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Time Off & The Steelhead Debate

Alex Ford
October 20, 2022

And other obscure hierarchies

September is an important month for us at oakpool, and hardly at a professional level.

Our original 3 team members found each other through fishing, and you could say that in the early years of the company, oakpool was simply a means to keep ourselves on the water more consistently. While we’ve all grown up a bit and spend a lot more time behind a keyboard than behind the oars, center console, or wheel of a Tacoma these days, every few weeks or months is often punctuated by a week fishing somewhere. Most times, it's as a group in a WiFi friendly location. But in September, conflicting trips often put us OOO in different parts of the world at the same time.

If possible, we’d all sign up for a year of Septembers. Fish everywhere are migrating, whether it be albies and striped bass in our native New England, steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, permit in the Bahamas, Atlantic salmon in Canada, and so on. The fish are moving, and we must follow. Our inner fishing strings pull us in separate directions, frequently to off the grid locations for long stretches of would be workdays.

So it was in the last week of September 2022. For me, it was my first trip back to Terrace, British Columbia since before COVID. Dreams of real Pacific steelhead haunted me during the down days of COVID as deposits rolled forward another year. To be a little too honest for the company blog, I was ready to burn oakpool to the ground for another week of swinging flies through the glacial rivers of northern British Columbia. Our trusted General Manager Dan Zazworsky has the same feelings about steelhead and salmon on the Salmon River in upstate New York.

The steelhead debate is a classic one in the fishing industry.

A pacific run, naturally occurring steelhead in its native British Columbia or the PNW is among of the fly fishing’s most coveted catches. A hatchery grown steelhead in the overcrowded Salmon River is not. Many anglers question its legitimacy as a species and whether it should rightfully be called a steelhead or a lake run rainbow trout. To be fair, both “real” steelhead and the hatchery creatures of upstate New York are genetically identical, even if they have vastly different journeys. 

The inarguable thing about British Columbia steelhead is that they are not easy to find and take time to catch. I’ve heard that occasionally you can get lucky and hit it just right, but I personally have never had the privilege. For me, a week in BC is a web of open tabs checking river gauges, searching for the heaviest sink tips, and unanswered WhatsApp messages to guides and other fishermen in the area. BC steelhead is largely a “shots on goal” situation - your fly needs to be in good water for the maximum amount of time allowable in order to connect. For Dan in upstate New York, it’s a matter of buying access to private water and casting questionable flies to questionable fish.

On a typical week where one of us is out fishing, the other would cover for any meetings or client emails / WhatsApp messages. For both Dan and myself, the concerns of the other’s work day were irrelevant this time around. The week prior, we had dealt with a client fire drill or two and felt comfortable that our trips had fortuitously lined up on a week which should be on relative autopilot.

Max Kantar hooked up to a BC Steelhead

In the end, the week fell into place perfectly, despite some elitism on my end as to who’s fishing trip was more important. The 3 hour time difference on the Pacific Coast allowed me to get up early and work until 12pm EST via Starlink. Dan was able to return the first volley of client emails in the morning pre fishing, occasionally hit a spot of service during the day, and consistently build and grow marketing campaigns across multiple clients in the evening back at his AirBnb. Maybe even with a rum in hand and likely with a fly tying vise resting behind his laptop.

While Dan slammed countless hatchery bound chinook and cohos “for the smoker”, I think it was me who potentially left the week most satisfied. With 8 days of fishing under my belt and no steelhead to show for it, the last day in BC was my final chance to land the fish that had been on the back of my mind for four years. We turned off the main highway and up the active logging roads that fishermen use to access rivers, announcing our presence on the windy dirt road with a lyrical “Kilometer 1, going up” on the trucker’s radio channel. I hit one patch of cell service around Kilometer 9 where a solitary email appeared from a client, stating in the most fantastic terms that everything was okay and that oakpool team efforts had found a way around that morning’s Google Analytics reporting glitch. I stashed the phone in my wader pocket - it’s sole function for the next few hours to act as a camera.

The fish took on my second pass at the bottom of the pool - behind the famous international guide Max Kantor nonetheless. We decided it must have just come in, otherwise he almost undoubtedly would have hooked it. Steelhead fishing ruins lives because the fish’s first run is so electric - culminating in a big leap from the water to confirm its presence - that once you’ve hooked one, you are never happy again until you’ve hooked another. After we landed and released my first steelhead in 4 years, I sat by the river and leaned against a boulder for a good hour, smoking a leisurely cigarette and basking in an emotion that could best be described as elated relief. It’s an underratedly powerful feeling, and glows brightly on the drive back to the airport that afternoon.

The author with his prize
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