Skyrocketing Steelhead by Kenny Darwin

Skyrocketing Steelhead by Kenny Darwin

When steelhead go airborne they seem to defy gravity, zooming upward, twisting toward heaven in a halo of water then splashing down in preparation for another soaring display.

steelhead fishing waterfall fish salmon jump

They surge from the open waters of the vast sea into tributaries, in small packs to massive schools numbering in the hundreds. When they reach obstacles like dams, they turn on the afterburners and make impressive aerial leaps. Some jump high and splash down straight in the water. Others leap headlong out of the water, twisting and turning mid-air, as if to flex muscles and announce their arrival.

At times they jump as pairs, as if to tell those observing they are a matched couple ready to spawn, other times there are air-borne collisions as leaping fish smack into each other high above the rushing water.

Steelhead are loved by anglers because of their aerial displays when hooked.

Some slash the surface with wild head-shakes mimicking a feeding shark and sending water splashing in every direction. Others simply go air borne and leap out of the water like they have been stung in the tail by an underwater hornet. A few make several jumps as though they think leaping repetitively will shake the hook and win them freedom; the frantic action actually does dislodge the hook in some cases.

steelhead fishing waterfall fish salmon jumpWith fond memories I recall float fishing with Michigan steelhead guru, Danny Hale, Ionia, on the lower section of the world famous Pere Marquette. The weather was cold, no wind, and water calm as Danny drifted presentations to waiting fish.

Danny is a tall, quiet man, first to introduce area anglers to the deadly technique of float fishing with a center-pin reel. He is an artist in the purist sense of the word, well known for his hand crafted, reels, floats and jigs. He field tests his home-made custom steelhead gear by fishing a variety of Michigan Great Lakes tributaries.

The sun was shining, birds singing, and surroundings calm, peaceful and quiet when Hale set the hook on a chromer. For an instant the silvery prize bull dogged then it took to the air like it was full of electric energy.

Danny smiled and said “that’s what steelheading is all about!”

Danny is right. The most impressive characteristic of steelhead is their ability to go air-borne. I’ve chased them relentlessly for six decades in search of inspirational leaping fish. Perhaps my most rewarding fishing trip was last year when I left my rod in the van and shouldered digital camera and telephoto lens.

It was a beautiful day after a warm rain as I arrived at the White River Dam in Hesperia, MI. At Hesperia you can get arms distance from the rushing water, have big steelies leaping in the white water 10 feet away. You can feel the spray of water as they leap skyward and hear the loud ker-plunk as their beautiful body’s crash back into the raging current. Here, you can witness their spectacular colors at arms-length away and witness their skyrocketing power.

By the time I got into camera position the sun came out and the steelhead went bonkers as the horizon was highlighted by a brilliant rainbow. The spectacle of the sky filled with a colodiascope of colors and jumping multi-colored steelhead was impressive. There were hundreds of fish jumping the dam; short silvery hens, long double orange stripped males, greenish fish and blue backed varieties and humped back brownish colored males that drove geysers of water high into the air as they torpedo in the current.

 steelhead fishing waterfall fish salmon jump

Old fisherman is treated to the spectacle of steelhead that are air borne at close range.

I settled against the bank, rested the long lens on my knee, just as an old man came down the steep cement bank with rod in hand. At first I focused on the steelies, but the old man stood at the river’s edge in my field of view; as if he was hell bent on being a steelhead fishing model. I missed a shot at a big silvery hen blasting from the white water like a Polaris missile and skyrocketed directly over the man’s rod. Then a large male with bright orange lateral lines and bulbous kype jaw slashed down so close to the fisherman that water hit him in the face. At first the angler seemed excited by the leaping steelhead gone wild. Then he settled into a perplexed look as he held the stationary rod that signaled no bite as non-stop steelies went air-borne at arms length away.

In a couple frames his mouth is agape, as if to say “Wow, look at that impressive steelhead!”

Know what? After fifty years of chasing steelhead the image of the old fishermen surrounded by leaping fish remains vivid in my memory. He seemed entertained by the endless parade of airborne trout. Perhaps he is a reflection of all steelheaders, or what we all dream about, zillions of beautiful rainbow trout leaping all around as if to celebrate their beauty, happiness, vivacious energy, the essence of life.

Was the scene merely an illusion, a reflection of life and death, contrasting nature’s energy and symbol of life with the old man signifying death? On this day I was granted the exciting spectacle of hundreds of steelhead dancing in a watery ballet, like I have never witnessed.

 steelhead fishing waterfall fish salmon jump

Jumping steelhead are very entertaining.

On another trip I found them stacked below a dam, jumping in the white water, crammed into the pool, waiting to migrate over the obstacle. I could not resist and hurried to grab rod and reel. I trembled at the thought of mammoth trout stacked like cord wood, tossed a nickel-size spawn bag into the mass and immediately hooked a fish. A bright hen separated from the school, shook her head and went ballistic, jumping 4 feet out of the water, charging me at lightning speed and making a second jump at rods length tossing a halo of water droplets in the air before she shook the hook. After hooking several fish the sun touched the horizon and the leaping activity came to an abrupt end. Soon there were few fish, most had backed down river and were holding in a deep run.

I looked at other fishermen, they seemed stunned, dazed and almost spellbound from such unbelievable excitement at the sight of hundreds of big trout that suddenly came to an abrupt end. Come dusk we wandered to the parking lot with hefty stringers and memories of spectacular steelhead that will last a lifetime. 

My fishing pal, Edward Carlin, lands few steelhead. But he has a saying when it comes to fighting and putting steelhead on the bank, “The pleasure of steelhead fishing is not what you catch but how you play the game”. You see, he prefers to fight monster steelhead in tiny tributaries using light trout tackle and light line. He sneaks along the bank like a cougar stalking deer, flips his presentations to hiding fish and has a riot playing them in holes filled with limbs, fallen trees, brush and enough clutter to make landing fish impossible.

steelhead fishing waterfall fish salmon jump

To him, the pleasures of steelhead fishing evolves around a scenic environment absent of other fishermen, fooling fish into biting and watching steelhead go nuts the instant they feel the hook.

Sure, he catches fish once in a while but he is much more excited by playing monster trout on light line, watching them rip through log jams and feeling the sickening thud that signals the line has snapped.

He really has no intention of catching them, he simply gets a kick out of stalking steelhead, tricking them into the bite and watching their antics as they fight for freedom. It is a pleasure to watch him put his strategy to work, ease into flippin’ position, set the hook and holler at the top of his lungs as the beautiful fish goes airborne.

There are days when steelhead become active, when they launch their sleek bodies out of the water with ease, like no other trout. They leave the water at tremendous speeds and fly several feet through the air. Others go straight up, twisting and turning to display their acrobatic skills. The loud splash they make as they crash down resembles the sound of a man falling out of a boat; simply tremendous, awe inspiring.

Steelheaders love days when the sun is shining, water temperatures are raising and fish are jumping like popcorn poppin’ with multiple fish in the air at one time.

Few spectacles in nature are more impressive than an airborne steelie, skyrocketing above placid water, tossing a rainbow of spray high into the air. Leaping fish is perhaps the most exciting attribute that all steelheaders admire in these sleek, aerodynamic, beautiful creatures.

- written by Kenny Darwin  

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