Clearwater river fishing
I recently returned from a steelhead fishing trip to the Clearwater River in Idaho. There was not a fly rod to be found amongst the selection of fishing sticks on board the boat. Of course I knew that this would be the case well in advance of the trip, and yet willingly I went along. Rather than a fishing trip on which I would exercise my preferred method of angling, this was a gathering of college fraternity brothers who had not all been together in the same place in some 24 years. This was to be more about a gathering of old friends from the past than it was about fishing, even though it centered around fishing. Just not fly fishing. This was no time to get all uppity about the how the fish would be tempted into swallowing a hook.
The trip very nearly did not materialize due to incessant rains across the region that caused all rivers, including the Clearwater, to bulge their banks. I waited anxiously for the call from my buddy Jawn, the orchestrator of the trip, declaring whether or not it was on or off. I’d been watching the flows, and I was nervous. Then the call came in. According to our guide, Jim McCarthy of Hells Canyon Sport Fishing, the Clearwater was running at about 27,000 CFS. Normal flows for this time of year are between 5,000-7,000 CFS. Gulp. But fish were being caught, and we were set for launch. Sigh. The plan was for myself, Bryan, Micro, and Red Pig to converge upon Jawn’s home in Lewiston the night before. (It should be noted that the names of those in attendance have been changed to protect their reputations – all except for Red Pig, his real name). After I hung up the phone with Jawn I clicked my heels and chortled like a schoolgirl. It was going to be great to see everyone after all these years.
Of the 5 of us on board, excluding our guide, only three of us are what one might call regular fishermen, and of those three only two are decent fishermen. The other is merely a catch-challenged, unaccomplished angler. What we may lack in a commonality as far as fishing experience we make up for with a bond that goes much deeper. We’re brothers in a way that is perhaps even stronger than blood: our fraternal bond forged in college, at a time when our social skills were still a bit rough around the edges. On other words, we’d seen each other at our collective and individual worst. That’s a strong foundation for friendship for sure, but 24 years is a long time to be apart.
Fond memories of yesteryear are highly cherished and certainly invaluable, but one really doesn’t know what to expect when reconnecting after such a long hiatus. How much had everyone changed? Could there be any substance to the friendships of yore or would it get awkward after we ran out of old stories to tell? Face it, when a person is in their early 20’s, their outlook on life is a bit simpler than when they’re pushing 50. Raising a family (or not), ascending the career ladder (or not), and facing trials and tribulations associated with life as a middle-aged adult can alter a person over time (or not). Most people grow up and mature, but I’m happy to report that we were all able to enjoy the trip as if no time had passed between us. Everyone was pretty much the same person they were back in the day, and thankfully another thing that hadn’t evolved over time was our taste in beer. Well, at least for me.
Good judgment dictated that we would stay up into the wee hours drinking micro brews (begrudgingly, in my case) and a few other assorted bottled beverages (the Speyburn Scotch served as a reminder that my Spey rod would not be used in the morning). We reminisced and solved world problems until 2:30AM, awaking a few short hours later. I was lucky to have gotten any sleep at all thanks to Bryan’s ability to saw logs at a volume that rivaled The Goosemaster. Amazingly we were mostly bright-eyed and coherent when we met up with Jim McCarthy at the Pink House launch at 7 AM. Under heavy fog and chilly temperatures we boarded the jet sled that would take us up and down the river in pursuit of the infamous B Run Clearwater steelhead: fish that spend at least two years gorging themselves and bulking up in the salt before returning to the rivers. Jim gave us a quick run-down on how to fish the high flows.
I determined that even if I could not be angling with a fly, I would do my best to stay as pure as possible and represent “my people”. To that end Jawn and I designated ourselves “Team Synthetic”, electing to fish with the yarn egg as opposed to the yarn egg with a gob or roe looped in. A chunk of lead attached a couple feet or so above the hook got the tackle down in the slow seams that weren’t really all that slow given the high water. As the lead bounced along the bottom it provided a rhythmic feedback that could best be described as a “thunk-thunk-thunk”. Occasionally that rhythm was interrupted by a fish, more often by a snag. When Jim wasn’t maneuvering the sled alongside the best holding water, he was busy replacing leaders and netting fish. And occasionally ducking. With a line of 5 guys standing shoulder to shoulder and systematically firing out casts, it was amazing that nobody suffered a flossing or other injury. Given this display of on-boat combat casting, the potential for friendly fire incident was high. However, we maintained proper rank and file and not once did Jim have to impose a time-out on anyone.
It wasn’t long into the day that I had a sense of deja-vu settle over me and I harkened back to a trip to the upper Beaverhead in Montana the year before. On that trip I had employed a very similar method of fishing with heavily weighted tackle that bounced rhythmically along the bottom of a river. The main difference was that when I was on the Beaverhead it was much more difficult to cast sling shot the heavy junk with a fly rod. The line between chucking gear and fly fishing began to blur as I pondered a distinct overlap in fishing methods. Also reminiscent of the Beaverhead was that my buddies were catching more fish than I was.
Throughout the course of the day we laughed, pitched each other a healthy ration of crap, drank cheap beer that thankfully Jawn had brought along instead of that fancy micro stuff, and generally had a great time. There was also a particular beverage supplied by Red Pig known as Fireball which was effective in keeping the chill at bay. Catching fish was secondary to the largely juvenile antics comradery of the day, and while perhaps the catching was not red-hot, 9 fish were landed, not including Red Pig’s 2 white fish or Bryan’s belly-hooked sucker.
There were a couple of cute little 25″ fish caught, but most were of a respectable size, with the largest being 34+ inches. These were not the dime-bright coastal fish of western Washington rivers that I always catch on a swung fly, but they were impressive fish that had run several hundred miles inland from the salt. I marveled at the size of the tails on these fish: they were well suited for their long commutes. Adding to our good fortunes of the day, every fish hooked was landed. All were fin-clipped hatchery brats (or as my friend Joe Willauer so eloquently describes them: pond monkeys). On other words, at the end of the day we had a generous amount of fish in the cooler and a few empty beer cans to unload from the boat.
True to form, at the end of the day I was out-fished by everyone, even the hacks Micro and Red Pig, who aren’t regular fishermen. My four fishing compadres each landed two fish while I brought up the rear with one. But mine was the biggest, almost. Only two others taped out longer.
We all agreed that this needs to become an annual event, so plans are already being laid for next year’s adventure. Between now and then I’ll fish with a fly, drink cheap beer, and remind myself that fishing is all about the experience and the memories created. When the second annual trip rolls around, I’ll set aside my fly rod and take on the role of a gear chucker– it’s good to see how the other half lives. From what I saw on this first trip, it ain’t so different from fly fishing.
I want to publicly thank Jawn for putting this trip together: he’s a wonderful guy and a generous host. In fact he’s generous nearly to a fault, insisting on picking up the tip for our guide and the cost of our out of state licenses. He also put us up up with us for two nights in his home, and kept us well fed and hydrated. Jawn is the type of guy that will do anything for a friend, so I’m going to submit a reimbursement request for the cost of my gas to drive the 656.1 mile round trip (yes, I have receipts).