This story was first published in Fish & Fly. It's the story of releasing a steelhead on the Dean River in BC.
“The fish you release may be a gift to another fisherman, as it may have been a gift to you.” Lee Wulff, 1939. Catch and Release became important to me a good number of years ago, after a good number of years killing fish. You can’t go back, but you can imagine what it might have been like to be ahead of the curve. Lee Wulff was the man. The original. I hear he liked a good story. I’d like to tell him one. Or at least give it a shot. Maybe he’s listening as we speak.There are moments in all of our lives. Fleeting, fragile, priceless. Balancing between here and there, between the imagined and the possible. These moments can be so intense and can happen so quickly, often they become simply a glimpse caught out of a corner of an eye. We’re not completely certain it even happened at all, but it had to. Didn’t it? With the passage of time, moments like these sometimes take on mythical proportions, and become more or less than real, depending of course on our imagination and intention. Not the case with this particular story. This one is real. At least I remember it as real. For the moment, reality is alive and beating in the heart of a native13lb female steelhead holding almost effortlessly at the slow edge of the fast water in the current at the bottom of Tony’s run on the lower Dean river in British Columbia.It was my first year visiting Adam Tavender, prince, squire, lord, servant of the lovely Judy and their Dean River Nakia Lodge. Normally, it’s next to impossible to get a slot into Nakia, but my friend the steelhead fly-fishing icon Dec Hogan had arranged a group trip and an opening appeared. He called with an invitation to spey cast the lower Dean. That was the equal of Mario Batali showing up at your doorstep with some proscutto, olives, melon, bread, Pecorino and Chianti, while simultaneously suggesting a picnic in the hills outside of Siena. You gonna turn that down? Me neither.Everyone was catching fish on this late June trip. Apparently one of those better years on the Dean. Early in the season, it was pretty much a wet fly game, but the stands were packed and the game was on. Now honestly, I know there will always be the guys with the pearl handled six shooter spey rods, who go around quoting from this and that experience had on this and that waterway around the world. A steelhead to the fly to these guys is like getting laid the 158th time. It’s always great, but what was her name, and what does it honestly matter? I’m a cheap date, and I don’t date that many steelhead, so these momentary encounters with storied fish make an impact on me and store comfortably in my carry on luggage. I remember most every one of them. These were Dean River fish. Barely out of the salt. The greatest seduction on earth - pure focused energy. A Dean River fish isn’t simply a fish. It’s an idealized concept similar to wishing upon a star. These fish come into fresh water already “mad as hell and not gonna take it any more.” Genetics I suspect. Generations of fish spawned in the river above the falls a short distance upstream in the gorge. The same waterfall that took its pound of flesh from weaker fish over the years, and genetically reduced the local population of commuting steelhead to a finely honed group of seriously angry Oncorhynchus Mykiss’s. To quote Warren Zevon when describing the Werewolves of London. “You better stay away from him, he’ll rip your lungs out Jim”. Metaphorically, these fish can do just that…Jim.For those who haven’t been to the lower Dean, you actually have been. You’ve been there in a steelhead daydream. The Dean empties into salt after a gorgeous two hour float plane ride to the northeast of Vancouver Island’s Campbell River. A little rain a few days earlier had left the river the color of turquoise, on the absinthe side of a lime creamsicle. Visibility was about two to three feet. As the glaciated river meets salt water, you’re sheltered by the tall peaks of the Coast Range intimately to the north and east, the open freshwater/saltwater fiord of the Dean Channel to the south-southwest. British Columbia’s evergreens are an herbal wrap around the entire body of the Dean. As the geological teenagers, Kimsquit Peak and Scarface gaze down on your minute presence, you’ll find yourself standing inside a road-less soup bowl of rock and water, evergreen and snow, current and tide. A glacial bouillabaisse of fishing potential. While watching for grizzly bears, out of the corner of your eye, you’ll catch glimpses of Bilbo Baggins and Frodo. It’s just ethereal. The lower Dean.Then there’s the food. Nakia feeds its fishermen in a style I would conservatively describe as distracting. Then there’s the scotch, and the tequila, and the bourbon and the wine and the conversation and the almost constant laughing with Dec and Rick and Al. Seven days of this nonsense, and you easily reach a relative state of grace with the whole world. Pummeled to death with fish and friends, food and fantasy. Probably the same as you, I don’t get there often enough, so believe me, I was suitably graced, and decidedly unrepentant. It was now the 6th and last full day of fishing. The rest of the guys had gone in early for another distracting dinner (I think it was something out of Oaxaca involving tequila, chocolate and chilies). I stayed a moment longer at Tony’s run for just a bit more ethereal double spey casting. Alone on the lower Dean. How is that possible? Just me and my recurrent fantasies – bottom of the 9th, two out, three balls, two strikes, one fish in the batter’s box and more in the dugout. Our hero burns a fastball down the middle of the plate. At 60 miles and hour it’s the best I could do and mere batting practice for the likes of these.If “taking” is a reasonable description, she “took” the orange General Practioner. Asked some time ago to describe “the take” from a serious professional steelhead guide’s perspective, Dec Hogan fittingly and hilariously described “the take” of a Dean River fish by exhaling deeply, taking a drink of wine, putting down his glass of red, clearing his throat, standing up from his chair at a dinner table full of friends, assuming a Second Lieutenant’s attentive ramrod stance and then violently flailing his arms in the air, and screaming the words “GIMME THAT!!!” Oddly enough, those were in fact her exact words as she TOOK the General Practioner. The three of us ran/stumbled/lurched/swam/jumped/leaped