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State of the Steelhead - The Canary Ain’t Singing Anymore, But The Fat Lady’s Just Warming Up

by Dylan Tomine

Four feet deep. Rocks the size of bowling balls. Choppy on top. The big purple marabou settles into emerald-green water, comes tight and starts swinging through the seam. I hold my breath and make a small inside mend. The fly slows briefly, swims crosscurrent into the soft water and suddenly stops. The rod bends. The line pulls. And the surface explodes.

As my reel handle blurs, we hear the hiss of flyline shearing water and watch in amazement as the biggest steelhead we’ve ever seen shatters the surface and cartwheels away three, four, five times. When I come to my senses, there’s only one thing to do: start running.

Twenty minutes later, heart pounding and sweaty, I’m holding the tiring fish on a tight line as he slips downstream into a chute of fast water. Unable to follow any further, I clamp down on the spool and my fishing buddy leaps in chest deep, plunges his arms into the icy water and heroically comes up with an enormous slab of chrome. At 40.5 by 23 inches, it’s quite probably the largest steelhead I will ever land, and one of five we’ve hooked this morning in the same run.

The Dean? Russia? Some other exotic destination? Or maybe a complete steelhead fantasy? Hell no. This was the suburban Skykomish River, forty minutes from downtown Seattle on March 14th, 1997. That year, in the March/April catch and release season, I averaged 1.7 steelhead per trip. On flies. Fishing mostly in short, three or four hour sessions before or after work. And I’m not even very good. Unbelievable fishing, and even more unbelievable, it was just eleven years ago. Ah, the good old days.

Today, the fabulous March and April fishery on my beloved Sky is gone. The wild steelhead population is in such a downward spiral that even the low-impact catch and release season was completely shut down after the 2000 season. Heartbreaking? I can’t even find words for how I feel about it. I moved to Seattle in 1993 to be closer to the fabled steelhead waters of Puget Sound. A city where I could work, and a great river with big fish, less than an hour away – it seemed too good to be true. Of course, it was. I had planned on a lifetime of learning and fishing the Skykomish. Instead, I arrived just in time to witness the beginning of the end.

About the Author
Dylan Tomine is a freelance steelhead bum, writer and recovering sinktip addict. He lives in Washington State, where he is pioneering the use of Spey rods for bluegills with his four-year old daughter, Skyla.