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Steelhead Trip Turns Up a Unicorn

Great friends and an epic battle with a monster fish make for an unforgettable day

On the Water Be Inspired
Steelhead Trip Turns Up a Unicorn

This blog is by Mercury Pro Team member Rob Endsley, an Alaska charter captain (princeofwalessportfishing.com), former river guide and host of the “Outdoor Line” radio show in Seattle, Washington.

Some fishing stories are too good not to share. Like what I experienced on a recent trip for steelhead trout on Washington’s famed Skagit River with my best friend and fishing partner, Chris Senyohl, of Intrepid Angler Guide Service, and former national champion mountain bike racer Luke Strobel.

In spring 2021, the river had just enough steelhead returning to it to allow for a four-day-a-week catch-and-release season. Though the runs have been returning well below forecast, the Skagit still has incredible trophy potential. It’s the kind of place where one cast can change everything. The Skagit is also the birthplace of steelhead fishing in the Pacific Northwest, with a long and heralded history among steelhead anglers everywhere.

Mercury Marine Mercury Jet OutboardMy 18-foot river sled is set up perfectly for this fishery. It’s powered by a Mercury Jet outboard outfitted with the slick new tiller handle, plus a set of 10-foot oars that allow me to slowly drift the boat downstream and into position so my fishing partners can cast into pockets and runs along the way.

On this particular morning, Chris and Luke jumped in the sled with me at first light, and I already had the heated tiller handle warmed up for the five-mile ride. We raced upriver to a spot where we’ve had success in the past, taking in all the glory of the North Cascades as we went. We glided across shallow bars and tailouts until we reached the first run.

I jumped on the oars, controlling our drift downstream as the guys went to work casting soft-plastic worms into holding areas. There was some brief excitement when Luke hooked a mountain whitefish, but otherwise we hit the runs repeatedly and tried a number of techniques with nothing to show for it.  

Eventually, we decided to stick with the big ol’ rubber worms since we all knew how well they work for these aggressive wild steelhead.  

Just before noon I carefully idled the sled into about 6 inches of water in a tailout that led into one of the Skagit’s many side channels. These side channels have produced so many fish for me over the years, mainly because folks won’t take their boats into them, but with the jet, I can slip in without a problem. Luke and Chris immediately began casting into the most likely holding areas as we fished down through the small channel. At the end of the channel, where it meets the main river, Chris placed a precise cast right next to a downed tree in a pile of timber. The 5-inch-long rubber worm no sooner than hit the bottom when our day changed.

A heavy-shouldered steelhead picked up the worm, rolled a few times, then zipped back up the side channel. By then, the boat had drifted back into the fast current of the Skagit, so there wasn’t much I could do to slow us down with the oars as the fish dragged line off Chris’ reel. He held on helplessly as the fish ran at least a hundred yards up the side channel, tangled in some lumber and broke the line.

All we could do was laugh. It was an amazing hookup, but there was nothing we could’ve done to stop that fish.

I detected a little shakiness in Chris’ hands as he retied. He knew what we all knew: Fish like that are exactly why we came to the Skagit.

We turned back to the river, drifted downstream, lost some more tackle to a tree, ate smoked salmon and told some stories – and on down the river we went. I’d row the guys through the Skagit’s most productive runs, and they would drift rubber worms and an occasional bead or yarnie in case the fish wanted something different. Some of these runs are big. It takes a few passes to cover them entirely. Between passes, I’d fire up the Mercury Jet and run back to the top of the run so the guys could cover every bit.

Just after noon, we approached a run with a heavy tongue of water flowing down the center of the river. Deep, steelhead-holding water flowed over gravel bars flanking the main flow. I rowed hard in the main current so Luke and Chris could cast into the slower-holding water on the right-hand bar.

Mercury Marine SteelheadChris fired a cast, and his rod buried the second his gear hit the bottom, almost like it had snagged on a rock. And it stayed there, rock solid for a few seconds, before we saw a flash of chrome. Just like the last hookup, we were drifting downriver at a good clip, and this big steelhead had no interest in leaving his holding spot. It gyrated and rolled and eventually came launching out of the water like steelhead do.

Instantly, we realized he’d hooked a unicorn. In steelheading, that’s what we call a giant fish like this – the caliber of fish that most anglers will go their entire lives without seeing.

Chris shot me a look of disbelief, but all I could say was, “Good luck.” The fish launched out of the water again and gave us a break by heading for faster current. There was simply no give as the trophy steelhead ripped around the run. Even with a tight drag, any line that Chris gained quickly evaporated. The fish jumped again, and this time it landed on the line, a move that usually ends up in a lost fish. Somehow, the barbless hook held as the fight raced on downstream.

Eventually, I maneuvered the boat over another rocky bar. Chris was able to work the fish into some softer water as I readied the catch-and-release net. On the fish’s next pass near the boat, I scooped up the bright chrome buck.

What a thrill. We immediately started cheering and high fiving. I swear, it never gets old!

We admired the fish’s white belly and bumper-chrome sides, its rosy red cheeks and spotted, steel-grey back. If you looked closely at the big wild steelhead buck’s jawline, downturned eyes and face, it looked mean. This fish was all of that.

Steelhead Mercury MarineChris quickly measured his steelhead as it rested in the water, still safely in the net. He taped it at 38 1/2 inches long with a massive 21-inch girth. Using a fish-weight formula – length times girth squared divided by 775 – we estimated that this fish weighed 21.6 pounds. It was an incredible fish, and the kind that keeps us coming back.

After a few pics, we all thanked the big buck and let it swim back into the Skagit. Chris and I high fived again.

We all laughed and talked about the experience of catching that fish as the day went on. When we’d set out on the river that morning, we figured we’d get a shot or two at a steelhead, and that’s exactly what we ended up with. For us, though, the numbers simply don’t matter. The scenery of the Skagit Valley, the tradition of steelhead fishing and the fact that we all got to experience an amazing catch together is all we could ever ask for.

On the way home, Chris, Luke and I made a pact to fish together again. Only Luke didn’t go home … he drove back upriver and went bank fishing in hopes of finding another steelhead. That level of addiction is why I know we’ll uphold our pact in the future.  

 

Photos: Chris Senyohl of Intrepid Angler Guide Service

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