Monday, April 07, 2008

Daunting Questions & Hardnosed Answers

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A friend stopped by a week or two ago with a buddy. The other gent wanted to meet me, and have a discussion about steelhead fishing.

It began mildly enough when we shook hands, and we made small talk for a few minutes. Then, in a burst of anger, he questioned me about my steelhead fishing.

“You wrote a few years ago that you caught 100 steelhead in one day, and another time you wrote that you’d probably landed nearly 10,000 steelhead in your life,” he said, with a bite in his voice. “I think both statements are a crock. No one can catch that many steelhead these days.”

I agreed that he was probably right. It would be most difficult, if not impossible, these days to catch 1,000 steelhead in your life. I mentioned that he must have missed something from both stories.

“First of all, Bud, I wrote that two of us caught 100 steelhead in one day, and will gladly introduce you to the other man, and he has a shorter fuse than mine,” I said in an even voice. “ Call him or me a liar, and there will be a rocky road ahead for you. I don’t care if you don’t believe me but don’t be stupid and call me a liar in my home!”

“But ... but,” he stammered. And I told him it’s not polite to interrupt when others are speaking.

I explained that the 100-fish day happened over 20 years ago, on a cold and snowy day with lots of wind, and most fishermen were home. We found a big school of fish, and it seemed as if they hadn’t eaten in a month. Every orange colored fly we pitched to them resulted in a strike.

We quit fishing once with nearly 60 fish we had caught and released unharmed. We went in for breakfast, checked another stream, and headed back to the hotspot for a second round. We were up to about 85 fish when my buddy fell, got soaking wet and headed for the car.

I stuck with it, caught what it took to hit 100 fish, and we kept only one small male steelhead that inhaled a fly through his mouth and it was hooked in his gills from the inside. The fish was bleeding heavily and would die so I kept it. My hand would go on 10 Bibles on this story.

But I no longer brag on that experience. It was catch-and-release at its finest but doing so, although legal, was something I no longer am proud of.

And then, the case of approximately 10,000 steelhead over a lifetime. I’m almost 69, and began steelhead fishing when 11. By the time I was 15, I was catching between 100 and 200 steelies each year, and that was from the Sturgeon River between Indian River and Wolverine. Mind you, that was back in the early 1950s.

By the time I was 18, I was fishing even more often, and the numbers shot up to about 300 fish per year. By my mid-20s, I was fishing steelhead along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Favorite rivers at the time were the Betsie, Little Manistee and Platte rivers, and the rivers had lots of fish and very few fishermen.

It was truly amazing sport, and seldom would I keep a fish. I would have six or eight 30-fish days each year, and always put the fish back. A quick, hard fight, and a swift release without taking the fish from the river. The fish were there, angler numbers were low, and catch-and-release fishing was in its infancy.

I began guiding salmon fishermen in 1967 when the salmon spawning runs first began, and my clients cared nothing about steelhead. Everyone wanted salmon, so I’d give them casting lessons and once they learned how, I’d “go check for other hotspots. I always carried my Black Beauty fly rod, and I always looked for a steelhead or two holding below spawning salmon where they would gobble free-drifting salmon eggs.

Those fish were always caught and released, and I’d return often to check on my people and lead them to new batches of fish. I guided for 10 years, spring for steelies and fall for browns, salmon and steelhead, and not once did my clients go home without a limit of fish. Not once!

If I had a free day, I would check the rivers to keep track of the runs, and the one way to do that was to fish. There were countless days, especially in November and December when the rivers were full of steelhead and everyone else was deer hunting.

I could easily say I personally landed 400 to 500 steelhead each year during my guiding years, which would mean 4,000 to 5,000 fish during those years. One also must remember the limit back then was five fish daily, and seldom would I not catch my limit. Again, at least 98 percent of those fish were released.

One also must remember that the big push by the Michigan Steelheaders really didn’t get underway until the mid-1970s. Back then, people who had caught three or four steelhead were introducing their friends to the sport. Many didn’t know what they were doing, and they would be skunked while we caught fish. It’s no brag, just fact.

High steelhead numbers held through the early 1980s, and although I no longer guided, I was still fishing hard in the spring and fall. It was great: I’d fish for steelhead in the morning, and bow hunt for whitetails in the afternoon and early evening.

Do I know precisely how many steelhead I’ve landed? I had caught over 8,000 steelhead by 1976 when I quit guiding. I know I’ve caught well over 2,000 since then, and if it hasn’t reached 10,000 fish by now, I’d be surprised.

I’d consider myself an illegal fish hog if I’d kept everything I caught, but most fish were released after a fast, hard fight. Most spring steelhead are soft and not tasty, and they don’t freeze well. It’s better they are released to spawn.

Nowadays, with my vision problems, I don’t fish steelies as hard as I once did, and that is a good thing. Bowlers become expert by rolling 20 games or more each week, and steelhead fishermen become better by fishing daily.

I don’t know whether the gent who listened to my explanations believed any of this or not, and it really made little difference to me how he felt. All I know is that for many years, steelhead numbers far outpaced those anglers who were skilled enough to fish for and catch them.

Those who could, did. Those who couldn’t, bad-mouthed the hot sticks. Big deal! I’m now happy with hooking an landing one fish, and it is put back. Of course, there are far fewer steelhead than 20-30 years ago and the glory days with heavy catches have ended.

And that is fine by me. I still have my memories of that bygone era, and it’s enough.

Posted by Dave Richey on 04/07 at 03:24 PM
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