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EXCALIBUR: THE STEELHEAD

March 11, 1957
March 11, 1957

Table of Contents
March 11, 1957

Spectacle
Events & Discoveries
The Wonderful World Of Sport
Spring Training
Fisherman's Calendar
Acknowledgments
The Footloose Sportsman
Horse Racing
The Steelhead
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

EXCALIBUR: THE STEELHEAD

The brilliant game fish of the Pacific coast, like King Arthur's gleaming sword, is a prize that can be won only by the skillful, the courageous and the strong

The rest of the world's trout may be taken in summer, to the sound of birds and the pleasant hum of insects, but the Steelhead—the big, sea-going rainbow of the Northwest coasts—is winter's child. To know him you must gird as for war and wade the rivers when they are bitter cold—in sleet-filled gloom, or in freezing blue weather when the leafless alders gleam in pale sunlight along the streams, and ice forms in the guides of your rod. To know the Steelhead, you should hurt with cold and nurse a little fear of the numbing current which pushes against your waders; it can pull you down and make you gasp and drown you, as Steelhead streams methodically drown a few of your fellow fishermen with every passing year.

This is an article from the March 11, 1957 issue Original Layout

The Steelhead may be pursued in fairer weather, and in easier ways. He runs as far south as the Sacramento River in California. Some of his number run in the early spring, and, in such rivers as the Snake and Oregon's famed Rogue, he runs in the summer, too. But he is a northern fish; when he leaves the sea to spawn, he comes mostly to the rivers of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, and he migrates chiefly during December, January and February. The fisherman who has not met him when it is cold has not been properly introduced. Winter sets the stage for him and makes him unique.

There is ominous drama in the very look of a chill, green river on a dark and stormy afternoon, and a man fighting cold and snow to wade it is being properly conditioned for his moment of revelation. For the Steelhead is a fish which makes an impact upon the adrenalin-producing glands rather than the intellect. He is always big (6 to 30 pounds), and he burns with savage energy from the limitless feed of the ocean he has left behind. He can hurtle into the air a split second after he is hooked, and flash hugely out in the murk, like the sword Excalibur thrust up from the depths—at once a gleaming prize and a symbol of battle. At that sight, and at the first astounding wrench of the rod, the fisherman is rewarded for his hardihood: he is suddenly warm and reckless, and simultaneously possessed of mindless desperation and rocketing hope.

Men in the grip of this atavistic elation sometimes find themselves doing extraordinary things. A Steelhead out in moving water at the end of a 6-pound test leader and a 9-pound monofilament line transmits a horrifying sense of power to the rod. Many an otherwise conservative fellow has found himself heedlessly following his fish downstream—laboring wildly along a gravel bar while up to the waist in icy water, body half buoyant, weightless feet feeling desperately for bottom, bucking rod held high and numbed hands working the reel with reverence to get back precious line.

Men have tripped, gone down with a splash, and come up with hardly a change of expression to carry on the struggle; they have run along river banks, hurdling rocks and thrashing out into the water around log jams, in their effort to turn, control and finally dominate their trout. A lot of them have lost. A few have literally hurled their rods into the stream at the awful second when the line went irrevocably slack. But of course a lot of men—and women, too—have won battles with a big fish in bad water, have guessed when it was time to say, "Now it's you or me," have increased the pressure, controlled the startling submarine disturbance at the end of the line, have endured the trout's last jump and its surface splashing, and have finally reached it—silver, iridescent and enormous—on shelving gravel or frozen sand and have reached for its gills like a prospector bending at last over the mother lode. And afterwards have relaxed, before an evening fire, in a glow of weariness and euphoria.

Not every struggle with a Steelhead is so difficult, for the fish is a creature of moods, and water and weather vary. But the measure of the big trout is his impact upon man, individually and en masse. It is dramatic in the extreme. During the last 10 years Steelhead fishing has become a near mania in the Northwest. One man in 10 in western Washington braves the wintry cold to fish the Steelhead streams, and a quarter of a million do so along the West Coast as a whole.

