I STOOD IN THE NEAR DARK AT THE TOP OF THE TRAIL THAT LED DOWN a series of switchbacks to the river. A neighbor had told me that for several days there’d been grizzly tracks all down the trail. I thought that grizzlies probably liked these low light levels and could see well enough to take your face off with a swipe. I was certain that if I could pass this test I would catch at least one steelhead almost on arrival. That was strong incentive and a steelhead had a better chance of forcing my move than a channel cat, perch, or horned pout. I fingered the bear spray and thought the sliding cap was awkward considering the speed of a bear. A friend of mine was attacked by a grizzly while he carried a rifle. He shot from the hip as there wasn’t enough time to raise the gun to his shoulder and dispatch the airborne carnivore.
An acquaintance had given me a tin of “Rapture Mints” that you could use to sweeten your breathe on your way to the Great By-And-By. Moreover, I’d had a disquieting dream: in it I strolled a small, luxurious mall filled with flowers in hanging baskets and boutique stores whose fragrance filled the air. I stopped at a small bakery to buy a croissant. The pretty girl wearing a French apron, her hair in a French twist and speaking with a French accent asked me if I was a steelheader. I said that I was and she asked if I would like to see the last steelhead on earth, “Zee last steelhead.” As a dream, so far, kind of moronic. She led me out behind the bakery and there, in a concrete tank filled with dirty, slimy water, slowly finned a huge steelhead, nearly blind and covered with barnacles. “It’s the last steelhead!?” I cried, and woke up, liberated from the satanic French bakery and what it foretold of a terrible future. Angling has its characteristic memories and probably they are different for every angler. When I think of steelheading, I imagine myself about to come over the bank or out of the brush at first light to see if someone I would like to kill is in the tailout. When hiking to the railroad tracks south of Moricetown on the Bulkley, it is sheer torment to hear the whine of a jet boat coming through the trees. I once clambered down a steep bank on one of the Skeena headwaters to find Dick Cheney’s helicopter parked on the gravel bar. Oy!
When you start down a narrow, forested foot-trail imprinted with grizzly tracks, it’s important to keep your motivation clear, in this case, catching steelhead. I carried my bear spray in my right hand with my thumb on the slide release. In the interest of making my bear bells ring out with authority, I discovered myself adopting a springy gait emphasizing the balls of my feet. I noted that when walking flatfooted the bells fell silent. I considered that seeing someone with a pole in one hand, a can in the other, festooned with bells and bouncing on the balls of his feet would incite an attack in most cities of the world. Why would a bear feel differently? I thought about the big cattle-killing grizzly mounted in the Smithers airport that I examined, standing next to a tall German holding a huge set of moose antlers, its tips encased in protective Styrofoam. We glanced at each other and nodded grimly then went back to contemplating the bear.
Once I reached the river, I felt relieved. At the base of the trail I made out the bear’s tracks in the river sand but being able to see farther than the wooded sides of the trail made the difference. And the brightening day. I walked the shoreline, old pink salmon carcasses strewn among the boulders, ravens awakening, until I found the ledge under the high banks where the long slot showed green, a place I understood—understanding being roughly equal to knowing when and where the drift changed, fly speed altered, and often enough, a bite ensued. It happened right away, a bright, pissed-off hen of twelve pounds. Her jumps were so violent she hardly penetrated the water, bouncing off it as though from concrete. Then nothing happened and nothing happened for quite a while.
The big fish came at another place entirely. This place was a characteristic bend in the big Skeena tributaries: a long, hard seam, lots of frog water in the corner, a fast dry-line swing in the upper portion that changed speed as the fly tried to pull away and across the river—not a morning spot, not a tailout. And it was a typical big fish take like the moment in an old movie when someone with a cigarette dangling from his lips says, “Don’t nobody move.” The fish was…on. That was the prologue: no screaming run, no jumps: I just wasn’t getting anywhere and I wanted to see the fish before it got away, which seemed likely. For a very long time, the steelhead did what he felt like, sometimes running upstream against hard current, sometimes just crossing the river with the big bow in my line pulling at the corner of his mouth. But he was tiring and when I thought I’d lead him to shore, he eddied up behind a boulder at the edge of the fast current and just stopped. I realized he needed to swim no harder than the inhabitant of a koi pond to keep me from landing him. I went downstream and pulled, perpendicular to the fish and pulled, tried a slacker line: no dice.
I was going to have to go out to him but I couldn’t quite get there before my waders threatened to fill. I did have a fourteen-foot rod and with it I reached across the eddy, which encouraged the fish to move slightly toward mid-river and out of the slipstream that had so far defeated me. With this we sashayed downstream together until I had him on the beach, my biggest steelhead, a wolfish male, thick throughout his length. Just looking at fish is a big part of this but mainly, I thought of that melancholy dream of the last steelhead and, as I watched him dissolve in deeper water, I hoped that neither this one, nor any other, would be the last.
THOMAS MCGUANE is the author of Ninety-two in the Shade, the revered novel that brought stoner—era Key West to life through the salty meanderings of flats guide Thomas Skelton. Were Skelton to have plied the Skeena tribs, we’re pretty sure he, too, would have dreamed of steelhead and satanic French bakeries.