The Color of Steelhead

When they enter a river they drag some of the ocean’s mystery with them. // Illustration by Gary W. Odmark

One morning in April I walked the banks of a little river near my home, looking for steelhead. But I was too distracted to fish. The scent of spring was in the air and Dutchman’s breeches were poking above the floor of the woods where two weeks ago there was snow. In another week morels would appear. I would gather enough for a meal, cut them lengthwise, toss them in flour, fry them in butter, and serve them with fresh asparagus and brook trout …

Then I spotted her.

She was eight pounds, maybe 10, and so fresh from Lake Michigan that she gave off the silver-and-blue hues of the big lake itself. I almost missed seeing her. A steelhead in a stream can disappear so completely it seems like a magician’s trick. She hovered in a narrow run of quick water, a knee-deep channel in the gravel, with a broken surface that made the light chaotic and covered the bottom with swimming shadows. She was hardly more than a shadow herself, shimmering with a suggestion of life.

Brown trout are buttery, camouflaged the colors of gravel, and appear to be made for running water. Brook trout are the deep green of a creek flowing through cedar swamp. But steelhead look like they’ve been condensed from the purest, coldest water of the sea and belong in cobalt depths, miles from shore, charging through schools of shiners. When they enter a river they drag some of the ocean’s mystery with them. And when you hook them they fight like ocean fish. They bolt away downstream as if looking for 100-foot depths, then, because a river is too confining for so much vitality, leap to the sky.

I cast a small orange fly into the river above her. For a moment, as it drifted downstream, she seemed ready to attack, her pectoral fins extended, her shoulders tensing. My heart pounded and my knees went weak. I could have been 12 years old again, casting spawn bags into the Boardman River and hoping with all my heart that I would feel the tap of a steelhead taking my bait.

I didn’t move. Didn’t breathe. As the fly approached she began to back away. I’ve seen them do this too many times to be disappointed. She backed into the smooth current at the tail of the pool. Now I saw her clearly. Ten pounds, at least. So fresh her sides were chrome, with not even a hint of the pink stripe that appears when they’ve been in the river a few days. She flared in the current, turned, and was gone.

Soon she would spawn and retreat back down the river to the big lake. Her offspring would hatch and eventually follow her there. In a few years they might return to this very river and they too would be powerful and wary and bright, the color of big water. They too would climb the river until they found gravel. They too would try to fill the world with their progeny.

May they be successful.

May they be prolific.

Award-winning author and BLUE “Reflections” columnist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City.

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