Some fish are simply fish; others form the basis of a religion. And while some trout fishing may be a mere hobby, pursuing the steelhead is pretty much a cult. Bearing in mind the almost holy status given to this creature, I must warn you that, in the next 2000 words or so, I am going to commit blasphemy.
Steelhead are a form of rainbow trout that migrate back and forth to the ocean, living part of the year in coastal waters and part of the year in rivers. They are big – averaging 4-6 pounds in some rivers and much more in others – and I love to fish for them even though it offers no real chance at any new species. They are simply so big, so spectacular, and so challenging that it makes up for their confounding elusiveness. It’s a winter activity, and I mostly go to coastal rivers about 4 hours north of San Francisco. The scenery alone makes the trips worth it, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself when I don’t catch anything. And that is definitely a risk. They can be in the river Friday and nowhere to be found Saturday. The river can be perfectly fishable one day and too murky – or too clear – the next. Or, of course, the fish can be there and decide not to bite, or unthinkably, they can bite and I can mess it up.
But it’s all worth it when you catch one like this.
Most of the time, I fish the Trinity River near Weaverville, California. I have been going up there over the past 10 years, and the trips have a comforting consistency to them. (At least until the fishing starts.) The drive to the Forty Niner Inn from my front door in San Ramon is exactly 257 miles. Without ugly traffic, it takes me three hours and 50 minutes. I try to do it in daylight, because California’s northern central valley has a unique beauty, especially in the spring months when everything is green except for perpetually white Mount Shasta which dominates the view for miles. And the last hour of the drive, on highway 299 through the mountains, starting with the old wild west town of Shasta, is absolutely stunning. There are two good restaurants in Weaverville, not even counting Burger King and Pizza Hut. Generally, it’s Marino’s for spaghetti and meatballs Friday, then La Grange Cafe for a steak or ribs on Saturday. Fine UMF, and to be fair to my overtaxed intestine, both places also offer a nice salad. And after the salad, it’s back to the inn to set up the gear – line needs to be changed, bait rigs tied, hooks need to be sharpened and de-barbed. This always goes late into the evening, which is fine because I am wound up and never sleep that well before fishing anyway.
Ed Trujillo is the guy who has made all this happen for me. Ed has been a steelhead guide on the coastal rivers for most of his life. Quiet, unassuming, incredibly easygoing, unflappably pleasant, Ed couldn’t be less like me – people meet us and are humming the “Odd Couple” theme in a matter of moments. Ed has been rowing the Trinity for a long, long time, and it seems like on every day of his life, he’s just happy to be here. His first childhood memories of the outdoors are on the Trinity, his first steelhead, his first salmon. Being left behind with the girls one day so the men could fish in the drift boat, and catching an 8 pound steelhead by himself from the shore. He always went with the men after that. The outdoors, especially this river, are sacred to him. He speaks about it as a living thing, a changing thing, and he has a deep, quiet respect for nature.
Ed Trujillo with a heck of a steelhead.
Ed manages not to laugh at my sweater.
Like everyone, Ed has had good years and bad years – in 2007, a bad spiral related to diabetes almost killed him. A bunch of surgery, a heart attack – we all thought we were going to lose him. But he pulled through, and even in the hospital, under all kinds of pain medicine, right after he asked about his lovely wife Carla, all he wanted to know was whether the river was fishable. And he came back, and I think the river keeps him going. He lives for the fall and winter season, and we get up there every weekend we can. And rain or shine, fish or no fish, he is just happy to be there.
I have spent untold hours with Ed, although I actually see him only a fraction of this time, because I am in the front of the boat fishing and he is behind me rowing. And only because of his easygoing disposition has he been able to tolerate all these years of guiding an impossibly type-A, never-relax-for-a-minute fisherman such as me. I probably haven’t always been the nicest guy to him or really thought about how difficult I must be to fish with – I want this rigged and that rigged and to try this hole again and get grouchy when the fish don’t bite and I frankly never thought much about what a good guy he was to me. When most guys are off the river at 2, Ed is fishing through until dark. When most guys will run a hole once, Ed will go through it 5 times. And all with that irrepressible smile. Well, thank you, Ed.
Amazing it wasn’t frightened off by my hat. And who the heck wears matching outfits on a river?
Ed has put me on hundreds of steelhead, each one memorable in its own way. But despite my shameless showing off the photos above, this story is not about the steelhead. It is about the pending world record Klamath Smallscale Sucker, and I promise you that this will be the only article you ever, ever see on this species. What, you ask? You’re catching all these amazing steelies and you’re worried about some obscure bottom-feeding thing? Welcome to my perverse obsession, people.
The Klamath Smallscale Sucker is a fine creature, perfectly adapted to life on the bottom of clear, fast mountain rivers of Northern California and Southern Oregon. It is occasionally caught by anglers who are there chasing the aforementioned steelhead, and consequently, even though it is a perfectly acceptable fish and actually fights well, it has gotten an undeserved reputation as a “junk fish.” Well, to me, a fish is a fish, especially one with an open world record.
