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Bob Pigott and I spoke of blunt fact No. 4 on that snowy night as we plowed west toward the Hoh River, where the steelhead run, allegedly, sometime between November and March. The Hoh, which coils down from the Olympic Mountains to empty into the Pacific, is a fair producer of steelhead. Not as good as certain streams elsewhere in the state—the Kalama, Cowlitz, Humptulips—but they were in areas so inundated with snow that we couldn't even think about them. Pigott has been fishing for 28 years, having started when he was 16. There is a sticker on his red truck that reads THE WORST DAY OF FISHING IS BETTER THAN THE BEST DAY OF WORK. Soon after our trip this was no longer the case for Pigott. He would wind down his corporate life and move to the coast to become a full-time hunting and fishing guide. Since then, work and fishing and the best days and the worst days have all become one.
"Steelheaders are masochists," Pigott explained to me, his big hands at 10 and 2 on the van's steering wheel. "They want it to be difficult. They want bad weather. They get a sense of satisfaction from suffering. The truth is, you don't really go to catch fish. You go to go. You go to be there, sort of."
Great, I thought. Steelhead Zen koans. The sound of one hand clapping. If a tree falls in the forest and there's no logger handy, will everyone have enough plywood? If a monk stands in a river for 15 winters, will a steelhead eventually brush against his saffron robes?
"It's the fish, too," Pigott said. "They fight like hell."
There's more to it than that, though, and Pigott knows it. The steelhead trout is an anadromous fish, which is an ugly word for a beautiful thing: The steelhead runs through the salt chuck and up into the rivers to spawn in the place where it was born. It is a rainbow trout with a thirst for the sea. Anglers of a poetic and anthropomorphizing bent have raised the steel-head to the level of a myth and have communed, while frozen from head to foot, with the souls of these migrating symbols. A man, after all, would like to live like this, wouldn't he? Be born, travel swiftly, live a life of daring on the high seas, gather all his lust up into one ardent pilgrimage and die in the consummation of it. Or, if not dead, repeat the trick two or three times? No long, slow demise. No worthless afternoons. No 50-year rot-after-ripening.
Pigott allowed that, yes, this was one weird part of it. Then he wisely reined in all the metaphysics and gave his attention to the ice-slicked roads.
It was dawn when we arrived at our put-in at Hoh Forks beneath the last of a crescent moon. Snow highlighted draglines on the clear-cut hills; the road sparkled in the first light. A pink tint backlighted the clouds as we prepared to launch, and soon the frosted stand of birches on the far side of the river stood cleanly illuminated by the morning sun. Pigott took a reading of the air temperature. "Seventeen degrees," he said. "Let's go."
Downstream the gravel bars lay dusted with snow, and icicles hung from toppled maple trees. As we drifted around a bend, a pair of mergansers jumped up and winged off to the west. I began to cast up against the cutbanks and into pocket water, lefthanded wrist flings, dozens of them. Pigott, at the oars, worked me into a hundred nice spots, and I got good long drifts along the bottom.
By noon I had made more than 200 casts—to no avail. We beached the boat just above the old Fletcher Ranch and ate lunch sitting on the cobbles.
"In five hours it'll be dark," I said. "And we haven't even seen a fish yet."