Hundreds of night-shift workers at the Boeing Airplane Company's plants in Seattle and Renton keep rods in their cars and fish on their way home in the morning. Doctors, lawyers, bankers and engineers fish for Steelhead, talk about Steelhead and dream about Steelhead from November to March. Many a visitor from afar has caught the virus, and many a North-westerner, trapped in the cities of the East and South, goes on mooning about winter fishing year after year. A lot of people who never fish—but like to eat—applaud the Steelhead too. Baked or broiled, he is a delight to the palate; juicy, succulent, similar to salmon in color, taste and texture but with a delicate hint of rainbow trout flavor which is difficult to describe but wonderful to experience.

Like many another public figure, the Steelhead elicits fervent testimonials. Ex-President Herbert Hoover has been a steelheader for decades (his favorite streams: the Klamath and the Rogue), and Jim Phelan nurses memories of fishing the Skagit during his gaudy years as football coach at the University of Washington. Clark Gable is still recovering emotionally from his first Steelhead, a bright fish which he took on a dry fly and which jumped 11 times before he finally landed it. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (who has a weather-beaten fishing shack in Washington's Quillayute River wilderness) considers the big trout the "champion of champions" and talks raptly of his "first great jump, and the maddening race downstream in fast water."

Although he is a game fish, the Steelhead also has a marked influence upon business: it is estimated that $16 million was spent, directly and indirectly, in pursuit of him in the state of Washington alone last year. Sporting goods stores not only sell tons of fishing gear calculated to make certain his demise (see box, page 64), but also retail pamphlets with maps of streams, detailed descriptions of holes and drifts, and even intelligence on the attitudes of farmers whose fields abut the stream. Newspapers run almost daily pronunciamentos on fishing conditions. Motels near distant rivers do a brisk winter business. Department stores cater to the steelheader's need for voluminous costuming—the rites of preparing for the wintry stream have become almost as formalized as those of the ancient knight preparing for the lists.

In his efforts to armor himself against the cold, many a fisherman has turned to long underwear of quilted Dacron, or of materials which incorporate thousands of insulating air cells, and to heavy woolen "feel gloves"—so called because both thumbs and forefingers have panels of thin nylon which permit the angler to remain sensitive to the reel. He must have waders or hip boots, a slicker, thick woolen socks, fishing vest, a sou'wester, wool shirt and heavy sweaters as well, and, once laboriously girded for the fray, he often stuffs two or three hand warmers (which burn lighter fluid) into his pockets to create islands of heat around his muffled torso. "They are," says Dr. Fred Cleveland of Seattle's Mason Clinic, "the greatest comfort to man since the invention of woman."

This furor seems only logical, for the Steelhead (Salmo irideus gairdneri) which was almost ignored during the Northwest's early decades, is one of the world's toughest and most brilliant game fish and a prince of the beautiful salmonoid family. Pound for pound, he is lustier and more enduring than any of the six strains of Pacific salmon. Unlike them, he does not face inevitable death after spawning—if he can maintain more than 60% of his body weight in migration up a stream, he will get back to the sea, rebuild his strength, grow bigger and return to spawn again.

Exhaustion tests have shown that he can swim for minutes in water fast enough to wash the big king salmon downstream. He is bold: at sea, even as a small fish, he does not school up like Pacific salmon but swims alone. In streams, he is a heavy-water fish, and moves by preference in deep, fast-moving currents. He is hardy: Steelhead have come into coastal streams with their body cavities ripped open by sharks and have still hit a lure and have fought gallantly. He is an amazing jumper. Pacific salmon have never surmounted Shipherd's Falls, a roaring, 60-foot cataract in Washington's Wind River (although they now negotiate it by fish ladder), but the Steelhead is able to pick his way up by leaping from one small pocket of water, four, five or six feet to the next, often jumping at odd angles to hit the targets he must sense but cannot possibly see as he launches himself.

The Steelhead and his blood brother, the rainbow trout, seem quite obviously to be the same fish. When they are small they are absolutely indistinguishable. Though the Steelhead turns a bright silver in the sea, he gradually darkens again when he returns to his river, and the bold, red rainbow stripe reappears down his sides. Why, fishermen have asked for decades, do some rainbows go to sea and some stay content to live out their lives in fresh water?

