A River Odyssey

In Seasons of the Steelhead, Drew Stoecklein’s photographs take us on a visual journey that captures the essence of being on the river

Steelhead are among the most highly prized and admired species for those who love to fly-fish. The quest for the anadromous fish is practiced with devotion and fervor, especially in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike salmon, steelhead are able to spawn many times, and they can do it more than once in a single year. In Seasons of the Steelhead, Drew Stoecklein’s images capture the magnificent fish and the patient, persistent individuals who angle for them. There’s no one time for a steelhead run. Different populations migrate at different times of the year, so for an outdoorsperson, the pursuit of steelhead is a year-round endeavor. Above: Jess Kiesel on the Sol Duc River, Washington.


Keith Stonebraker on the Clearwater River, Idaho.

When he was approached about doing a book on fishing for steelhead in the Northwest, Drew Stoecklein had never photographed such a large-scale project, and he knew little about fishing. In the hands of a lesser photographer, those might have been handicaps, but for this professional Big Mountain skier and photographer, it was just another challenge to overcome.

What began in the summer of 2009 stretched into a two-year odyssey for Stoecklein. “It took about two years to do the whole shoot,” he explains. “You think you can just go out and get a lot of shots pretty easily, but for the first two weeks, all day, everyday, there were no fish. That’s when I realized it’s not all about big fish; it’s about being out on the river. It’s also so seasonal. That made it hard to shoot. I was essentially following the fish.”

Tracking the fish is another way of putting it, and tracking fish certainly isn’t easy. In the inevitable downtimes when the fishing was slow, Stoecklein focused his lenses on details and aspects of the sport that easily can be overlooked. It’s these detail shots that truly give a viewer the intimate feeling of what it’s like to be out in nature, in and around the big water in the quest for steelhead.

Jess Kiesel’s catch on the Grande Ronde River, Idaho.

Will Godfrey’s flies, Idaho.

The detail shots tend to be the ones that stick the most in the mind’s eye. While big vistas of Western mountains and rivers are striking and beautiful, the tighter images, with their rich colors and graphic compositions, are the glue that holds the broad collection of photography together and makes for a cohesive book.

Drew Stoecklein’s Gear

Canon EOS-1D Mark III
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L USM
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM
Canon EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM
Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM Macro

The written words in Seasons of the Steelhead are from Will Godfrey. Fishing enthusiasts know Godfrey as one of the great sages of life with a rod and reel. He learned the finer points of fly- fishing from his father at an early age. In 1967, he established the Will Godfrey Fly Fishing Centers at Last Chance, Max Inn on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River and in Boise, Idaho. He outfitted and guided on the Henry’s Fork in Idaho, as well as all of the rivers in southwestern Montana and Yellowstone National Park for more than 20 years. Godfrey served for 13 years as Director and Vice President of the Federation of Fly Fishers. It’s fair to say that Godfrey lives, breathes and sleeps fly-fishing. His personal journal describes good days and bad ones on the river, days when he felt like he was at one with the fish and days when he couldn’t catch one for love or money. The sentiments expressed in that journal proved to be the perfect words to accompany Stoecklein’s images.

It was only after the photography was done that the images began to be mated to Godfrey’s words. There was no script or shot list. Over the two years that Stoecklein photographed, he was learning the life of a fisherman and the rhythms of the wild rivers. The title is no accident. To make the book that they wanted, Stoecklein and Godfrey aimed to capture all the seasons of the steelhead, not just the bright blue days of summer. Those two years in the field were eight seasons, essential time to experience the life idiosyncrasies of the fish and the lifestyle of those who pursue them.

Once the thousands of photos were delivered, the difficult process of photo editing and pairing Godfrey’s journal entries to specific images began. It would take some six months to complete. The results speak for themselves.

Debby Boyd on the Salmon River, Idaho.

Cold, Wet And Snowing? Perfect!
Bad weather makes pictures that tell a story

The magic happens in gnarly weather,” Drew Stoecklein says matter of factly. “The hardest conditions to shoot in are nice, sunny days.”

As you look through the collection of images that coalesced into the book Seasons of the Steelhead, you quickly notice the preponderance of images in rain, snow and generally suboptimal weather conditions. Foreboding overcast conditions always help create mood in a photograph. In the case of the images for Seasons of the Steelhead, those overcast skies give you the sense of solitude on the river.

Snow, rain and water spray always bring a feeling of motion to an image. Big snowflakes and streaks of rain in the frame add visual interest to the scene, as well. Fly-fishing is an outdoor sport, and bluebird days are seldom when the most interesting outdoor action takes place.

See more of Drew Stoecklein‘s work at drewstoecklein.com. You can purchase Seasons of the Steelhead at his website and www.thestoeckleincollection.com.