fly fishing for steelhead
This is Part I of III. At the time of this writing Part II has not yet been written, but Part III has been, in case you
dismissed it last week. (Editor’s Note: Since this article was first published, Part II has also been published)
We departed Seattle on a DeHavilland Bombardier. I only mention the type of plane because a UA reader by the name of “Wade” commented on a recent post, proclaiming surprise that we were not flying on a Horizon/Alaska jet from Sea-Tac to Boise. No, Wade—it was indeed a turbo prop as evidenced by the photo above. The pleasant, one-hour flight sure beat what would otherwise have been an 8-9 hour drive. Our limo picked us up at the airport and whisked us away on the next leg of our journey: A 6 hour drive to Victor, ID.
Air travel, limousines…livin’ large! Actually it wasn’t quite a limo that greeted us at the airport—it was one of Marck’s daughters who attends Boise State, and we commandeered her car for the rest of our trip. It was amazing that we got 4 guys and all their gear into the 1999 Nissan Maxima for the uneventful drive across Idaho. There’s not a lot between Boise and Victor worth mentioning anyway, except for Silver Creek—which we would visit on the last leg of our fishing journey (Part III). But I’m getting ahead of myself by mentioning Silver Creek. Or am I getting behind? It’s so confusing to write outside of chronological order…George Lucas did so with his Star Wars trilogy and it worked for him, so why not? Sorry, where were we?
Victor served as our base camp from which we would fish the South and Henry’s Forks of the Snake River over the next two days. Actually “base camp” may be a bit misleading because we were hardly camping. In fact, we stayed in the lavish accommodations at Teton Springs Lodge. Now, before you start judging us harshly for being high-brow traveling anglers, take note: Morris had won a couple nights’ free stay at the Lodge in a raffle a year before at the Casting 4 A Cure event held in the same location. So while we were poshly pampered, we did so for less than what we typically pay at the Ho Hum in West Yellowstone. Anyway, we were here to fish—not marvel at our accommodations. A bed is merely a place to sleep. If there’s a shower, that’s a bonus but not necessarily a requirement.
We met with our guides, Hope Strong and Zach Barrett, at the Worldcast Anglers shop at 8 am. It was determined that we’d be fishing section 4 (Byington to Lorenzo), so off we went. I presented Hope with an Unaccomplished Angler hat and the request that if he didn’t want to wear it, would he at least pose for a photo? Off came his other hat and on went the UA Trucker, where it remained all day long except for twice when it blew off in the w#nd. Hope retrieved it both times with an urgency that suggested he had developed a strong fondness for the hat. That, or he just wanted the protection from the sun.
After a 45 minute drive in Hope’s road-weary early 90’s era Ford Bronco, we were on the water by 9 AM. Mostly clear skies and calm air welcomed us as we commenced our float. It wouldn’t rain, but the w#nd would become problematic during the afternoon. I’d fished two other sections of the South Fork two years prior so this wasn’t completely new water to me, and our angling antics were pretty much what I expected: nymphing a variety of droppers under a “turd” (Pat’s rubber legs). Sometimes a 3-nymph setup, AKA “tangles.” Other times we hopelessly fished streamers in water that begged for it but seemed devoid of fish. We hoped hoppers would rise a fish and yet they yielded nothing. Lest you should think that we got skunked, we did catch fish, though catching was far from red-hot. To make things more interesting we had an inter-boat contest going for the categories of first fish, biggest fish, smallest fish and most fish. Morris and Marck comprised Team Dishonesty; Jimmy and I represented Team Integrity (yes, Jimmy drew the short stick and was paired with the short angler).
It’s a given that Marck always catches the most fish, and while there is no way to know for sure how many he caught, it’s a safe assumption that he won that category. However, Jimmy was first on the board with a beautiful, heavily-spotted and respectable brown. There’s no refuting that because I was there to confirm it.
Morris probably won the biggest fish with his heavily spotted beauty of a rainbow, the proof being in the pudding (or, rather, the photo):
Throughout the day our boat had a handful of 16-18 inch browns. Had there been a category for doubles we’d have won that, too. Or at least Jimmy would have, as I offered very little when it came to categorized catching. I know with extreme certainty that Team Dishonesty did not have any doubles:
My best trout was a monster brown until it was brought to the net to reveal its much smaller size. I’d been deceived: A belly-hooked fish will do that to an angler. I’d hoped for a photo but it was tossed back into the river before I could ready my camera. I’m pretty sure it would have still won biggest fish.
