Fish, Hunt, Fail: Steelheading Without a Reel

Fish, Hunt, Fail: Steelheading Without a Reel

Every outdoorsman has a story of mishap, mess-up, or hilarious blunder. “Fish, Hunt, Fail” is your opportunity to share a memorable tale of stupidity with the world. Trust us, this is a safe place. We (probably) won’t pass judgement. Share your stories with us at meateater@themeateater.com for a chance to be featured in our new weekly column. Be sure to include relevant imagery if available, and do your best to make us laugh. 

Six fly rods for two guys. It made perfect sense to me. My intention was to rig two for swinging streamers and two for drifting egg patterns, reserving the remaining two for backup in the event of breakage.

I was piling the rod tubes on the back seat of my truck when my buddy Darren Dorris pulled up. It was late January, 11:45 p.m., and it had been too long since either of us had made a good ol’ fashioned cannonball run.

The plan was to drive five-and-a-half hours north to the Salmon River in Pulaski, New York. Leaving at midnight would put us in the parking lot of a prime stretch just before sunup. We’d spend all day crushing steelhead, grab beers and dinner, crash at the dumpster-like Super 8, fish in the morning, and then boogie home.

Aside from the Red Bull and metal tunes fueling our adrenaline during the drive, excitement pushed us over the top because Dorris had never been to Pulaski nor tangled with a chromer. He was one of the most accomplished saltwater anglers I knew—one I learned a lot from over the years—but steel was my turf. This was my show.

We made that parking lot at 5:15 a.m., and now the caffeine from those energy drinks and piss-poor gas station coffee pushed my panic into overdrive. This couldn’t be happening. I checked again and again. Dorris, fully wadered up and staring at the river in the first shreds of sunlight, was raring to go.

How could I tell him? How could I explain that we had six fly rods and zero fly reels? How the hell did my reel case not make it into the truck?

The stoke evaporated. It seemed like the only options were to go to a fly shop and drop hundreds on reels, backing, and line, or turn around and drive home. Suddenly I remembered: In the compartment behind my back seat, there was a reel. It was a narrow-arbor 6-weight, loaded with crusty, ancient, floating line, and let’s just say the make and model was not highly praised for its ability to put the brakes on big, fast fish.

“It’s all good,” I muttered. “This will work. We’ll just take turns.” I stuck the little reel on an 8-weight rod, and off we went.

It didn’t work. My blunder had triggered a shock wave of bad vibes that we’d drown in all day. For starters, we looked like idiots passing a single rod back and forth. When I fished, Dorris paced silently on the gravel bar, twiddling his thumbs; when he was up, I stood behind him obnoxiously instructing like some half-assed fishing coach.

Sometimes there just aren’t enough reels.

The crowd in Pulaski can be a harsh one, and the snickers and sneers from the dozens of other anglers on this stretch were cutting. To make it worse, the early bite wasn’t half bad. I hooked up within minutes. The fish burned downstream, wrapped two other lines, and busted off. Dorris connected. That cheap-ass reel hiccupped and sputtered as the fish ripped across the pool and busted off. We’d lose two more each before the bite shut down.

Daydreaming about this trip prior to departure, I figured by noon we’d be power napping in the rig after a Big Mac, resting our sore arms for round two. But by noon, the frustration had given way to overwhelming exhaustion. We were arguing. Snippy. Agitated.

We’d bounced around to a few other spots, but none of them were holding fish like the first. By the time we returned to the first run late in the afternoon, the crowd had swelled so much that there was nowhere to stand. That was the last straw.

We bailed to a local Italian joint, where we both struggled to stay awake at the table, catching ourselves from slumping face first into our fettuccini Alfredo. Checking into the motel was a blur. We didn’t shower, just sacked out immediately in our smelly, sweaty base layers.

What that new day brought, thanks to an unseasonable warm front, was a tornado warning. We woke to what sounded like a high-speed train right outside the window. Overnight, what was forecast as a windy, but tolerable, day morphed into a beast. Gusts to 65 miles per hour with scattered twisters. The weather station said it would all be over by noon, which is exactly when Dorris and I planned to leave. So, 30 minutes after rolling out of bed, we were rolling down highway 81, trucking south toward my garage, where my case of reels was waiting.

The conversation on the way home wasn’t nearly as upbeat. Dorris cat napped on and off, maybe dreaming about steelhead. To this day, he still hasn’t caught one.

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