I took in the melancholy mystery nature this week while fishing for the elusive steelhead trout. The rocky shoreline at Sailor Bar on the lower American River was dotted with the skeletal remains of salmon that had died after spawning. Gulls pecked at the rotting flesh of carcasses in the shallows. Ducks found quiet places behind rocks to rest from the fast current. Snowy-white egrets and big gray herons kept watch for small fish.
If I didn’t look upstream, I could imagine I was in wilderness area, where it seems such a spectacle of nature should unfold. It doesn’t seem quite right that the annual migration of salmon and steelhead from the Pacific Ocean to the spawning beds of their native stream should unfold in suburban Rancho Cordova in sight of the traffic-heavy Hazel Avenue Bridge.
Nor was I thrilled to see the outline of Nimbus fish hatchery across the river and the knot of salmon fisherman collected near the fish-ladder outflow. The hatchery is a reminder that the once great runs of salmon and steelhead have disappeared, victims of dams, pollution, massive water diversions and myriad other factors. In my own adult life, I’ve witnessed a decline in the Sacramento River system that I wouldn’t have believed possible when I was young man enthralled with steelheading up around Red Bluff in the far northern Sacramento Valley.
But why be an old crank? Wednesday was a blue-sky morning, I had plenty of fishing room on the long riffle and hope was in my heart. That’s the one constant in my 40-plus years of pursuing steelhead: When I’m standing knee deep in the river, watching my line cut through the water, I feel a surge of expectation that I will connect with a great fish. Cast after cast, I remain focused on the feel of my lead weight bumping over the rock bottom, poised to detect any momentary halt that might indicate a steelhead was mouthing my offering. Miss that moment and you miss the fish.
Steelheading was an art – that’s what the purists in Red Bluff told me, a young guy from New York City who had wandered into this small cowboy town to take a job on the local newspaper. Why, you pretty much had to have been born in Red Bluff even to have a chance, they said. Any good old boy could go out and haul in a 20-pound sore-tail salmon. Don’t take no skill to be a meat fishermen. But catching a steelhead? Why, that could drive a fella right crazy, they said.
Of course, I took the bait and set out to catch a steelhead. I became obsessed with it. I quit my job on the newspaper after a year and devoted myself to full-time steelheading. I watched the experts, studied their craft. I spent three solid weeks in the late summer of 1970, six to seven hours a day, standing in the Sacramento River near Battle Creek without catching a steelhead. Grizzled old guys and cocky cowboys were catching fish upstream and downstream from me. I was an absolute failure in the world of real men.
Ah, but on the afternoon of Sept. 5, 1970, my line stopped for a second, as it had a thousand times before. I pulled back on my rod, expecting yet another snag. For a second, absolutely nothing happened. Then my rod tip was yanked down sharply, my reel started screaming and a silvery steelhead exploded into the air about 80 feet away. My heart was pounding as I stumbled downstream. The fish made another run and cartwheeled in the air. I fought it carefully for 10 minutes. I got it into the shallows and backed up on the sandy shore as the experts did. The steelhead turned on its side. I grabbed my line and started to pull it in.
“Let the line go!” an old guy yelled. “He’ll make a run on you.”
I let the line go and used the rod to keep a steady pressure. A five-pound, iridescent fish with the faint red stripe of a rainbow trout slid up onto the sand. My heart was still racing.
“Nice fish,” the old guy said.
Yep, it sure was. The first time was the magic time. But even now, decades and many rivers later, I stand in the American River, watch the birds and ducks, reflect on the mystery of the salmon and hope for a renewed connection with that marvel of nature, the steelhead trout.