A buddy called the other day and asked, “Who is Steelhead Joe?” I had no idea what or who he was talking about.
“Me neither, but apparently he was a legendary steelhead guide on the Deschutes!” He was fired up, calling fellow guides for whatever info he could find. He sent me the link to an extensive Outside Magazine article.
After reading the story, I was more than curious. How did such an obvious character fly under my radar all these years? I fired off a couple of emails to friends who guide the Deschutes. None of them had heard of Joe either! At least not before his obituary was printed earlier this year. Finally, I contacted some of the people quoted in the article, and a more complete picture of “Stealhead” Joe (intentional spelling) started to take shape. He was a vibrant but tortured man who spent a few years of his life chasing steelhead. He guided on a shop permit for a couple of seasons, then went “independent.” Some say he was guiding without a permit. Brave, but not a good plan on the Deschutes, where guides take their business seriously, and cops come in every shape and color. These little additions to Joe’s story fit the theme of the article. His life was a tight-wire act. Portrait of a man whose addictions defined him, and whose mental illness took his life too soon.
Joe’s legend was unknown to most. He came and went like El Nino. But he affected enough lives in his short time as a steelhead guide to be remembered as a sort of tragic hero. It shows the power that fishing guides wield in a world of itinerant tourists. And it made me realize that a river the size of the Deschutes can encompass more lives and more stories than anyone could ever grasp. For every celebrated Deschutes guide you’ve ever heard of, there is another who has made his living in the margins. He doesn’t have a web site or a cell phone. And if you’re not paying close attention, you might miss him.