and Key Stone Copped our way downstream generally toward salt water. I had nothing to do with this, other than I was last seen running across the gravel bar, holding the rod high and trying valiantly to not break something critical like a leg or my skull. A hundred yards of this nonsense and she had put up what can’t be described as a valiant fight. There simply aren’t words available to describe it, so I can’t and I won’t.I estimated the fish to be 13lbs. Sea lice on her side and the color of my grandmother’s dinning room crystal chandelier. Hell, I was so excited to bring this female to my side, estimating was about the best I could do. Some concepts are just simply hard to get your head around. Everyone who has ever caught a steelhead knows the feeling of total disbelief that it’s actually happening. The cheap date’s version of the four stages of catching a steelhead. Condensed here for the sake of brevity, they are in no particular order, “Are you shitting me?” Followed by “This isn’t possible”. Followed by “Oh my God, would you look at that?” Followed by a generally unintelligible blather akin to the sound of an angry Howler Monkey in the jungle of Belize.She gave up just as she came to my side. Quit. Nothing left. I honestly thought she was dead. My joy gave way to a surging wave of concern. I was frantic that I may have fought her too long, or out of inexperience, may have done something more or less than I should. These fish are bred angry and strong. I get this once in a lifetime moment, and suddenly it all turns to a matter of life and death in a matter of seconds. Please, just let her live. I was in a foot and a half of water next to a gravel bar, and kneeled down to take the barb-less hook out of her mouth. Her gill plates were barely moving. I was certain she was gone. To fight like this and not live – where did that idea come from? My left hand cradled her upper body softly behind her pectoral fins and my right hand gently kept her tail upright. I had collapsed onto my knees and sat in the water with her in my hands. Gently rocking her back and forth in the water and talking to her as though she could hear me. As though I had mistakenly caused a traffic accident and was cradling a victim by the side of the road. While talking to her and begging her to live, I inadvertently looked at my watch on my left hand. It was 5:00. Time to live or die. Right now.I kept thinking I felt some movement in her body, but it was just the water pushing her into my hands. If I let go, she wouldn’t be able to swim. I was barely holding her upright and her body gently bumped against my hands like a ghost ship cradled against a pier in the last unsheltered harbor on earth. Still barely a slight movement from her gills. Time can stand still for magicians and fools alike. Finally I just looked up in desperation, hoping for someone to tell me what to do next. Now that nothing mattered but life. All alone, brilliant blue sky, golden warm late afternoon sun on the mountains and a shaft of sunlight in the area where we huddled together. Kimsquit and Scarface silent. She fighting for her life. Me the hapless assistant/nurse/perpetrator/fisherman/executioner/life saver. Take your pick it all fits.I just sat there and sat there and sat there with her, drifting in and out of reality. My legs had lost circulation and were numb. Oddly, I honestly almost went to sleep. Virtually unconscious and then momentarily hyper alert. Over and over again. For some stupid reason, I remember an oddly similar moment years ago with Gary at a Mark Knopfler concert, listening to Telegraph Road in a symphony hall and simply drifting away with the tune. Unconsciously aware of nothing and everything.The next micro second happened in one long drawn out panorama and I remember every inch of that instantaneous brush stroke. The fish simply exploded out of my hands. That’s the only word for it. She spontaneously combusted and covered me with a shower of Dean River water. In that same instant where I was drifting away, I was jolted alert and barely conscious enough of my surroundings to just catch out of the corner of my eye a glance at a giant tail disappearing into the river. The spray from the explosion was still in the air, caught in the side lit glow of the sun, and out of thin air a rainbow of color formed from the spray and followed her explosive path in a left to right arch in front of me and back into the river and like her was gone forever.Totally drenched, I looked up into the eyes of no one in particular and screamed, “Did you see that!? Can you honestly believe that!?” With no one to talk to, I simply rolled over onto the gravel bar, looked up to the sky and screamed again at the limit of my lungs, then laughed out loud the giddy raucous laughter of life instead of death. I saw my watch. It was 5:15. As part of some improbable gift, she and I had lived together in another time-warped world for every second of fifteen minutes. Stuff like that isn’t possible, but there it was laid out in front of me like the warm breath of incomprehensible fate. I came back laughing and like her, I was alive.There are in fact moments in all our lives. Fleeting, fragile, priceless. Balancing between here and there, between the imagined and the possible. Moments caught out of the corners of our eyes. Moments that are so stunning, they take on the patina of timelessness and magic, of fantasy and limitless possibility, of metaphor and allegory. Such was the nature of this particular release. I simply can’t believe it happened. She and her attitude went upstream toward the falls and hopefully on to give life to her offspring. Me, I’m still looking for dinner, a glass of scotch, a fine cigar, and trying to find my way home after dark. Oddly enough, after all this time, I can still ponder that afternoon on the Dean and honestly, there remains some serious question in my mind as to whom actually released whom.Note to Lee Wulff. Thank you for that thought in 39. How in the world did you get your head around the idea before anyone else did? I think of that fish on the Dean often, and without her release, my world would be the less for it. God, I hope she survived the last couple miles. At the oddest of times I think of her, and wonder about her children. By now she’s gone, but her children are out there with their attitudes and their strength and their myth. The thought always brings a smile to my face, and I will feel the warmth of that memory as long as memory serves me well.