Steelhead Social Distancing by Calvin McShane

Steelhead Social Distancing by Calvin McShane

The other day my phone dinged on the kitchen table and text stretched across the screen that read, “You are highly allergic to hard work.” It was from my pal Jack and was in response to the pictures I had sent him earlier in the day.

The pictures were of me and my girlfriend Miranda. Some were of us on an Upper Peninsula river, our fly rods bent to the cork, and a few more were of a couple of fine male steelhead resting in our hands.

miranda steelhead fishing great lakes upper peninsula

It’s reasonable Jack was a bit upset.

With the recent dire developments he’s couped up in Lower Michigan while quarantine has me wandering around Lake Superior, my only company a rod, reel, and tail dancing steelhead in dark, rising water.

I could either glare into the maddening newscast across the TV screen or social distance my butt on a steelhead stream. Sorry Jack, but I’m more than allergic to hard work, I’m addicted to big fish in skinny water — and I have the photos to prove it.

I wouldn’t say I’m highly allergic, but I might say strongly averse to hard work.

In any case, I don’t like empty work.

Work, that at the end of the day, feels like service to something totally intangible. Now, point me in the direction of a prime steelhead stream and I’m liable to hike through, over and around anything that stands in my way.

Even in early April along Lake Superior’s south shore when snow is in no short supply, on the southern facing slopes, bare ground shows through in the colors of brown and tan matted pine needles and grass. But everywhere else snow cloaks the forest floor, two feet amongst tall red pines, along the river in thickets of alder. In late March, before we had any thaw, I was able to tiptoe my way along the top of the snow. But after one day of temperatures in the mid-40s every step I take I sink deeper and deeper into the unending snow load from the previous winter. I hate it.

I hate the way it looks, smells, and feels under my wading boots. The saving grace is that snow melts, and with snowmelt comes rising rivers, and with rising rivers comes, well, you know the drill.

I’ve been prepared for COVID-19 and the succeeding madness for quite some time.

Social distancing is my norm. Miranda calls it anti-social behavior and my mother refers to it as rudeness.

It’s not my fault fishing is best done alone.

But it does feel reassuring to have everyone else following along for a change. I live in rural northern Michigan, the nearest Wal-Mart 50 miles away. I’ve got a freezer full of venison and a root cellar littered with last year’s potatoes and carrots. Life is good — for the most part. The chaos doesn’t go unacknowledged, it’s just that right now, no matter what, regardless of what’s going on, I’ve got steelhead on the brain. We’ve been waiting all winter for this and I’d be remiss if I let anything get in my way.

steelhead fishing upper peninsula michigan

When the nearby rivers finally broke free from ice, we had just begun a statewide quarantine and I was walking along the river with my dogs, listening to the sound of water rub against ice, not a care in the world.

It was a week's worth of puttering around the house before I finally put on the waders. Then two more days of wading around like an idiot in extremely low water with three-foot icebergs at my back. I was just happy to be fishing open water for the first time in a long time. I enjoyed the smell of melting snow, listened to barking red squirrels and sat along the river thinking about when the first steelhead would be pointed upstream in my direction.

Come to find out it was just two more days before the first fish, well my first fish, would intercept my path. Water was up from the previous night's rain and the river was high and dirty. I was now standing in thigh-deep water, where two days ago the tannin water was merely lapping at the soles of my boots.

The river had gone from gin clear and meandering to ominously black and roaring.

This time when I sat along the river I didn’t think about when the steelhead would begin to move upstream. I thought about where they may be resting, what log they might be under or what hole they might be munching on stoneflies in the bottom of.

Turns out the few fish around were in the tail outs of larger holes in the bottom section of a nearby river. I found this out fishing 6mm beads under a float on a 36-degree day, mid-morning when I probably should have been working but instead decided to practice a little social distancing. And boy, was I sure glad I made that decision that morning.

Eventually I come to miss the screaming drag, big fish breaking turbulent water and the mania of overpowering fish. But when the season is just starting, all I miss is that spongy feeling when you set the hook.

That bobbing and bending of the rod.

The blips of time when you realize that snag just grew fins and is headed anywhere but the palm of your hand. It’s both relieving and exhilarating. Before you enjoy it too much, you’re making your way downstream, eyeing up the log jam on the next turn and thinking about where you’re going to land this fish when all the banks are still covered in two-foot chunks of ice.

I finally figured out how to land the first fish of my steelhead season.

I ended up working it upstream to ankle-deep water. I wanted to lean in and whisper, “I know you didn’t come all this way for me, but I sure do appreciate it.”

Although, years of steelheading has taught me steelhead are much too smart for the nonsense rolling around between my ears. Instead, I held it up for a quick photo and sent the small male steelhead on its way.

calvin mcshane steelhead upper peninsula michigan

Afterward the river fell quiet and things returned to their normal peaceful nature. Red squirrels went back to barking at me from the outstretched limbs of cedars across the river and water continued to caress banks of snow and ice. If I wouldn’t have known any better, everything was alright in the world.

To work on her social distancing, Miranda has been joining me on the river. For a

few hours we chat about the habits of red squirrels and how to them and the fish, nothing seems out of place. The rivers are devoid of people and the silence feels comforting amongst such chaos. With the water rising every day with plenty of sun and snowmelt, we’ve been pushing farther and farther upstream. We’ve exchanged beads and floats for fly rods and yarn flies. We’ve been finding a few dark males in deep water, and while I watch Miranda wrestle with these big brutes, I’ve been wondering when their female counterparts will begin swimming upstream.

Although I suspect there’s no rush — we’ve got plenty of downtime on our hands.

I know eventually, we’re due to get through this pandemic and return to normalcy.

I know soon enough I won’t be able to avoid hard work like an allergy, in need of money to support my terrible fishing habit. I know that eventually, every last steelhead will have journeyed upstream and the sweetness of Spring shall fade.

Until then I’m enjoying the present moment and thinking mostly about steelhead.

Not because I’m looking to keep my mind off other things. It’s just my normal — avoiding people and fishing steelhead. And I must admit, it feels good to have a societal free pass to do what I’ve been wanting to do all along.

My plans for the upcoming weeks are to collect a few more photos to send to Jack.

steelhead upper peninsula michigan fishing fish

How’s this for allergic to work for ya?

If you see me on the river this spring, don’t be offended. I’m keeping my distance because it’s what we all ought to be doing right now. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t avoid you anyway, but consider this time as an act of kindness.

And to answer your question (Am I having any luck?), my standard answer should suffice — ohh, a little.

- written by Calvin McShane

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