For the answer it is necessary to go back millions of years to the ice age—to a time before the existence of the fresh-water streams up which the Steelhead and other anadromous fishes now make their adventurous voyages into the coastal valleys. A prehistoric sea trout spawned in brackish waters at the feet of glaciers, and from him both strains of fish have descended. As the glaciers receded, and rivers formed, these prehistoric trout went farther and farther inland to spawn. During the immense period of time this process involved, some of them—the rainbows—became physically accustomed to fresh water, perhaps after being landlocked by slides or disturbance of terrain, and doubtless then only after finding water containing enough minerals and feed to allow the strongest to survive. The Steelhead, however, went on returning to the ocean.

Over the centuries—despite their identical appearance—the two strains of trout have developed differences in organic function. The body fluids of both must still contain 75/100ths of 1% salt if they are to live—the same percentage which existed in the brackish waters from which their common ancestor stemmed. To maintain this balance, the fresh-water rainbow has developed gills and kidneys capable of conserving salt and throwing off water. But the ocean is 2% saline, and the organs of the sea-going Steelhead perform a reverse function—they throw off salt and conserve water. A rainbow will die after a half hour in the ocean. But a little Steelhead, who looks exactly like him, develops a salt deficiency when he is 7½ to 8 inches long (and probably other needs, as well, since his streams are low in cobalt, iodine and calcium). He grows restless, he loses appetite, his scales become deciduous, and he heads downstream for the sea, where he grows prodigiously.

In some respects, he is probably closer to the famed Atlantic salmon—which, despite its name, is a trout, too—than to his own blood brothers, the rainbow. Anglers who have caught both tend to speak of them only in contrast, but fisheries experts, confronted by a Pacific Steelhead and an Atlantic salmon, both fresh from the ocean (and thus a common silver color) have been unable to decide which was which; they are, in essence, the same fish. For all his similarity to the Atlantic salmon, however, the Steelhead has adapted himself to his own environment in distinctive ways during his eon of adventuring from the Pacific into the western valleys of the North American continent.

All Steelhead spawn in the early spring, but they swim up rivers of varying length to do so. Since some, as a consequence, must start their journeys earlier than others, they have divided themselves into three separate races: the great race of winter-run fish, which enter streams in the cold months; the summer-run fish, which come into rivers in July and August; and a group which runs into the Columbia River in April and May.

All of these fish are virtually indistinguishable to the eye (although body shapes and coloring may vary subtly from one watershed to the next), and all carry amazing supplies of fuel as they start upstream. For sheer performance, however, the spring-and summer-run fish are seldom matched in nature; they come from the ocean prepared to stay in fresh water from eight to 11 months, and some of them to swim all the way into the wilds of Idaho or eastern British Columbia, there to perform the reproductive function—and they are prepared to manage all these labors without any feeding worthy of the name.

Men have caught scores of Steelhead, and have inevitably found their stomachs empty; thus it is popularly supposed in many quarters that they do not feed at all in rivers. Actually they do, and at times on very odd fodder—mice and birds' feathers, for instance—and it is this instinct which makes them attack bait and lures which Pacific salmon will refuse in streams. But the flesh and internal cavities of Steelhead are so packed with vital oils, fats, salts and minerals when they leave the sea that their stomachs are squeezed almost to the point of uselessness by the riches in their bodies. There is logic in this: the rivers contain little feed during the cold months, and even in the summertime the coastal streams of the Northwest lack the heavy insect life and big fly hatches of more easterly waters.

During all his time in the river, the Steelhead is marvelously governed—both as a game fish and as a creature intent on reproducing his own kind—by water temperatures. A Steelhead is only infinitesimally warmer than the water in which he swims. He will die after a while in water colder than 36° because his metabolism slows to a point at which it cannot compete with the natural forces of breakdown in his body. At 39° he is logy and unresponsive; at 40°, if hooked, he will often be disappointingly easy to land, but at 42° or 43° he will go berserk at the first feel of the snubbing rod.

