The last time I heeded the call to join Large Albacore on the Methow, we had the entire river all to ourselves and still caught no fish. Of course, that was then. This was now. This time would be different, and it was.
An hour after departing home at 4:30 I ascended Stevens Pass (elevation 4,062 ft) on my 2.5 hour drive to Albacore’s home. An early cold snap had turned the higher elevations white with the first dusting of wet snow, and while it wasn’t a whiteout by any means, there was an inch of sloppy stuff on the highway. This is not your fluffy inland powder, but rather a product of considerable coastal moisture: slippery goo that turns to chunky ice when the temperature dips below freezing. I was glad for good tires and 4 wheel drive so that I could pass the white knucklers doing 35mph in their rear-wheel drive sedans. Early season snowfall always catches a few people off guard—the same people each year.
The snow intensified for a period of time as I crested the summit and I couldn’t help but have a feeling of Deja-Vu. Two years earlier I’d made this same jaunt and the snow that began to fall during that trip never let up. In fact that storm would be the beginning of a winter that seemed to drone on forever. This time, however, the snow gave way to rain. Winter wasn’t ready to take over just yet and there would be no repeat of two years earlier, at least as far as the weather was concerned.
After a late dinner, Albacore and I retired to his basement where we watched a documentary film about Neil Young: Journeys. We’d both been fans of Neil since the days when Young was much younger and as we watched the film we remarked at how the old Neil still had the same velvety tone to his voice that he’s always been known for. Watching this film rekindled our love for the Godfather of Grunge and before we turned in for the night it was agreed that we would queue up some young Young while driving to the river the next morning. We didn’t have to wait long for that.
The alarm sounded at 4 AM and was followed immediately by a solid breakfast of eggs, hash browns and coffee that fueled our enthusiasm as we loaded Albacore’s truck and headed north. Live Rust emanated from the stereo and as we drove through the darkness we did our best Neil Young imitations. Suffice it to say that both Albacore and I have what it takes to be vocal stand-ins should Neil ever need us: we’re every bit as good as Jimmy Fallon. No, really—just ask either of us.
Singing has a way of making time pass quickly and before we’d even finished with the album it was 5:54 AM and we had reached our destination. The intent of our early arrival was to ensure that we got the run we wanted, which we did. We took our time gearing up before slowly picking our way along the dark trail. We waited Down by the River for another 20 minutes before it was light enough to fish.
We each brandished two rods: a Spey rod and a single handed 8 weight Meat Pole. It was agreed that we’d work through the run twice with our two-handers before rigging the Meat Poles. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. Albacore fished the head of the run with his go-to “Blue Moon” pattern; one that he fishes regularly and with confidence. I dropped in below and began slinging a red and black marbou streamer, courtesy of Ross Slayton (check out his newly-launched blog, Should Be Fishin’).
Not long into the morning Albacore hooked up with and landed a beautiful hen which he wagered was maybe 8 pounds. I suggested she was at least ten. Due to great differences in height, our perspectives are vastly opposite and equally skewed. Whatever the case may be, this fish was definitely a better than average-sized steelhead for this particular river and the skunk was off. At least for one of us.
The only fish I’d seen was a big old Chinook salmon that was hanging out in the shallows near a large redd, his tail waving gently back and forth in the current. I gave pause to wonder what the old buck was thinking as he neared the end of his journey. He’d had a good long life and had returned to his natal stream after an impressive upstream trip through several dams on the Columbia River. Though his decaying body was gradually failing him, his eyesight remained keen as he watched me. He was none too shy and only moved out of my way when I got closer than 5 feet.
After a second pass through the run without so much as a bump, Albacore instructed me to do the unthinkable: rig the Meat Pole. As he finished out the run I shamefully headed toward his gear bag and reached into the abyss for a box of dirty little secrets that was tucked away out of sight: nymphs. And stashed inside an even darker, hidden pocket: beads. Now, while there is nothing wrong with nymphing beads for steelhead if you want to catch steelhead, it is said that the noble way to go about catching steelhead is with a swung fly. That being said, if there’s one thing worse than nymphing beads for steelhead, it’s not catching steelhead. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no gentleman anglers were watching from the road above, rigged a black stonefly nymph and trailed a bead off the end. It was time to get dirty.
When one trades in their Spey rod for a Meat Pole, the transformation is remarkable. A Spey caster is a vision of serenity and self control; finesse and fluid beauty. Effortless sweeps of the long rod are poetry in motion and one can imagine the image set to the soothing sounds of Harvest Moon. A bead fisherman is a different animal. His face bears the grimace of a barbarian; yellow teeth clenched as tightly as their white knuckles on the cork. Involuntary guttural sounds are produced as the angler contorts his entire body with each crude stroke of the Meat Pole. Desperate casts lack form in favor of function as the nymph fisherman pounds the water in a manner that would best be accompanied by Hey Hey, My My. But not even playing dirty could produce a fish and so, fatigued and distraught at not having produced any fish even on the Meat Poles, we broke for lunch which Albacore had prepared the night before.
