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Catching a steelhead, says chef Eric Donnelly, is like wrestling a rhinoceros. The last time he hooked one of these famous fighters, it dragged him down an Olympic Peninsula river while his limbs trembled with exhaustion, tugging so hard he had to board his boat to “jam” downriver while he reeled it in—a 190-pound man turned underdog to a 12-pound fish. 

It took Donnelly 15 minutes to reel in his speckled buck, its gills the classic shade of rusted steel. Rather it took 15 minutes of fight after two days of throwing flies under cloudless March skies and 30 years of perfecting the old-school Spey cast. 

When it was over, Donnelly removed his hook from the steelhead’s mouth, kneeled in the frigid water for a photo, and let the fish go.

The chef serves fresh fish every night at Fremont’s RockCreek, an eatery so devoted to seafood that it’s named for the Montana stream where he cast his first fly. But because he pursues legally protected prey, he never eats his own catch. 

Nor does Sushi Kappo Tamura executive chef Taichi ­Kitamura, another die-hard fly fisherman who doesn’t find it strange that his labor and leisure are about fish in very separate ways. Sure, he could go after something he’s allowed to keep, but why? “I’m a sushi chef,” Kitamura says. “I’d rather eat a nice troll-caught king salmon from the Washington coast than trout from Green Lake.”

If even the city’s seafood masters don’t bother to catch what they can eat, what’s the point? For one, hard-driving personalities (like, say, chefs’) relish fly-fishing’s tantalizing blend of masochism and meditation. Running an open kitchen in a sushi bar means tracking 20 different things, says Kitamura, while fishing lets him focus on one. One miserable, impossible thing. 

“It’s like drugs,” he says of the seemingly inexplicable appeal. “Your hair’s icing up, it’s completely miserable, it’s so cold. And once we catch something we just let it go.”

But fishing is more than flagellation. It links chefs to the intricacies of fishery management, like this spring’s deadlock between the state and local tribes that led to a temporary shutdown of Puget Sound salmon fishing. Chef Kevin Davis remembers filling ice chests with limitless redfish as a boy in Louisiana, before blackened redfish became a national dining fad in the 1980s and it was overfished almost to extinction. That “lightbulb moment” for the fishing-mad Davis led to limits on how he stocks his two Seattle seafood dining rooms: only Northwest caught (Steelhead Diner) and domestic caught (Blueacre Seafood and Orfeo) to be assured of sustainable practices. He figures he can give nature a fair fight in his free time by swinging flies for steelhead. 

Chefs may love the Sisyphean act of catch and release, but there are options for people who actually want to eat what they catch. Linc’s Fishing Tackle on Rainier Avenue has been selling poles, licenses, weights, and worms for 65 years, and second-­generation owner Jerry Beppu directs anglers toward stuff you can eat, like calamari and the stocked trout in local lakes. But whether the aim is eating or edification, Beppu notes there are never guarantees. 

“There’s a reason it’s called fishing, not catching.”

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