The earliest of the spring runoffs swell the river, and a steelhead holds motionless off the river mouth. The first hint of slightly warmer water creates a growing sense of urgency in her ripening ovaries. Slowly, she pushes upstream.
Close behind trail the males, some as dark as spent salmon; others wearing silvery flanks with a bright red sash along the lateral line, and his cheeks and gill covers wear the crimson and pink blush of a soon-to-spawn buck steelhead. The spawning run, slowly and tentatively, has begun.
Far upstream a fisherman ponders, remembering rivers and seasons past as he looks over the snow-clad shoreline brush and waits for the first fish to show up. It's an annual ritual for him as he patiently waits for the big fish to arrive. It may be a week or two, perhaps even a month, before they work up onto the gravel to spawn.
Spring steelhead fishing has a certain magic of its own. It's more than just a fish plucking softly at a passing wet fly, tail-walking across the river's surface, hitting a fierce current, and heading downstream like a runaway horse heading for the barn.
This is a sport, all wrapped up in mystique like a Christmas gift draped in colorful ribbons. It is a mood, as well as being a happy form of spring enchantment. Not everyone can be a steelheader and not everyone wants to chase these fish. For those who are addicted to these fish, it's as addictive as chasing wild turkeys on a still day.
The angler treasures his relationship with this streamlined trout which has enough power to bring an ache to a strong wrist. Steelhead fishing is not for those bent on a limit catch. Fishing success is often poor. Instead, it is an opportunity to fish streams that have been only pleasant memories during a long and bitter-cold winter that test one's mettle against the most prized trout of all.
Someone once said that anticipation makes up 75 percent of a fishing trip while participation offers only 25 percent. I often succumb to anticipation during the long winter months as my thoughts soon turn to cold, crisp days on my home stream.
It's those dreams that keep me fired up when days are short and evenings are long. I relax before a flickering fire, and reminisce about fish that have fallen and those, with luck, that will provide a long run and a jump or two once hooked.
In the early season anglers may risk life or limb dodging shelf-ice floes that hurtle downstream with the force of a jackhammer. Then again, sometimes shirt-sleeve weather prevails as if spring forgot to come and summer arrived instead.
A winter fisherman often forgets the bone-numbing days when his only luck is to watch the aerial dance of a woodcock towering high in the dawn or dusky sky to impress his mate. When I think of spring steelhead, I see a solitary angler walking a river bank, studying the stream through Polaroid sunglasses for any sign of fish.
A canopy of snow-shrouded cedar and pine muffle his steps. The rapid putt-putt-putt of a drumming ruffed grouse sounds like a far-off drum roll of a generator running wild.
He knows he'll find fish, but maybe not on this day but sometime soon. That's fine, because the ritual of looking for spring fish is as dear as family love, respect of one's peers or a secure living. Any fish taken is a bonus, and something to be cherished.
Steelheading has many devotees, who all have differing techniques but a shared love for a day on the water. A river-mouth addict might brave snow driven by Arctic winds, or share a lineup with a dozen other hopefuls, as they work wobbling plugs, spinners or bait through deep holding water.
Boat fishing is a practical big-stream fishing method. The craft that plies steelhead on big rivers are often heated jet boats, although some anglers favor West Coast drift boats or aluminum car-toppers. From a boat an angler can see wildlife working river banks for the first hint of new grass. One never knows what may be found around the next bend or what the next hole or sweeping run might bring.
Many fishermen, myself included, associate steelhead fishing with small, intimate streams. The chuckle of a riffle flowing past rime ice that tinkles in the early-morning stillness; an impossible wading area where currents slice deep under wind-topped trees to form tremendous log jams; a scrubbed-clean gravel bar with white redds formed by spawning fish -- this, to me is the epitome of spring steelheading.
I think of reading stream currents in deep areas to tell where the fish hold, of seeing a hen steelhead accompanied by dark male fish, fanning redds from a hardscrabble bottom. It's a one-on-one duel with fish more intent on spawning than striking.
Steelhead fishing is not a meat sport. The challenge of pitting winter dulled skills against a righteous and honorable warrior. These fish, often so silvery they blend in with the bottom gravel on clear-water streams, are a breed apart from anything else that swims in fresh water. They can turn grown men into babbling idiots, weak men strong, and fish hogs into dedicated and capable true sportsmen.
The challenge of a single splendid take, a long run highlighted with a belly-whopper jump, and the eventual beaching of a noble fish is but part of the spring steelhead allure. Dealing with a fish reluctant to strike, sharing a favorite fish-holding pool, meeting old friends on the river, the thrill of just being there, and the glimpse of a 12-pound buck steelhead darting under shoreline cover; all are just another small sample of the story as well.
Above all, steelhead fishing is a livable dream. Some anglers dream about taking fish under the most difficult circumstances while others relax with a refreshing daydream about rivers, rods, reels, flies or lures, and of course, big steelhead.
Lonely cedar shaded streams that bubble merrily, spacious gravel bars teeming with stocky fish with no other anglers in sight -- that's what I dream about at this time of year. In truth and reality, crowds are more the rule than the exception these days, but this too is a part of the annual ritual.
We will cold nights away with thoughts of headstrong fish that will snap at any offering, and we long for those days when the morning mist rises from our favorite stream like a gray blanket to reveal deep fish-holding runs, log-lined pools, and gravel bars awash with silvery fish.
Steelhead fishing is a distinct and much different way of life, an experience, a happening; it means much the same to springtime anglers as a decorated tree on Christmas morning means to a young child.
Spring means a rebirth of the stream and the fish that swim in it, the nearby lands and forest, and a new generation of tiny steelhead fry we hope will survive and return to spawn in the years to come. It also means steelhead fever.
So, if you'll excuse me now, I need to feel water pressure squeezing against my legs as I fish a long run in hopes of finding an early steelhead hugging bottom.
I don't care if a fish is caught or not. Simply being there is enough for now.