Silver Steelhead in the Wintergreen Forest

In the tall, dark, moss-draped, rainy forests of Oregon's coastal mountains-a mysterious evergreen world captured perfectly in the novels of Ken Kesey-emerald rivers rush headlong to the grey, wild North Pacific. Nehalem, Wilson, Trask, Necanicum, Nestucca-places whose names intoxicate anglers under the spell of a fish called steelhead.

This special race of rainbow trout is hatched and nurses in fresh water. Then one spring night, the slim, silvery fingerlings-weighing mere ounces-swim downstream and vanish into the sea. They grow fast and strong, feeding on small squid, mackerel, herring, anchovy and other rich marine morsels. They roam ancient migration paths as far north as the Aleutians and as far east as Russia and the Japanese islands. Nearly two or three years later, their hormones kick in and, robust predators weighing eight to 16 pounds, they return to their home rivers to spawn.

A fresh-run winter steelhead is striking in appearance. It's nearly black and white. Its finely spotted back is dark olive to gunmetal gray. Its sides are shiny silver. Its belly is pearly white. Only slight blushes of pink on its gill plate or along its side reveal traces of its rainbow ancestry.

But it's the steelhead's spectacular habit of racing and leaping through rapids and runs when hooked that separates it from nearly every other game fish in fresh water.

The conditions must be right-a warm misty day with the river bank-full and dropping after a muddy flood the week before is ideal. You want the water to be clearing but still slightly green.

In a run bordered by mature alders and thick sword ferns-a stretch of water about the speed of a man's fast walk-start at the top with a large orange fly that moves seductively when wet. Casting a two-handed rod, swing it out in an easy motion, across and slightly downstream. No need to boom it out there: these are small rivers. A 30-foot cast is all you need. Your sink-tip line pulls the fly under and into the swirling current. Hold on and follow the path of your drifting fly with your rod tip. Take a long step downstream. Cast again. The water is cold and the fish subdued. Few steelhead come quickly. 

When to go
Prime time for winter-run steelhead on Oregon's north coast is February and March.

Where to stay
Nehalem River Inn
Nehalem, Ore.
(503) 368-7708

Old Wheeler Hotel
Wheeler, Ore.
(877) 653-4683

Where to get help
Jeff Mishler Guide Service
Portland, Ore.
(503) 307-1894

Where to land
Tillamook Airport (KS47)
Tillamook, Ore.
Longest runway: 5,001 feet
FBO: Tillamook Airport, (503) 842-7152.
Jet-A fuel available.

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