Angler’s Obsession

In like a lion, out like piece of cold mutton.

 

March is said to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. I can confirm that as the month began, I was glad for my beard because the Pacific Northwet rang in March with a certain ferocity (cold, wet, snowy/rainy, crappy). And it didn’t improve much by month’s end. Lions or lambs, either way we’d been screwed by the weather. If you think I’ve been bitching about nothing, check out this graphic from the National Climactic Data Center:

The weather blues, literally.

 

Needless to say, March was a good month to put in the rear veiw mirror. The end of the month also signals the end of the Washington state fishing license for the previous year. Here in the Evergreenblue state, the fishing license calendar runs from April 1 through March 31, and my son, Schpanky, and I were milking our 2011 licenses for all their worth by fishing on the last day that our licenses were valid. We hoped to get our money’s worth on our second annual trip to Forks for some Spring steelhead fishing.

Last year’s pilgrimage to the last bastion of native, wild steelhead fishing in the lower 48 was a trip with my buddy Joe Willauer of Evolution Anglers that resulted in my son’s first two steelhead, one of which caught under the glow of a double rainbow. It also resulted in a skunk for yours truly, and the regretful, forgetful act of leaving behind a few reels. Reels are essential for steelhead fishing  and luckily I was able to avoid an inadvertent introduction into the ways of Tenkara thanks to a reel borrowed from Joe’s buddy and fellow guide, Aaron O’Leary of Angler’s Obsession.

We hoped to repeat some of last year’s antics and avoid repeating others.

First off, we wanted the rivers to be fishable. In an area that sees more annual rainfall than any other spot in the contiguous US below the Canadian border, the rivers of the Olympic Penninsula blow out with regularity. In a year where the weather was worse than normal (whatever normal is anymore), the odds of encountering fishable waters for a one day window of opportunity which had been booked months in advance is a dicey prospect.  Last year we fished the Hoh River and were rewarded with a river on the drop. This year I nervously watched the flows the week before our trip. Here’s what the Bogachiel River, which we would be fishing, looked like:

 

It has blown-out mid week but was on the drop as we headed to Forks on Friday the 30th of March. But would it hold? Not to spoil a surprise, but yes. It held.  It was high, but fishable.

As we made the 3 hour drive to Forks, we encountered pretty much what we expected: rain and signs of recent rain. Even a little white stuff as we neared our destination.

Dusting of Olympic Penninsula powder.

To think that fire danger can ever be high in this area is almost laughable.

Duh...

I did not want to forget any essential gear this year, so I was very careful to remember nearly everything. Spey rods and reels, check. On Friday night (well, technically it was Saturday morning at 2:37 AM) I awoke in a cold sweat after realizing that I’d left my single-handed 8 weight rod AND reel at home. While Schpanky slept soundly I tossed and turned until 4:13 AM. I realized there was only one thing to do so at I sent Joe a text confessing that I’d left certain items behind, and asked that he bring an extra rod and reel. Then I fell back to sleep for another hour and a half. When we met for breakfast at the Forks Coffee Shop at 6:30, Joe revealed that he had not received my text. Damnit. Not to worry, Aaron was nearby and had us covered. Again.

My favorite reel to borrow when I go to Forks.

With a fishable river and the proper tackle in possession, the next thing we hoped to repeat was the catching of steelhead. Only this time I actually was more concerned with my own well-being than that of the boy. As a 17 year-old child he’d caught his two fish last year. There would be no more coddling. He was 18 now–old enough to buy smokes and porn: old enough to let his old man catch a fish.Within 30 minutes of our put-in, Schpanky hooked and landed a beautiful 15 pound hen. Even under low clouds and a steady, drenching, 38 degree rain, the day was off to a bright start. Joe would see at least a portion of his $15 tip.

