John Larison’s The Complete Steelheader has changed the way I fish more than any other book I’ve read. There are lots of other books out there that have had an effect on my life, fishing philosophy, etc. But no other book actually changed the way I approach the mechanics of the sport. I think this book had the impact it did because it was written exactly for me — the trout guy who only catches a few steelhead a year because he’s fishing for them like trout. In modern steelhead books, I consider this book to be among the big three: Trey Combs’ Steelhead Fly Fishing and Dec Hogan’s A Passion for Steelhead.
Below is an interview with the author of The Complete Steelheader and the new novel, Northwest of Normal. Be sure to stop by the shop on Wed. November 11th when Larison will be on hand to sign books at the Caddis Fly Shop. He will also be presenting at the McKenzie Upper-Willamette Chapter of Trout Unlimited’s meeting Wed 11/11 at 7pm at the Eagles Aerie, 1375 Irving Rd. in Eugene. John’s presentation will be on successful winter steelheading tactics and the public is welcome.
MS: You did exactly what you set out to do in the intro — you wrote a book that will help the average steelhead fly fisherman catch more fish. But based on what I know about steelheaders, you shouldn’t want that to happen. So why did you write such a great book?
JL: When I was guiding, I was constantly meeting competent and good-hearted trout anglers who complained about steelhead. “They’re so damn picky.” Or “Why would I go stand in the rain all day when I know I’m not going to catch anything?” These were people with time and money, folks with that compelling urge to protect watersheds and fish. But they weren’t doing much to help steelhead. They didn’t know much about the modern threats to steelhead. They just hadn’t touched enough chrome to become enchanted with it, to see that when we help steelhead, we help all native fish. Which got me thinking: how many other anglers are out there like this? I assumed a lot. And I assumed that these folks weren’t catching steelhead because they were fishing like the revered “old books” taught us too–using one or two techniques and conventional flies.
Steelheading used to be easy. When wild fish filled each run, an angler could swing small flies near the top and catch plenty of fish. Here’s how I think of it: Of every 100 freshly returned steelhead, let’s say 10 will strike a small fly near the surface. 5 of those and another 10 will strike a big fly swung low. 10 of those and another 20 will strike a dead-drifted egg or stonefly or whatever. (Of course this oversimplifies the equation–some conditions make fish ignore some presentations and smash others–but the point remains). When a guy could fish a dozen runs in a day and show his goods to two-hundred fish, he could catch steelhead doing just about anything he wanted. But now, as our fish counts spiral the drain, that same guy covering those same dozen runs might show his goods to 10 fish–if he’s going to consistently hook steelies, he has to work harder. And he’s got to experiment. The anglers I know who average a fish or two a trip all year are doing just this, they are fishing three or four or five presentations, big flies and little flies, skated flies and dead-drifted flies, all of it.
I figured if the clients I met while guiding were going to become advocates for steelhead, they had to start catching fish, and if they were going to consistently catch fish in these troubled times, they probably needed some guidance written for these troubled times.
But I hear you, who wants more anglers on their local rivers? Not me, not you, not any steelheader I know. But, I think this is a selfish sentiment, one that is putting our own fishing experience above the well-being of steelhead. Sure we want a run all to ourselves, but more than that, we want steelhead populations to recover. And they will only recover if droves of people stand up and say, WHAT THE FUCK! The industries decimating steelhead populations are entrenched; the only way we’ll ever uproot them give them that big kick in the ass they so deserve is by organizing our buddies and shouting in unison. I saw the book as one way I could rouse new voices.
MS: You mention your wife is understanding of your fishing obsession. Can she talk to my wife?
JL: That can be arranged. Though I’m sure you and I in the same boat, figuratively speaking. For us chronic anglers, spousal negotiating is like balancing a two-hander on a pinkie–its requires precision, foresight, and delicacy. Be warned Matt: If your lady convinces mine to retract her generous “fish-whenever-you-want” offer, I’m coming to sleep on your couch when she throws me out.
MS: I heard your recommendation to gear fish new rivers, and the inclusion of fly rod jigs got this book blackballed by some fly shops. Was that a risk you knew you were running when you wrote it?
