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A steelhead obsession dries up

caption: Dylan Tomine fishing for steelhead
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Dylan Tomine fishing for steelhead
Matthew DeLorme

Dylan Tomine has a passion for steelhead trout. Or an obsession. Or an addiction.

His steelhead passion has brought him close to beautiful places, driven him far from stability, and lost him some loving relationships.

This is a story about how an obsession can take priority over everything. How it can provide both purpose and isolation. And how it isn’t guaranteed to last forever.

Related Links:

Dylan Tomine

Wild Fish Conservancy

Wild Steelhead Coalition

"Ten Thousand Things" is produced by KUOW in Seattle. Our host, writer, and creator is Shin Yu Pai. Whitney Henry-Lester produced this episode. Jim Gates is our editor. Tomo Nakayama wrote our theme music. Additional music in this episode by Tim Halperin, 12 Palms, and cloudcrush.

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Partial funding of "Ten Thousand Things" was made possible by the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture Hope Corps Grant, a recovery funded program of the National Endowment for the Arts, plus support from The Windrose Fund.

And of course, we don't exist without listeners like you. Support "Ten Thousand Things" by donating to KUOW.


Shin Yu Narration: As a writer, I'm no stranger to obsession. Throughout my 20s and 30s, I would carefully arrange my year and work schedule to be able to leave my boyfriend for one to three months at a time to go off into the woods of New Hampshire and write poems. I didn't worry about my relationship with my partner. What was critical to me was my relationship to writing, a practice that was core to my sense of self and identity and meaning making.

Dylan Tomine has a very different kind of obsession, but one that is just as deeply important to him.

Dylan Tomine: You know, all of my memories, somehow center around fish or fishing.

Shin Yu Narration: Dylan is a lifelong fly fisherman with a deep love for fishing steelhead trout. A steelhead is a migratory trout that is among the most prized sports fish in the world.

Dylan Tomine: Steelhead are super cool because, if you're a fisherman, it gives you an opportunity to fish for big, powerful ocean fish in streams where you would normally find trout. So, it's kind of a rare combination of big ocean fish in smaller freshwater situations.

Shin Yu Narration: A deep fixation with any one thing can take us to a new depth of knowing, within ourselves, even as that thing may further take us away from loved ones. But what do we give up when we pursue our preoccupation? And how do we reconcile both the bad and the good of an obsession?

Dylan Tomine sees more than an ordinary species in steelhead. These fish, which migrate to the ocean after being born, eventually return to their homewaters, to spawn. The somatic memory of their ancestral place resides deep within them. They remember home, just like humans.

Dylan Tomine: They're an amazing fish because they live or return to all different kinds of rivers from like tundra rivers in the Russian Arctic and, and in Alaska to, high desert streams. Um, you know, in Eastern Washington, you know, sagebrush and rim rock country, and then the coastal rainforest rivers of the Olympic Peninsula and big valley rivers like the Columbia. They don't live in ugly places. So if you're chasing them, it forces you to go to really interesting, beautiful, natural places.

Shin Yu Narration: Welcome to "Ten Thousand Things," a podcast about modern artifacts of Asian American Life. I'm Shin Yu Pai. Today, the steelhead trout.

Dylan Tomine: My first memory of steelhead fishing was going with my dad to go fish. We were actually trout fishing with lightweight equipment. He, I guess accidentally or as a bonus hooked a 33-inch steelhead. It took so long to fight it because we had this light trout tackle at one point the line got wrapped around a rock and he had to wade out to free it.

And he handed me the rod and when the line came free, I felt this just surge of adrenaline from what a huge, powerful fish it was.

Shin Yu: What did it look like? Did you hold it or do you remember what it was like seeing this fish for the first time?

Dylan Tomine: I completely remember measuring it later. It was 33 inches and this was way before the days of catch and release. And so we killed it and brought it home to eat.

I couldn't stop going over to where it was lying on the bank for the rest of the day to look at it cuz it was so beautiful. It was black on the back and chrome on the sides with just the faint hint of kind of a pearlescent pink down the side, like rainbow trout have.

It was gorgeous.

Shin Yu Narration: As a kid, Dylan went on fishing trips with his family. If the weather was bad, he'd wait it out in the car with his mom while his mom read to him. He'd wipe the condensation from the window to spy his father walking towards the car, fishing rod in one hand, and a burlap sack of fish slung over one shoulder — salmon tails sticking out of the sack. After his parents divorced, his mother continued to support his interests. She'd drive him to the river to fish, while she studied, the car filled with her books and papers related to her doctoral studies in psychology.

