A true once in a lifetime steelhead
Kris Markum Sr. (left) and guide Joey Princen with a steelhead of a lifetime.
The fish of 10,000 casts. The 20-pound steelhead still has a big brother in the 21st century. The one and only 30-pound steelhead. Yes, a few still exist. It is still possible to hook a 30 in the year 2019, or close to.
As an avid steelheader, I must say, the perfect day on the water is a tough demand from the Olympic Peninsula. We all dream of the day when multiple fish are landed with one in the 20 pound range. When these moments actually happen, they are few and far between, it’s sacred. Especialy after spending thousands of hours behind the oars, watching tens of thousands of casts into boulder-ridden pockets and seeing floats sink in pristine Pacific Northwest coastal waters. For every beautiful, wild steelhead hooked in the boat, I wonder, “how big is this one?” I’m cursed with the worst sickness; an addiction of chasing the ultimate trophy steelhead. This obsession can’t be turned off, at least for me. This has driven my whole life on the water, testing the limits of what still exists in the 21st century in Alaska, Canada and Washington.
Adversities the modern steelheader faces have escalated from their original times. It’s atrocious what has become the modern way of fishing for these creatures. Natural cycles of low returns, commercial fishing pressure or sport management mistakes have taken from the gene pool. The fact is, the opportunity at trophy genetic steelhead has my generation mostly reading stories from famous original steelhead fanatics, such as Herzog himself. We hope to still see the magic of these rare steelhead, written about in many novels. I wanted to believe my generation still has a chance at a state- or world-record steelhead.
As much as this curse has led me around the continent chasing big steelhead in different countries and states, sharing this passion with other serious-minded anglers through my guided adventures has been a huge blessing that fuels the fire. We push harder, drift longer, and cast farther with one another. Dreaming of a tail you cannot get your hands around.
A STEELHEAD DREAM THAT BECAME A REALITY
Kris Markum, Jr. and father have been steelhead and salmon clients of mine for years on the peninsula. Every year, we enjoy a father and son journey down a coastal tributary, chasing wild steelhead together. We share stories with one another about life, take deep breaths of the crisp, clean air and enjoying the soul-cleansing scenery of the Olympic Peninsula.
That morning, launching the boat was a challenge. It was completely frozen with ice. Absolutely everything inside the boat was a sheet of ice. But we all smiled with excitement for the day as father and son duo knew their timing was perfect. It was the peak of the wild steelhead return on the southern coast and we knew the river was in prime condition.
The oars slid through the oarlocks with ice chaffing from them. In the distance, the burnt orange colors of the winter sun were creeping through the frozen valley, bringing this wild place life, majestic, to say the least. This day just felt different, it was ideal, creating the perfect winter steelhead morning. A second thought comes to mind, were these cold temperatures too much? We will find out.
We pushed off from shore and within the first few casts, the ice was building up on their rod guides with a mess of frost spraying from the reels. River conditions had us persistent, each cast would land in beautiful 6-8 feet of gin clear water with a tinge of green. We floated down a beautiful 8-mile section of this particular river with limited success. We found just two cold and lethargic winter runs that didn’t want to fight with the tenacity we are accustom to with winter runs. It was obvious the temperatures got to us.
Kris Markum Sr. pictured with his remarkable steelhead measured at 42.50”x 22.50”. Washington’s steelhead calculator puts the fish at 27.74 lbs and the Canadian scale says 31.2 lbs, using the 690 formula for bigger genetics. At 6’2, 235 lbs, Kris is no small human. This fish was bigger than 27.74 lbs in my opinion, much closer to 30, if not that. I’ve caught lots of 30 lb kings and this felt/looked every bit the same. Big steelhead, vary in their own personal genetic makeups from river system to river system as well as different times of the year. Certain returning fish during early parts of a season are designed bigger, to go higher with harsh water conditions than others in the same system. The majority may spawn in the middle or mainstream of a stem. This makes some calculators skewed in my opinion. Regardless, an amazing specimen. The fish was such a challenge that Kris even had to pull out the rubber gloves to give this guy a quick grip n grin. The fish was safely and successfully released and swam off strong. Congratulations Kris, I hope these pictures inspire others to continue their dreams of pursuing steelhead anywhere, anytime, any size.
We tried a variety of techniques including float and worm jig, marabou jig and various sizes of beads. The fish didn’t seem willing. The ones that were would only strike the brightest of patterns in the cold water such as; Western Fishing Operation’s 4.5” worms in Arctic Ice and Mystic Pink. The day just didn’t show signs of improving on this river even with sun on the water. Between the cold water temperatures and a high pressure system lingering over this particular valley, it just didn’t feel right. I made the decision after 8 miles to haul out and change river systems into a different valley which still had warmer temps and a low pressure storm system approaching.
We began the float as rain approached— the water looked stunning. Perfect 5-6 foot range, gin clear, with a ting of winter green. The recipe for success was here, at least we hoped. We fished through the evening. Casting into amazing boulder gardens, runs and buckets, with no success. That was until we reached a known section of the river that held big steelhead. This particular stretch in fact, was the home to my personal biggest steelhead, behind one specific rock. Usually once a year a big one gets caught behind this rock.
Kris Senior, proceeded to wait patiently after a series of fast, white water rapids crashed against the bow of the boat. The famous run in site, he patiently stood up and waited for the boat to reach a position of balanced, even keel. Once the boat balanced, he accurately locked his cast behind the only rock at the “head-end” of the stretch.
