I could see the gigantic steelhead in the shallow, clear water, that fringed this jade-green pool. This great river dial flowed wild over the timeless round boulders. It was a buck and he was angry, it seemed, as he eyed me for a distinct moment. (I did not understand then).
He wasn’t acting as if he was concerned about being hooked. I reeled in, straightening and tightening the line; 12-pound test, much too light for such a big fish. I was trying to be smooth to maybe coax the fish into being peaceable, and perhaps to gently surrender himself and slip up onto the shallow beach for me...
Abruptly, my optimism vanished when my rod was nearly jerked from my hands. The fish had turned in a flash, and was streaking to the bottom of the pool, where it began to cartwheel violently trying to dislodge my hook. I could see down into the greenish pool where the huge silver fish appeared to be gold, a golden strobe, flashing golden light up from the jade-green depth. This was a very dangerous time; the “death-roll,” some fishing guides called it. Many fish freed themselves performing the “death-roll.” I eased the pressure on the fish and the it responded by swimming to the surface so fast it blasted through in a reverse shower of diamond-bright droplets, a million of them. It appeared to me that the fish was now swimming up through the air, intending to leave the planet. I know my mouth was hanging open. I was stunned by the impossible size of the steelhead and the astounding height to which he soared. Upon “reentry” the great fish knifed down into the river with barely a splash, rocketing upstream, angry and violent as a rank rodeo bull.
I had to run over the bowling-ball sized rocks, awkward and slipping, holding the rod as high aloft as I could, trying to keep up with this freight train of a fish. I felt a familiar hopelessness settling into my chest. Panic still possessed my heart, but experience told me that it was but a matter of moments before the fish was gone. You see, I had hooked such fish before. I sort of resigned myself then and there to accept the inevitable; that being, of course, the familiar heart-breaking snap of the leader. There would be a sudden, surreal, dizziness as hope drained in a single flush and was replaced by an unsavory mixture of confused emotion. This would signal the depressing reality that I had lost another great (or perhaps too great), fish.
Strangely, just about the moment I began to relax, and, as it were, “accept the inevitable,” the great fish slowed down. In fact, he stopped just short of spooling me. I reeled in line as I walked upstream cautiously over the slippery rocks, expecting at any moment another explosion of steelhead fury. The line grew taut as I walked upstream toward the fish. I kept reeling, regaining as much line as possible, anticipating another screaming run at any instant. I could feel the fish, a strong, slow, thumping, the momentous tail-sweep of the huge steelhead; and it was the silver heartbeat of the river. I felt as though I had just emerged from a musty subterranean existence (that was stifling and fraught with anxiety) into a realm of air and light. A different plane that vibrated in peace, deep and fluid, silent yet moving. I became aware that everything around me was throbbing with that same rhythm. Around me the forest was glisten-ing and bright. Each boulder reflected a myriad of astonishing color. The river was luminous—breathtakingly beautiful in its shimmering grace.
I became conscious of the spirit of the fish itself and my own heart swelled with gratitude and such spontaneous joy that I burst out laughing: The thankfulness for everything I saw and felt, the comfort and common sense, no, the sanity of the natural world was such a relief to me, such a pleasure, it was Coltrane’s “Love Supreme.” I felt a prayerful posture possess me. I realized that greater consciousness for the natural world is greater appreciation, is greater thankfulness. It was an understanding that so possessed me, that so overwhelmed me. It was universal love, and it radiated everywhere, even right down the line that connected me to the fish! In fact, it may have started from that end.
Thereafter the fish fight was strenuous, yes, and clumsy, at times, but non-violent. The fish knew and I knew that I would release him. And so I did, after measuring his girth and length and I say patiently because he endured those clumsy efforts of mine with a calm even stately demeanor. He didn’t flop about and hence didn’t injure himself. He knew. He followed my every movement with his eye.
I have always described steelhead as super-conscious creatures; more light and energy than matter, more spirit than substance (my wife Lupe would joke that “it didn’t matter, then, that we had no sub-stance to eat”), but this fish was something else, and I’m not referring only to his giant size. Then I released him and watched as he raced to the bottom of the pool. I realized that I had truly encountered an emissary from the very soul of wilderness sent to enlighten and soothe my tortured soul.
“Yep,” I told my wife, “One doesn’t go out and merely “catch” a steelhead. It is truer to say that a steelhead comes into one’s life; and then, takes it over for a while.