Steelhead and Suffering by Calvin McShane

Steelhead and Suffering by Calvin McShane

Anglers go fishing for an assortment of reasons.

Some fish to relax. Other’s fish for the excitement.

Some of us fish for food and I’ll bet even more of us fish just because we ought to—according to my significant other I can really be a jerk sometimes. But when I think about my life as a fisherman, the moments I relish the most are the trips that involve the most suffering.

Sometimes it feels good to get a little uncomfortable, disheveled and pissed off.

Don’t other people savor the times when things aren’t working out? You know, the times when your face feels like it froze off and a tease from just one fish can make hours of misery melt away in a single breath?

steelhead lake superior fishing calvin mcshane

A colored fall run Lake Superior steelhead

Ok, maybe that’s just me, but from time to time, you must find yourself holding two contradicting thoughts simultaneously, right? Like, the last time you checked the forecast, the radar was showing more freezing rain, you haven’t felt your toes since you left the truck and you have no choice but to conclude you’ve never felt more miserable in your entire life.

However, you haven’t stopped laughing since you last felt your toes, the freezing rain sticks to your mustache in a badass sort of way and you wouldn’t trade spaces with anyone else in the world?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Jack and I found ourselves in this paradoxical conundrum in November along Lake Superior’s south shore.

lake superior fishing

November day on an icy Upper Peninsula Stream

Jack is my best friend and a fellow die-hard fishing buddy. He’s the type of guy who will stand with you side by side, face first, into a freezing north wind—the ice covering both of our respective poor attempts at mustaches.

We were both under the collective nonsensical thought that, as Jack’s aptly says, “when the fishing gets tough, the tough get fishing.” In the moment, it was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard. But he wasn’t wrong.

We hadn’t seen anyone since County Road 418, twelve miles away from our current location at the dead-end of a maze of two tracks I always pretend to have figured out. It is three days before whitetail opener here in Michigan, and I’m starting to wonder if the hunters will be able to access their camps.

steelhead fishing water

Calvin, the author, with a big Lake Superior hen

Last week brought ten inches of snow, which promptly thawed and froze twice, before the wonderful splendor of freezing rain that has so graciously visited us today. Everything is a mess, including the river. Slush is built up in the back eddies and hanging maple limbs are crusted in a thin layer of clear ice. I would guess the water temperature, but I want to avoid further lowering morale.

I wish I could say Jack and I were out fully expecting to entangle ourselves with a few steelhead, but fully expecting seems like gross execration. Unlike most fall steelhead trips, locating fish won’t be the problem. A swell of rain in October brought plenty of fish in and I happened to have a few splendid days to round out the month.

Instead, today, our primary obstacle includes but is not limited too:

  • hypothermia
  • jammed reels
  • numb fingers
  • delusion
  • iced guides
  • frozen leaders
  • and more delusion.

But, remember, when the fishing gets tough, the tough get fishing.

So we pressed on.

And by pressed on I mean, we convinced ourselves our best bet at hooking fish would be in three large holes closest to our current location.

steelhead fishing reels

A closer look at Jack’s hen steelhead

There was some partial truth to this logic. These holes were straight, deep, and slow—the perfect holding spots for lethargic late in the year steelhead. It was just an added bonus that each of these holes were a short walking distance from one another and even shorter walking distance from the truck that had warm coffee and half a bag of my mother’s famous oatmeal cookies.

We cast in synchronized succession, as we worked our way through the first hole, a paced pool that gradually flattened and fanned under four outstretched leafless red maples.

Jack would cast first. I followed once he was half-way through his drift. After ten consecutive drifts, we would each take one step downstream. We repeated this process until one of three things happened: one of us hooked a fish, we fished the entire length of the pool or one, if not both of us, shivered ourselves into an ever-trembling delirium.

Thankfully, the first pool went fished without a hiccup. We brainstormed upcoming skits for our imaginary comedy sketch show and debated who tied up better spawn sacs, occasionally pausing together to de-ice our guides and marvel at the weather.

Just upstream was the second spot of the day.

A deep and intimidating curve that began as a sandy shoal, transitioning to a bottomless drop-off. If we were fishing bobbers it might take us half a day of adjusting depths to find the bottom. Fortunately, we were rocking our vintage Martin 72s and planned to stick to drift fishing. Less tackle means simpler fishing, with the added bonus of fewer things for ice to hold on too.

The same program as before; Jack leads and I follow.

The tapping of our split shot melded into the sterile landscape—air, water, and land one unified grey uninterrupted whisper. Halfway through the hole, I asked Jack how many beers, in total cans, he supposed we drank in college when I heard the single most euphoric word in the English language ring out into the chilled atmosphere—


Jack’s 8-weight St. Croix fly rod was bent to the cork and thrashed as frantic as a Red Hot Chili Peppers bass line.

I can’t quite remember what I shouted in support, but I do remember my internal monologue—“please, don't f*** this up.” He didn’t.

jacks steelhead fishing

Jack with a chrome hen

Steelhead have this way of humbling you each and every time you hook them. If you had forgotten why you were freezing your ass off, they will remind you with an aerial display and a screaming run that can burn even the finest of drags. The fisherman that embrace the madness, allowing themselves to be humbled, are the fishermen who land the most fish.

It isn't a battle of power but a battle of reverence—show them the respect they deserve, and you’ll be surprised how many more fish you bring to hand.

After a few photos and play by play retelling of what happened, we got back to fishing. Slowly, we remembered how cold we actually were and joked about how it really didn’t seem to matter anymore. A while later, I copied Jack’s earlier success with a chrome bullet of my own. Eight pounds of Lake Superior metallic muscle—do we ever have to leave?

steelhead release fishing

Author releases a fall steelhead

Unfortunately, we did have to leave.

The compounding ice had me worried. I was foreseeing a treacherous ride home and I could hear the woodstove begging for a fresh load of seasoned maple. At times like these, fishermen do that weird thing where they’re both ready to go but neither will cave first.

The air is filled with a resounding “welp…” then minutes of silence. Two mature adults would confer and agree it's time to head home but we were never much for societal pleasantries.

Five miles of road wouldn’t pass by before one of us would pipe up, “I still can’t feel my feet.” Other than that, we didn’t talk much on the ride home.

It wasn’t so much silence but the sound of reflection that filled the empty space.

Often times words drown out the real meaning.

The rest of the evening conversation was backlit by the strobing hues of a humming woodstove as we flip-flopped between laughing about the weather and retelling the stories of the fish landed from earlier. We were in heaven. Awed and obsessed fishermen exhausted from a day doing what we love, with the added bonus of a great friend to take part as a witness.

I don’t steelhead fish because I like being comfortable. I steelhead fish because of the places it takes me.

I steelhead fish because of the people that will go to these places with me. If Jack and I had spent a sunny and swell afternoon with no adversity and bushels of biting fish, it just wouldn’t be the same.

It is not supposed to be easy.

calvin mcshane steelhead fishing

The author with a small male fall-run fish

You aren’t supposed to be all that comfortable. All things worthwhile, are things that make you uncomfortable. When you savor the cold and ice, you begin to be comfortable with the discomfort. Then, and only then, a steelhead reaches out, grabs you and reminds you why this is all worth it.

Friends who suffer together, stick together—and also catch more steelhead.

- written by Calvin McShane


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