September2011

Jackasses and Humpies

If I’m going to get up at 4:30 AM to go fishing, it had better be to either catch something, or go steelhead fishing (those two are mutually exclusive). On this day  it was to harvest some Humpback salmon, or as they are more commonly called, Humpies. There were an estimated 6 million of these fish returning to Puget Sound rivers this year, and I aimed to catch several, and bring home a couple for the smoker. I was in fact so confident that I bragged to Mrs. UA that I’d be bringing home some fish. She always delights in this novel concept, given that 99% of the time I release all the fish I catch (and a good portion of those are released at a long distance).

Honestly, the wiser I get the less appeal rising at 4:30 has, no matter what I’m doing. But when a youthful, enthusiastic friend continually hounds invites you to join him for a morning of catching Humpies, the best way to get him to stop bugging you only sensible thing to do is to oblige. And so it was that I rolled into the parking lot at 5:30, did my best to cheerfully greet Evahn (not his real name) and gear up. Under the cloak of darkness we marched down the trail, over some fallen trees, and after a relatively short hike ended up on the banks of the Snohomish River near the Donkey Hole (more on that later).

This section of the river is close enough to Puget Sound to be influenced by tidal activity, although the water does not taste of salt. Being only a few miles from the sound, there’s good reason why people come here to catch Humpies: they’re still bright and fresh. Allowing them to migrate further upstream means the fish become more tightlipped and darkly colored as they prepare to spawn.

A dime bright Humpy

Humpies run every other year in these parts (actually there are fish in the rivers each fall, but there’s only a large enough run to warrant a legal season every other year). I fished last for them in October of 2009, many miles further upstream from the Donkey Hole. As one would expect, the fish I caught were not dime bright, though they did not appear overly uncooperative either, given that I caught several.

A not dime bright Humpy

The origin of the name, Donkey Hole, revealed itself shortly after we began fishing at 6 AM.  I should state that it had nothing to do with the other gentleman who joined us later in the morning–a friend of Evahn’s who bears more than a passing resemblance to Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule (a mule is the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey in case you were wondering where I was going with this).

Not Gov't Donkey

But I digress. The quiet tranquility of the morning was shattered by a sound that was more haunting than the blood-curdling call of a heron in flight. It might best be described as a shrill nasal whistle followed by a great exhalation sounding remotely like a raspy foghorn, albeit somewhat higher in pitch. If you’ve ever heard a jackass braying then you know this sound. “Guess you know why it’s called the Donkey Hole, eh?” said Evahn. The jackasses on the farm across the river kept at their racket in short bursts throughout the morning.  I actually rather enjoyed the braying–it interrupted the jubilant celebrations of the many gear anglers in boats who were regularly hooking up with fish.

I had one fish on within the first hour, but it came unbuttoned.  No worries, I told myself. There were dozens upon dozens of fish jumping and rolling on the mirror-like surface of the water and the day was young.  It was far too early to count my unaccomplishments just yet. Evahn admitted that it was much slower than it had been just a couple of days earlier when he’d hooked and landed over 20 fish (allegedly). The day wasn’t going perhaps as well as either of us had expected, but in many ways it was going better for me than for Evahn. At least I’d remembered my wallet, all my flies and all sections of my rods. But that’s where my good fortune stopped, and Evahn’s began.

I had two more nibbles but no takes. I did get close enough to touch fish, however, as Evahn landed a few fish throughout the morning. One of his fish waited until we’d both crouched closely with our cameras before flopping violently on the beach and splattering our faces with wet sand.

Evahn with a Humpy

Humpies, also known as Pink salmon, are the smallest of the salmon species, and the pink designation refers not to their coloration because unlike Red (Sockeye) Salmon, which are red, Pink (Humpback) Salmon are not pink. I guess it refers to the fact that they eat pink stuff and it’s widely accepted that any pink fly will entice a strike. That’s always worked for me, but on this day nothing I tried seemed to work.

Examples of three pink flies that did not work.

Evahn found the secret weapon late in the morning and it was neither pink, nor a fly (per se). I will not divulge what that secret weapon was for two reasons: First, I dare not give away the secret; secondly, I wish not to bring shame upon Evahn. Like me, he is a puritan fly angler who would never nymph for steelhead or use a pink Dick Nite to catch Humpies. Suffice it to say, once he had it dialed in, Evahn was on fire and landed probably 5 fish in the last half hour. Well done, sir–here’s mud in your eye.

Evahn, the Accomplished Angler

We called it quits at around noon and hiked back to the parking lot. As we did so, one of us had his tail between his legs and later felt like a jackass when he got home and had to tell his wife that he had failed to bring home one of 6 million fish or supper. By the way, Evahn works for Allen Fly Fishing. They design some nice rods and reels, all field-tested by an accomplished angler.

A different September 11

We all know the significance of 9-11. How could we forget that horrific Tuesday ten years ago that forever changed the world?  We won’t forget. We shouldn’t forget, ever.