Sandwiches consisted of turkey, cheese and honey dijon mustard. Albacore apologized for the lack of garnishments, admitting that sliced pickles would have added a certain pizzazz to the otherwise lackluster sandwiches. We debated the sweet pickle vs. the dill, and it was decided that dill would have been the preferred choice. I didn’t complain and noted that it tasted great as it was. Albacore insisted that pickles would have been nice, but he worried that they would have just made the sandwiches soggy by the time we’d eaten them. I chewed on that for a minute before admitting that a pickle would have been nice, but not necessary. Sometimes the thoughts in my head manifest themselves into spoken words, not unlike Tourette Syndrome. Before I could stop myself I blurted that if he’d really cared, he would have taken care to slice some damn pickles and place them in a plastic bag so that we might apply them to our sandwiches, solving the matter of soggy bread. We ate the remainder of our lunch in awkward silence.
Like water under the bridge we put the pickle matter behind us and fished the next few hours in much the same way that we’d fished the morning. As a last resort we even revisited the first run of the day hoping to find another fish where Albacore had found his earlier. The run held no steelhead.
But the Traveller was still there. He hadn’t moved much. His tail seemed to flip more slowly but he still kept an eye on me so I thought it appropriate to sing him a little song. It helped pass the time.
Day 2: The morning was clear and cold, and while I’ve fished in much colder weather, I underestimated the coldness on this morning and left my gloves in the truck. I should have opted for a fleece stocking cap as well, but went instead with the Lucky Fishing hat. After standing in what is known as The Holy Waters for an hour, the shivers set in. My lower back, which had been tweaky for a couple of days, began to tighten up. Being cold and standing precariously on an assortment of large and slippery rocks didn’t help matters, and soon I began to have lower back spasms. I did what any hardcore steelhead fisherman would do:
I toughed it out went back to the truck and fell asleep in the front seat. An hour later I was awakened by Large Albacore, who had nurturing words of compassion and support for me.
Suffice it to say the rest of the day improved inasmuch as the weather warmed and my back felt better. The catching, however, remained dismal. We drove up and down the river, seeking out any vacant water we could before determining that there were no fish to be caught. Still, it was a good day spent practice casting. I got to know the Sage One 7136 demo rod a bit better and came to appreciate it’s nimble ways and ample power. I determined that in the hands of a worthy caster the rod would really shine. As the sun set on another day and we headed back to the Pink House for another great dinner served up by Papa Albacore.
The smoke had hung more heavily in the air on this second day, an indication that the distant fires continued to burn. What the fires needed was rain, as did the river and the fish, and therefore the anglers. Fortunately the weather forecast indicated that rain would arrive overnight, so with that knowledge I closed the tailgate and lift hatch on the Fish Taco’s canopy and wedged myself into the tight space within. Sometime during the night I awoke to the sound of rain drops on the fiberglass roof. The rhythmic pitter-patter of precipitation put me quickly back to sleep, though not before I acknowledged that 5-foot truck bed is a bit short even for an Unaccomplished Angler.
Day 3: The alarm sounded as a light rain continued to fall. The air smelled fresh for the first time in a long time. It was a new day. A day filled with hope and anticipation. I rigged up my Z-Axis 7136 for this third and last day of fishing: I wanted to end the trip fishing my trusted old friend so that I could have a good sense of comparison between the old and new offerings from Sage. The Z-Axis had caught steelhead before—it deserved a chance to do so again. After breakfast we headed back to The Holy Waters. The day was warmer and the back felt better than 24 hours previously. There would be no limp-wristed timeouts on this morning. I was there to fish—nay, I was there to catch a steelhead.
Across the river stood a lone angler throwing laser loops with grace and ease. His casts were a thing of beauty, and I hoped he was paying no mind to the clunky casts being flung from the opposite river bank. Even with my trusted old Z-Axis, my best casts fall short of anything that might be described as graceful. I took a couple steps down, stripped line and executed a serviceable Snap Z (or was it a Snap C?); my fly flew lazily toward mid-current. As the fly swung there followed the familiar tap-tap-tap of a steelhead mouthing the hook. Remaining calm, I may or may not have yelled, “Sweet Mother of anadromous rainbow trouts!” I lay the tip of the rod toward shore as the fish swam the opposite direction, setting the hook in it’s tough lips. Fish on! Ironically, at the same instant, the Jedi Caster across the river also had a fish on. What were the chances that I would hook up with a fish at the exact same time as my accomplished brethren on the far side of the Holy Water?
