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Sam Cook column: Steelhead standoff: An angler's tale

A friend of mine called just before dinner the other night. We needed to go over a few details for an upcoming trip. When we finished, he had something else he wanted to tell me.

"You got a minute?" he asked.

He's polite that way.

He's a steelhead fisherman. He spends a good deal of time each spring standing in waders in North Shore streams hoping to intercept a big rainbow trout bound upstream from Lake Superior.

He wanted to tell me what happened on a Minnesota river one recent morning. He set the scene for me — the river he was fishing, the water level, the water clarity. He told me in detail about this particular run.

"If you hook a fish there, they always go downstream, and it's hard to go with them," he said.

Steelheading — the only kind of fishing in which, if you hook a big fish, you might have to actually chase it downstream, clambering along the bank, slipping on wet rocks, handing your rod to yourself as you work around bankside trees. Steelhead are wonderful creatures, extremely powerful, the kind of fish that give an angler that heady, out-of-control feeling.

My friend had passed up fishing the run the day before, he said. The water had been too high and silt-laden. But on this day, it was right.

"The water was clearer," he said. "I could see some boulders below the surface."

And he was lucky enough to hook a steelhead.

He's a serious steelheader. He has taken some nice rainbows. He took his largest Knife River steelhead this year — a fish of more than than 30 inches.

But this fish he had hooked — this was a fish, he said.

My dinner was almost ready. Phyllis had taken the homemade pizza out of the oven. She was giving me the nod that meant, "Wrap it up quickly."

"It came up, and I saw it in the water," my friend said. "And I got an adrenaline shot. It was like seeing a really big buck when you're deer hunting."

He paused for a second.

"I really wanted that fish," he said.

The way he said it told me it must have been even larger than his recent Knife River steelhead.

The pizza was on the table now, but I just couldn't interrupt my friend. I knew he needed to tell the story, and I really wanted to let him. I nodded at Phyllis.

My buddy continued with a tree-by-tree account of how he chased this fish downstream, working around the brush, trying to keep up with the fish.

You know where we're going, right?

"The current was just too strong," he said. "The fish got out in it, and it was too much. Finally, the pin came out."

That's what he said: "The pin came out."

Maybe that's steelheader talk. I hadn't heard that one before. The fish had escaped.

"I had to just sit there on the bank for a while," he said.

I was right there with him. All of us have lost fish. But when it's a big fish, and you've seen the fish, the emptiness after losing it is soul-jarring. It could have been — but now it isn't. Now it's just you, a fishing rod, and your line trailing limp in the water.

This is exactly what makes fishing such a wonderful pursuit. A creature you cannot see takes whatever you're offering — a puff of yarn, a night crawler, whatever — and for several seconds, a minute, 10 minutes, you and the fish are bound in the age-old struggle.

My friend would have released the fish anyway. Regulations require it. He would have snapped a quick photo. Then he would have removed the hook and waited.

The fish would have held there in the slack water for a second or two, perhaps, before comprehending its freedom, then shot for safety. Its big tail, providing an explosion of thrust, might have showered my friend with river water.

But, no. None of that happened.

This is the essence of fishing. Despite all of the advancement in rods and line and other accoutrements, success is never assured. Sometimes, you're left sitting on the bank, shaky and empty and beaten.

When enough time has passed, when you can begin to hear the birds again, you get up and go back at it.

But the image of that fish, that split-second glimpse of it in the water — that doesn't leave you for a long time.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Find his Facebook page at or his blog at