He comes into rivers and does most of his upstream traveling in them when they are high, protectively discolored and generally unfishable; not because he cannot swim in shallows but because streams almost invariably grow cold when they are low and clear in the winter. The sea stays at 45°, and he tends to linger off rivermouths, like a man hesitating to step into a cold bath, until they warm and flood with rain. Once in fresh water he will pause in holes and runs when freezes set in; thus the angler, who needs clear water, is eternally forced out in horrible weather, both when streams are dropping or when they first begin to warm (a word used only relatively) and rise.

Each occasional increase in stream temperatures, too, brings the female fish closer to ripeness. Steelhead have a passion for survival; the parent fish spawn in the main channels of streams under moving and aerated water where there is little chance that drought can expose the nest or redd. Female Steelhead construct these incubators by lying on their sides over gravel bottom and undulating rhythmically—thus creating a hydraulic force which dredges a depression in the stream bed for them. The nests are four or five feet long and 18 inches deep; when the eggs are ejected and fertilized, the current washes the disturbed gravel back into the depression and covers them.

Once they are buried, the eggs will hatch in 50 days at an average water temperature of 50°—but will take five days longer for each degree of cold below this level. As a result, the tiny, newly hatched fish are seldom thrown into the world until spring has really begun. Even so, they lead a rugged life. They must fight their way up through a foot and a half of sand and gravel after emerging from the egg, and, once free in the water, they become the pawns of fatalistic instinct. Though only three-fourths of an inch long, they start confidently downstream to seek a place of their own along the banks and shallows; those which cannot find unoccupied growing space swim serenely on into salt water and perish, sacrifices to the need for an uncrowded river and the demands of their luckier brothers and sisters.

Of all the anadromous fishes of the Pacific, the Steelhead serves the severest apprenticeship for the sea; western salmon leave the stream by the time they are a year old, some of them after only 90 days. But the Steelhead stays two years, and only the fittest of his number survive. He goes seaward, moreover, only in March, April or May. If he develops the physiological need for salt water later in the year he will stubbornly resist it until the next spring and will die rather than violate his timetable. He is born with an instinct for hiding himself—no matter how restless he is, he will not start for the ocean except in the dark of the moon, or on cloudy nights or when the water is murky from rains.

In the ocean the Steelhead feeds greedily on shrimp and herring, avoids—if he can—marauding sharks and seals, and grows tremendously. In 20 or 21 months he weighs from six to 11 pounds and heads back toward land, guided to his own stream (there are 142 Steelhead rivers in Washington alone) by that mysterious homing instinct common to all salmonoid fishes. An appointed few of his number, however, linger for yet another year in the ocean. These reluctant fish are nature's insurance against some home-stream disaster which might wipe out the run, and they follow the next winter, bearing seed which would re-establish their strain. They—and those Steelhead which are able to spawn more than once—are the angler's prizes; they weigh 20, 25, even 30 pounds and are awesome creatures to cross.

The pursuit of Steelhead has gone on in the Northwest for over half a century but for most of that time only the hardiest and most dedicated of fishermen braved the cold along the wintry streams. The only lure used was a walnut-size cluster of salmon eggs—a commodity which imparts a gloriously fishy stench to the person. Some fishermen "plunked" them—that is, sank a baited hook and a chunk of lead in a deep hole and simply waited for a fish to hook himself. Most anglers "drifted"—that is, they cast a lightly weighted bait across a stream and allowed it to bump along the bottom in a long arc. Plunking was slow. Drifting demanded long practice, sometimes years of it, for a Steelhead does not strike salmon eggs, but only mouths them delicately, and proper use of a level-wind reel is not learned in a day.

In the years after World War II, however, two handy and efficient devices suddenly set off today's stampede to the Steelhead streams. The spinning reel made every dub an expert caster, and a Seattle barber named Willis B. Korff invented a curious new lure, the Cherry Bobber, which permitted a tyro to hook a Steelhead. The original bobber was simply a round piece of wood, the size and color of a cherry, which sported a rotating brass spinner, and a naked treble hook. For reasons best known to himself, the Steelhead snatched at this gadget with alacrity when it was drifted near him on the bottom, and usually did so with a jerk which instantly informed the angler that he was jugular-to-jugular with the foe.