Some of Dylan's most vivid childhood memories are of fishing with his father, testing out new fishing lures, and hooking steelhead. In fact, he wrote a whole book about steelhead that won a National Outdoor Book award. The routines and rhythms of fishing are deeply engrained in Dylan.

Dylan Tomine: Typically it starts, early in the morning like when it's still dark so if I was really on it, I'd have the car loaded up the night before and I would pack a quick lunch and get in the car and drive through the dark forest.

And a lot of times it's raining and bad weather. A lot of times it involves fast-food drive-through breakfast somewhere along the way. And then arriving at the river in daylight and walking to the river, there's ferns and brambles and red twig dogwoods and that sort of undergrowth.

Shin Yu Narration: The Skykomish River is a 29-mile-long river just west of the Cascades. It meanders along the Pacific Crest Trail through forest wilderness and canyon. The river is a popular point for rafting and kayaking, but it is also a place where people go to fish. The Skykomish is home to chinook, coho, pink salmon, bull trout, and steelhead. It's also Dylan's home river.

Dylan Tomine: It's a beautiful broad valley river. It's quite large as rivers go. It has mostly a cobblestone riverbed and bottom, and so there's lots of riffling sound usually rain falling on you when you're fishing. It's not especially cold; it's kind of a maritime climate, so it's cool and wet.

There's a specific smell of wet stones and alder trees that's kind of a sweet smell.

Shin Yu Narration: The river offers its visitors a brush with wild beauty. But for the angler with an agenda, the true payoff is in catching a steelhead. That prize can be elusive. Hours are spent standing in a frigid river, casting a line. The activity grows monotonous, futile. But then there's that moment when patience offers up everything that you were waiting for.

Dylan Tomine: It's a crazy person's pursuit because you repeat the same action over and over again hoping for a different outcome. A lot of it is wading in the water, anywhere from knee to waist deep and usually bad weather and casting over and over and over again. Then when you hook one, it's a huge moment of adrenaline and celebration and excitement.

Shin Yu Narration: Dylan is not the only one obsessed with steelhead. He's part of a community of steelhead obsessives who go to extreme lengths to pursue their passion.

Dylan Tomine: You know, people give up their careers or their families or their marriages, in kind of this manic pursuit of these fish.

People become so addicted to the pursuit that, the other things that we consider adult responsibilities or even things most normal people enjoy, kind of fall out of your life.

Shin Yu Narration: Many things fell out of Dylan's life. He arranged his schedule so that he could go fishing every day. He quit a stable day job to become a freelance writer, so that he could have a more flexible schedule. But instead of building up a steady clientele or portfolio, he worked just enough to afford a diet of pizza and ramen. And to pay for beer and gas to get to the river.

Dylan Tomine: It was pretty easy to just direct everything as far as my real life, adult life, into the service of just being available to fish whenever the conditions were the best.

Every time I start to describe it like this, I can just see that it really is an addiction like every other one.

Shin Yu Narration: There's a fine line that separates obsession from addiction. A person may not even notice when they cross it, as caught up as they are in the adrenaline and pleasure of the moment and obsession. But it's the social fallout that may sound the loudest alarm bell..

Dylan Tomine: If you choose to be ready to fish whenever it's good, you're kind of saying no to the responsibility people expect from you to hold a steady job so, I think there's certainly a financial sacrifice involved.

but also, you know, there was a time when I was supposed to help my girlfriend move. And the fishing was really good, and so I just didn't show up.

I missed out on a lot of birthdays and anniversaries and things that are important to most "normal" people. There were family gatherings, get togethers that I just didn't show up for or had some lame excuse for because the fishing was good.

There's definitely social repercussions around sacrificing those sort of things.

Shin Yu: In thinking about your obsession, do you feel like there were ways in which you benefited from it or that, you know, there were things that your obsession gave you that, you know, were rewarding?

Dylan Tomine: It's really wonderful to have a single-minded purpose in your life. So much of modern life is distraction. The texts are coming in and the news alerts are coming in and you need to check your email and there's bills to pay and the lawn to mow and dishes to wash and all those sort of, I'm just cataloging the life of a single dad right now.