Joe Willauer and Schpanky

The Accomplished and Unaccomplished Anglers

It’s always a relief to get the skunk off the boat early and doing so ensured that the day would be a success, even if no other fish were caught (I kept saying this to myself over and over). I’ll admit that as the day wore on I began to resent the man-child in the front of the boat; the youthful angler who had now caught 3 wild steelhead on the rivers of the Olympic Penninsula, to my none. When I set the hook on a good fish later in the day I instantly felt better about myself until the fish–a bright buck that was clearly much larger than Schpanky’s fish–made short work of me as it made a suicide run right for the bank of the river and broke me off. As we broke for lunch I was engulfed in a dark cloud of angling despair.

The Highway 101 bridge, while perhaps not particularly scenic, did offer a welcome roof over our heads and we enjoyed the chance to get out of the rain and warm up with a Cup of Noodles served up with Joe’s organic silverware.

Nothing but the finest when you're a guest in Joe's boat

Joe and I were both sporting a pair of Redington Sonic Pro Zip waders and posed for a photo which I’m sure will become a new poster for Redington. On a quick note, this was my second opportunity to test the waders and so far, two thumbs up.  On a day of relentless precipitation, the waders kept me dry and comfortable, and Joe and I both agreed that the zippers are a must-have. There is no pleasure in getting half-way undressed to relieve pressure on the bladder, especially when doing so in a rain forest.

They come in a wide variety of sizes.

As the afternoon wore on we mostly nymphed on the go, although we did stop at a couple runs so we could break out the Spey rods. Or as Joe refers to them, the “Poles of Futility”. Not surprisingly, no fish were hooked on the swung fly. The afternoon saw a continuation of rain and a couple more hookups with fish. Whereas the morning had resulted in Schpanky landing a nice fish while I lost a nice fish, the afternoon saw Schpanky losing a small fish while I landed a small fish. One doesn’t go to Forks to catch 5 pound underachiever but it’s better than nothing, especially when nothing is what one had come to experience previously. In defense of the fish in the photo, it looks smaller than it actually was thanks to Joe’s ridiculously large net, and my oversized hands.

An unimpressive fish and an Unaccomplished Angler

When all was said and done, we’d had a great day on the river. Schpanky will be in college this time next year so he won’t be able to make the trip, and because of college I may not be able to afford the trip. If I do go I’m going to catch a bigger fish and remember my 8 weight rod and reel. Just for good measure, I hope Aaron is close by again.

Double (anadromous) Rainbow

Ever since last week’s Drivel, I’m sure that y’all have been sitting on the edges of your seats…chompin’ at the bit…waiting with baited breath…to find out if I will have a fishing partner in my future years. Well, I’m happy to say that chances are good that I will, and his name is Schpanky The Crusher of Steelhead.  And while the mission was accomplished, it was not without certain unaccomplishments- the stuff that keeps you, all 8 readers, coming back.

Twilight Tours short bus

After a road trip that included 3 hours of driving and a 90 minute wait for the Edmonds-Kingston ferry, we rolled into Forks just after the sun had set. I had expected that all the hooplah over the Twilight movies would be all but non-existent. I envisioned Forks as a hard working, blue collar town with a proud heritage of logging and fishing: a town that was perhaps a bit embarrassed by the recent Twilight movies. But as we drove through town it was readily apparent that Twilight is a big deal in Forks.  Well, that, and fishing.  We checked in to the Pacific Inn Motel and the lobby was equally divided into Twilight paraphernalia and fishing information: strange bedfellows for sure, but who can fault the local folks trying to capitalize on the Twilight cult by making a few bucks off a movie that wasn’t even filmed in Forks?  The accommodations were clean and simple, and since we’d be there for less than 12 hours, it suited us just fine.  After checking in we walked the town in search of some dinner. After filling our bellies I set about the task of organizing gear for the morning. I selected the sink tips to be used on the Spey rods, inspected knots, placed new leader on the single handed 8 weight reel, and made sure I had the right clothes set out for the morning. It’s much easier to think the night before rather than at 0 dark thirty in the morning, and I wanted to make sure no details were overlooked and that nothing was left behind.