JL: Great question. First off, the recommendation. When I’m new to a medium-sized “ditch” river like those in the coast range of Oregon, I prefer to start with a spinner or jig. I’m trying to locate five or six spots I can trust to hold fish, and a spinner or jig will allow me to cover about three or four times more water in a day. Once I’ve got some go-to spots, I switch back to fly gear and fish with confidence. I won’t fish gear on small or big rivers because I can typically cover the lies in a smaller river in the same amount of time with flies, and on a big river, I have a much easier time locating prime holding water. (Personally, I think medium-sized rivers, especially those with deep guts, are the most tricky and technically demanding of all steelhead rivers).
I knew I was running a risk when I included the hybrid technique (jig fishing off a fly rod, a really fun and challenging way to fish during high water events). Just like I knew I was running a risk including a chapter on fishing indie tactics. I didn’t expect to get blacklisted by any shops–I thought people would see the balance, six chapters on traditional methods and two on “radical” methods, and cut me some slack. But to be totally honest, I was hoping to ruffle a few of the more uppity and elitist feathers. The one thing about steelheading culture that has always driven me crazy is how seriously we take ourselves. I mean come on, it’s fishing. It’s the coolest kind of fishing, but it’s still fishing. I disagree that there is an ethical difference between fishing a floating line or a sinking line, a dead-drifted fly or a swung fly. The difference is a stylistic one.
Don’t get me wrong here: when guys target dark, wild steelhead with dead-drifted flies, I see an ethical problem. Just like I see an ethical problem when a guy loops on a sinking line, a ten foot leader, and a heavily weighted fly and swings it across a smooth tailout. These are ethical problems because these folks are taking advantage of the fish; they’re catching native steelhead that don’t have the energy to chase down a fly on their own accord, fish that should be left to spawn. But these ethical problems don’t implicate the techniques–they implicate the anglers. So I just chuckle when I hear people up on their high horses dissing indie tactics or sinking lines as inherently “lesser” than, say, skated dries. They’re not lesser, they’re just different. Personally, I’d rather catch a fish on a dry, but that doesn’t make catching one on indie tactics wrong. And I get straight-up annoyed when I hear guys dissing other anglers for fishing styles different than their own. We’re in this together; we’re on the same team. Let’s focus on what we have in common so that when we need to fight for the fish, we’ll have a strong and unified voice.
A note about the North Umpqua’s ban on indie tactics: I’m all for it. Too many people were posting up on staging areas and pounding dark and dour fish. The ban was needed to protect the fish. But, again, the problem wasn’t the indicators, it was the anglers.
Though I was surprised–and a little dismayed–by the blacklisting of the book, I was hoping to spark a conversation among steelheaders. Right now, a lot of us see steelheaders as split into two camps, indie anglers and swingers. I see that division as being very bad for steelhead. I hoped if a book came out that included a thorough coverage of indie tactics, the technique might gain a bit more legitimacy, and that those folks who’ve hated on it for so long might reconsider their prejudices–they might see that indie dudes care about the fish too. Maybe, just maybe, the next generation of steelheaders (if there are any steelhead left) will focus on what binds us, not what divides us.
Also, just on a personal note, steelheading became much more rewarding for me once I allowed myself to fish both swinging and dead-drifting presentations. They each dovetail with a different type of water, and for me, the real pleasure of steelheading is found in exploring a river–its riffles and its pockets. Keeping an open mind allows a person to see a river as a more dynamic and nuanced entity. It’s not just the buckets in the swingable runs; it’s also the migration routes through the pocket water, the slots along the rapids, that seam where the white water slides along the ledge. They all hold steelies, and they’re all fun to ply in their own way. For me, it’s pretty simple; using the technique that best matches the water delivers more of the candy I so crave: that moment just before a chromer takes when you know you’re fishing a perfect spot, perfectly.
MS: I have a couple questions from our esteemed anadromous fish columnist Rob Russell.
What’s with the beard, are you a Quaker?
JL: Ha! No, I’m just a steelheader. This beard is my fly patch.
Marijuana was a central character in Northwest of Normal. Exactly how much pot do you smoke?
JL: Mar-i-what? Never heard of it.
Come meet John Larison next Wed at the shop or the Trout Unlimited meeting!