The Steelhead

A Californian ,born and bred, of a family long interested in oil , CLARK C. VAN FLEETbegan fishing when he was a small boy. Over the past four decades,he has devoted most of his recreation hours to fishing forand studyingthe steelhead trout, the greatest game fish of the West Coast. From his letters and diaries he has drawn an exciting, edifying, humbling account of his favorite streams and his great warrior.



IT WAS only natural that a youngster born within sight of the Pacific Ocean before the turn of the century should look to the outdoors for his enjoyment and recreation. As boys, my brothers and I hunted cottontails back of the early Chinese Cemetery in San Francisco. This was just beyond Presidio Avenue, formerly the terminus of the steam railroad that served the patrons of the 1898 Fair and the old Cliff House.

We often made weekend fishing excursions to drop a line in Mill Valley, Lagunitas, Olema, and Papermill Creeks, now less than an hour’s tour to the north, or the San Lorenzo or San Gregorio not far to the south of the city. These streams were great producers: fine trout fishing in the spring, with great runs of steelhead in the fall and winter.

I had my first experience with a steelhead in the famous Whitehouse Pool at the mouth of the Papermill, where it meets tidewater at the head of Tomales Bay. It was only a 31/2-pound kelt. Its efforts to free itself were little more than halfhearted and it soon succumbed to the gentle pressure of my trembling rod and line, but to me at twelve it was the largest and most beautiful fish that had ever graced a fisherman’s bag.

That was more than forty years ago, and since then most of my recreation has been spent seeking the steelhead with a fly. I have fished for him by wading, mostly on big rivers. I have also adhered to the principle of keeping the gut size just above the test necessary to set the hook properly. This is by no means the best way to land record fish, but it adds to the joy of battle and tries the fisherman’s skill to the utmost. As a result, some of my most pleasant recollections concern lost encounters, as enjoyable as many in which I emerged the victor.

The steelhead is known to anglers in three stages: the parr, the grilse, the mature fish.

The parr or fingerling is a first-year fish, ready after hatching and a year, more or less, in fresh water to make the long, hazardous journey to the sea, there to remain, with only occasional forays back to fresh water until reaching maturity. In size, he will run from about 4 to 12 inches; and because of a voracious appetite he is an easy prey for the angler during his downward migration.

The grilse is the still immature fish which comes back from the sea to invade the stream for longer or shorter periods every summer and fall, and whose length of stay depends on the richness of food available. Many of our coastal streams never see them at all; in others, they travel but a short distance from the sea; in a few, they go many miles inland. They vary in weight from about half a pound to 3 pounds and have all the sturdy fighting characteristics of the mature fish. They have a complete coat of silver scales and the bluish head that graces the lord of the river. The prime summer fishing in the Klamath and the lower Rogue is afforded by the grilse. In the Eel in former days they were sought with great enthusiasm by the light tackle addicts. It was a pleasure twenty-five years ago to watch Lew Myers battle the big half-pounders on his 11/16-ounce rod and 6x or fix leaders. On that light equipment, a good 2-pound fish was equal to any 10-pounder on regulation 5-ounce rod and 2x tippet.

The mature steelhead weighs over 3 pounds as he ascends to the spawning beds. These are the mighty ones of our Western rivers, whose unpredictable ways and mysterious life history are so fragmentary and little understood. They are the most sought after of our Western game fish. Fish up to 43 pounds have been taken in nets, although I believe the world’s record on a fly is that monster taken by Maury Griswold at the mouth of the Deschutes in Oregon, a leviathan of 28 pounds.

The steelhead makes his return to the river in the summer, fall, and winter. Each run blends into the other, so that it is not easy to tell where the one begins and the last ends, yet there is a distinct lull in the fishing from September 1 to October 15 on most rivers.

The summer-run fish are quite green in egg and melt development, and these represent a very small percentage of the body weight. They retain their silver and olive-green dress well into the fall, not assuming their wedding dress much earlier than those fish which move into the stream much later in the season. They move up the river of their choice in rather leisurely fashion and feed as they go, after a period of adjustment to fresh-water fare.

The fall fish are riper than the summer group. They travel more rapidly and appear to feed less often than the earlier migrants. This run is usually fairly plentiful in the larger rivers, and they have the first blush of pink that shows the beginnings of the bright nuptial coloring that garbs them during courtship.

