Not long ago we celebrated our daughter Ingrid's 18th birthday. Hilde baked her a low-calorie cake, and we talked as we sipped champagne. We gave Ingrid the usual parental speech about the obligations that come with legal adulthood, and, to her credit, she sat through it patiently. Then she asked me an interesting question:
"Tell me the truth now, Dad. Which was more exciting 18 years ago, the steelhead or me?"
Ingrid was born in 1967 in Ashland, Ore., on a particularly warm Feb. 26. To explain her question, I'll recount the events leading up to that memorable day.
Through late summer and early fall, nearly every afternoon and evening, and all day long on weekends, I fly-fished the Klamath River for steelhead. I knew little about fly-fishing and less about steelhead, but I was determined. I also had a $12 fiberglass rod, and a reel that was even cheaper. On the reel was a well-worn fly line that had cost a dollar at a garage sale. I also bought my flies in those days—juicy bugs and Golden Demons—for 500 apiece, and I used them until they fell apart. I caught exactly nothing on the Klamath. I never had a strike.
June 2, 1985
Around Thanksgiving I switched to the Rogue River. In no less than 150 hours of fishing, I hooked two steelhead and lost them both. In January I began to fish the Applegate, a tributary of the Rogue, about 40 minutes from my home. This rather small, fast-clearing stream is fishable more often than larger coastal rivers through the stormy winter months. I went there on cold, clear days when ice froze in the rod guides, during violent rainstorms and when snow fell so thickly that I couldn't see across to the opposite bank. Bait fishermen were catching steelhead up to 12 pounds on salmon eggs and night crawlers. Lure fishermen were catching them on Spin-N-Glos and silver wobblers. I made at least 10,000 casts on the Applegate, and I never drew a strike.
This brings us to Feb. 26, 1967. Hilde was expecting momentarily. "I know I shouldn't go fishing today," I said in what I hoped was a noncommittal tone.
"It's O.K.," Hilde answered. "Go on. Don and Mary [friends who lived across the street] said they'd be home all day."
"Well, O.K.," I said. "If you insist. I'll only be gone a couple of hours."
Forty-five minutes later I parked beside the river, just beyond the town of Ruch. When I reached the first good pool, I ran into four men who were packing up their gear. "We've been fishing this spot since daybreak," one of them told me.
"How'd it go?"
"Nothing," he answered. "Zilch." He glanced at my fly rod. "Good luck," he said with what looked to me like a malicious grin.
I figured I would fish the pool for half an hour and head back home. At least I would get some casting practice, which I needed, and fresh air and sunshine, which are always nice. I would have calculated the odds of my hooking a steelhead at about two million to one.
I hooked one on my first cast. It was such a surprise that for the first 10 or 15 seconds I simply couldn't believe it. My cast went straight across the stream, the fly landing over the heart of the pool. The line sank and swung down with the slow, smooth current, but it went only a few feet before it stopped. I was certain the fly had snagged on a rock. Then, when I yanked back on the rod, the line began to race from the reel. I figured I'd snagged a floating tree limb. The fly line stopped and began to move the other way, back upstream against the current. How, I wondered to myself, can a tree limb float upstream? Then the steelhead jumped.
In all honesty, I'm not clear as to what went on for the next 15 minutes.
I remember seeing the steelhead jump several times, shining pink and silver in the sunlight. I remember line torn violently from the cheap reel as the fish ran downstream. At one point, about halfway through the fight, I jumped in and swam after the fish.
I landed it several hundred yards downstream from where I'd hooked it. As I slid it up the gravel bank, I prayed that the hook and leader would hold. I killed the fish quickly, then knelt there staring at it.
On the way home I stopped at the Applegate Store to have it weighed on the butcher's scales, a service provided for anglers. My steelhead went exactly 7½ pounds.
When I arrived home, Hilde's labor pains had just begun, and a few hours later, at Ashland Hospital, Ingrid was born. I'll never forget my first look at her nestled in a nurse's arms behind a plate-glass window. She's so pink, I thought to myself. She's as pink as a steelhead's lateral line. She weighed 7 pounds, 9 ounces.
Eighteen years later I didn't hesitate for a second before answering Ingrid's question.
"That was one of the luckiest, most wonderful days of my life," I told her. "Mom and I have caught plenty of steelhead since then, but you're still our only daughter. You were more exciting than the steelhead, and don't forget—you outweighed it by an ounce!"