Living on the West Coast, the news came early.  My kids were 7 and 9. They weren’t awake yet. I was just getting ready to head out the door to work when the phone rang. The Caller ID indicated it was my in-laws.  “Strange,” I thought, “Why would they be calling this early?”  I picked up the phone and on the other end was my father-in-law. He never called. It was always the mother of Mrs. UA who did the calling.  There was no warm greeting as I would have expected, and the tone in my father-in-law’s voice had a ring of distress to it:

“Are you watching the news?” he asked.

My answer was no.

“Turn on the television,” he said. Then he hung up.

I was late to work that day. When I arrived, not much work got done. Before the day was done, the skies were empty of air traffic. It caused an eery silence that I can still hear today.

For my dad, it was a lousy way to celebrate his 70th birthday. We had planned a big party for him a few days later, and while the plans were not canceled, the dark cloud of 9-11-2001 loomed over the festivities. Every year since then, my dad’s birthday is shrouded by the anniversary of the date that war was waged on American soil by an enemy without a country.

Without taking anything away from the fallen heros who gave their lives on that infamous day and to those who have died every day since then as the battle has continued, I want to note that there is another September 11…a day that had special significance long before 9-11. A day that, even with the unfortunate association, is a day worth celebrating.

Happy 80th, Dad.  And God bless America.

Good Will Fishing, Day One

The honorable William Dewey (damn him anyway)

We pick up where we left off last week

As we bounced along the lengthy dirt road to our launch point we were mildly reminded of the festivities the night before, which is to say that I was glad we didn’t stay up any later than we did. Day One of the “friendly competition” had Team Olive fishing the canyon section known as #3: Cottonwood to Byington. And with guide Will Dewey of Worldcast Anglers responsible for the oars and for keeping an honest record of the fish we caught, we had our work cut out for us. To clarify, I do not mean to suggest that Will was incapable of doing his job, which was to navigate the river safely and put us on fish—he proved worthy of that. But he also proved to be a man of integrity, and we were incapable of buying a little “leeway” when sizing our fish and totaling the overall catch. Turns out he was is an Eagle Scout, as was am I, but he’s much younger and the oath we each took as Scouts remains a lot fresher in his mind than in mine.

We had about 12 river miles to cover on this first day, and though we were on the water by around 9 AM, we were not alone.  As one might imagine with 22 teams spread out over 4 sections of river, there would be company (albeit good company) and it would be difficult to fish untouched water.  I was glad to be stationed in the back of the boat where there’s no pressure to perform, whereas Marck occupied the cat bird seat up front where he would earn his keep (and redeem himself from the ass-kicking he took on the Bitterroot two days earlier). I started out the day with a hopper and a dropper while Marck worked the surface with two dries: something big and something small.

Marck scores one for Team Olive

Throughout the day we would hear lots of grasshoppers in the grass, but hopper patterns didn’t rise any fish. Most surface takes were on PMD patterns, and we saw a few of the creme-colored mayflies coming off at times throughout the day, but nothing that would amount to a hatch.  The South Fork has a very good number of both trout and Whitefish per mile, and when you’re nymphing you’re going to catch big trout and lots of Whitefish. Or at least the latter, in my experience.  In my defense, these were all fair hooked: in the mouth. And they were some of the biggest Whities I’ve ever caught…photo-worthy Whities, they were. We didn’t get a lot of photos of fish (trout or otherwise) on the first day, which might partially be due to the fact that we didn’t catch many photo-worthy trout (since when is a 16 inch trout not worth a photo?!). Will is obviously accustomed to much larger trout, and an auto focus cameras proved too slow to capture a photo before most were tossed back.

Hey, that was a "Yakima 18"—I wanted a photo!

Late in the afternoon we were working a small back eddy when Marck’s rod bent like the front bumper of the Fish Taco hitting a deer.  There were no ensuing head shakes or spunky little attempts to slip the hook. This fish just put its head down and stayed put. And then it tangled itself up on some sunken branches. And the broken end of Marck’s 5X tippet returned to the boat. It would have been nice to have gotten a look at whatever leviathan had just stolen more of Will’s flies. My bet was that it was a huge brown, although we’ll forever be left to wonder. Either upset by the loss of yet more flies or the fact that this fish might have won the tournament for Team Olive (and therefore secured a place in the Casting 4 A Cure Guide Hall of Fame for Will), our guide was clearly upset. He may have shed a tear, or he may in fact have had something in his eye, as he alleged.

Will has something in his eye, and a gesture for Marck.

We fished out the remainder of the day without any remarkable fish to note, although I’d like to reiterate that a 16 inch trout is gangbusters from where Team Olive hails.  And 16 inch trout are what we posted as our 4 biggest fish of the day: 3 cutts and one rainbow. We caught a total of 21 trout, which wasn’t too shabby considering we weren’t really there just to catch fish.

That evening back at the Teton Lodge we talked shop with the other anglers. Interestingly everyone seemed to gather near the scoreboard where we they casually glanced, pretending not to care, as totals for the day were entered into the columns. Neither Marck nor I hardly noticed as the results of Day One were totaled up and one of the teams posted unbelievable numbers: 57 total trout caught?! Riiiight, I’m just so sure, Team Sage/Rio 😉

 

Not every guide was an Eagle Scout, apparently.

