Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Arguing With A Surly Reader

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A friend stopped by the other day with a friend. 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 what seemed like pent-up anger, he questioned me about my steelhead fishing.

“You’ve written that you have 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. “I think both statements are a crock. No one can catch that many steelhead these days.”

Mind you, this dude was a guest in my home. I didn’t take too kindly to his ranting insults, and his thoughts that I might be lying.

I agree that he was probably right. It would be most difficult, if not impossible, these days to catch 1,000 steelhead in a lifetime. I also added that he must have missed something from both stories he had read. I learned long ago that people read what they want to read into a story, and then want to argue their mistakes.

“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, who has a much shorter fuse than mine,” I said in an even voice. “ Call him or me a liar, and you’ll find a rocky time facing you.”

“But ... but,” he stammered. And I then told him it’s not polite to interrupt someone when they are speaking. He quickly shut up.

I explained that the 100-fish day happened over 25 years ago, on a cold and snowy day with lots of wind, and most steelhead fishermen were home or at work. We happened to find a big school of fish, and it seemed as it 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 that we had caught and released unharmed. We went 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 in the bitterly cold water, got soaking wet and headed for the car and some welcome heat.

I envied him but there were more fish to catch.

I stuck with it, caught what it took to hit 100 fish, and kept only one small male steelie that had inhaled a fly through his mouth and into his gills. The fish was bleeding heavily and would die so I kept it. My hand on 10 Bibles on that one.

And then, the case of approximately 10,000 steelhead. I’m 70 now, and began steelhead fishing at age 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 to mid-1950s.

By the time I was 18 in 1957, I was fishing even more often, and the fish numbers shot up to about 300 steelhead per year. Some of those fish were caught during a “temperature run” caused by Burt Lake fish seeking comfort in the cold river water. Competition? There wasn’t any.

By my mid-20s, I was fishing steelhead along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Favorite streams were the Betsie, Little Manistee and Platte rivers, and those rivers held lots of fish and very few fishermen.

It was really amazing, 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 and no harm to the fish.

I began guiding salmon fishermen in 1967 when the spawning runs first began, and my clients cared nothing about steelhead. Everyone wanted salmon, so I’d give them lessons and once they learned how to cast, I’d “go check for other hotspots.” I always carried my Black Beauty fly rod, and I always looked for steelhead holding downstream of spawning salmon where they gobbled 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 salmon. I guided for 10 years, spring and fall, and not once did my clients go home without a limit of fish. Not only was I the first fly-fishing wading guide in the state for anadromous browns, salmon and steelhead, but I pioneered this fishing and developed many of the tactics in common use today.

Whenever I had a free day, I would check rivers to keep track of the runs, and the best 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 10 years. One also must remember the limit back then was five fish daily, and seldom would I not catch my limit. Again, perhaps 99 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 in a lifetime were introducing their friends to the sport.

High steelhead numbers held through the early 1980s, and although I no longer was guiding, 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. It was great fun.

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 fish since then, and if it hasn’t reached 10,000 by now, I’d be surprised.

I’d consider myself a fish hog and poacher if I’d kept everything I caught, but nearly all fish were released after a fast, spirited fight. Most spring steelhead are soft-fleshed and not tasty, and they don’t freeze well. I only fished for male steelies in the spring, and never bothered fishing for the females. I avoided hooking the hens.

Nowadays, with my vision problems, I don’t fish steelies as hard or nearly as often 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 anglers by fishing daily.

I courteously ushered the head-shaking gent to the door and on his way. I don’t know whether he believed any of this or not, and it really didn’t matter if he did or didn’t. All I know is that for many years the numbers of river steelhead far outnumbered the anglers who were qualified to fish for and catch them.

Those who could, did. Those who couldn’t, bad-mouthed the hot sticks. There’s nothing new about jealous and ill-tempered anglers.

Posted by Dave Richey on 08/12 at 05:35 PM
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