McShane admires a fish and remembers why he spends so much time chasing these incredible creatures.
By Calvin McShane
The interior of my home is a cool 45 degrees, rivaling the temperatures outside hovering around freezing. It is just past dark on a mid-April evening, and my first objective is to get the wood stove up and burning. I start a fire, feed my two wet and exhausted dogs and hang my waders and vest above the wood stove beside the thermometer that so graciously reminds me of my recent residential neglect. I haven’t showered in enough days that it would upset my mother and significant other. My face is blemished by my poor attempt at a beard, and thankfully, the overgrown mess on my head is hidden by a ball cap that reads, “My mission is going fishin’!”, a fashion statement that my girlfriend refers to as nerdy. My plan for the evening is to scour for some leftovers, pen another entry in my fishing log and crash out on the couch promptly located in front of the wood stove. My alarm is set for 6 a.m., enough time for coffee and a quick bite to eat before I head back to the stream. I’ll drift off to sleep accompanied by dead-tired dogs and my solitary thoughts. I get to go steelhead fishing tomorrow, just as I did today, and I cannot imagine a better life than right here, right now.
My first steelhead was hooked at the ripe age of 12. Dunking crawlers for brook trout in mid-May, I happened on a rainbow trout that would change my life forever. Over the years, I’ve learned that drifting worms on a five-foot ultralight rod may not be the best approach and have since graduated to an adept steelheader. In my youth, besides being addicted to the adrenaline rush, I was definitely obsessed with the catching of the fish. If I didn’t land a steelhead, I had failed, and even though ill-intentioned, I worked harder and harder to hook and eventually land more steelhead.
I explored every type of steelhead fishing I could get my hands on. I threw crankbaits, bottom-bounced, bobber fished and toyed around with a centerpin. More than fishing, I read so much that organizing the information outweighed its usefulness in the field. Once I mastered the technique, I moved onto reading water and exploring new rivers. Eventually, I got quite good at this steelhead fishing thing and catching steelhead was no longer the hardest part; catching ‘many’ steelhead became the new operative goal. Numbers were the measure, and I, again, was a fool for thinking I had anything figured out.
McShane displays a beautiful buck he caught before releasing it back into the depths.
If numbers didn’t bring me ultimate steelhead bliss, what would? Surely recognition. I began to post on every social media platform available to be sure everyone could see how great of a fisherman I was. If I hadn’t posted it, did it really happen? The evidence of my skill was the photos, likes and comments. Little did I know that with every like and every spike in my ego, my hobby became less and less about the fish and more and more about me. The notoriety and envy of others, albeit satisfying was inherently empty. The college kid posting endless photos in search of attention looked nothing like 12-year-old me, grinning ear to ear looking up at my proud father, breathless and awestruck; a feeling I have been trying to get back to ever since.
Eventually, I matured and no longer post endlessly on social media hoping for boundless approval. I was still addicted to steelhead but found my passion to be much simpler. I was tinkering with technique and exploring new options. I started to mess with fly fishing, fly tying and even played around with a two-handed rod. The fisherman I admire most take to the fly, and I thought, why shouldn’t I? I read about how ultimately catching a steelhead on the swing, while most exhilarating, is also the most difficult. I’ve found truth in both assertions; however, swinging for steelhead was developed out of necessity, like all forms of fishing. Two-handed rods are best utilized for west coast ocean-run fish on huge rivers by Michigan standards. On my home waters I can cross most streams in a few long strides, and swinging flies was clearly only satisfying some idea I found to be cool. Steelhead don’t care about what is on the end of my hook as much as I would like to believe. If I was going to continue down this route, I would have to come to terms with my own self-interest. I also realized if fishing was really about difficulty, I could certainly think of many other ways to make it harder on myself — blindfolds and hand ties are the first to come to mind. Obviously, I was way too caught up with, well, myself. Undeserving of their grace, I kept fishing, hopeful that I may become a pioneer on what it means to be both true to myself and true to the fish.
Fishing, and maybe steelhead fishing more than others, is an interaction between the wild and the tame. Man and creature cross paths, and in doing so, enter into a singular experience entirely different than any preceding. We fish how we do because of convenience and ideals, these sorts of things are entirely on our end as fisherman. The fish dictate where, but most importantly, why we fish. The hooking, fighting, and potential harvesting are beyond thoughts of a contest, it is not something to be won. Instead, the sum of these actions is the crossroads of anxiety, excitement and astonishment. We cannot pretend that the techniques and motives behind why we take to the river are entirely disconnected from our egos. Once a steelhead is caught and the apex of the battle passed, the conversation is between who we actually are and who we thought we were. Each tail grab brings about a new individual, different from the person who held the fish before this one. Concerns of numbers, attention and elitism are a meaningless attempt to elevate pride above the honest reason why we all chose to go fishing anyway; the fish.
McShane hooks into a steelhead on an Upper Peninsula stream. He realized shortly into his college career that his steelhead endeavors had become more about the attention he received from catching fish than the journey he took to get there.
Today, I still struggle with finding a balance between connecting with others while at the same time not getting too caught up in my successes. As the spring begins, I am easily humbled. Many of the first days of steelhead season are spent digging my truck out of the snow and searching for open water. The first few fish of the year catch me by surprise, usually robust males so gaudy in red and green that they resemble a sea monster more than the chrome we steelheaders so often covet. I rarely land any of the first fish I am lucky enough to hook. I am, to be truthful, overly confident and usually overly excited. I get caught up with goals outside of my current context, like whether or not I will get a photo and how important it will be to begin the season on a success. My only wake up to reality being violent tail thrashes and the bulldogging of a pissed off steelhead. It’ll take me many more butt whoopings before I come to terms with the truth — these fish have more toughness, smarts and wisdom than I do, and I should stop trying to fight it.
I can remember vividly my first days of steelheading as a kid. Warm temperatures bring unpredictable weather when they meet a well-chilled Lake Superior. Snow swells are common in between periods of intense sunlight, the streams warming and cooling several times a day with regularity. The air, for the first time during a long winter, has a distinct smell besides that of snow. The streams are intimidating as they roar powered by the influx of heavy rains and melting snow. It all seemed and seems to this day like too much to handle all at once, not even mentioning the steelhead. At some point, we all have sat back and taken in the beauty around us while on the river. In the middle of our reflections, a chrome fish has, what felt like, reached out and grabbed us by our throats and taken us on a ride that is most aptly described as, indescribable. After these moments, it’s hard to make sense of what drew us to these places in the first place. What is certain, but all too many times forgotten, is that we found ourselves in these places not because of our own ego but to get away from our ego.
I get to go steelhead fishing tomorrow and the day after that, and if I am successful in my attempts to further evade my responsibilities, the next day too. I spend my Marchs, Aprils and Mays doing all that I can to get on the river. I, unlike most, am lucky and have practically centered my life around steelhead fishing and the wisdom it yields. At many times throughout my life I had forgotten what, as a young boy, became so startlingly clear. I was under some stupid notion that the sport was lucky to have me; a steelhead slaying purist with one hell of a social media presence. I am not saying I have won all these battles but I am content with at least acknowledging their existence. At the end of my days, when I am lying on my couch staring into the haze of the wood stove, if I am caught up thinking about anything else other than the grace and exquisiteness of those big lake-run rainbows, I am doing a disservice to them and their beauty. Steelhead exist not solely for our consumption or utilization; they exist as an entity belonging entirely to themselves. We are lucky enough to intercept them occasionally and in a few moments of withdrawal learn the lessons far beyond the words of man.