Many anglers label themselves as being a “hardcore steelheader”, a “steelhead junkie”, or a “metalhead”. Being affixed with such a label, for many anglers, is the pinnacle. A right of passage. To have such a designation typically involves thousands of hours spent in the car and on the water, seriously cold feet, too many fishless days to count, triumph, defeat, frustration, a pissed off spouse…. the list goes on and on. True steelhead anglers are a different breed, willing to stand in the freezing cold, wind, snow, and rain all day, for the chance at catching a fish. Persistence and confidence are driving traits in this elite class of anglers.
Over the years, many debates have been brought to the table regarding whether or not Great Lakes steelhead are truly steelhead. Like their west coast counter parts, they don’t spend the vast majority of their lives roaming the Pacific. Which is the basis for most arguments. But whatever your opinion, nothing can be taken away from the Great Lakes steelheader. This eccentric group of anglers devotes their lives to the pursuit of anadromous fish.
Rick Kustich, a well known Great Lakes steelheader, author, guide, and conservationist has seen and heard both sides of the east coast / west coast steelhead debate. The following is a series of questions Rick was kind enough to answer. His vast knowledge on steelhead fishing across North America is humbling to say the least.
Having fished steelhead all over North America, do you feel the Great Lakes region gets the respect it deserves for being a world-class steelhead fishery?
Rick: I believe that the Great Lakes steelhead fishery is beginning to gain the respect it deserves particularly from anglers in the East and Midwest who recognize that such a high quality experience can be found within a few hours drive. Now that there is better information available on Great Lakes steelhead behavior and fly fishing techniques, a better environment exists on many rivers. And many anglers are expanding their approach to truly discover all that the fishery has to offer. Tighter regulations and a greater emphasis on wild fish production has also raised the quality of the fishery. However, west coast steelhead anglers may not be as convinced. But each year I have experiences in the Great Lakes that are on par with those of the British Columbia rivers that I fish each year. The fact that I use the same two-handed rods, lines, tips and big, seductive flies in each region says a lot about the similarities in the fishing.
Some western anglers do not consider Great Lakes steelhead to truly be steelhead, since they never return to the salt. What is your stance on this topic?
Rick: I have had discussions with biologists that have studied tissue data from both west coast and Great Lakes steelhead with the conclusion that there is no anatomical difference between the two. There does not seem to be some special mechanism in a west coast fish that allows it to pass from salt to fresh water that isn’t present in the genetics of a Great Lakes fish. The quality of a Great Lakes fish however, is determined by its brood stock. There are many established wild populations in the Great Lakes with quality genetics originally derived from west coast fish that have developed over generations. There are also many hatchery programs where much care is given to collecting breeders from a high-quality pool of returning adult steelhead. However, in a few instances the drive to generate high numbers of hatchery fish by a few states has produced poor quality offspring which could be deemed inferior to the minimum standards of the true appearance and spirit of a steelhead. Certainly the argument can be made that steelhead are native to Pacific coast rivers and that there are certain esthetic qualities found in the pursuit of native species. I certainly feel that way when fishing in British Columbia. Unfortunately, in California, Oregon, Washington and even lower BC, hatcheries are playing an increasing roll in maintaining steelhead returns.
Having been a long time guide, as well as a published author on Great Lakes steelhead, do you still find yourself learning while on the water?
Rick: I am still learning every day I am on the water. It is often a driving force behind what I do. I am continually trying new rods, lines and rigging to more effectively cover the water that I fish. I try to keep my mind open to new fly designs or in fresh ways to approach my favorite pools from the prospective of increasing both the quality of the experience and overall production. But most importantly I am always in the process of becoming more familiar with the water that I fish. Knowing and thoroughly understanding the water is the key to enjoying the river and consistently hooking steelhead.
What do you enjoy most about fishing for steelhead?
Rick: Quality of the experience has replaced the quanity of the catch as I have matured as a steelhead angler. I now enjoy all aspects of the pursuit as much as the hooking and landing of a steelhead. It is one of the reasons that I fish exclusively with a two-handed rod and a swung fly. I so enjoy the rhythm of casting and fishing in this manner. Mastering the Spey cast is a life-long activity in itself. Time melts away when covering the water while Spey fishing and there is nothing like the take of the fly on a tight line swinging in the current. I will never tire of the pull or grab of a steelhead when fishing in this manner. I am always waiting for the next pull.