Why Do We Do It?

If you were to ask a non-steelheader to look at what a steelheader does, and then have them repeat what they are seeing, it would make for some interesting commentary-
    “So there’s this woman or this man. They’re all decked out in long boots and a bulky vest jammed so full of stuff that the 50 or so pockets are absolutely bulging. I’m guessing it’s really heavy too because every so often, they put their hands on their low back, straighten up and stretch." 
    "They’re wearing a knit cap over a baseball cap, a neck warmer, a heavy jacket and fingerless gloves because they’re standing in the middle of a roaring stream that’s full of frozen foam and ice chunks.  It’s pretty cold out to be standing in the water like that, there’s a sleet/snow mix coming down out of a leaden sky, and it’s making icicles on the net hanging off their back. They also keep blowing into their hands, and every so often, they hold the pole with one while they put the other into a pocket. What I can’t figure out is why they keep picking at the fishing pole. Even stranger, sometimes they put part of it into their mouth and it looks like they’re sucking on it.”
“That can’t be fun can it? It’s freezing cold but they keep casting and casting. I’ve been here for an hour and I still haven’t seen them catch one fish. They just endlessly cast upstream, move the pole, cast upstream, move the pole… Sometimes when someone else comes and stands next to them, they do the exact same thing at the exact same time like a mirror. Every so often they move up or down the stream a little, or give the pole a sharp jerk, but usually nothing happens. Well, if you don’t count the swearing that is. Even that doesn’t make sense because they usually jerk the rod, swear, and then break their line by pulling straight back on the pole. I’d swear after I broke my line, and I wouldn’t break it on purpose. These people are nuts, I’m outta here…”
Don’t get me wrong, I love catching fish; but when you think about it, the amount of time we spend not catching vastly outnumbers the amount of time we spend with something on the end of our line. We get up early, stay up late, and operate on little to no sleep. We stand in freezing water for most of the day - or for days on end. We put up with rain, snow, sleet, burning sun (rarely), freezing winds, frozen dead hands, chapped lips, leaky waders, wet feet, wet clothes and sore backs. We’ll gripe about gas prices all week, but think nothing of driving several hundred miles in a day in pursuit of steelhead. Sometimes we’ll even backtrack 50 miles, then hike for 30 minutes just to retrieve a favorite net or tackle box from that last hole or run. So what is it, why do we do it?
It seems like everyone goes through an evolution. When I was younger, it was all about that next fish on the line. I lived for the strike and the fight to the exclusion of all else; but as I get older, it’s the whole of the experience I thoroughly enjoy more and more. This kind of thing is really hard to explain since the whole of the experience often involves standing in a freezing river for hours at a time in the middle of driving rain or snow. Sometimes only our fellow steelheaders -and other outdoors men and women- understand; usually with a nod and a quiet smile at their own private memories as we tell our stories. Stories like:
I spent one extraordinary pre-dawn morning watching not so much a meteor shower as a meteor hurricane. It started as a brilliant night with no moon. Stars too numerous to count filled the sky from horizon to horizon with the concentrated band of the Milky Way bright overhead. As I stared upwards waiting for legal fishing time, migrating tundra swans whickered, hurrying north unseen and high overhead. I always laugh when I hear tundra swans, they sound to me like the flying monkeys from the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie. Out of the corner of my eye, a bright light appeared. It didn’t streak like most meteors, it floated across the sky before disappearing below the horizon. Soon more followed: Singles, doubles, triples and bursts flared across the sky for the better part of an hour as I stood dumbfounded, mouth open, fly-rod dangling forgotten in my hand.
Once I watched a female mink fishing in the lake pool of the Temperance. I thought perhaps she had fallen in and had been washed downstream until she scaled the vertical rock wall. There from a perch about seven feet above the water, she would carefully watch for fish to swim below it's ledge. As soon as they were in range, she’d leap headfirst like a bullet, more often than not coming up with a wriggling fish in her mouth.
And then there was the piebald beaver I mistook for a skunk. I’m not ashamed to say I ran; you would too if a piebald beaver snuck up from behind, and you thought a skunk had the drop on you. The beaver didn’t run, it just continued to trundle along below the footbridge on the Poplar. Or the saw-whet owl, not much bigger than a fluffy tennis-ball, that tried to land on my shoulder one morning, but ended up in the spruce bough just level with my head. I’m not sure who was more surprised as we stared at each other quite literally beak to nose.
Now this wasn’t steelheading, but it was trout fishing so it counts as far as I’m concerned. I was standing in the middle of a stream in southeastern Minnesota one hot summer afternoon. I had one of those bungee cord net keepers at the time, and was forever getting sticks and branches tangled up in the netting because it hung so low. When you’d get in the water, the drag from the current would tug on the stick-addled net so that the whole mess would yo-yo on my back. I felt the tug, tug, tug that afternoon, so I reached around behind me for the umpteenth time to shake a stick out of the net; only this time it wasn’t a stick, it was three feet worth of buzzing, highly-affronted timber rattler. I’ve only seen two others in 30+ years of fishing down there, one live, one dead on a road, and never one literally at arm’s length all tangled up in my net. I’m guessing it was swimming across the stream and decided to use my legs as a convenient current break when it got tangled up in the mesh.  15 feet to shore is a mighty long distance in that situation, but I managed to hurl my rod onto the bank javelin style as I charged for shore, willing my left arm to grow longer and quick. After getting to shore, I was able to rip the D ring from the seam on my vest and lay the net down. The rattler calmly freed itself as I (not so calmly) watched from the relative safety of a tree, the top, about a quarter mile away.
Just one more- I have a friend who’s a compulsive narcoleptic when he gets in a car to go fishing. We were northbound, somewhere about Tofte around 3 in the morning. I was alone with my thoughts because my co-pilot was studiously watching the back of his eyelids. In the dim glow just at the edge of my headlights range, I saw a big, black, something move below the bank on the lake side of the road. My first thought was bear, but that’s about all I had time to think since I may just have been speeding, maybe, a little. The next thing I know, a bull moose takes one giant bull-moose stride out into the middle of the road. It was one of those time-bending, “Ooooooooooooh Shoooooooooooooooooooooooooot” moments that seem to last forever, only I wasn’t really thinking, “Oh Shoot”. You can add your own favorite expletive for effect.

Now moose vs. car doesn’t usually turn out well for the car and I watched, in slow motion, as the beard of the moose literally blew up and sideways in the wind from my passenger-side mirror. ½ mile later after I had stopped zig-zagging from one lane to the other and my heart rate was back down to a reasonable thrum from its previous jack-hammer rhythm, my partner snorted once, opened his eyes and did the, “Hnuh, hmm, wuzzup?”. Go back to sleep man, I’ll explain later….

So why do we do it? Is it for the brief moment of glory with a steelhead on the end of the line? Or is it the sunrises, sunsets, full moons, bright stars, roar of the stream, scents of the cedar and balsam fir, conversations with friends during long rides in the dark, sitting around the campfire recounting stories, the chance encounter with a lone wolf on a dark road, or the smile on a kid’s face as they tie on for the first time. Perhaps it’s because any one of a million special experiences and memories live on within each of us long after the moment has faded, only to be born again and again each time we slip into a stream. Maybe that's why we return.


Popular posts from this blog

Sucker River Angler Access - NO MORE!?

Sunshine at Last!