The Steelhead Martini
Mix. Stir. Wait.
By Dana Sturn

About 15 years back, after a particularly exhausting Saturday spent casting and not catching, Kush and I found ourselves leaning against the Warthog, his battered old F-250, wondering if our steelheading was too frenetic to be sustained into middle age.

Note a central theme: Friday night: arrive; drinks. Saturday: get up really early, beat everyone to the river; fish hard all day; off the river after dark; quick dinner; drinks.

Sunday: see Saturday sans les boissons; drive home.

On this program I was worn out and hung over all weekend, and the effects were felt well into the following week. After a few rounds of this—and despite my Oscar-worthy performances—my wife strongly suggested that perhaps I should only go steelheading every other weekend.

I know—pretty funny right? Since this was clearly not an option, I conferred with Kush, and we decided we better do something about it. In an effort to make these weekends more manageable—this was steelheading after all, not steel-livering, though somehow the two seemed as one. Kush hit upon the brilliant idea of throttling back a bit on Saturday night, and instead stopping sometime mid-afternoon to relax a bit, and slow down the day. A “reflective pause” he called it. Naturally, it made perfect sense to reflectively pause over a martini. And so it was decreed that the Saturday afternoon hours between two and four be set aside for the observance of the Thompson River Happy Hour, with the Steelhead Martini the preferred cocktail.

The martini has been around in one form or another since the 1800s. My father has been drinking them for decades, the classic version made with gin as the main ingredient, and vermouth as the second, garnished with olives or perhaps a lemon rind. I started drinking them on steelhead trips because they were good, and easier and lighter to pack and carry than a couple dozen beers. Just toss everything in your duffle and you’re away.

The vermouth was a problem though. A small bottle of it goes a long way, and once opened it should be refrigerated. And in the haste of throwing things together for a weekend trip, it’s just an extra bottle of something I’m likely to forget. We learned this the hard way one weekend, so we were forced to improvise (“Hmmmm…got any scotch?”).

And the Steelhead Martini was born.

Now, my friends from Scotland may be horrified to learn that I use the Water of the Land as part of a boozy River Rat Pack libation, but I figure if they managed to get over Mel Gibson as William Wallace, I’m good. I prefer a smoky Islay malt, such as Lagavulin or Laphroig, for my Steelhead Martinis. But the less challenging malts, such as Balvenie or Glenmorangie, will do in a pinch. But please, no blends, and save beginner’s scotch like Glenfidditch for those who show up uninvited, or anyone you hope won’t stick around too long, like outdoor writers and guys who fish bait.

I’m certain we’re not the first to use scotch—or bourbon, or tequila, or aquavit—in place of vermouth, nor are we alone in claiming as original some subtle variation of something, a common practice among “new” country songwriters, celebrity chefs and fly-fishing influencers.

The trick is not to get too wrapped up in worry about how the second ingredient will impact the martini’s flavor. A good gin will overpower a small amount of anything, and after a couple it won’t matter anyway.

Here’s how we make ‘em:

  1. Well in advance of the moment, place a stainless steel cocktail shaker and two large stainless steel martini glasses (I prefer the term “goblets”) in your freezer (an ice filled cooler will work if you’re in camp). When you’re ready to prepare your martini, retrieve the shaker and fill it with cubed or crushed ice.
  2. Add 6 to 8 measures of gin. Bombay Sapphire is preferred, but Tanqueray will do. Anything else and you might as well use vodka, and if you are going to replace gin with vodka in a martini, you might as well fill your shaker from the outflow from the nearest sewage treatment facility (a very dirty martini, indeed).
  3. Now, add a tiny bit of single malt, bourbon, tequila or aquavit to the shaker (no more than a teaspoon, and less is probably better). Your choice of the second ingredient will determine the name of your elixir. Single malt gives you the original classic Steelhead Martini; bourbon the Greased Liner or Greased Line Martini; tequila and aquavit will give you the Bech Martini (so named for Poul Bech, one of British Columbia’s greatest steelheaders, and a gifted and fearless mixologist).
  4. Next, take a stirring implement of some sort (a glass stir-stick, or a long blade knife, or the tip section of a spey rod) and give the mixture one or two soft swirls. Then put the stir-stick aside.
  5. Now this is the really important part: let it sit for a few minutes. The exact time will vary depending on your environs and the topic(s) at hand. Fish tales are best (natch); other good topics include whose version of “Little Wing” is best (it’s Stevie’s), and whether today’s bench-made reels are better than classic Hardys. Someone once suggested to me that the point to all this delay is letting the martini sit, allowing the ice to melt a little, diluting the booze slightly and smoothing the taste. But the real reason you let it sit is that the preparations must mirror the steelheader’s process. Cast . . . and wait. Impatience is sure to result in bad mojo on a steelhead river; the same is true when mixing a cocktail.
  6. After a while, return the stirring implement to the shaker and stir again in a relaxed, meditative fashion for several more minutes (shaking a Steelhead Martini is like mending during the drift—don’t). Then, when you think it’s time, retrieve your goblets from the freezer or cooler, read aloud the final paragraph of A River Never Sleeps, and pour. Garnish with olives, lemon rind, or a red eye rollmop. Raise your goblet to the river, and enjoy.

After many years I’ve concluded that a Steelhead Martini mixed carefully on the tailgate of a pickup beside a favored steelhead run is the very best way to slow the day. These days I keep a few folding camp chairs in the truck and a small folding table—perhaps even a small tablecloth—to complete the experience. Sadly, like the Warthog, the Thompson is gone, and Kush lives on another river in the fall, so I make the weekend drive alone once each season. Friday night isn’t quite so late, and Saturday’s midday pause has gotten longer. And sometimes, after a particularly good morning of walking the banks with my memories, I don’t even return to the river at all.

The memory of a steelhead and a good martini will do that.

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn