Unabashed Love Letter To Steelhead

About six years ago, I suddenly discovered I was interested in fly fishing. It was quite unexpected - fishing had never attracted me before - yet I soon found myself absorbed by the hermetic arcana of the fly-fishing magazines.

I could just as well have been studying cuneiform tablets. Much of it meant little since I was wholly inexperienced in the sport. For nearly two years, I would describe my interest as "conceptual fly fishing," since it was that long before I actually set foot in a stream with fly rod in hand.

At one point in those conceptual years, I turned for advice to a Times colleague, Steve Raymond, a former reporter and now production executive who is well-known in local and national fly-fishing circles. He steered me to "A Primer of Fly Fishing," by the late, great master from Vancouver Island, Roderick Haig-Brown.

Though some of the tackle Haig-Brown wrote about has been superseded by new equipment and materials, the little book itself was a revelation. Direct, graceful, even pellucid, Haig-Brown's "Primer" accomplished its most important task: It demystified a sport, even a way of life. I no longer felt intimidated by it all.

I felt that way again last weekend, when I read the latest book by Steve Raymond himself. "Steelhead Country" (Lyons & Burford, $19.95) is a thoughtful, almost gentle memoir of fly fishing for steelhead trout over the past quarter century in the Puget Sound region. In his own way, Raymond demystifies a branch of fly fishing that for most anglers elevates the sport to even higher levels of frustration. Yet reading Raymond, the sport felt accessible; I wanted to get out, as soon as possible, onto a Northwest steelhead river.

Most of all, Raymond's book is an unabashed love letter to a fish for whom he has the utmost affection and respect.

"The steelhead has many virtues . . . the most obvious (its) physical beauty," he writes in a chapter which deciphers the steelhead's tangled and disputed genealogy. "A steelhead freshly returned to the river is clean and lithe, a perfectly sculptured streamlined form, and it still wears the colors of the sea - the gun-metal gray of the North Pacific on its back, the gleaming brightness of sunlit waves and broken whitecaps on its sides."

The beautiful fish that fly fishers such as Raymond occasionally get to hold briefly before releasing is a survivor's survivor. Steelhead essentially are seagoing rainbow trout - that is, they are born in freshwater rivers, but unlike their smaller cousins, they migrate to the North Pacific where they spend two or three years growing large and powerful. Then they return - incredibly, to the exact river of their birth - to spawn. And the cycle is repeated.

But, as Raymond observes of this withering process of natural selection, "for each hundred hatchlings only one or two, if any at all, will return safely as an adult fish to the rivers of their birth."

There are no fireworks in Raymond's prose. Rather, it is straightforward and clear - almost like a talk between friends - though he occasionally resorts to cliche ("But every cloud has a silver lining, or so it is said . . .") or a convoluted phrasing that sounds quaintly formal ("One of the many attractions of steelhead fly fishing is in owning the implements used in its practice").

More frequently Raymond is vividly recreating a memorable encounter with a steelhead on his "home river," the North Fork of the Stillaguamish, or pointedly describing the timber industry's destruction of the Stilly's most important spawning steam, legendary Deer Creek. Throughout, he maintains a becoming modesty about his obvious skill.

While catching (and releasing) steelhead is central, fishing technique is not the focus of "Steelhead Country." More important is its portrait of a fly fisher who sees his sport in its broadest terms: a reason to learn about and immerse himself in our magnificent, though threatened, environment. In this way, "Steelhead Country" should appeal even to those for whom fly fishing will always remain conceptual.

Donn Fry's column appears Sunday on the Books page of The Times.