The winter fish often enter fresh water within a few weeks of spawning. Heavy with melt or roe, the stomach and intestines are markedly compressed by the weight of these great sacs of reproductive essentials. Usually a freshet brings them along in numbers, and their marriage and its denouement take place in a short space of time. These are the fish that will be found hurrying up some of our smallest coast streams, which are often completely dry in the late summer but subject to bursts of considerable volume during the winter. Winter fish are taken on lures and bait if the water drops rapidly, pinning them in the holes during the day. If water conditions are right, their rest periods are very brief until they reach the spawning grounds, and they seldom feed while traveling.

The fly-fisherman is mainly concerned with the summer and fall runs. The steelhead is then most likely to be interested in and attracted by food in various forms. Their stream travel is leisurely and unhurried, with frequent periods of rest. They are more gamy and full of fight, unhampered by an excess weight of roe or melt.

Fishermen will argue fiercely over the habits of the steelhead, and the most serious controversy arises over the question, Do steelhead feed after leaving salt water on their way to the spawning grounds?

Mr. Roderick L. Haig-Brown, in his book The Western Angler, the best semiscientific work I have read in recent years, declares, in discussing the Campbell River summer run, that 60 per cent of the fish were feeding, 20 per cent avidly. This evidence is borne out by Dr. Paul R. Needham, who in his book Trout Streams speaks of finding food in the stomachs of steelhead.

All of my own angling experience with the steelhead inclines me to the belief that they will rise to a fly because it represents food. My angling technique is based on that premise. I feel that if the lure is fished in such a manner as to simulate some familiar food, the fish will be likely to respond by taking it.

The fascinating adventure in fishing for the steelhead is the unpredictable feature of each cast. Your lure may entice a fish just above the limit of tolerance or one of noble, even prize, proportions. In most trout fishing, the hunting ground of large fish can be predicted with some certainty. Not so the steelhead: water barren today may be rolling with fish the following day; another night may pass and they will have as quietly disappeared. Fortune, chance, and skill all play their part in the enjoyment of every daylight hour on the streams.


LEAVING Santa Rosa in the year 1916, the road north to Eureka was paved to Cloverdale, improved gravel as far as Wiliits, and country road into the wilderness beyond. What today is a mere pleasant jaunt, in that time took on the nature of an expedition. Extra gasoline, tire repair equipment, even spare parts, were scrutinized, accepted or rejected as suited the opinion of the driver and the condition of the particular conveyance to be used.

At Willits you had crossed the divide into the Eel River drainage system, from which point to Garberville there were few accommodations and even little habitation along the rutted, dusty road. Almost all travelers stopped at Cummings, where the Twin Rock Inn was famous for its excellent table.

From Cummings the road trends westerly, winding over and around the great ridge that hedges the east bank of the Eel’s south fork. In those days, no axe or saw had marred the virgin forest that spread for miles in this great basin, climbing the slopes in serried ranks until the tops were lost in the blue of the distant skyline. As we jogged along in the early morning, the crisp October air brought a tang of pine and balsam, the near hills glowed with yellow, scarlet, and gold patches where oak, maple, and dogwood flashed their autumn coats through the mantle of evergreen.

We turned north again on leaving this ridge and came suddenly on the first grove of redwoods, huge survivors of a bygone age. At Dyerville the north fork joins with the south, whose sinuous course we had been following for more than 50 miles. Great groves of redwoods had now become quite frequent, but from the junction on, the broad reaches of the main Eel were seldom out of sight, so that our excitement grew apace with the shortening distance. Soon we had reached the village of Fortuna, with Gregg’s Resort — our destination — but a few miles away.

Gregg’s was then the headquarters for steelhead fishing in that section of the river. Almost opposite the spot where the present span to Ferndale crosses the river, it overlooked the fine expanse of water then called Gregg’s Pool (now Fernbridge), the head of tidewater. Every tidal surge brought its quota of steelhead and half-pounders from their life at sea, fat, vigorous, and full of fight. When hooked, they battled to be free with tremendous vitality and breath-taking aerial gymnastics. There I had my first thrilling struggles, trembling victories, and heartbreaking defeats, fishing for these seagoing rainbows with a fly.

