the fish. I am hardly a sentimentalist, but I believe the man who can kill game without regret can’t be trusted—not because he’s dangerous, but because he understands nothing. The meaning is in the balance.

I tie a length of cord through the steelhead’s jaw and loop the other end around his tail. Hiking the cord over one shoulder, I walk to the road, the fish in a measured sway lightly bumping my hip.

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