The alarm went off at 5:30, and at 5:40 I finally saw signs of life in the boy.  Teenagers are fond of sleeping in whenever possible. Sleeping in was not an option on this day, as we were slated to meet Joe Willauer at the Forks Coffee Shop between 6 and 6:15. I wanted to be there at 6:00 to mainline as much coffee as possible.  We waited and waited, and Joe finally arrived at about 6:17. I made a notation on my Guide Tip Criteria Checklist and docked a few bucks for his late arrival.  After we horked down a hearty breakfast, we grabbed our lunches to go and loaded most of our essential gear into Joe’s new truck.  I complimented him on the new rig and asked if the back window leaked like his old truck (I’d been fortunate to be wearing my rain jacket the last time I was in the back seat of Joe’s old truck).  “No,” replied Joe.  “And this one doesn’t smell like wet dog and ass. It’s kind of a bummer.”  It was going to be a good day.

As we drove the half hour to our launch point on the Hoh River, we marveled at the lack of rain falling from the sky. Joe had been out with clients the day before when the temperature had hovered around 39 degrees with a mix of rain and snow.  We passed a herd of Roosevelt elk along the way that also seemed to be enjoying a respite from the previous day’s miserable weather.

With the raft unloaded we wadered-up and began to transfer our gear into the boat. Joe had an extra 8 wt single handed rod and asked me nicely instructed me to string up my 8 wt rod.  Not one to argue, I instructed Schpanky to grab the 8 wt rod while I went for the reel.  In my heightened state of supreme nocturnal organization the night before, I’d managed to make sure that everything we needed was with us.  Except for the 8 wt reel. Unless I was going to do a little Tenkara fishing for steelhead, I was going to need a reel for my rod.

But wait, it gets better: I’d also forgotten the two reels for our Spey rods. I’m fairly certain they were in my truck, parked back at the coffee shop. Fortunately Joe had two complete Spey outfits on board, and after a bit of finesse and sweet-talking he managed to locate a nearby 8 wt reel that only involved a 15 minute delay while he drove to meet his buddy Aaron O’Leary who had the extra reel (I never got to thank you, Aaron–so, thank you). My stupidity had just re-earned Joe the percentage of the tip he had lost for being late for breakfast. The good in all of this is that our delay allowed us to watch an angler land a big fish just a few feet from us.  The matter of the forgotten reels was just a minor glitch and by 8 AM we were on the water and things were looking up, including the weather: the skies were gray, but rain was giving us a wide berth. While we anticipated plenty of precipitation, it wasn’t breaking our hearts to be dry for the time being.

As be began our descent we soaked in the beauty of the Hoh River valley and surrounding rain forest. I’ve been on a lot of rivers and they all have their own unique beauty, but there was something special about this place.  Maybe it was the knowledge that in these waters ran some of the most amazing fish: wild, bright OP steelhead that were only perhaps a day or two out of the ocean. We were in the midst of the best, last remaining good steelhead fishing for wild fish in the Lower 48. It was hard to not be excited about the prospects of the day, but catching is never a guarantee.

Youthful enthusiasm.

We had roughly 12 river miles to cover, and with expectations high that we would be busy landing fish all day, each mile was met with new enthusiasm.  Unfortunately each new mile resulted in no fish, and as mid day approached, I detected a certain lack of enthusiasm on the part of Schpanky. I think part of his plummeting mood came from the fact that he was shocked and offended by the colorful language pouring from Joe’s mouth. Early in the day I had requested that Joe keep his language clean because my son isn’t used to hearing cuss words. Joe was informed that his tip would be docked $5 for every F-bomb dropped, and by 10 AM he was nearing a zero balance. We had stopped and worked a run with our Joe’s Spey rods but were unable to swing up any fish, so nymphing on-the-go was the order of the day. The 5 whitefish we landed were of little consolation to the boy who appeared dejected by one hookup with a steelhead that busted him off after a brief fight. A sizable fish also quickly dispatched of yours truly, but my advantage over the boy is that, as a seasoned angler who is accustomed to unaccomplishments, I was able to laugh it off. That, and my blood sugar doesn’t plummet as does the boy’s. I can eat once in the morning and then not need food all day. The boy requires constant filter feeding. As I saw it, his nutritional needs were not my concern – I had fish to catch, damnit darnit.