Gregg’s was a two-story frame structure, the inevitable tavern occupying one side of the main floor to the front, the dining room directly in back of that, and the ell for the kitchen tacked on behind, the balance given over to lodgings. A wide veranda ran the full length of the front of the house, from which the pool was in fairly full view. Mrs. Van Zandt had the end room in the west wing off the front porch. There she performed on her fly-tying equipment, making any pattern desired and such inventions of her own as struck her fancy. It was a labor of love, and her generosity extended to anyone who had come improperly prepared. Her husband had been one of the founders of the Sand Bar Club before the turn of the century, which had more or less established the traditions on the river. The main precept established was that anyone reaching man’s estate would take his fish on a fly, leaving bait fishing for women and children. On Sundays the willows bordering the deeper parts of the pool were crowded with boats as the youngsters and their duennas had a hilarious picnic with the half-pounders, with an occasional steelhead to add to the excitement. The fly-fishing contingent rested, reminisced, and made frequent trips to the bar, having left the boats for the use of the juniors exclusively.

Today the Eel is the home of the bait-slinger, and as a result the former splendid runs of fish are sadly diminished. But during this earlier period the Eel was famous for its fly-fishermen as well as for its large fish - Bill Elsemore, Walter Dalton, Milt Carson, Bert Harris, Sam Wells, and Coll Deane, to name but a few of the locals. It was there I first met Fred Burnham nearly forty years ago, one of the country’s greats with a fly rod. We have since joined forces many times on numerous streams up and down the Pacific Coast.


IN October, barring a sudden freshet, the water is exceedingly clear. Our practice was to use a No. 8 or 10 hook, fastened to a 2x gut tippet on a 9-foot tapered leader, with line and rod to match; the hook dressed with the fly best suiting the fisherman’s experience or fancy. Even with this weight gut, it was necessary to use care and skill in presentation, as the big fish were shy and easily put down.

On the Eel, it is a criterion, though not an absolute one, that the sky should be overcast. One real need, common to nearly all quiet water, is a breeze sufficient to agitate the surface well before any pool can be successfully fished. Normally, so close to the coast, a high fog can be depended on until noon or thereabouts, and the first light breezes from the sea usually start about nine o’clock. That makes the morning fishing best from about nine-thirty until noon. The afternoon fishing is best from about three-thirty on, when the first returning wisps of fog scud in on the freshening westerly. If you are fortunate enough to have a few days of high-banked clouds, a good stiff southwester, and an occasional spatter of rain, fishing is usually excellent. Our method is to go to the chosen pool, wade out about waist-deep in the most likely spot, with the breeze at our backs or quartering, and cover the water with from four to five casts to a stand, starting parallel to shore and angling out to end on a cross-pool cast. Take a few steps forward and repeat. Naturally, if fish are feeding, your problem is simplified. Put your fly over the fish. Deep widening swirls announce their presence when they are on the feed. Work down to them quickly but cautiously, and cast so that the fly passes through the edge of the swirl, not through its center; best over and beyond, so that the fly can be manipulated past the feeding fish.

A word about manipulation. The fisherman nods the rod in a gentle rhythm, slowly retrieving the line with the left hand until ready for the pickup for another cast. On the Eel, it is common to retrieve 10 to 20 feet of line before the pickup. If you will try this draw and slack retrieve in a still pond directly under your eye, you can readily perceive the reason for this action. The hackles of the fly, which open at the slack, draw together on the pull, in a lifelike imitation of a swimming insect.

A decision regarding the best pool to fish is not a mere lottery each morning. Overcast, chances of a breeze and its probable direction, knowledge accumulated from previous days of fishing, the combined experience of the camp on the previous day, all go to indicate the best choice for that particular day.

At eight-thirty one morning, my friend Wosty, Fred Burnham, and I were having breakfast together of bacon and eggs, hot cakes and syrup, toast and coffee. Fishing is hungry work.

“The overcast looks pretty thin this morning,”Fred said. “No breeze at all yet. Maybe we had better try East Ferry. It’s the best bet for an early breeze, and I think it ought to be hot.”

Westy and I agreed and our tackle was soon accumulated and stored in the car. As we left the draw for the summer road along the bar, the first faint breeze stirred the leaves of the high cottonwoods across the river. Soon a slight rise brought us to the flat meadows around Grizzly Bluff. From there, taking the old East Ferry road, we were soon back to the river, over a great expanse of gravel to the site of the old abandoned ferry that gave this water its name. There, a side road led along the shingle to the lower end of the pool.