The Steelhead boom has been growing ever since; when compared to the tradition-governed and selective convocations of the Atlantic salmon fishermen, it is an anarchistic phenomenon, full of the fever and opportunism of an early western land rush. The private water and club rules of Scottish and Canadian salmon streams do not exist in the Northwest—every man, woman and child has access to streams and the right to take Steelhead—and there are no revered and ancient methods.

The Cherry Bobber has been followed by the "clown bobber," a smaller wooden bead painted yellow with red spots, the Hoh Bug, a lure carved from cottonwood roots, and the "spinning bobber," which is equipped with vanes, somewhat like a Devon. It has been discovered that the Steelhead will hit small spoons—that he will, in fact, hit a bare hook which has been festooned with a few threads of fluorescent red or lime-green wool yarn.

All these lures are drifted on the bottom, like the salmon eggs which the skilled and recalcitrant oldtimers still use. But in this evolution of technique drift fishing grows increasingly sportier—more and more fishermen are adopting a 5½- or 6-ounce glass rod which is stiff in the butt and sensitive in the tip, light monofilament lines (since they are easier to cast), even lighter leaders (to prevent breaking the line itself when the hook snags) and as little weight as possible in the interests of a free and natural drift.

Almost every innovation, in fact, seems to lead drift fishing closer to sporting ideals; a yarn-covered hook, after all, is a sort of wet fly even though it is cast differently and weighted with a bit of lead. And a stubborn and long-suffering minority of purists has meanwhile been borrowing from the drifters to prove that Steelhead, which have long been taken on flies in the warm, summer-run streams, can also be taken with them in the winter when they stay deep in the chill current and when insect life is nonexistent. The trick: "shooting" light monofilament behind quick-sinking fly lines (some of them made of glass) to get distance and depth, and "dredging the bottom" with wet flies in such local patterns as Brad's Brat and Stillaguamish Belle.

The unique and heartening aspect of the Steelhead stampede, however, is concerned with the life and times of the Steelhead himself. The big trout, who might very well have been on his way to extinction under the present remorseless attack, is actually increasing mightily. Thanks to a burly near genius named Clarence Pautzke, there are more fish in many streams this year than there were before Steelhead fishing began. Pautzke—a former University of Washington football player who is now the Washington State Game Department's chief fisheries biologist—has shrewdly capitalized on two aspects of the Steelhead's life (that he will automatically go to sea when he reaches a certain size and that as a mature fish he needs little or no feed in streams) to prove that unlimited runs of big, fighting fish can be installed in any Steelhead river.

The reasoning which led him to his triumph—unprecedented in 3,000 years of fish culture—seems simple enough in retrospect. In stocking any stream, man is limited by the amount of feed available; put 2,000 fish in water capable of supporting only 1,000, and half will die or all will be stunted. This is as true of young Steelhead during their formative times in streams as any other trout. But, Pautzke thought, why not raise the fish in ponds until they actually felt the urge to go to salt water, use the streams merely as chutes to send them out to the ocean's rich feeding grounds, wait two years, and—presto—get back hundreds, thousands, even millions of big, healthy trout?

It has worked. Guided, in part, by some earlier work by Dr. Lauren R. Donaldson, of the University of Washington School of Fisheries, and Thor Gudjonsson (a former graduate student, now Director of Fisheries Research for Iceland), Pautzke force-feeds his small fish and brings them to the sea-going stage in one year instead of two.

To protect them when they go downstream, he has banned spring fishing for fresh-water trout on scores of streams. This was a necessity, since a little sea-bound Steelhead is virtually indistinguishable from a legal-size, eight-inch rainbow, but it was not accomplished without setting off a fearful roar of protest from thwarted opening-day anglers. Pautzke cunningly stilled the clamor by putting rainbows in Washington's numerous lowland lakes (where they grew bigger than they ever had in the streams) and by using them to divert and satisfy the rush of spring trout fishermen. The tons of eight-inch Steelhead which are sloshed into Washington's streams from a huge tank truck each spring no longer need run a gantlet of fly rods. By planting one million fish a year, Pautzke has added 100,000 gleaming Steelhead (which some fishermen call Pautzke's Pets) to the normal run. With more money and more equipment he expects to produce a million lusty big fish; Oregon and British Columbia are, meanwhile, instituting downstream stocking programs, too.