It's really rare I think when we can just focus on one thing and when you have an obsession, there's actually kind of this peace of mind. The other things don't matter. You can really focus deeply and powerfully on this one thing, the object of your obsession. So I think there's a definite benefit to that in that it's one of the few times anybody in the modern world can feel really single-minded.

Shin Yu Narration: In the early 2000s, the steelhead population reached dangerously low levels. For the first time, the Skykomish River closed for the spring season. This was a devastating blow and life-changing moment for steelhead fisherman like Dylan. More than 20 years later, steelhead trout haven't yet rebounded. The Sky has yet to reopen in March or April.

Dylan Tomine: It felt like somebody punched me in the stomach when they closed my home river cuz that was something that I built my whole year around, was being able to fish on a place that was near my home that I knew really well that felt like there was a pretty intimate relationship with this watershed.

I'm still sad about it. When I think about it in March or April, I still feel these little sharp pains in my gut around it.

Shin Yu Narration: Dylan says the river closure came as a total surprise. His fishing knowledge and skills had grown over the years. So as the steelhead population was declining, he was still catching fish. But he had to come to terms with this reality quickly.

Dylan Tomine: The opportunity to mourn wasn't really there because as soon as I found out what was really happening, I felt like I had to jump into action and form groups and talk to politicians and learn from scientists. Maybe it's a form of grieving around it or something, but like I felt forced into action. I had to do something in kind of a desperate way.

Shin Yu Narration: This declining steelhead population and disappearing access to his obsession forced Dylan to turn towards conservation. Now his obsession with steelhead takes a different form.

He works with conservation groups like the Wild Steelhead Coalition and Wild Fish Conservancy. These groups are working to save wild steelhead and wild salmon, and their native river habitats.

Dylan Tomine: Then the other piece of it for me is that a lot of my writing is around raising public awareness around the conservation issues or around fiscal issues, the amount of public money that's wasted in misguided efforts to bring back steelhead numbers.

Shin Yu Narration: The closing of the Skykomish River also gave Dylan a chance to get more in touch with his children's interests.

Dylan Tomine: I had this sort of epiphany, I guess at some point where, oh, you know, when they were young and we did stuff together, they did what I wanted to do.

So now it's my turn for, if we want to do things together, to do what they want to do.

Shin Yu: You know, in this book of yours, you, you identify your identity so strongly as a steelhead fisherman and speak so very little about the Asian or Asian American experience other than one fishing trip to Japan and talking about your great-grandfather.

And I am curious if there are aspects of the Asian American identity for you that have been wrapped up in this experience of, fishing, living close to the ground, these sorts of values that you have.

Dylan Tomine: That's like, that's, that's the veritable onion question. There's different levels of that. So one is, I think culturally like to the Asian American experience for me personally, most of that is experienced or practiced through food for me in that, when I was doing the recipes for my first book, the second edition of "Closer to the Ground," had recipes in it, and I started realizing like all the ways that we eat fish and clams and crabs and stuff really came from my grandmother, through my mom, from her mother, from my dad's mother, and then even before that, probably coming from Japan.

To my kids, that's just normal now because when we have a really good salmon, we eat salmon shioyaki. If we catch crabs and, and make crab miso or any of those sort of things, and, you know, 90% of our meals come with rice on the side when we're cooking at home. And so a lot of it is experienced that way.

Shin Yu Narration: Not all obsessions are alike, nor without their benefits. When we care about something passionately, our relationship with that object may deepen and grow more complex over time. We may learn something deeply about the thing itself, though in the best-case scenario, we develop a wisdom that wasn't there before. A knowledge that can combine with action and experience to guide understanding in new directions.

Shin Yu: So I'm curious if there are any, new pastimes that have replaced steelhead fishing for you.

Dylan Tomine: I don't think anything ever really will replace that singular obsession of fly fishing for steelhead that so dominated my life and I still do it. When the numbers are decent and I can do it without feeling like I might shoot the last buffalo. I still love to fish for steelhead. I do it on the Olympic Peninsula a little bit in the winter.

And so that's still part of my life and a lot of my thinking on a day-to-day basis is still sort of steelhead-related thinking.

Shin Yu Narration: Dylan Tomine is a Patagonia flyfishing ambassador, conservation advocate and writer. His newest book is "Headwaters." His latest hobbies are rockhounding and duck hunting.

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