For many people, spending time in the outdoors can be a way to unplug and get away from it all. I often fall into that camp. Fishing, hunting, and birding are all activities I use to relax and re-charge.
Though it pains me to admit it, sometimes I am not as disconnected from the outside world as I could be when I’m in nature.
The excuse I use for this is that I am a “sharer.” There is a special joy I get from sharing the unique experiences the outdoors provides with others. Since I am not always accompanied by friends or family when I’m out hunting, fishing, or birding, the photos and videos I am able to capture are my way of giving you a glimpse into my experiences.
When I catch a fish or see something special, it is my reflex to reach for my phone or camera. At this point, it’s a habit. But, as ingrained as that procedure is, sometimes I am so taken by what is in front of me that I completely forget to document it. That’s when I know a situation is truly unique.
Recently, I was on a late-morning fishing trip at a local river in pursuit of steelhead. I’ve never pursued spawning trout in the springtime, despite my easy access to several local Lake Michigan tributaries.
I had spent several hours working this particular area in the days prior, with no luck. In fact, it took me a few days to even find fish. Once I had located a few, none of them seemed particularly hungry.
But this didn’t deter me. There is something addicting about getting up close and personal with these beautiful, powerful fish. Armed with a good idea of where to locate a few of these chrome-plated specimens, I set out for another round during an early lunch break.
It didn’t take long to find signs of life, unlike the day prior when a friend and I spent over four hours in the river before seeing our first steelhead.
There was frequent cloud cover occasionally interrupted by intermittent bursts of sunshine. Temperatures were climbing toward 60 degrees, some of the warmer weather we had seen so far this year.
About five minutes in, I had found a couple trout cruising in and out of the deeper pools. I floated a spawn sack past them a couple times to no avail. I switched to a stick bait with the same result. After I decided I had been sufficiently patient, I decided to move up-river in the hope of finding some feeding fish.
I only had to venture about 100 yards before I saw a fish-shaped shadow suspended near the far bank facing into the current. It undoubtedly had intentions of continuing its spawning journey, but it seemed to be taking a well-earned break. This fish had already ventured several miles into the river, navigating its way through shallow water, blockages, and anglers.
After some brief contemplation, I decided to enter into the shallow river bed. I slowly edged toward the fish. The river was narrow here, less than 20 yards from shore-to-shore. I only made it about a quarter of the way across before I felt like I was pushing my luck. So I began casting.
My bait of choice was a pink spawn sack on a single hook. The lack of weight allowed the setup to float just under the water’s surface, right in the fish’s line of vision.
Initially, the fish wasn’t phased by the presence of a potential meal. It had other things on its mind.
Occasionally, the fish would gather its energy and make a charge into the small rapids ahead of it only to be turned away by the power of the water. Each time the fish dug in for another run, it’s silver hue flashed. As best I could tell, it looked to be a female packed full of eggs and determined to find a suitable spot to lay them.
Once I observed her behavior, I came up with a different plan. Rather than attempting to coerce a charging fish into eating, I would let her do her thing in peace. When she retreated back to the slack water, I would offer up the spawn once again, hoping she would eventually be ready for snack after exerting such considerable energy.
It was shortly after that when another shadow emerged from downriver. It was a second steelhead, about two feet in length, similar in stature to the fish I had been targeting.
Incredibly, the fish began working in tandem like a pair of race cars looking for a draft. One fish would take the lead and the other would follow, right on its tail, enjoying the short reprieve from the persistent current. These two wild creatures partnered with one goal in mind: continuing the bloodline for another generation, no matter the cost.
Even after joining forces, the fish weren’t making any headway.
Banking on the fact the fish were distracted by their mission, I inched closer to the pool they were using for recuperation. I was about 20 feet from them at this point.
I continued to wait for their seeming-inevitable retreats to the slack water. Then I would once again float the spawn in their direction. Still no luck.
Upon closer inspection, the second fish was a male. This fact was given away by the fully-formed kype on its lower jaw. He had spectacular colors. A deep, almost greenish gray on top with a brilliant pink stripe down the middle, a far cry from the metallic shades of silver these fish display when they are in the lake come summer.
A third, much smaller fish, joined the would-be parade, hanging back while the larger fish took the brunt of the current.
Still waiting for the right times, I continued pacing out my casts while attempting to balance the quantity of opportunities with quality of them.
At one juncture, the spawn sack gently floated right into the female’s nose. She wasn’t having it. The soft container of fish eggs bounced right off her sniffer and continued floating downstream. This was starting to look like a lost cause.
“Five more casts,” I told myself. Then it was time to move on.
On the third cast of that final set, the spawn sack was on course for a collision with the male. As it approached, he violently shook his head. There was instant tension on my line.
The fish quickly realized its predicament and made a run for it. The water exploded as the fish’s powerful tail breached the surface, the sound echoing off the surrounding trees.
He took a bit of drag as he headed downriver. I walked with him, as far as my calf-high boots would allow me.
Eventually, I brought him back to where the fight began. I slowly, yet firmly guided the fish toward the shallows. He was becoming beached. The problem was: my landing net was back on shore.
Though he was running out of water to work with, I was hesitant to approach the fish. I didn’t want to spook him into another run. But it was either that, or finding a way to back-pedal to shore so I could retrieve my net.
As it turns out, the fish made my choice for me. He was hit with a sudden burst of energy and darted for deeper water. He swiftly maneuvered himself around a nearby boulder. That’s when the snap rang out.
The resourceful fish did what it needed to do to earn his escape. He frayed the line around the rock and broke it clean off. He was now out of sight, as were the other fish who fled during the ruckus. My day was over.
My adrenaline pumping and I was disappointed. I headed back for the truck, tail between my legs.
It was not lost on me, however, that I was lucky enough to have an incredibly enjoyable experience. For nearly 20 minutes, I was in a crystal clear river, mere yards away from awe-inspiring fish. It was truly heart-pounding action.
In fact, a review of the heart-rate monitor on my Fitbit later revealed my heart-rate was in a “workout zone” for the duration of the encounter. I even burned some extra calories.
Heck, my heart rate is elevated as I write this.
As the “sharer” I am, my mind immediately went to work figuring out how I could find a way to include all of you in this excitement. It was then I realized, I hadn’t taken a single picture of my outing. Not one of the fish or the river. Nothing.
All I had was the blurry photo at the top of this story that my phone accidentally took when I was loading up my equipment.
And you know what? I am completely fine with that.
There is no substitute for being completely immersed in the experience.