Joe is a great guide, and to his credit he worked hard, tirelessly replaced the countless flies that I Schpanky lost and cheered us on—providing hope with each new bend in the river. I’d almost even go so far as to suggest that Joe is a beacon of positive reinforcement. But even that was not enough to keep the boy from plummeting into an emotional tailspin, and by lunchtime he was also getting cold. Fortunately the clouds parted and allowed the sun to warm us a bit, and Top Ramen served with a stick was a nice touch that did a lot to improve the outlook on life. I reminded Schpanky that no matter whether we caught any fish today, he’d already surpassed his old man in height.  That seemed to boost his mood a bit more. To keep him from getting too cocky I also reminded that I can still kick his arse when it comes to fishing and otherwise. Then he brought up the matter of the reels I’d left in the truck and I grew sullen and withdrew from the duel. Well played, young lad. Well played.

 

"Let's take an awkward shot." "OK."

We departed our lunch spot with hope and energy rekindled. As we dropped into “the Canyon” the rain that had been threatening all day finally descended upon us and gave us a taste of what the OP can dish out.  Fortunately the rain, while heavy, lasted less than an hour. As we emerged from the Canyon the rain tapered off and the clouds of despair lifted, both literally and figuratively. Shortly thereafter the boy hooked up with and landed a beautiful chrome hen that weighed in the range of 11 to 13 lbs. It may have been 12 or possibly 14 lbs, but Joe’s policy for the day was to refer to fish in odd-numbered increments. The fish could have been 5 or 7 lbs for all that mattered—I just wanted the boy to land a steelhead on this trip, and that goal had been met. Now, the Schpanky is not one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, but even he couldn’t hide his excitement. There would be no hugs or celebratory dancing of the jig, but fist bumps were exchanged all around (very manly sort of stuff). Joe had been operating under an incredible amount of pressure all day, and I could see the tension leaving his body as breathed a sigh of relief. I thought I smelled something waft from within his waders too, but I could be wrong.

With his head held just a bit higher and perhaps a couple more hairs on his chest, the boy angled on with a new found hope, while I continued to snag every possible hunk of structure in the river. With the old man out of commission every 10 minutes or so, the boy did took every possible advantage of the power play. Eventually it paid off as he hooked up with another fish around 6pm. When the hook was set, the response was instantly, “It’s just a small one.” As the boy nonchalantly stripped in slack line, he simultaneously muttered something about a “double rainbow”.  I’m reasonably certain that the collective response from Joe and I was, “WTF?” and then suddenly the rod bent sharply and the “little fish” began taking line and heading west, toward the ocean, which was only about 10 miles away.  Keeping his wits about him, Schpanky succeeded in landing his second fish of the day: a super bright buck of about 9 lbs.

As the boy fought the fish and Joe stood by with the net, it became readily apparent that the random comment wasn’t so random: just like the dude in the infamous YouTube video says, there was a full on double rainbow all across the sky. What does it mean?

It means that the boy met the Hoh and lost his innocence. He became an accomplished steelhead angler and kicked his old man’s arse. It means that Joe earned his full tip.

Hopefully it also means that I won’t ever forget the reels again. Thanks Joe, for holding up your end of the bargain (don’t spend that $15 all in one place). Save us a couple days in your schedule for a year from now. Who knows, maybe I can catch a fish next time…