Steelhead is a Four Letter Word by Mark Usyk

For years now the coming of salmon season has brought on the same questions again and again. Are you going to come up to the river and do some salmon fishing with me? Do you go salmon fishing? Are you excited about salmon season? Some of these questions come from my angler friends and acquaintances that know me, and are said half tongue in cheek and half in hopes that I’ll give in sooner or later, because they know I’m not going. The people that don’t know me and ask them are a mixture of surprised or understanding when I say no.

Some people- How can you be such a big fisherman but not got to Pulaski during salmon season?

Me- Easy, I go to be with fish and without people. And the river during salmon season seems to have just as many people as salmon. I’ve got no interest in that.

Other people- I’m not into it either, I get it. Shoulder to shoulder fishing, jerks who get mad at everyone else, garbage. That’s not my idea of fun or relaxing.

Me- Cool, want to go up north and fish for little brookies one last time before the season ends?

The other people- No, I’ll probably still go up to the river once or twice. I know some good spots where there aren’t as many people if you wanted to go.

Me (In my head) - Good. I didn’t want anyone to go with me anyway, I was just being polite.

Me (out loud) – Nope. Not as many people is still a few people too many. I’ll be by myself in an undisclosed place with no cell coverage if you change your mind.

I fought the good fight once again this year, declining all the offers, swearing you’d never see me on that river during “the season.” And then something in my head changed one day. My brother Luke asked again. Hey, we can hit the DSR. There won’t be as many people. It’s private property, I can get you on it though. And my buddy Wayne of Wayne-o’s Guide Service sent me a couple pictures of a mostly human less river and told me that he’d just taken all his salmon gear out of the drift boat… The salmon were all but gone and the steelhead were arriving. Luke and Wayne, coupled with the fact that I was on my own for a Saturday with no one to tell me what I could or couldn’t do, suddenly had me thinking maybe now’s the time to go. Steelhead after all is about the coolest name in the fish world. Just say it, listen to it. Steelhead. Yea. That’s cool.

I found myself on a stretch of the Salmon River on the DSR a little while after the sun had come up. Luke introduced me to one of his fellow river patrollers once we were on the Douglaston Run, and I kind of got a little jealous for a short few minutes. Imagine that. Your job is to be there. On the river.

Luke strung up an old but nearly pristine fiberglass Wonder Rod, the shaft where it met the cork every bit as big around as my thumb, and tied on some type of small copper accented nymph looking bug. Me, I was a little over dressed for the party but thought what the hell. I needed to string up and fish my newest rod, a custom 9wt JP had just finished for me paired with a big Ross Animas S reel and the most expensive fly line I’d ever bought up to the this point. I didn’t think I’d hook into any steelheads, but I figured if I did, it’d be the perfect test for the new rig.

Steelheading is a lot like trout fishing, as it should be. They’re just really big trout after all. Steelheading is a lot like trout fishing, except it’s nothing like trout fishing. The steelhead were holding underneath and in really fast moving water. Hard water. They’d find a place out of the current like any other trout to wait for food, except that out of the current meant a slightly easier current than what it was surrounded by, not exactly an easy current.

I never hooked one. I saw them. I got a lot of casting practice in with the new rod. I enjoyed a beautiful fall day that felt more like summer, but I never felt the tug. My brother hooked into a couple in some pretty gnarly water, and the bend in his rod was scary and impressive all at once. One of the fish was holding in a slack spot in front of a couple big boulders. Luke spotted the fish and got his offering in front of it and it took it. But I’m used to fish that get hooked and go down river with the current. This fish had something to prove and proceeded to peel line and fight upstream through a patch of white water that would’ve had rafters sucking rubber up between their butt cheeks. I couldn’t believe a trout could put such a big bend in a big rod like that and then muscle its way up through such a crazy patch of river.

In the end, after a couple minutes, the leader popped and the rod straightened out, and just as fast as it had happened it was over. It took just long enough to make me start considering that maybe he could land the fish, but short enough in the end to make me realize the fish just wanted to prove its point, then flip him the bird. Carp can be jerks, but steelheads are a whole other four letter word all together. My kind of fish.



Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod. Available on Amazon, the Barnes and Noble web site, and signed copies ready for purchase here on