This is the rock. The one I mentioned that has big steel, once a year. This boulder creates the perfect big steelhead bus stop. Above and below are long fast water sections. It creates a sharply dug, 5-foot trench, accompanied by a perfect break in the current. Directly behind these types of rocks is a current break seam, also known as the “slick,” which is notorious for holding fish as they travel up rock-strewn, wild sections of rivers. This applies specially for a slow section of the river surrounded by fast water above and below.
As pocket fishing goes Kris perfectly over-shot the “sweet spot” just behind the boulder, causing no disruption to the sweet spot with an abrupt landing from heavy, un-natural gear on the surface. The goal was to gently pull the gear into the sweet spot of the slick and let it setup slowly—finesse is the key in low conditions. He executed it flawlessly. Seconds later, before I even had a chance to blink, it was ripped under the surface deep into the slot. Before I realized what happened, I could feel the boat surge back as all 6’2” of Kris Sr. drove a 4/0 barbless Mustad 2x hook into the rock-hard mouth of an absolute giant steelhead like a major league baseball player hitting a grand slam. I’ve never seen a steelhead buckle back a rod like this during a championship hookset. It was in these moments the largest winter run any of us had ever seen rose to the surface, completely thrash-ing the peaceful section of the river. This fish was so big it looked as if Kris had just lifted a small section of the entire river to the surface.
Yelling in excitement, I dropped the oars and celebrated with Kris Jr. We both were stoked for his father to connect with a really good one after such a grind. This blissful moment came abruptly to an end as the beast used its extremely broad shoulders to gain traction, propelling itself back deep into the shadows of the river. All seriousness returned, everything needed to go right to land this one. It was time for Kris Senior to go to war with a monster, in his element.
In my experience, the biggest of steelhead almost always demand to go upstream as this one did, right back into the fast water “head-in,” just above the boulder. This fish pulled the boat semi-sideways on its stampede up river. Kris Jr. and I could hear the drag as the braid struggled to get out of the reel fast enough to keep up with the powerful run this giant demanded. Headshakes continued. The fish exerted his energy in a ruthless barrage of head shakes that lasted for five minutes. Kris did not gain a single inch of braid back on the reel.
Usually, this is when barbless hooks pop out or strong leaders get sawed in-half like slicing a cube of butter. We gritted our teeth, praying the fish stayed pinned for Kris. We sat and watched the IMX rod absorb the blow. At one point, I closed my eyes because I knew something or someone might break. No one said anything. All we could hear was the drag spinning slow and steady as the fish swam determined up river in heavy current, continuing its head-shake malay. I stroked the oars as much as I could, in hopes of relieving as much pressure from the rod and angler as possible.
Nate Blanscet and his father Kevin came on guided father and son trip almost two and a half weeks after Kris Sr. and Jr. went on their’s. Nate is pictured here holding a monstrous 42”x22.25” which could be the exact same fish. This pictures shows the specimen with more color, white tearing on his noise and tail fins slightly more torn. The fish fought even harder this time and took a similar worm, WFO 5.5” Mystic Pink. I’d like to make a toast; to safe Catch and Release practices, they truly work. The proof is in the pictures.
Finally, the fish gave up his original plan to exhaust himself while attempting to saw off the 15-pound P-Line, CFX leader. These legendary head-shakes were now more spaced apart and the fish retreated down the river for five minutes toward the tail out of the run. We drifted with him hoping to see more signs of fatigue. Finally, he showed the classic signs of lying on his sides with fatigue building up. When I saw him on his side, I took the opportunity and pushed the boat as hard as I could toward the fish while Kris Jr. assembled the large knotless net kept onboard, specially made for big fish.
It was now or never, as a fast water section below was approaching, this was it. From previous experiences with big steel-head, sometimes they have a sudden, un-predictable surge of energy and can break off right when you think they are done. If you are going for the net job, you must commit to it and lift the heads of these giants or the fish will charge off again.
It was time to go for it. Kris Sr. lifted the head of this Goliath as hard as he could, gently sliding him into the net. Was it going to fit? I wasn’t sure, my eyes couldn’t believe what I was seeing, we tried to fit the beast into my “oversized” net, and it fit, just barely…
As we gently pulled him out of the net for pictures, we kept his head wet while we noticed he was absolutely littered in thousands of spots. I leaned over and asked Kris, “have you ever seen a steelhead with thousands of spots? Because I’ve never seen, thousands.” He was built like a semi-truck. It was a struggle to lift its solid physique gently upward from the frigid Olympic Peninsula waters for a picture.
“Good luck grabbing the tail,” I told Kris. The fish was so large my hands could barely wrap around its over-sized rudder. My knuckles popped trying to grip the tail section. Kris got his brand new rubber construction gloves out to grab the tail and went to work. It was the biggest steelhead of his life, and the highlight of my guide career at JP’s Guide Service. Thanks for the picture together Kris. Hard to forget being in pain, just trying to lift a steelhead up, a few inches.
The feeling of camaraderie inside my boat during this time was unforgettable, despite the grind. With maximum effort on two river systems, hours of driving and casting during brutally cold conditions, the day was extraordinary. For addicted steelheaders around the world, the feeling of interacting with these beasts is exalting, but this one was particularly exceptional. Successful steelheading takes patience, persistence, and sometimes teamwork to make the dream a reality. This day will always stand as a classic example of the life of an avid steelheader—it takes failure to succeed. Just remember, find your magical “boulder.” Trophy steelhead are creatures of pattern. Their DNA can be local to a specific place, behind a specific rock, generation after generation. Cheers.
JP’s Guide Service: www.jpsguideservice. com; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Instagram: joey_princen