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The unforgettable first

By Rodney Hsu, Fishing with Rod | Published in February 2002

First Chilliwack River winter steelhead

For years since I started river fishing on the West Coast, the illusive steelhead has been haunting in my dreams. Magazine cover photos with chrome steelies have often inspired me, yet I was always intimidated by their reputations such as "the fish of a thousand casts". From what I have been told, I made the assumption that it would be a waste of time to target these fish due to the low success rate. Therefore when winter rolled around every year, I packed up my rods, threw them into the storage room and avoided the craze of steelheading.

When this website was developed, questions on steelheading have flown across the internet into my face. People were often amazed with disbelief that I had never fished for steelhead. It seemed that steelheading is a prerequisite if one wants to be a diehard west coast angler. Therefore, the quest started, I promised myself that I would at least go out and fish for steelheads this winter. The goal was not necessary to catch a steelhead, but to experience what the steelheading hype is all about.

My girlfriend's Christmas gift, a Ron Thompson fishing jacket/vest, gave me more reasons to brave the cold in steelheading rivers this winter. However, I was still lacking a pair of chest waders. After a little swimming instance in the previous salmon season, I refuse to get into my hip waders again. For a month, I played around with my jacket and arranged my tackles in all the pockets until it weighed ten pounds. Finally, after collecting enough money, I bought a pair of neoprene waders. It was time to go!

One morning my friend Dave and I found ourselves at the beautiful Upper Vedder River. This was steelhead territory, the Vedder River is famous for its strong annual return. It was also steelheading weather. The day was grey, rainy and windy. After a short session of hiking and wading, we were both eager to wet our lines. Dave had promised a fish within the first few casts, but I was a realist who had no expectations on the outcome of the day. My first offering for the fish was a large Colorado spinner that I had made. First cast, nothing happened, at least the baitcaster did not overspool. Second cast, I snagged on the bottom, but managed to retrieve my gears. My third and forth cast were a repeat of my first. On my fifth cast, as the spinner swam by the deep portion of the pool, it suddenly stopped rotating! As soon as I set the hook, an explosive power could be felt on the end of the line. At this point my heart was pounding fifty beats faster than thirty seconds ago. Still in shock, I could not find the voice to scream "fish on!". In the meantime, Dave was still concentrating on setting up his fly gear at the other end of the pool. His face looked just as surprised as mine when he saw what I was doing. As I gained my calmness once again, I carefully brought the fish closer so Dave was able to tail it for me. It was an incredibly beautiful male. The red gill plates, the pink colour on its body with numerous dark spots on top and the bullet shape body simply took my breath away. "Wow... my first steelhead...", I mumbled as Dave snapped a couple of quick photos. The fish was then carefully released.

Ten minutes into fishing, I already had a permanent smile glued onto my face. By this point, I had caught the infamous steelie fever. I was ready for more action. For the next four hours, both of us did cast after cast without any success. We knew the fish were there, but they were simply not interested in what we were offering. We tried everything except natural bait. I drifted a single egg under my float most of the time. By one o'clock in the afternoon, I was ready to give up. However, as my eyes started to wander around, my float suddenly shot under. Luckily I still remembered to set the hook and I found myself fighting with another steelhead! It was a heavier fish, and at one point it seemed like I was losing the battle. Although it wasn't displaying the acrobatic maneuvers that are normally seen in steelheads, it was running in all directions. After several minutes, the fish was finally ready to be brought in. Dave tailed it for me in the shallows, and we exchanged it so I was able to get another photo shot. It was a hatchery female, and a much bigger fish. We estimated around 14 pounds at least, as it was over one meter long. Each angler is allowed to keep one hatchery fish, but once the fish is killed the angler must stop fishing. While carefully cradling the fish in the water, I looked at her and hesitated for a few seconds. As I cooled down from the excitement, I decided that she was simply too good to be kept. A large fish such as her is a rarity that most anglers can only dream about. Once she regained her strength, I let go of my hand and she swam away slowly into the deep pool. The feeling at that instance can hardly be put in words. One must experience what I went through from hookup to releasing to appreciate what steelheading is all about.

By the end of that day, I would have hooked two more fish. The third fish was instantly lost after hookup, while I released the forth fish that was an extremely chrome wild female around 6lb. At one point I took a look at my surroundings, I saw snow covered mountains, temperate rainforests and crystal clear streams. This was what steelheading was all about. This was exactly what I read in classic fishing story books and watched on TV. It was not about catching a steelhead, but it was the experience of searching for steelheads. Although I stood in the rain for eight hours and my hands were so numb that it became impossible to tie hooks, four solid bites and ten minutes of total rush made it all worthwhile. No fish were killed on this day, but I felt like a millionaire. These priceless photos of my first few steelheads will always be treasured.