The tail of the pool is too shallow to hold anything but an occasional half-pounder, but the next hundred yards above is ideal, with a good clean gravel bottom accessible from both the east and west banks. The west bank is favored by most fishermen, its gentler slope giving a water backcast rather than a bank one, where carelessness can often break a hook. To divide forces, Westy chose the east shore in spite of its drawback, and soon splashed across the shallows at the tail. As I fastened the last strap on my waders, Westy was opposite, with Fred some 20 yards above me on my side of the river.

The breeze had now strengthened, sending a riffle of little wavelets through the lie. I had advanced about ten steps when a deep swirl back of my fly showed a rising fish that missed. Westy, alert to the chance, cast just beyond the widening circle. His fly had not traveled 2 feet before his arching rod and screaming reel proclaimed the first steelhead. Thirty yards away a bow of silver arched above a welter of spray as his fish took to the air in a beautiful jump. Westy worked towards the tail of the pool to keep his steelhead away from the still unfished water. As his rushes grew shorter, I waded back to continue working up the run. On my third cast a fish took with a rush and was away so fiercely that the rod, bending to the strain, threw the whirring handle of my reel against my sleeve. In that instant, before I could clear, he was gone. Ruefully I reeled in, and with trembling fingers fastened a new fly to the broken end of my leader. Westy had just beached his beautiful fish. Fred dropped back to come in below me, as the fish were apparently lying well down in the tail of the run. Another deep swirl at my fly, my line straightened out.

I struck.

A fleeing torpedo took charge; my rod bowed to the strain as my reel screamed to crescendo and the line melted away. The run ended in a tail walking rush across the surface. I dropped the tip of the rod sharply to avoid a pull-out. He was away on another sustained run up the pool. I scrambled ashore with but a few turns of backing left on my reel, and ran along the beach. On the next jump he changed directions, and I took my first real breath since the battle started. We had been through all the remaining fishing water with a vengeance. A momentary sulk gave me an opportunity to regain some line, which I took full advantage of. The next move was down the pool with more deliberation, the run ending in a surface wallow that showed he was tiring. I was able to pick up all my backing and considerable casting line as he jockeyed back and forth with shorter rushes. The end of the leader showed as I worked him toward the beach. He turned again and again as I drew him toward shallow water; finally the silver of his belly flared as I turned him over; a moment later I had dragged him gasping onto dry gravel.

I carried him far up the bar for hook removal and coup de grâce. Bluish to olive green with black spots nearly to the median line, changing sharply to silver, then pearl white on the belly, a beautiful fresh-run fish. I sat for a moment to smoke and admire.

Fred was now fast to a fish, whooping in appreciation at every fast run or jump made by his antagonist. Westy was wrestling a big half-pounder, its bouncing tactics keeping him busy. He soon brought it to hand and gently released it. Fred’s fish headed with determination toward the deeper water of the upper pool, Fred scrambling after it. The sun broke through the overcast more frequently and for longer intervals as I worked out to the fishing water again. Waves slapped against my waders in the freshening breeze. Gulls screamed overhead in the hope of gleanings from the fishing. The willows waved greetings to the dancing cottonwood leaves far above them. The brightening sun now washed the sky clear of fog. After fifteen minutes of fruitless fishing, we called it a morning. Westy’s and my 8-pounders were twinlike in their equal symmetry and beauty; Fred’s fish topped ours by 2 pounds.


IN 1928 my business took me to Eureka to reside. This gave me a real opportunity to study the river through a whole season. I found, much to my surprise, that fish came into the river in late June. A fish was reported taken from the Van Duzen Pool on June 26 that year. I had the supreme pleasure of taking a 101/2-pounder from the same waters on July 6. From that date on, I spent every moment I could along the banks of the river, observing fish or working likely pools.

My diary for that year reveals some interesting data. I fished the river from July 4 to December 9 on fifty-one occasions. Nine of these ventures were unproductive of steelhead; either the fish were present and refused my offering, or I was fishing barren water. In all, I succeeded in luring 192 steelhead. Of the fish raised, I hooked 110 and beached a total of 73. The smallest steelhead caught was a 41/4-pounder, the largest an even 15 pounds. Most of the summer-run fish were taken between five and seven in the evening. This can be accounted for in a great measure in two ways: I did not fish until after working hours, and the overcast was absent during most of the summer days.

