On Thursday morning, when I ventured out to the shed for my waders, I found snow on the ground. By noon it lay heavily in the branches of the fir trees and coated the nearby strawberry fields and distant Christmas-tree farms.
By 2 p.m., checkout lines at the Thriftway in Winslow, Wash., were deep with agitated citizens. On the highway a few cars had nosed into ditches; some drivers had simply pulled over, shut things down and walked away. In the last light of day people hauled firewood up onto porches and threw tarps across their cars. Like me, many of them probably tuned in the 11 o'clock news on this particular night in late February a couple of years ago. Sure enough, schools all around Winslow were shut down, the roads were ghostly and skinned over with ice, the mountain passes were closed. The wise thing, obviously, was to go to bed and confront this frozen world later—to sleep with the heat turned up and the faucets dripping and more white falling beyond the windows.
At 11:30 p.m. I ate three cheese sandwiches, an orange and a bowl of oatmeal. At midnight I put a rubber patch on my waders, and at 1 a.m. I left to go fishing.
"You're crazy," my wife, Robin, asserted in the doorway. "Do you hear me? You're nuts."
I answered that in this she was also right, but that I was going fishing for steelhead trout anyway.
I will admit, too, that it is worse than insane, this so-called sport of winter steelheading. The blunt facts about it attest to that:
1) Half of my fellow Washingtonians who purchase the state steelhead permits will never catch a steelhead in the winter. In fact, a lot of them will never even go steelhead fishing. They'll buy their fishing license and a steelhead permit, and that'll be the whole of it for them.
2) Among those fishermen who do go winter steelheading, many will never see a fish or feel a bite. The brutal truth is that more than half of these steelhead anglers catch only one or two fish a season.
3) Those who do catch steelhead will put in, on average, 15 casting hours per fish. And it is not unusual for a very good angler to go two or three seasons without catching one at all. (Chew on that, bass fishermen, when you take only two or three largemouth in a day and feel like complaining about it.)
4) Oh, yes. To catch winter steelhead, one must sally forth in winter. This is a basic axiom of the "sport." Bad weather. Numb hands. Cold.