clearwater River steelhead fishing

A mid-winter taste of skunk

For the third year in a row I drove cross-state in the middle of winter to my buddy Jawn’s home in Lewiston, ID to partake of the annual Clearwater River Debauchery: Steelhead & Fireball & PBRfest. That’s not the official name of the event, but it is rather descriptive.

Year One

The first year the event drew a relatively small crowd of respectable drinkers anglers. Plenty of fish were caught this first year: 9 total and all were hatchery fish that ended up in the cooler. My math skills aren’t the best, but by my reckoning that was dangerously close to two fish apiece. And if you count a couple whitefish and a belly-hooked sucker, we actually caught more than two fish per angler. Like a riveting pilot episode for a would-be TV series, this first trip ensured that we’d be back for a second season. The key aspect of this first tour was that nobody got skunked.

Year Two

The next year saw a dramatic increase in the size of the event, as a second boat was added to accommodate what would be a total of 9 anglers drinkers. I’d love to be able to give more details from the trip but it wouldn’t be fair to those in attendance. And I can’t remember much of it anyway. I do know that the catch rate was respectable and only one of those in attendance got skunked (and it wasn’t me). In contrast to the first year, most of the fish caught were wild unclipped fish which had to be thrown back. Still, we took a few fish home and it was someone other than myself that would carry the weight of the Skunkopotamus on their shoulders for a year.

Year Three

The third year proved to be yet another unique adventure as we added yet another newcomer to the mix, as well as a returning cast member from the premier season (who did not attend the second year). With 11 anglers on two boats it would be a tall order to fill everyone’s steelhead tags. Despite several rather tall chaps on board (excluding of course, myself), the order proved too tall and far fewer fish were caught this year. In fact the skunk was tasted by two anglers this year, myself included. I could spout all sorts of reasons, including a lack of rain to bring fresh fish up the river, too much angling pressure, cheap beer, poor reflexes and bad boat driving, but most of those reasons would be inaccurate. Particularly the part about the poor boat driving: our guides are top-notch. If you’re ever looking for a good outfitter, check out Hells Canyon Sport Fishing. Anyone who does any amount of fishing knows that success is not guaranteed, and skunks happen. But every guide does their best to put every guest on a fish. And therein lies an opportunity…

Unaccomplished Outfitters & Guide Services

I’m pondering starting my own guide business and doing something a little different: Unaccomplished Outfitters & Guide Services, where the motto will be: “We can’t guarantee you a skunk, but we’ll do our damnedest.” The one problem standing in my way of this dream is that I’m reasonably confident that I should never be allowed to receive a boat license for a motorized vessel on moving water. Drift boats are one thing, but add a couple hundred horses attached to the stern and…well, I’m fairly certain I’m better off just fishing. Scratch that idea.

Before we wrap things up I’d like to give a big shout out to the local Pabst Blue Ribbon distributor in Lewiston for the “sponsorship” swag. They supplied us with lawn chairs, bottle openers, beer koozies, t-shirts and hats; all nice stuff which added a touch of class to our event. I know what you’re thinking:  You want that hat. Stay tuned—there may be a chance to win it!

The Emotional Fishing Hangover

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a great weekend fishing trip will know what I’m talking about with the title of this entry. You’ve returned home from a weekend that was months in the planning and thus filled with extreme anticipation. Expectations were handily exceeded, and everything about the trip was an adventure. But now it’s over and you’re emotionally spent, because it was that great of a trip.

In this instance, the trip was the second annual Clearwater River trip with a group of college buddies. The trip this year was expanded to include additional characters and the result was something that I never thought possible after last year, when the bar was set pretty high: it was even better this year.  Not only was the day of fishing exceptional, there was more to the trip that made it extra special. It was a trip that very well might not have happened.

In the days leading up to the departure date, Mother Nature dealt a blow that attempted to alter my plans. The Pacific Northwest became the recipient of a winter storm beat down that, while arriving later than usual, came with a near knockout punch. A few inches of snow fell, then more. Schools were closed for 4 days. The snow shovel became a familiar daily tool. The Honda Rancher with the plow blade saw active duty for several days in a row, ensuring that we and our neighbors could escape the grips of a fairly steep road that was entrenched in snow; snow that has a certain high-level of water content that resembles concrete when it accumulates on the ground. One neighbor was so appreciative after I cleared their driveway for the second time that they brought me $20 for gas and a bottle of wine.  I’d have preferred an 18 pack of PBR, but I appreciated the thoughtful gesture all the same.

The insurance policy I love to have and love to use.

Over the course of the week, tree branches and whole trees came down. Across power lines. Just not our power lines. Hundreds of thousands of homes in the region were without power, but somehow we dodged a bullet of sorts (knock on wood). With the fishing trip weighing heavily on my mind, I watched the weather forecast with great interest. Depending on the news source the worst was either behind us or it wasn’t. Being a man who is not one to shirk my responsibilities, I informed Mrs. UA that I would not go on the Clearwater trip if the power was out. No man worth his salt would  leave behind to those he loves just to venture off on a fishing trip. There are things more important than fishing. On the day before our scheduled departure, with the worst of the storm hopefully behind us, I was confident that we would not lose power. Then came the sucker punch: freezing rain which added to the weight of 8-10 inches of already heavy snow. And so at midnight on Thursday, the house went dark. When we awoke on Friday morning (the day of departure for the Clearwater) the house was chillier than normal. There were no telltale flashing digital clocks to indicate that the power was back on. I immediately went into survival mode: the first order of business was to get  the generator hooked up and running, followed by the coffee maker.

The insurance policy I love to have and hate to use.

In the next few hours, our emergency heat source slowly took the chill off the house, bringing the inside temperature up to a cozy 67 degrees (fahrenheit). There were two, 5 gallon containers of gas to keep the generator in business for at least a couple days, but later that day I would send my son, Schpanky, to the neighboring town to secure another several gallons of fuel for good measure. The refrigerator would run to insure that food was not spoiled. The well would continue to pump water so that nobody would fall victim to dehydration. The septic system would remain functional so that toilets could continue to be used. If the power were to remain out of service for a few more days we they would be all right.

And so I loaded my gear into the back of Lenrod’s Suburban and off we went on our long, adventurous drive to Idaho. We would encounter considerably more snow and freezing rain as we made the 370 mile trip across the state. We would arrive 2 hours later than intended, but we would arrive safely. There would be much rejoicing and celebration as old friends were reunited and glasses were raised in many toasts. There would be stories told, behavior unbecoming middle-aged men engaged in, and many fish caught. There would be serious fun had, and there would be a perilous return journey over a mountain pass still gripped in a winter storm. I would return to a home that was back on the power grid, with a cooler full of meat to feed my family during the remaining months of winter that lie ahead. After all, I am not one to take my responsibilities lightly.

All that remains of a once beautiful snowfall.

Upon waking to this particular Monday, I feel physically fine but emotionally I am drained. A week of invigorating weather, during which I felt very much alive, has given way to a bland feeling that accompanies the calm after the storm. School is back in session and Mrs. UA is back at work. The ATV is tucked away in the garage and the snow shovel has been traded for the poop scooper. A memorable fishing trip is now but a memory. It feels too calm, and as I reflect on the drama of the past week that peaked with a great fishing trip, it could be easy to be left feeling a bit gloomy, as if there’s nothing left to look forward to. But a quick glance in the mirror reminds me otherwise: I still have the continuing progress of the beard to keep me going.

Depending on who you are, it just keeps getting better.