Coming Home – Chronicles of a Trinity River Steelhead

She was late getting back to the Trinity this year, at least later than a lot of the others. They returned during the bluebird days of October and November. Now it was January, cold and rainy. The river was swollen and off-color, but in prime condition for spawning fish. This was her fourth trip up the Trinity, and probably her last. She was heading for the very riffle in which she was born. “She” is a wild Trinity River steelhead.

Over the last year she had gotten around. After laying eggs and tending last year’s nest, she migrated back out to the Pacific last May. Normally she would have headed for the open ocean, but this year she went north up the inland Canadian coast, the Inside Passage. She had been there before. The waters were teeming with forage fish as well as crustaceans and succulent squid. She just couldn’t resist, and continued putting on weight.

Many Trinity River steelhead stick fairly close to the coast living the good life working the rich upwelling regions south of Oregon’s Cape Blanco. Quite a few Trinity River steelhead return to fresh water as “half-pounders” after only a few months in the salt. Others range for thousands of miles in the open ocean. In the spring they head mainly north and west; in the fall back to the south and east. Some visit more ports of call than Captain Hook, but then always home again to the Trinity River where it all began, and probably will end.

Like salmon, steelhead possess the extraordinary ability to sense their native rivers from more than a thousand miles away in the open ocean. When it is time to spawn, they need no directions. Humans have tried and failed to understand this without success, and even the best GPS units cannot compare with a steelhead’s innate ability to find home. Every steelhead knows where home is.

Their bodies change in preparation for the trip. The rich ocean smorgasbord transforms their bodies almost like freakish, steroid-gulping humans. Steelhead become long, thick, hard and sometimes misshapen while taking a dim view of lessor creatures; meaning everything that’s not a steelhead.

As smolts they move with athletic poise and dazzling speed. A flick of the fin caused them to disappear in any direction with astonishing swiftness and dexterity, a necessary skill when you’re near the bottom of the food chain.

Things were different now. Today the great steelhead was moving slowly and more deliberately, laying up energy against the potential moment she might need to leap a waterfall or escape an orca. Over time she has transformed into a magnificent specimen, steel-charged flesh with explosive energy and a surly attitude. Adult steelhead know no fear.

As if responding to an unheard song, her travels were leading her toward the small patch of gravel she had left so long ago. She was feeding less as she swam swapping protein for miles. Eventually she approached the North American Continent. Other steelhead that heard the same call joined and swam alongside. Some were male and others female, a fact easily forgotten in the vastness of the ocean.

Approaching the continental shelf the waters became more crowded as if the world were being compressed, and there was more food though the moving fish took less interest in it. Their sensitive bodies detected the falling salinity as more and more fresh water mingled with the deep blue. There was an ever-growing taste of home in the water.

The pulse of steelhead passed through the gauntlet of boats and lines and trash off the coast and evaded (most) the quick, deadly moves of sea lions. There was a subtle increase in the current, a force conspiring to deny access to the places the steelhead needed to go, and the resistance triggered a deep resiliency in them. Any one of them would gladly die rather than give in to the relentless current of the river. Some would.

The water was eventually all fresh and the taste familiar. From here on the journey will be much more physically taxing. Hoopa, Willow Creek, Salyer and Burnt Ranch were behind them now.  There are waterfalls and fast chutes of current bashing their bodies on rocks. The fish mainly traveled under cover of darkness and might swim as many as ten miles in a night, spending the daylight hours seeking calmer waters and rest.

More out of instinct than hunger they began to recognize the food that sustained them when we were smolts, a potpourri of multi-legged water insects, mere hors devoirs compared to ocean fare. Though hunger was forgotten for the time being, the insect food supply was part of being home and some could not help feasting.

On that particular January morning the great fish passed through Weaverville, and an angler from Cottonwood stumbled into his pickup truck braving the dark, wet and cold. The fish was heading toward the upper river while the angler was pointing his truck toward a spot his father had shown him many years before. This time the man had his own young son in tow and he wanted meat, a lovely steelhead to barbeque for his family that evening. He knew the angling regulations for the Trinity were tricky, so a worn copy of the booklet lived in his truck.

Though he preferred gear fishing most of the time, the water he wanted to fish was perfect for flies. It wasn’t even fully light out when his fly line stretched out over the water, paused for an instant, then plunk, dropped a purple woolly bugger into the water. Thirty pairs of steelhead eyes watched in the darkness. Fins twitched. A few more casts were made, and the purple fly swung closer and closer to the pod of steelhead.

Inside the greatest of these fish, a deep welling of anger was building. The purple tormentor was aggravating the big hen beyond measure like a mosquito in a dark tent. At almost thirteen pounds, she was one of the larger steelhead in the system. The fly came again and again, each time fanning the primordial fires of aggression.

The fly hit the water again, and a half-pound steelhead lunged for it triggering an explosive head-butt from the big fish as if to say “Back off! This is my kill!”

The fly completed its swing unmolested. The big fish knew there would be no escape for that fly next time; only there was no next time.

“Well,” said the man to his son hunkered down on the bank trying not to freeze, “I guess there are no fish in this run. Let’s move on.”

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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