Barring a photo as evidence of the would-be winning brown, my next best fish was a fine Snake River Whitefish. It should count for something—certainly largest native species, right?
As indicated earlier, the contest results could never be accurately tallied due to dishonest accounting from the other boat. All that is known for certain is that both boats landed fish—not an overabundance, if there is such a thing, and certainly less than we’d hoped—but it was a fine day of angling under mostly sunny, warm skies. It threatened, but we managed to avoid thunderstorms which was particularly good fortune for Morris, who’d
accidentally knowingly left his waders back home. And nobody enjoys waving a 9 foot graphite stick in the air when electricity abounds.
The one thing we could have done without was the w#nd, which blew. It always blows, but it really blows when it blows when you’re fly fishing. Nothing much you can do about that but angle on, which we did. A still photo cannot properly capture the drama of bending cottonwoods, billowing shirts, and fly lines blown off course, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. You can trust me: I was a member of Team Integrity, remember?
We got off the water at 6 and made our way back to Victor for some exceptional BBQ at Scratch. After a good soak in the hot tub (another nicety missing at the Ho Hum) we hit the hay at a respectable hour. We contemplated hitting the golf course ponds with some mouse patterns under the 3/4 moon, but decided we’d save our energy for the next day. After all, we’d need to bring our angling A games to the Henry’s Fork, so a good night’s rest was in order.
At least Team Integrity slept well that night. A clear conscience will allow for that.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Catatonia. Sounds a bit like Patagonia. You’ll find Patagonia by getting to Chile. I found Catatonia by getting chilly (sorry, that was admittedly pretty lame). I’ve never been nor will I ever likely get to South America, but as far as Catatonia, I’ve already “been there”. It is not a fly fishing destination.
Now you may be saying, “Hold on there, son – catatonia ain’t even a place!” and you would be partially correct because it’s not a location that has GPS coordinates. But it is a place where you can go. Catatonia is defined as a being in a rigid unresponsive stupor. Been there. In worst cases it can be a form of schizophrenia characterized by a tendency to remain in a fixed stuporous state for long periods. Done that. Whether or not clinically diagnosed, I did question my sanity on a recent fishing trip with my buddy, Large Albacore.
I was awake before my alarm went off at 4 AM. As I rolled out of bed and attempted to assume a vertical position it became instantly apparent that I must have done some heavy lifting during the hours that I was asleep because I had managed to throw out my lower back (I swear to you that when I went to bed the night before I felt fine). I was able to get dressed and in a mostly upright manner made it to the breakfast table where I slammed down a hearty offering of sausage, eggs and Aleve. We loaded our gear into Albacore’s pickup truck, which had tires that were admittedly in dire need of replacing – especially with winter approaching. However, there was only a 40% chance of some snow in the forecast so my offer to drive the Fish Taco was declined. There was a light snow falling, but roads were bare and wet, and Large Albacore, in all his 6’8″ glory, fits more easily into his full-size Chevy than he does a 2003 Toyota Tacoma. A few miles into our commute north we found ourselves on snow-covered roads with visibility that was greatly reduced thanks to blowing snow. Fortunately the headlights of the car behind us, which insisted on following at a distance of about 15 feet, helped to create a glare which greatly aided in our ability to see the road ahead.
Why we were headed into what appeared to be a snowstorm to go fishing can be blamed on me. Thanks to scheduling conflicts I had been forced to turn down 3 different invitations to partake of steelhead outings during the fall. As a consequence I was suffering from a serious lack of fishing and found myself desperate. Albacore was generous enough to accommodate my begging and pleading, and so we found ourselves on a two lane highway in blizzard at 5:30 in the morning.
When we arrived at our destination, 4-5 inches of fresh snow covered everything and it appeared to be accumulating at an alarming rate. Since there was a 60% chance that this wasn’t supposed to be happening, I assumed the snow would stop soon, warm up and melt. I also thought that since Albacore had been here a week prior and caught three steelhead, the fishing might be pretty productive. Put that thought on ice for now.
