I stood there, rod bowed and line tight, and this time there were no intervening rocks. Every few seconds I felt the weight of the fish, thrashing and shaking. I put on all the pressure that eight-pound-test could safely take, but of course I couldn't turn him around.
Climbing down from the boulder, I worked my way upstream, retrieving line. Then the fish came back down. When I followed him down, he ran back up again. But each run he made was slower, and I was sure after the first 10 minutes that if the hook held and I was patient, I would land him.
I brought him in about 50 yards below where I had hooked him, and he was something to see. I found a good spot to land the fish—a little pool, two feet deep and well protected, with a small channel entering it from the main river. When I drew the steelhead through the channel he was obviously finished—not yet on his side, but nearly ready to turn. The first thing I did was measure him against the rod, just to be sure I could believe it. With the tail at the bottom of the rod, the tip of the hooked lower jaw reached the second rod guide. That was more than 40 inches, certainly more than 20 pounds.
The hook was so far back in the corner of the jaw that the fly was almost out of sight in the mouth. After letting out some slack line I laid the rod carefully on the bank, and I knelt by the fish, holding the leader in my right hand. It was all the steelhead could do to hold itself upright. I stared at the thick, dark-brown mottled back, the dark red lateral line, the grayish silver belly.
It was the fish of a lifetime—a fish to be photographed, publicized, mounted and hung on the wall. It was something to brag about, to feel proud of forever. Now that it was over, I was so nervous that my hands were shaking.
I thought hard, too, but not for long—about the fish and the river and of what both of them meant to me now. Then I wrapped the leader around my wrist, yanked hard once and it was broken. The steelhead stayed where it was beside me, gills pulsing slowly. But as soon as I guided him out into the river, into the steady current—cool, heavy, firm in my hands—he recovered.
I held him nose into the current, and in 10 or 15 seconds he surged easily, weightlessly out of my hands; then I watched him disappear, nosing steadily, slowly forward, drifting easily at the same time, over the gravel, ahead into the current, down to the cold dark water of the river bottom, to whatever remained of his natural life.