Line continued to be ripped from my reel as I dug my heels in for a good fight. This was it—what many anglers wait 1000 cast for. Just then a friendly and apologetic voice called out from across the river: “Sorry about that!” A brief rush of adrenalin quickly faded with the realization that the only hook-up had been between our two flies. “Feed me more line and I’ll get us unhooked!” instructed The Jedi. At least I saw my backing for the first time in a long time.
After the fleeting, ill-fated excitement of the morning, we broke for lunch before heading downstream for the afternoon. The rain had given way to a pleasant, overcast day. We fished on, trying our best to remain hopeful with each new run. Admittedly, hope was a tall order and it was hard to ignore the presence of 1000-lb skunk that loomed overhead. I reminded myself that steelhead fishing is not about catching fish; it’s about casting practice. Still, it seemed particularly cruel that of the 5 anglers in our posse, not a single steelhead had been hooked. Fortunately that would change when Junior Albacore landed a nice 8 pound hen about midway through the afternoon. For all his other many shortcomings, Junior was the hero of the day—of the trip. If not for him there would be no photo of a fly fisherman with a Clearwater River steelhead to grace this page.
We were collectively grateful that the only steelhead in the river had been caught and released as we angled the rest of the day in relative peace and tranquility. Nobody expected to catch a fish after that, and expectations were met. That’s what steelhead fishing is all about: low expectations that are rarely exceeded. When they are, it’s something special. And filling the gaps between fish are good friends, good times, and a lot of practice casting, which is needed more by some than others.
I suppose I should look into the origins of the name “Pink House“, but I’m too
lazy busy to do so. Suffice it to say that the recreation site and campground on the Clearwater River near Orofino, Idaho is simply named just that: Pink House. And that is precisely where we camped while flogging the waters of the Clearwater with Spey rods on a recent trip.
“We” consisted of the Albacore Clan: Junior, Large, Chunky and Papa. And myself, the odd man out. This is a great group of tall fellows who enjoy good food, good beer, and good scotch. Conversely I am not so tall, and while I do enjoy good food I’d be content living off of dry roasted peanuts and elk pepperoni. I prefer cheap beer and am incapable of discerning much of a difference between a good single malt and Cutty Sark. Truth be told I’m not much of a scotch guy, preferring instead a blended whiskey myself. This made me somewhat of an outcast in camp, as if being a foot shorter than the others wasn’t challenging enough. And still, despite my shortcomings, I was invited along on this trip to chase steelhead with the Albacores.
Backing up a bit, I began my journey by departing western Washington at 5:45 Thursday morning. By the time the sun crested the eastern horizon I was over the hump of the Cascades and well into central Washington. The sunrise was particularly lovely, due in large part to the smokey haze from the wildfires which had been burning for months to the north. Across the entire expanse of eastern Washington the skies bore the reminder of our unprecedented dry summer and fall, and where the smoke from the central Washington fires lost its reach the smoke from the fires burning in Idaho took over. The bottom line was that there was a smokey haze the entire way to Idaho.
The Clearwater River is a beautiful stretch of water that flows from the Bitterroot mountains toward its confluence with the Snake River in Lewiston, Idaho. From Lewiston the view upstream hardly suggests the beautiful river that beckons anglers to come hither and seek out its steelhead trouts. But once one gets past the Potlach pulp mill the view improves and the river actually begins to resemble a river. From Lewiston it’s some 40 (plus or minus) miles to the Pink House near Orofino. The road follows the river the entire way, and as I proceeded onward like a modern day Lewis and Clark on their homeward journey through this same country more than 200 years earlier, two things became obvious: First, there are limited roadside pullouts in which to park; and secondly, there were rigs parked in nearly every roadside pullout. It appeared that there were other fly anglermen who’d had the same idea as us.
But before an angler gets to the Pink House they must turn right at the Peck Junction and pay homage to The Red Shed. This place needs no introduction, as folks come from near and far just to say they’ve been there. From what I could discern, Peck is just a speck— a wide spot in the road. But set boot inside the Red Shed and you’ll find a very well-outfitted fly shop where one would not expect to find such a well-outfitted fly shop. Spey is the name of the game here, although if one looks hard enough they will also find beads (one must look behind the door, near the floor. I doubt the product placement is purely coincidental and I was hoping to meet the legend himself, Poppy Cummins, and ask him about that. Unfortunately he had the afternoon off when we stopped in.
In addition to the full line of rods, reels, lines, tying materials, assorted gear and sundry, one can also find a fine selection of fly fishing books. The orange cover caught my attention: Olive Goes for a Wild Ride. I believe it’s the third in a series of three, and I hear that they are all excellent.
