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Angler Experiences Most Epic Fight of His Life with Giant PNW Winter Steelhead

Angler Experiences Most Epic Fight of His Life with Giant PNW Winter Steelhead

All images courtesy of Sean Kearney

During a recent winter steelhead trip in the Pacific Northwest, skilled and passionate angler Sean Kearney experienced the most unbelievable fish fight of his life. 

Read all about Sean’s epic steelhead adventure and the insane fight that took over half an hour, and find out how big this magnificent PNW winter steelhead was. 

I had a great Q&A interview with Sean, as I thought it best for him to tell the epic tale himself! 

It’s one of those The Old Man and the Sea kind of stories, only with a happy ending, and such marvelous tales are best told by the fisherman who’s experienced it first-hand. 

Make sure to read the whole thing because it’s a real nail-biter! Let’s get started, then.

What made you decide to head out that day, and why did you choose the river/trib you fished on? 

“It was the perfect storm of the river having excellent conditions for steelhead fishing (on the drop after a high water event), the fishing being really good the previous four days I was on it, and also knowing that the angling pressure was going to be at an absolute minimum because we were in the middle of a snowstorm. 

I chose the river I fished on because it is the river I mainly guide on this time of year, and during guide season, I try to spend as much time as humanly possible on it to be in tune with the fishery.”

What method and bait or lure did you use to catch your steelhead?

“I was float fishing a single 16mm BnR soft bead, which is my go-to “searching” method during high water.”

Can you describe the bite and the epic fight you had?

Sean during the epic fight

“The bite was almost unexpected because it was my very first cast in the run. The bobber drained, and I knew it had to be a fish because of where it went down, but I was like, no way, really?! 

And then the fight…37 minutes of pure terror, chaos, stress, anxiety, and happiness all at the same time. 

The first 5 minutes with the fish was just a tug of war. I’d get her somewhat close to the bank, and she’d head back out into the middle of the river. Again and again. 

I was trying to keep the heat on her because I knew if she wanted to turn downriver, there was a nasty set of rapids about 80 yards away that would wreck me. 

Well, after almost getting a hand on her tail near the bank, she precisely did that. 

I chased her down the bank, sliding and falling over the big icy boulders, hoping she was just above the tail out, but when I was about halfway, I looked at how much line I had and knew she went down. 

The top of the rapid had a massive boulder in the middle, and she was on the opposite side of it. 

With the water about 6′ deep and raging, there was no way I could get in the other side of it. A good 20 minutes of that fight was me standing on the bank, line straight out around the boulder, the fish at a 90-degree angle downriver, with four wraps of backing left on my spool. 

I was cupping the spool so I didn’t lose all my line and could feel the fish turn its head occasionally to try to go down further. 

I’d extend my arms out as far as I could into the river, giving the line a little bit of forgiveness so it wouldn’t break. It was a trip, I was sweating like a dog, and my knees and arms were shaking the whole time. 

I had my buddy run up and grab his rod, cast behind the rock, and reel the fish end of my braid in to him. 

(This next part is totally unreal, so make sure to keep reading!)

I grabbed the line off of his hook, wrapped it around my wrist, cut it, reeled the loose end off the rock, and with my hands shaking relentlessly, and the fish thrashing 100 yards downriver on the line wrapped around my wrist, tied the two ends back together with the shittiest uni knot I’ve ever tied. 

I got that knot back on the spool as quickly as I could, and it was at that moment I knew I was going to land that fish.”

How did you feel when you realized how big the fish was?

16.5lbs and 37.5 inches of pure power

“Well, that was two separate feelings…I knew within 3 seconds of setting the hook that it was a huge steelhead because it immediately launched out of the water, and that’s when the stress and anxiety set in because of how badly I wanted to land it. 

Then, when I finally slid it onto the bank and got a close-up look at it, knowing that the battle was over, it was just pure joy. 

My buddy and I were jumping up and down, screaming like school girls. 

I’ve landed bigger before, but this one was just so special with what we had to go through to land it.”

RELATED READING: How Big Do Steelhead Get? (Average and Record Sizes)

Did you weigh the fish? And did you release it?

The literal mother lode

“Because it was a hatchery-born steelhead, which are planted to be harvested, I killed it. I’m actually really happy it was a hatchery steelhead and not a wild fish because, after a fight like that, I feel it would’ve decreased its survival rate substantially. 

I bled the fish out on the river and kept fishing for a couple more hours. 

When I got home, I put her on the scale, and she was about 16.5 pounds after being bled. Her length was an incredible 37.5 inches.”

Any secret tips for a successful winter steelhead trip in the PNW that you can share?

Sean with another beautiful PNW winter steelhead

“Since the day I started fishing for steelhead until now, nothing I do is really a secret. All the information is out there, either in books, blogs, or videos. 

That said, all the tactics in the world cannot replace time on the water. 

I’ve spent more time on the water not catching fish than anyone I know, and those thousands of hours add up to a wealth of knowledge and instincts when you decide to pick that rod up and go out. 

Things like river level, river section, run timing, atmospheric conditions, moon phase, cfs, hydraulics of the stretch you’re on, depth, weight used, color used, and line used all add up to a recipe for success that can only be put together by putting in your time.”

RELATED ARTICLE: What Time of Year Do Steelhead Spawn?

Want to go steelhead fishing with Sean?

Sean’s also a fishing guide, and you can book him for some epic steelhead or salmon trips in the PNW!

Go check out his website if you want to know more:

I want to thank Sean for this amazing interview and, once again, want to congratulate him on his amazing catch!

Tight lines, man.

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