Dylan Tomine is an ardent conservationist and lifelong steelhead angler. His new book Headwaters: The Adventures, Obsession, and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman combines these two passions. In it, Tomine weaves personal stories of adventure with the threats facing wild steelhead in North America. It’s both a deeply personal book—and one that addresses broader issues facing the fishing community in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tomine to discuss his fishing adventures, the writing process, the future of the steel industry and more.
Can you tell me about your first steelhead?
I had spent a year trying to catch a steelhead myself. I was 10 years old and my parents had just divorced. I lived with my mother in western Oregon since she was in high school at Oregon State. Every Sunday my mother took me somewhere to fish. Most of that year was spent trying to catch a steelhead, which I did not.
Going into my second year, my mom asked around town and found a really well known steelhead guide – Andy Landforce. She tried to book a date for me to go fishing with her, but he was already booked solid. In December of that year, my sophomore year of not catching steelhead, he called on a Tuesday night and said, “Hey, can you miss school tomorrow? I have a cancellation.” My mother said yes. Maybe seven minutes into the swim, I hooked my first steelhead and landed it. This was one of the greatest moments of my life.
I remember reading how your mom would study in the car while you fished. This was wonderful. So what is it about steelhead that made them the focus of your fishing life?
The thing about steelhead that is so great is that they provide this opportunity to fish for ocean fish in trout streams. Also, from a young age I fell in love with their fishing techniques and the places where they live. There is a long history of romance surrounding the fish, from all the Hollywood stars who would fish for them in California to the legacy of steelheading in the Pacific Northwest. Steelheading really captured my imagination.
You originally moved to Seattle to fish the Skykomish. What was so special about that time?
Trey Combs had just published a book called ‘The Steelhead’ which more serious steelhead anglers now call “The Bible”. He profiled all the big steelhead rivers, and the Skykomish was the closest to a place I could make a living. When I first moved there, I was living in an apartment in downtown Seattle. I could fish the lower Skykomish in 45 minutes. At that time, the fishing was still very good.
Had he felt witnessing her downfall?
It was heartbreaking – and still is. That spring steelhead season in Skykomish that I built my entire life around closed in 2001 and has not reopened. Every year in March, when I would normally be ready to go fishing, I still feel these pangs of loss.
In your book, you explain all the issues facing steel – it’s death by a thousand cuts. But if you had to choose, what would they say is the single biggest threat they’re facing?
The only factor that would be easier to fix is to stop financing the steel mills. In many of our rivers, the limiting factor in steelhead recovery is steelhead programs.
Do you think people are becoming more open to it?
The scientific evidence is so compelling that people are compelled to pay attention, but there is a lot of politics involved. Guides and equipment manufacturers don’t want nurseries to go away. Tribes rely on fish for treaty rights, which is perfectly legitimate. But it’s still the easiest thing to change because we don’t have to do anything, just stop spending the billions of dollars we spend on nursery production. But politically it is not easy.
Do you have hope for the future of West Coast steel?
I hope carefully. A lot will have to change, but I think it’s possible that with enough work, we can make it happen. It will require a combination of litigation, legislation and public relations. The basic psychology around hatcheries is so intuitive – if we put more fish in there, we should get more fish back. It’s hard to fight it, even though all the science shows that when you put in more fish, you actually get less back. There have never been more juvenile salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Ocean, and never have there been fewer adults returning to the rivers. Much of this has been driven by nursery releases. I’m not super optimistic, but there are enough opportunities to change things that are worth fighting for.
In your book, you write about adventures in several special places. What was your favorite trip?
It’s like asking who your favorite child is. The place I most look forward to returning to – and returning to again and again – is Northern British Columbia. In many ways, the Skeena River system is like my home river, even though it is 1,000 miles away from where I live.
You have to travel to some places that you may never have seen a fisherman before going there. Do these types of places still exist?
Absolutely. I think they are out there, and it could be as small as a small stream of water near where you live, or a far away place.
I enjoyed your essay “Steelhead, Love and Other Mysteries”. What was it like writing about a romantic relationship and fishing at the same time?
You don’t see many love stories in fishing books. So much of my relationship with Daniela was in the context of fishing that it seemed like a natural way to tell our story. But I had to think about it a lot because there was no easy pattern to replicate.
Let’s pretend you’re on one of your favorite runs in the Skeena River System, what are you hooking up with?
It depends on the water conditions. If it is high and dirty, I would use a large intruder style fly. If it’s low and clear, I’d fish something really small and brown, like a size 6 horseshoe-looking thing. If it’s just perfect, I’d fish a two-inch black wool vent.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.