This philosophy of producing rather than conserving fish is at the heart of the whole exciting Steelhead boom, and its greatest departure from the attitudes and methods of Eastern and European salmon culture. Pautzke, a man who looks, and often talks like a Cowlitz Valley logger, would doubtless shake the very soul of a conservation-minded Scottish laird. He haunts the streams, often with rod in hand, and exults at the sight of Steelhead on the bank. "Look at those beautiful bastards," he sometimes shouts. "Catch them all. There's more where they came from!"

The Steelhead, himself, puts it differently. "Catch me," he says with his first leap, "if you can."

PHOTOJOE VAN WORMERA sportsman's silver symbol, this fresh-caught Steelhead hangs over banks of icy Skykomish River in Washington as his half-numbed conqueror thaws out by fireILLUSTRATIONRUDOLF FREUNDLORD OF THE WINTRY RIVER, the Steelhead is a fish men gladly freeze for. As rugged as his name implies when he comes in from the Pacific Ocean to the tumbling streams where he was born, this brother of the rainbow is a bitter-end fighter when hooked.PHOTODOZENS OF STEELHEAD, ANSWERING THE MYSTERIOUS HOMING CALL OF NATURE, GLIDE UP THE UMPQUA RIVER IN OREGONPHOTOGOING HOME, successful steelheader trails his heavy trophy through a field of snow.

WHAT YOU NEED FOR STEELHEADING

SPINNING: Spin-fishermen are gradually taking over the Steelhead scene. Most prefer hollow glass rods in 7½-to 9-foot lengths with medium-heavy actions. SHAKESPEARE WONDEROD ($29.95), ST. CROIX STANDARD ($13.95) and CONOLON AIR-FLITE ($18.95) most popular, with wide selection currently on market, ranging in price from $9.95 to $125. Good reels may be purchased from $9.95 to $44.50, with CENTAURE RIVER ($26.50), MITCHELL 300 ($29.75) and ORVIS 100 ($29.50) in highest demand. Spoons sure-fire with 8-to 10-pound monofilament.

BAIT-CASTING: Still present, though in diminishing numbers, bait-casters pay from $3.95 to $55 for rods, lean toward SOUTH BEND ($6.95), HARNELL ($18.95)and SILA-FLEX ($26.50). The HEDDON PAL ($13.75) and PFLUEGER SUPREME ($35) lead field in reel selections, with other reels priced from $3.25 to $45. With these most bait-casters use 8-to 10-pound nylon line. Strawberry clusters of fresh Steelhead roe still holding own, along with cherry bobbers.

FLY-CASTING: PFLUEGER MEDALIST ($15.50), ZWARG LAURENTIAN ($110.50) and HARDY PERFECT ($23.50) tops for Steelhead on fly-fishermen's list using 9-to 9½-foot, 6-to 7½-ounce rods. Good fly rods run high, from $25 to $130 with ORVIS ($120) and HEDDON BLACK BEAUTY ($45) popular choices. 9-to 15-pound backing on GBF or GAF line with tapered leader and streamer proclaimed deadliest although bucktails doing well.

CLOTHING: Hip boots in demand by cautious steelheaders who fear lure of waders into dangerously deep, fast water. Top sellers are CONVERSE and GOODRICH SUB-ZERO insulated boots; prices range from $9.95 to $26. U.S.RUBBER, BAUER and HODGMAN make excellent foul-weather jackets; others run from $4.95 to $17.50. Icy weather makes insulated underwear a must for winter fishermen, with POLAR WEAR ($25), WEATHER-ALLS ($40) popular choices. JON-? handwarmers ($3.95 to $4.95) take care of frosty fingers.

COOKING: Keep temperatures low to avoid shrinkage and loss of juices. Soften two cubes butter, work in finely minced parsley, chopped onions and mashed clove garlic. Salt and pepper (freshly ground black is best) interior, spread with seasoned butter mixture. Skewer and bake uncovered at 325° Fahrenheit, basting with drippings, until well browned. Or wrap in foil and broil over coals in barbecue pit.