Let’s face it; the reason we are out on the river is to chase fish and to hopefully come in contact with our finned friends with a successful catch. For steelheaders, the notion of shaking hands with one of these Silver Ghosts is becoming more and more of an insanity than a given promise from the Steelhead Gods.
Every year come November, I start my ritual of throwing on some steelhead films and digging through the archives of pictures of Fall and Winter steelhead fishing. With the fever strong, I cannot help but think about my next encounter with a chrome bright, fresh from the salt, winter steelhead…and if it will all even happen this season. I am the type of guy who loves to fish by himself. It has been like this for many years. The solitude I find on steelhead water does not compare to any other fishery out there. It is quiet, when the reel isn’t screaming and fish aren’t running or jumping.
The scenery is second to none, especially in the Pacific Northwest on one of our many coastal rivers or streams. I live on one of the last rivers in the States where retention of wild steelhead is legal. It baffles me that Oregon still allows anglers to keep a fish that has been in decline for decades. Wild fish populations have gotten so much smaller, making it very difficult to find encounters. Therefore, every wild encounter I do get is never taken for granted. I always feel so blessed. I am grateful for each and every fish I get to experience with my family or close friend.
I work hard and dedicate myself during the fall and winter seasons to find wild steelhead willing to eat a swung fly. It took me two Winter seasons to find a wild, winter, adult steelhead on my home waters of the Chetco River. I logged just about 300 hours during each of those two seasons, searching for that elusive anadromous fish. Which brings me to the main topic of this essay: The Squeeze.
We all have our own opinions about what is better, the “Juice” or the “Squeeze.” Is the juice worth the squeeze? In fishing, what is better: the chase (the squeeze) or the catch (the juice)? They both are subjective according to whom you have this discussion with. One does not have to be better than the other. For me personally, the “Squeeze” is not the journey I took with friends or family. It is not the experience of steelhead fishing with other humans. It is not the hard work I dedicated to touching a winter steelhead- or any fish really. It is, however, more illustrative of the interaction I had with that fish- the physical and emotional connection I share with it for a brief moment on the water.
The “Squeeze” to me represents the passion and love I have for wild fish of the PNW and beyond. The “Squeeze” is my opportunity to give that fish a farewell blessing; to give it hope and the manifestation of a safe journey to its final destination. The “Squeeze” encompasses and nullifies my notions of doubt in wrong fly choices or the wrong technique. It nullifies the notions of how fast or how deep my fly is being swung. Personally, these all are things that make the “Squeeze” better than the “Juice.”
My most recent squeeze was this past winter. It was a warm sunny morning of February 2020. It had not rained for more than a week. River flows were the lowest I had seen for five years on the upper reaches of the Chetco River. Skinny, crystal clear water makes swinging flies for steelhead a tough challenge. It all has to line up perfectly to get that fish to commit to your fly. This particular winter I had been putting most of my energy and concentration towards getting my girlfriend, Emily, dialed in on her spey game. She was new to steelhead fishing and wanted to learn how to catch one. I told her the only method I would teach her would be the that of a swung fly. For months we had worked on her cast and getting that fly to turn over so it would be fishing.
On the morning of February 9, 2020, we got to Redwood Bar just as three other boats had launched. They were ‘gear heads’ bouncing roe and beating up the first couple riffles and tailouts. I had a particular run I wanted to reach before anyone fished it first thing in the morning and knew I would have to push the sticks to pass them and get down to it. Sometimes you just have a gut feeling about where fish might be holding, especially in low and clear water. As we made our way down the emerald green water, spotting eagles along the way, I told her we had to fish this run hard and cover the water as best as we could before the bait bangers came. We pulled the boat over at the tailout just above the run we were going to fish.
I set Emily up at the head of the run just below the riffle. I had a couple ideas where the fish would be, either nosed up at the beginning of the riffle or at the end of the run just before the pool started. I stood with Emily for about 10 to 15 minutes, helping her dial in her cast and getting her fly to turn over so that she could effectively cover the water. As I was standing with her, she urged me to go down below her and fish so that she could watch me and mimic my rod positions and casting strokes. So I kindly obliged her request and happily low holed her. It not very often you get a request from someone swinging flies to hop in below them and start fishing.
