Steelhead on the Beach by Calvin McShane
“Well, what are we going to do now?” Miranda asked.
“I have no idea… I suppose we could cast off the beach.” I replied.
“Do people catch fish like that?”
I hadn’t casted for steelhead from shore in a long time, like a really long time.
As a kid, I would spend hours along Lake Superior lobbing spoons off the mouths of creeks looking for steelhead. The first steelhead I saw in person was along the beach. Old-timers in red flannel stained with tobacco spit would line up on the shore for 100 yards. Some had poles in rod holders bottom fishing spawn and others moved up and down the shoreline with long rods and big heavy spoons.
Too intimidated to ask questions, I would walk the shoreline trying to retain any information I could glean. I took note of their setups, their lures and occasionally caught glimpses of rods bent to the cork, the hysteria of landing a fish, and broad-shouldered lake run rainbow trout. The first time I saw one, jaws pulsing, tail flapping on the sandy beach I was hooked
— I need to catch one of these.
But since those days, I’ve matured as far as steelheading is concerned. I learned to fish rivers, read water, and traded the crowded space of the beach for the intimate settings along quiet, picturesque streams.
A time or two in the fall I have ventured onto the beach, but that was years ago, and my confidence in the strategy has faded terribly.
It’s not that I think it doesn’t catch fish, it’s just that it’s a waiting game.
If you want to catch steelhead on the beach you need to be committed.
You need to go out, day after day, sunrises and sunsets.
For those anglers who do so, days can be epic. For those who don’t (myself included), the few days spent on the surf can just further confirm our obsession with rivers. However, this March, fishing the river was not in the cards.
After a winter of relentless snow and even more relentless snow blowing, I was adamant that I was going fishing.
I told Miranda something like, if I don’t go fishing I just can’t take it anymore! I’ve probably said that a thousand times before, but because Miranda is the supporting girlfriend she is, she always treats it like I’m serious (even though sometimes I know she’d rather not).
We had a few days of thawing this March, temperatures in the mid-40s, enough to begin to open up our streams on the South Shore. Things were looking up. I was in a good mood, I thought that my urgency to go fishing might come to fruition.
Just when I was beginning to dust off my waders and vest, mother nature slapped me back to reality. My optimism was met with six more inches of snow and a week-long stretch of twenty-degree weather. I am proud of how I handled it, however — stomping around the house like a five-year-old and obsessively talking about how we were going to move to Florida, how I was done with Michigan winters, I had had enough!
This is what brings us to the present moment — Miranda asking me what the hell we’re going to do. With the river jammed with ice and ice fishing a death sentence, our options were severely limited.
“I haven’t surf fished in a few years, but I guess that’s what I could do.”
“Yes. Go do that. You should. Just get out of this house.” Miranda said. She even agreed to accompany me. Now, that’s a supportive girlfriend if I’ve ever seen one.
So get out of the house is what we did.
Out of the house and into a frozen wasteland. White as far as the eye could see, with a rooftop of grey ominous sky that is only charming for like two seconds five months prior. Lake Superior rumbling on the other side of the break wall, northwest winds pulling the ball cap off your head, it was miserable sight-seeing weather, but any other Tuesday to a die-hard steelheader like me.
I brought along two poles, each strung with 10lb monofilament line and snap swivels. Once on the beach, at the mouth of a small, nameless Lake Superior creek, I opened a small pocket-sized tackle box from my waders and gestured to Miranda.
Around this time Miranda tells me she is going to take a break and take some photos. I asked for her rod, thinking that I wanted to fish her lure of choice for a while before I couldn’t feel my feet and I’d have to bow to mother nature’s wishes.
A few casts later and the Cleo stopped, turned and began peeling line with reckless abandon.
“Miranda, Fish! Fish! Fish!”
With Miranda snapping photos behind me, I played the steelhead thigh deep on ripples of sand, pacing the shoreline with every spurt, roll and head thrash. I felt like a kid. Or more accurately, like a younger version of myself. When steelhead fishing, and all fishing, was so much more innocent. When catching just one fish meant something. When impatience was mute and time felt endless.
After a few minutes, I had the steelhead rolling in shallow water, it’s chrome body flashing amongst licking waves. One last pull and it was beached, jaws pulsing, tail flapping, my lips curled, teeth showing, locked in a stone-cold grin.
We took photos and I blabbered more about how I didn’t expect to have any luck, before we both agreed that we’d done enough suffering in the cold.
We headed home, driving along the bluff overlooking Lake Superior, wind punishing the pines along the shoreline. It’s crazy to look at the endless blue of the lake and think about how many steelhead are swimming around. It’s even crazier to think about intercepting one on the beach.
Considering myself lucky would be an understatement.
We made steelhead patties that night; pulverized boneless steelhead fillets, binded with mustard, panko bread crumbs, shallots, and lemon juice, served on a toasted bun with homemade tartar sauce and wilted homegrown kale. From the beach to the table in less than a few hours. It made the doldrums of March not so bad. Days like these make my patience a little better off. It makes me stomp around the house less, drop the talk about moving entirely, and a whole lot easier to live with (for Miranda’s sake, I hope).
I do often wish for the days when fishing was simpler.
Back then, there was so much awe and glee that numbers didn’t matter and the seasons appeared more like an opportunity to explore something new. I never complained about winter when I was a kid, I just waited, eagerly, for steelhead like a kid before Christmas. Every day was great, it’s just that a day steelhead fishing was a little better.
Now I find myself too often cursing the current days, and hopelessly desiring days far from where I currently am. The days of my daydreams will surely come, but they aren’t like they used to be. They aren’t happening into an unexpected steelhead on a desolate shoreline in the first days of March, the same reality twelve year old me used to obsess over.
I guess my point is, don’t be the fisherman your younger fishing self used to hate.
Be what you are and what you used to be all in one. Be the fisherman your significant other sees. Be whoever that fisherman is. When you’re wondering if you’re doing it right, don’t worry too much, the fish will let you know.
- written by Calvin McShane