"Two true statements," Pigott said. He was chewing on a piece of blackberry pie and leaning back against a drift log.
"Am I doing something wrong?"
"Not especially. Not really."
"Doesn't it seem cold to you out here today? Aren't you a little cold?"
"It's winter," Pigott said as he swallowed the last piece of pie.
We shoved off one more time. For those of you in the fishing-facts department, I was drifting a Corky and a bit of pink yarn and a two-ought hook, well sharpened. I had pinched a few inches of hollow-core lead on a dropper line just below my barrel swivel, and this bumped steadily along the river bottom, with the hook trailing behind. Occasionally, I would reel in and drape some well-congealed steelhead eggs over my hook after resharpening it painstakingly. (Preservationists arc allowed to denigrate me here for stooping to the crass and greedy practice of bait fishing. But the ethical problem was subsumed by the larger fact that I had never hooked a steelhead. Preservationists should applaud all purists first, lousy fishermen second.)
Your average worm-dangler, by the way, has no idea how difficult it is to catch a steelhead in the first place. The primary fact to consider is that a steelhead traveling upstream to spawn is not in the business of feeding. He'll mouth gently a hundredth of what catches his attention, and then release it. This lip action is subtle and far less noticeable than the bumping of one's lead along the river bottom. It is a kind of stop, a mere break in the rhythm, a subtle nothingness, a dead spot, and the angler has less than a second to perceive it and set the hook accordingly. Thus, for a steelheader, concentration is all—there may well be a thousand fish in the river, 500 of whom have mouthed his offering and none he has been aware of.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that if the water is too low, if the water is too high, if it is falling, if it is rising, if it is too clear, too muddy, too warm, too cold, too slow, too fast...well then, you can't catch a fish even if you do everything exactly right. I figure there is maybe one day every thousand years precisely right for steelheading. It rarely comes on a weekend, either.
Pigott and I, drifting down the Hoh, discussed these matters as we pinched on lead or knotted up new leaders. Pigott said that, if nothing else, I had developed a good sense of the sport's basics: painful weather, no fish, persistently bad water conditions and no perceptible bites. He figured that was the long and short of it—the truth, as he knew it, about winter steelhead fishing, with occasional exceptions of from five to 20 pounds thrown in at distant, eccentric intervals.
I fished on into shadows, into a frozen dusk, and finally a February darkness descended. There was a snagged line that gave me a hopeful lurch—nothing more—and then Pigott and I beached the boat. My first season of steelheading was behind me.