Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: It’s Not The Trout That Counts

It’s not about numbers. So says my friend about steelhead fishing. You see, steelheaders are notoriously numerical, measuring every outing first by how many hook-ups they had with big trout and second by the number of fish they actually landed. Thus it is common for one steelheader to say another, “I hooked seven and landed four.”

So maybe it really is about numbers. How else can you measure fishing success? Even my friend who says “it’s not about numbers” carries a small notebook in his fishing jacket where he has fastidiously recorded his personal trout and salmon statistics for decades. After all, the point of going fishing is to catch a fish. Or is it?

I used to count the trout I caught, sometimes even setting catch goals for the season. The only problem was that I’d usually lose count if the number of fish I hooked or landed rose above three. When fishing was that good, I forgot about counting them and just enjoyed my luck.

Over time, I became a better steelhead angler and more proficient at catching fish. But as my catch rates improved, hooking and landing impressive numbers of steelhead became less important to me. Often, it is relatively easy to catch lots of steelhead during their spring spawning runs in rivers and creeks. You can go below a stream barrier, such as a waterfall, that blocks or slows the passage of migrating fish. Or you can seek out the gravel stream bottoms where steelhead congregate to spawn. In such situations, the odds of catching lots of fish are in your favor.

But as my steelheading skills improved, how I caught fish became more important than how many I caught. Instead of going to the high-numbers hot spots, I sought new angling challenges. I learned how to fish very big rivers, which often stymie Great Lakes steelheaders accustomed to pursuing their quarry in creeks of medium-sized streams. I began seeking out places where I was less likely to encounter other anglers, even when it meant catching fewer fish. So maybe, at least for me, steelheading is more about spending quality time on a river than anything else.

Nevertheless, I struggle to understand the point of steelhead fishing. After all, you are required by law to throw back nearly all of the fish you catch, so bringing home a fish for dinner is a very low priority for most steelheaders. Also, spring weather along a Lake Superior trout stream is often cold and wet. You may have good fishing when it is snowing or raining, but it won’t be a dance around the May Pole.

So why does anyone go steelhead fishing or, as is often the case, become obsessed with it? Perhaps it is the fish. Experienced anglers say no other fish swimming in freshwater are as powerful as steelhead, which return from the sea (or the Great Lakes) to spawn in their natal streams. Nearly always, they enter rivers flowing high with runoff and swim as far upstream as they can possibly go, ascending rapids and leaping waterfalls to do so. Muskies may grow much larger and walleyes may taste better, but no fish transmits the same sort of electricity through a fishing line as a steelhead.

That is, if you can get one on the end of your line. Steelheading neophytes, even if they are experienced anglers, often climb a steep learning curve prior to catching their first one. You’ve got to know your stuff to catch steelhead. There are no shortcuts to fishing success. Maybe that’s why numbers are so important. When you tell a fellow steelheader you’ve hooked four and landed two, what you are really saying is, “Hey, I’ve paid my dues. I can catch steelhead with the best of ‘em.” Then again, who but fellow steelheaders really cares?

Last week, I came home from a four day fishing trip. When people who don’t fish ask me about it, I just say we caught some fish and had fun. I don’t bore them with details of interest only to fellow anglers. However, for a few nonangling friends, I told a little story.

One sunny afternoon, I heard a raptor scream overhead. Looking up, I spotted a mature bald eagle flying along the river corridor. Then I heard the scream again and realized it was coming from a second bird. I saw an osprey with a trout firmly grasped in its talons. The larger, less agile eagle was trying to steal the osprey’s fish. I watched the two birds of prey swoop and turn overhead. Screaming in protest, the osprey evaded the eagle and eventually got away. The birds were flying in different directions when they disappeared from view.

Although that’s what I told my friends, there is a little more to the story. I’d gone to the river to catch a steelhead, but witnessing this momentary encounter made my day. Just a week later, I can’t remember how many fish I hooked or landed that afternoon. But I’ll long remember the eagle and the osprey. So I guess my friend is right. Steelhead fishing really isn’t about the numbers.

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