At first glance, the proportion of raised fish to takers seems inordinately high. I attribute the majority of the refusals to lack of sufficient breeze. On the average day, the first puffs would start about nine o’clock, but it was often ten before the wind had steadied enough to establish a good riffle. By six-thirty in the summer and four-thirty in the late fall, the water would be at dead calm. Most of the refusals occurred in shimmery water, when it was probable that the fish saw the leader and shied off. A number of tests appeared to prove this.

Misses under normal conditions can be attributed in great measure to miscalculation on the part of the fish, in which case he will return more viciously and accurately if the fly is not pulled away from him. If the fish barely grasps the fly in the edge of his jaws, the strike will pull it out of his mouth. It is still most difficult for me not to respond to a raise by depressing the butt on sight of that deep broad swirl in the vicinity of the fly. This is especially true if the raise is unexpected. This natural reaction must be controlled at all costs fishing for steelhead; the larger the fish, the more deliberate are his movements. If you take time to see the rod tip respond to the tightening of the line, your chances are best to hook solidly.

Much has been said and written about the speed with which a fish can detect the artificiality of a tied fly and the rapidity with which he can reject it. It is just not so. I was able to prove this, as the following incident will show.

In 1923 Cy McNear invited me to join him on a trip to the Salmon River, which enters the Klamath at Somes Bar. We stayed that night in Arcata, at the kind invitation of the Brizards. The next morning we staged over the old Orick-Weitchpec road, from there to Orleans, and on to Somes Bar. That was a hair-raising experience in those days. Fortyodd miles of twisting, climbing, and dropping along the winding back of the ridge made you feel as though you had been riding a cockleshell in a storm. As we skimmed over the last rise, we could see the gorge of the Klamath a thousand feet below. The one-way bridge across the river was reached by a series of hairpin turns as we dropped down the side of the mountain. Somes Bar was 21 miles up the Klamath. I felt like a fly on a wall as we followed this road from Weitchpec, mostly one-way, up the river; I think there were five turnouts in the first 10 miles. Were we glad to arrive at Carl Langford’s cottage at the Bar!

Carl assured us there was a big run of fish in the river, which statement the next day amply justified. They were mostly half-pounders, but ranged in size to fish well over 2 pounds. Every run, riffle, and hole seemed to be filled with them. I took so many that day that it ceased to be sport. I kept one particularly nice fish for dinner; the balance I returned to the water with care. The full count for the day was seventy-one. This fishing was all done in a very few pools immediately above the mouth of the Salmon. I was astonished to find that I caught some of these fish more than once during the day. This was brought to my attention by the capture of one peculiarly marked fish four times. In some way, the right gill pan had been torn off of this fish so that this injury made identity unmistakable. After locating this fish, I was particular to try for him periodically. He became more shy at each trial, but even on the last occasion, I was able to capture him after five timid raises in the same pool where we had first made contact.

The next day I spent in experimentation on pattern, method of lure presentation, and particularly, what happened after the fish had taken the fly. One pool was especially adapted to my needs; it was full of fish and relatively shallow at the lower end, where the water smoothed out before it crashed over into the next riffle. The south bank was rugged, with large boulders affording both elevation and concealment. Choosing good cover, I first counted all the fish within my range of vision. There were fifty-four or -five. I then coiled off about 60 feet of loose line on top of a near boulder.

My first cast was well above the school; the fly sank a little and drifted down toward the fish, one rose with vigor to take, and swam back to its resting place below. On the take, I had fed out line freely. As the drag of the current bellied the line, the leader tightened against the fish’s jaws. He ejected the fly, which was spit forth to about an inch in front of his snout. He had held the fly in his mouth all of six, possibly eight, seconds. The fly was now deep in the water at the same level as the fish. The fly now traveled less than a foot before another fish took it, held it for a second or two, and in turn spit it out. The belly of the line now carried the fly more swiftly, as well as diagonally, downstream toward the shallower side of the pool. The next fish rushed the fly, and I fed the line very rapidly as he turned back toward the deeper channel; he dropped it the minute he reached his normal place in the lie. I was here reaching the point where the water was gathering speed for the drop into the next riffle. The fly, drifting more rapidly, started into the shallows again when a fish darted for it and rushed back upstream. I could not feed line fast enough to keep him from hooking himself. After gently releasing this fish, I sat down and had a cigarette. This rested the pool for about ten minutes. I worked down from the head of the school again with about the same results. In all, I spent a good hour covering this run from different positions and angles, making every effort to keep the fish from hooking themselves. I was successful with around four out of five.

(To be continued)