Head of steel

Fishing with a steelheader
steelhead STLHD license plate
A steelheader’s commitment stamped on his license plate (photo: Kris Millgate).

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I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m okay with that because I’m with Crusty Craig. Well, that’s what I call him secretly. He’s really Craig Lannigan of Lewiston, Idaho and I love everything about his crustiness. From his wirey beard resembling steel wool to his worn hands reminiscent of a steel mill worker, Lannigan is the finest crust on the Clearwater River.

​“I fish it 100 days a year,” Lannigan says. “I love what it gives me. The steelhead is just fantastic. The thrill I get from doing that is just out of this world to me.”

​His thrill is my throw down. My frustration surfaces fast as he shows me how to fish for steelhead. He uses a two-handed spey rod. I’m severely lacking two-hand talent so I dump spey and swing the 8 wt. saltwater rod I use for fishing bones in Belize.

​“I started with a single-handed rod and with a single-handed rod you have to double haul and it’s really rough on your shoulder,” he says. “With a spey rod, it takes a lot less energy and spey casting is elegant. It’s artistic.”

​Crusty is also crazy. I’m not elegant or artistic, but I’m still swinging line anticipating a take. I don’t give up easily. Neither do steelhead. They migrate hundreds of miles from the ocean to Idaho to spawn. They’re here for a date, not dinner, but they’ll strike if you bug them enough. Dress it up all you like, you’re bugging them and I’m a relentless bugger. So is Crusty Craig with his cast that’s pretty enough to date.

​“I look at it this way, you have the lady of the river,” he says. “Sometimes she kisses you. Sometimes she ignores you. Sometimes she slaps you in the face and other times she gives everything to you. That’s the way steelheading is.”

steelhead fishing clearwater river
Steelheader Craig Lannigan swings a spey rod on Idaho’s Clearwater River (photo: Kris MIllgate).

​The lady must not like girls. There’s no tug on my line. Craig, on the other hand, is a lady-of-the-river’s man. Cast, drift, two steps, cast again. That’s the dance and his gracefulness is mocking me so I start staring at river traffic. There are fisherman wading, drifting and jetting. The anglers are as varied as their steelhead-hooking strategies.

​“In a jet boat, it’s the pilot or person running the boat that catches the fish. It’s kind of social fishing. I’ll probably do it when I’m 80,” Lannigan says. “Now I’m out wading. I’m in the water. I earn that fish. I put that fly in the place that I think is going to give it the most opportunity to see it and hit it. I really earn it. It’s not easy to do. If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

​Jimmy Gabettas does it, but he’s the opposite of crusty and closer to my home water. Post-Craig trip, I stop by Jimmy’s shop and ask him about steelhead just to see his eyes turn dreamy like Craig’s do when he waxes on.

drift boats clearwater river
Wade, row, jet. The many ways a steelheader plays (photo: Kris Millgate).

​“There’s something about fishing for a fish that took a two-month journey to get here that really appeals to people,” says Gabettas, Jimmy’s All Seasons Angler owner. “They’re worth the effort and time.”

​Crusty Craig agrees. In a good year, he catches 150 steelhead. I’ve never caught one, but I’ve gone through just about as many cameras. If Crusty is willing put in time and effort to catch steelhead, I better put in just as much time and effort to make his crustiness look artistic.


"They’re here for a date, not dinner," is a great line.
I'm sorry, but I'm so glad to hear you haven't caught one yet. I have fished in blue ribbon waters of the unroaded section of the Deschutes, in the Salmon, etc, etc...Not even a bump. This weekend, I hope to redeem myself in the salmon run on the Bouquet.