We feasted on a an exceptional Mexican buffet for dinner, followed by a few more cold beers from The Cooler That Was Never Empty before turning in at the shamefully early hour of 10PM. Some of the heartier younger folks stayed up into the wee hours, but Team Olive needed to make sure we brought our A Game in the morning. There were bigger fish to catch than just 16 inch fingerlings.

 

Jump straight to Day Two by clicking here.

 

The Road to Victor

Note to self: next time when driving from Hamilton (MT) to Victor (ID), choose an alternate route rather than taking Hwy 93 all the way south through Salmon, Leodore and Mud Lake, ID. With all due respect to the town of Salmon,  this neck of the woods may be a notch better than say, eastern Nevada, but there’s nothing much to see south of Salmon. Next time we’ll take 43 east to Wisdom, MT and then 278 to Interstate 15 instead of staying on Hwy 93. It may be a little longer but I’m sure it’s worth the extra mileage. Our route took us through barren, high desert and then endless miles of ag land until we began to see the Tetons in the distance around Rexburg.

Nowhere, Idaho

As we approached Driggs the mountains came into full view. Given that I’d never seen the Tetons before, I was gawking like a common tourist instead of a glancing casually at them like a swaggering, confident angler who had just kicked Marck’s ass on the Bitterroot the day before. I figured we’d be staring at the Tetons all weekend, but luckily I shot one marginal photo as we drove past Driggs. As it turns out, that was the last time we’d see the range all weekend—Victor is to the South and tucked behind some foothills which obstructed our view.  Not to worry, the scenery around Victor is still exceptional so I’m not complaining. After all, we weren’t there to sight-see.

Near Driggs, Idaho

After a 5.5 hour drive we pulled into Victor right around 4:30. The first order of business was to stop at World Cast Anglers where we picked up our Idaho licenses and a few other items. We had a coupon for a nice discount thanks to the shop’s partnership with Casting 4 A Cure.  While at the shop I also picked up a sticker for the back of the Fish Taco. This news greatly pleased Mrs. UA when I sent her a text to let her know we’d arrived safely before darkness brought out the many roadside large game animals in Idaho.

Yes, Dear, I got another sticker

The Teton Springs Lodge is a far cry from the Ho Mum Motel in West Yellowstone, and therefore Marck and I were somewhat uncomfortable in the lavish surroundings. We met Jim Copeland with Casting 4 A Cure, checked-in and received a very nice offering of assorted schwag from sponsors Patagonia, Sage, Scott, Fishpond, Fly Fishing Film Tour, Howling Brothers, Loon Outdoors, Rio, Big Agnes and others. Jim pointed to a cooler brimming with ice cold PBR and Coors Light, and we felt right at home.

Casting 4 A Cure

We were, after all, parched from the long drive so we may have partaken of more than one beer as we acclimated ourselves and inspected the scoreboard that would tally the angling accomplishments over the next two days. The board was obviously wide open as fishing had not yet commenced. Anything could happen. There were some impressive anglers in town for the event, and while we may have been out of our league we weren’t intimidated. At least Marck wasn’t. He’s a rock, albeit a rock that had his arse handed to him the day before (did I mention that already?).

Team Olive is on the board!

Auntie Em! We're not at the Ho Hum anymore!

After depositing our bags and gear in our entirely-too-fancy-for-the-likes-of-us suite, we enjoyed mingling with the other guests and feasting on a fantastic dinner of grilled ribeye steaks. A welcome from director Bill Farnum left nary a dry eye in the room as we listened to his experiences raising his daughter Ella, who has Rett Syndrome. Special guest Ed Kammerer also told the group about his daughter who has Rett Syndrome, and like I said–there wasn’t a dry eye to be found. Bryan Huskey of Fishbite Media showed an inspirational film he produced titled, Doc of The Drakes, about a gentleman fighting and fishing his battle against Parkinson’s. While the evening was heart-wrenching for sure, I didn’t leave feeling depressed, but rather filled with hope and the realization that a cure for Rett Syndrome is in sight and could lead to progress in curing other, related neurological disorders. It was a good reminder why we were in Victor.

More cold beer was enjoyed from The Cooler That Was Never Empty and we spent the remainder of the evening telling half truths around the fire pit. We probably stayed up later than we should have, but we were still in bed by 1 AM. That may not be very impressive if you’re 25, but we’re well past the age where howling at the moon can be balanced with an early morning alarm.

Waiting to begin our morning commute

At 7 o’clock the next morning the guests assembled, bright-eyed, eager to go fishing as an army of trucks with drift boats arrived at the lodge. Each team met their guides from World Cast Anglers and learned which section of the South Fork we would be fishing. The guide for Team Olive was a young man by the name of Will Dewey, originally from Pennsylvania. Marck and I piled into Will’s rig and ate a light breakfast on our way to the river. We would be floating section 3, in the canyon, and had about an hour’s drive to our launch point. The fun was about to begin. Well, that’s not entirely true because we’d already had a great time. But it was about to get even better.