Onward, upriver. After arriving at the Pink House and meeting up with the Albacores, it was time to hit the water. I was the last to arrive, and while my compadres had fished the morning, a steelhead had yet to be caught. Not to worry, the day was young and there was plenty of time for that. I strung up the Sage One 7136 Spey rod that I’d brought along to test out. I was looking forward to seeing what the rod was all about and putting it to a head-to-head comparison with my Z-Axis 7136. It would be fun to not only cast the One, but also play a fish on it. I didn’t have to wait long, as we quickly got down to the business of fishing.
I’ll not spend a great deal of time talking about the Sage One here; there’ll be a time and place for that later. Suffice it to say the rod cast nicely, felt light in the hand, and had no problem landing the 11″ Whitefish that I swang up that afternoon. It was the only fish caught that day, and before the peanut gallery criticizes the Unaccomplished Angler for catching a diminutive whitefish, when was the last time YOU caught a whitefish while swinging flies for steelhead? That’s what I thought. Besides, a Whitefish is a native indicator species; not something to be maligned by way of gamefish snobbery.
Back at camp that night we dined, drank and toasted my angling prowess. I was decided that a campfire would have to wait for the next night as Large and Junior Albacore had already fallen asleep; after all, not catching steelhead is hard work. Begrudgingly the rest of us turned in for the night; the Albacores sharing the comforts of a tent trailer while I slept in the relative comforts of the Fish Taco. With it’s 5-foot bed, it would prove a bit tight even for the sawed-off likes of me. But with no rain in the forecast for another day, I opted to leave the tailgate down so I could extend my legs. I slept just fine until the alarm went off at 5:15. Time to fish.
To be continued…
I recently had cause to buy a single-handed 8 weight set up for my son, Schpanky, who is off at college and has fallen in with some young fellers who like to angle with a fly (which pleases me to no end, by the way). Over the years I have justified purchasing 2 of every setup I have because I figured I would eventually give my second set of gear to the boy. Well, the one rod/reel setup that I do not have a duplicate of happens to be a single-handed 8 weight.
Being on a college budget (translation: with two kids in college, I am on a budget) I had to shop intelligently. I will not by junk just because it’s affordable, however, so I looked for the best combination of price and quality. Enter Allen Fly Fishing.
Evan Burck, a fishing friend of mine, works for Allen and so I have seen the quality of their gear first hand. I’ve read customer reviews and have recommended Allen to others. One person in particular is a steelhead guide who asked me a year ago if I could recommend a good reel that wouldn’t break the bank. It felt odd to be approached by a guide seeking advice from me, but pretended to be an authority on the matter and steered him toward Allen. He ended up getting an Alpha II reel and last I heard he loves it.
So, when my need for another 8 weight reel arose, I looked no further than the Alpha II. Within 3 days of ordering the reel arrived. First impressions are that it’s a great looking reel with silky-smooth action. The drag is reported to be excellent. Once I get it lined up and sent off to Schpanky, I hope he hooks into a Clearwater or Grand Ronde steelhead so he can test the drag himself.
Right now the Alpha II (as well as apparently most every other piece of Allen gear) is on sale. You can pick one up for the outrageous price of only $149 (marked down from $249). So if you’re in the market for a new reel, you may not want to wait much longer to get the Alpha II.
To Evan I say, you are welcome. Glad to help you pay for your new mortgage.
Disclaimer: I was not paid, nor was I given preferential pricing in exchange for this blog post.
When I saw the photo below posted on a popular social media website, my first thought was, “That should be an album cover.”
The photo had 54 comments, well over 160 “likes” and at least 16 “shares” at last glance. And for good reason. After all, the composition is excellent, and what’s not to like about three friends geared up to do a bit of fly angling? Good, wholesome fun.
The fact that nearly all the comments were from men comes as little surprise, however. Men are predictable animals. Not all men, mind you, but most. Gotta be careful about generalizations. Post a photo of women fishing and the guys come out of the woodwork.
Some critics will accuse me of shamefully posting a photo of three beautiful ladies for the sole purpose of getting hits on my website, and to those I would say, “I
resemble resent those remarks.”
First of all, I am a blogger of integrity and would never post any content just for the sake of increased traffic. And personally, when I look at this photo all I see are fly fishermen—just three people—period. I am gender-blind.
So let’s keep the criticism to yourselves.
Featured in the photo may or may not be in any particular order or lack thereof: Rebecca Garlock of the Outdooress blog, Rachel Morgan, and Aileen Ellis of MK Flies. (Photo taken in Idaho by Anonymous. While requested, no GPS coordinates were provided.)