There is an inherent symmetry in the fall run of steelhead within the Great Lakes system. There is cool rain, and the fish move from the lakes into the tributaries. There is a run of fish, and the anglers move from the trout streams into the tributaries. The fish shed their silvery sheen, and the anglers don their fleece. All the while leaves fall, college football’s regular season begins and ends, and the world goes from back to school to Christmas decorations.
It is nonsensical to make qualitative comparisons between the fish and people. But a quantitative analysis of the previous eight months might reveal that many steelhead have been much more active and productive than some of the anglers pursuing them. Although their life isn’t nearly as harrowing as their truly anadromous forefathers, they’ve been cruising the depths and fattening up for the spawn. Undoubtedly, that has been a more goal-oriented existence than some folks. But who are we, or a fish, to judge?
Certainly one can fish for steelhead year round. Powerful boats, depth-plumbing rigs, and electronic fish-finding gear make this a reasonable endeavor. However, there is something ritualistically special about pulling off the road across from a supermarket, scrambling down the gravelly edge of a bridge’s slope, and seeing a 30-inch fish in a small creek. The rod has been left strung up in the car from the last fishing trip a few days ago. The boots, waders, and fly boxes are all primed to be equipped for a few hours’ worth of chasing big trout before dinner.
That imminence ministers to the soul of the sportsman who cannot necessarily take a long weekend to get into the wild. It may even occupy a different portion in the heart of the sportsman who can get away. Pollution and progress scarred watersheds seem to be teeming with life for a season. The colors of the fish, the colors of the leaves, and even the variable colors of the oh-so-important changing flows make static rivers vibrant and dynamic. For men and women who want to tangle with anything, steelhead provide them with a very serviceable something. And with fall turning to winter, it could be said that these fish color an increasingly muted landscape.
For those locals and tourist anglers alike, fall runs in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York mark a dramatic shift. Lots of hunting and fishing can be had during the steelhead runs, but the main action generally occurs between the end of the major trout hatches and the beginning of deer season. Waterfowl hunting, ice fishing, and numerous other outdoors pursuits go and come over the course of the fall steelhead run.
The symmetry of movement exists in the microcosm of fall, but it also fits into the larger picture of the greater year. The fish get bigger, the days get shorter. The gear gets heavier, the schedule gets lighter. Most sportsmen have the steelhead as their penultimate outdoors experience before a few weeks in the treestand directly preceding the winter doldrums. In many ways, buck steelhead and buck deer allow eastern anglers to go out with two big bangs.
For those who just chase these fish who are themselves chasing their biological urges, fall means returning to a rhythm unique to those few, chilly months. More than raking, firing up the wood stove, and pumpkin spice, steelhead mark the fall run that anglers make year in and year out.