I got in about 50 yards below her which was a little more than half way through the run. First I started with half the head of my skagit line slowly working it out to about 30 feet of running line. Step by step, I slowly worked my way out to waist deep water. After thoroughly covering the inside seam, I knew I would have to reach the far seam in the deeper water that ran along a big rocky outcropping. I had just launched my third cast, and with the run getting deeper, I decided to take a couple big steps after my mend. As soon as the fly started to pick up speed in the swing, I received an arm pulling grab- the kind of grab that makes you gasp and wonder why it had not stuck the fish. I let it swing to the hang down and then started to strip in my line. I looked up river to see how Emily was doing and noticed that the gear heads were started to make their way down river and were getting closer and closer to the run we were fishing.
Instantly I reached to my hat for my comeback fly and realized I had left my flies in the boat that was now about 250 yards up river. Quietly, I stepped out of the river, taking note of where I was at in the run and started sprinting for the boat to get my Wheatley flybox. There are two things I look for in a comeback fly. First is one that is slightly smaller than the original, and second that is one of similar color. The original was a small pink intruder, so I decided on a size 2 orange Motion Prawn. As I ran back down the bank, I glanced back to see the boat just feet from getting into the riffle above the run. I quickly tied on my fly using a Turle knot. I love this knot for its hooks and up or down turned eye. This knot keeps the tippet from turning on the eye of the hook, swinging the fly true and straight. Just as I finished tying on my fly, I calmly and quietly stepped back into the river, beginning short with my cast and increasing the casting distance close to six feet with each next cast.
As I reached my desired casting distance, the boat was merely at my back. I launched one last cast and gave it a big mend, and as soon as the fly started to sink, I felt a hard pull- and then all hell broke loose. As I raised my rod, the fish felt the pressure and took off down river. I yelled “Emily, Fish….Fish!” My Hatch reel went to work. Slowing this fish down was my only option with a big rapid at the end of the pool, where the fish demonstrated his acrobatics. A couple quick jumps, and into the backing he took me. The gear heads were now rowing their boat through the pool where I was playing this fish. They gave me nods and said, “Right on dude, good job”. I replied with a shaky voice, “It’s not in my hands yet!” One more run into my backing, a quick run back upstream to where I hooked him, and the fish started to settle down; Now I had the opportunity to gain more ground and put more line back on the reel. With some bulldogging and surface rolls, I had him to my leader. I do not believe in using a net when wade fishing. I have always tailed my steelhead, it is how I was taught and it is the way I continue to do it. I typically seat the butt of my rod into my groin with a fishes length of line hanging off the reel. This way if the fish decides to make one last run, I can feed him the line without any knots or connections impeding his movement. With the butt section in my groin, I reached out with my left hand to grab the wrist of the fish’s tail.
With Emily’s help, we were able to get a few great photos of a beautiful wild buck steelhead. Admiring his chrome scales, his big jaws and blushing cheeks, I looked down the length of his belly to find some sea lice still stuck on his body. This is a typical clue that the fish has most likely been in the river system for mere hours. As I sat there on my knees in the river and shared a moment with this amazing creature, I began to realize how much the “Squeeze” means to me, and how special it was to be able to physically express to Emily my passion and enduring love towards this species. As I released the fish back into the wild river, I thanked Mother Earth for the encounter and asked her to help guide that fish to the spawning beds. As I stood up to thank Emily for being there with me, we embraced each other and gave each other high fives. I also may or may not have given a few yips of joy.
Next time you are out on the river, whether you are by yourself or with a loved one, pay close attention to what is driving you to be there. It does not have to be one specific detail or moment. It could be the whole experience wrapped up, it could be one word or feeling. It could be the sound of the river moving against your legs or the birds around you calling to your soul. It could be the energy you get from the river or the rain. It could be the smells of the Redwoods warming up in the sun or the fog lifting up off the river valley. Whatever it is that drives you to keep pursuing your finned friend, this is YOUR SQUEEZE! Embody your Squeeze, be all about your Squeeze and remember the Squeeze is not the same for everyone…and that is perfectly ok!
I was born and Raised in the Suburbs of Sacramento, California. I grew up fishing the small creeks, rivers and high alpine lakes around the Tahoe Basin with my grandfather and father. I didn’t learn about steelhead till I was in my early 20’s, while fishing the American River. But once I did, I was addicted to the strength and resilience these fish possess. I now currently live in the small quiet town of Gold Beach, Oregon, where I have the privilege to chase these wild creatures. I only started dabbling with photography the past three years, where I quickly became pushed by friends and family to pursue this passion more and more. I love being on the water with either my camera in hand or a two handed fly rod. Sometimes it’s hard to choose which one I’d rather be doing. My love for both has taken my life’s path in a direction I would have never imagined- meeting some of the greatest people in both industries.