First, a bit of explanation is in order about IGFA World Records. Yes, I have a whole bunch of them over the years, but in most cases, it is because I found an “underrepresented” fish that no one else had turned in a record for. Now, a 2000 pound marlin will get you on television, but a Red-Toothed Triggerfish will get you a polite nod from relatives – maybe. And most of my records are right up that alley – indeed, of the 31 current or pending that I hold or have held, only 4 broke a previous record, and in two of those cases, the record I broke was my own. So I just wanted to add some perspective here. And when I got going on this fetish a couple of years ago, I started looking at my species list for likely critters – over a pound, in the top half of its maximum length, and one that stood out was the Klamath Smallscale Sucker. I seemed to be catching one on every Trinity trip – there’s one born every minute, right? And since I was going steelhead fishing anyway, it would be an interesting side activity to catch one of these critters and add it to the wall. So this had to be an easy one, right? A slam dunk?
You know better.
The result was predictable – the moment I actually targeted this beast, it seemed to disappear off the face of the earth. Riffles that had been loaded with them only the season before were either completely empty or were swarming with pesky steelhead. I went through almost a year of trips without getting one, and yes, this bugs the heck out of me. And Ed took it personally – he racked his brain trying to figure out where the suckers were, an activity which would cause most steelhead guides to burst into flame.
Fast forward to this January 29. I was fishing the river with Ed and good friend Jim Tolonen. (Jim is famed as the man who facilitated my capture of the mighty yet under-recognized Onespot Fringehead last year. https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/06/05/the-countdown-to-1000-ode-to-the-onespot-fringehead-5/ ) He is a great guy, but he is a bit more of a purist than I am, and he doesn’t totally get why someone would spend weekends chasing something like a Klamath Smallscale Sucker. But we have a good time on the water together, and he always brings really, really good Scotch. Jim’s close friends have cleverly nicknamed him “J.T.” – but they haven’t told me what this stands for yet.
That’s Jim Tolonen on the left. In case you wondered, I caught the fish.
We worked our way down the river, and I never stop being stunned by the scenery. Clear blue sky, snow-capped mountains, all kinds of amazing wildlife. The holes and runs get very familiar. We even have our own names for them – The Inadvertent Swimming Hole (a.k.a. the It’s Deeper than You Think Place,) Cranky Guy Bend, Metamucil Riffle, Breakoff Corner, the Spot Where Richie Pooped His Waders, etc. And every chance we got – every break at the top of a hole, every slide through a still pool, I would be casting a night crawler, hoping for that one beastly sucker. But all I caught were small rainbows, maybe 8 inches.
The Trinity River.
But I kept at it, with one of the long bait rods I had used with Attila in Hungary. After a few minutes, I got a rattle. Another dink trout, I thought, but I let the fish work on it. The tapping continued, then a small run, then a few thumps. (This all makes sense to fishermen, by the way.) I finally let the fish load up the rod and I swung back. It stopped me dead – there was a lot more weight there than a 7 inch smolt. The whole 12-foot rod bent as the fish pumped and headed out into the current. Oh no, I thought. Not another darn steelhead. But I had my hopes up. The fight was steady and solid, but the fish stayed down on the bottom. Slowly, I worked him toward the boat, and when he was about 15 feet away, I got the first hint of that lovely olive color. It was a sucker, and it was a big one. The last few minutes of the fight are always the most nervous, and while Ed understood how important this was to me, Jim was pretty much giggling out loud. I ignored his craven insensitivity and stayed focused on the battle. Moments later, we landed it and at least 2/3 of us rejoiced. And somewhere in the distance, I could hear the muffled cry of competitive anguish from Jaime Hamamoto, because she has never caught one of these and although she would smile and wish me well, I know it must really burn her up inside not that I would ever act like that.
The Klamath Smallscale Sucker – a portait
All it needed to be was a pound to put the species in the record book, but this one truly was a beast – two and a half pounds. And I was proud and pleased. And Ed was proud and pleased. And Jim was polite and bemused.
Awkward? Sure, but they are kinda cute.
That evening, I faced the difficult choice of whether to get the steak or the ribs at The Grange Cafe in Weaverville. It hadn’t been the best weekend of steelheading, although I got a couple, but there was one more world record application in the books – and this one would count for Ed Trujillo. (The guide also gets credit for a record.) Ironic that a man who has spent his entire life putting folks on beautiful steelhead would go into the IGFA books as the Klamath Smallscale Sucker king, but like always, he was just happy to be there. There may be a lesson in there for all of us, but doubly so for me.
He just never stops smiling. I am scowling in this photo because I had just messed up a big fish, and all Ed could say was “But wasn’t it a great bite? Did you see the way he jumped?”