By the time I got my wading boots laced and tied I was unable to move, and for a few seconds remained bent-over while my back decided whether or not I would be allowed to resume an upright position. After we had strung up our rods my fingers were painfully approaching a state of numbness. I commented on the fact that I was glad I wasn’t trying to tie on a size 22 Griffith’s Gnat because that would have required a level of dexterity that was missing. Always the voice of reason, Albacore pointed out that it wouldn’t have been an effective pattern to be fishing, either. We paused for a few minutes with hands tucked into our pockets in a vain attempt to warm our fingers before heading toward the river. I wanted nothing more than to get a move-on, but the body just wouldn’t cooperate. Not wanting to appear weak, I took a deep breath through clenched teeth and lifted one leg over the guard rail. The pain was tolerable so I gingerly rolled the other leg over. With two Spey rods and a Meat Pole rigged up we somehow managed to descend the steep trail and avoid sliding on our arses. Snow-covered large rocks made for precarious footing, and each step was carefully placed to avoid sudden jerky movements which might cause my lower back to spasm in pain. Every third step or so resulted in lower back spasms. I convinced myself that once we reached the river’s edge, where each rock would reveal itself, everything would be OK. Destination accomplished, we began fishing. “You first,” instructed Albacore.
My first few casts were characteristically unimpressive, but functional. Then began a series of failed casts that could only be described as deplorable. My hands, by now without feeling and further hindered by the gloves that impeded line control, inadvertently allowed my running line to slip while in the motion of the forward stroke. The results were casts that piled up pathetically at a distance of about 15 feet from the end of my Spey rod. After the second or third of such occurrences I just stood as if frozen (literally and figuratively) in a state of mental and physical numbness: Catatonia. “I hate fishing with gloves!” I yelled in Albacore’s upstream direction. “I hate cold hands more than fishing with gloves!” replied the voice of reason. I summoned my inner Navy Seal, regrouped and made a mental note to not let that happen again, which of course it did. In between botched casts I was able to swing the fly through water that should have held steelhead. In fact I’m sure that it did hold steelhead, but the fish were simply unable to move toward the fly as they hovered near the bottom in a state of suspended animation: Catatonia. I came to this conclusion after an hour of working through what is normally a very productive run. Albacore fished through behind me and had nary a bump as well. Not even the Meat Pole was capable of producing any action.
With the air temperature in the upper 20’s and the water a balmy 38.5 degrees F, I realize these conditions didn’t define cold in the way that, say, steelhead anglers from the Great Lakes might define cold. Those folks would surely laugh at us for complaining whining. All I can say is that at least our steelhead are really steelhead. We were dressed for the weather, and with the exception of hands and toes that had lost all circulation, for a short while I was actually quite comfortable as long as I didn’t make and sudden movements or twist the wrong way or lose my footing on a slippery river rock or cough—any of which would result in lower back spasms. When the body starts to get cold, a little dynamic movement can do wonders to get the blood circulating. When a little dynamic movement is out of the question due to a spastic lower back, cold sets it more readily. When the body gets cold, muscles begin to tighten up. My lower back was already tight, so it just got tighter. Guides on the Spey rod were icing up every so often, requiring that the ice be chipped away with the only tool suited to the task: fingers. It’s amazing to me that pain can be felt even when complete numbness has set in.
After a couple of hours we decided to move on to another stretch of water, which was really just an excuse to sit inside the truck and warm up a bit. As we drove to our next destination the snow kept falling and the roads became increasingly more slippery, something we were reminded of given the state of the worn tires on the Chevy. Even with 4 wheel drive we had to chose our next parking spot very carefully: the thought of having to ask one of the locals for a tow was too unsavory to imagine. Had that happened I could have at least blamed Albacore and reminded him that we could have driven the Fish Taco. And he could have kicked my ass, too. Fortunately neither occurred, and I begrudgingly climbed out of the truck at our next stop.
For the next two hours we worked our way methodically through more water that undoubtedly held scores of catatonic fish that were willing but unable to move to our swung flies. It turned out to be a good thing that I didn’t hook up with a fish because my running line was completely frozen in iced-up guides, and my reel began to freeze up as well. Efforts to chip away at the ice were futile and it got to the point where all I could do was cast the 24 feet of Compact Skagit shooting head. At one point I found myself standing knee deep in a freezing river, so cold that as my fly settled into the hang-down, my mind became frozen as I drifted into a mental void. I had no idea how long I’d stood there when I heard Albacore’s voice, “Check out the eagle!” Flying overhead at a distance of less than 50 feet was a Bald Eagle headed south. Probably to Arizona, I thought. The idea made me smile, then laugh. Then my back went into another spasm.
While hardware malfunctions seemed to indicate that conditions were at their worst, the snow did begin to taper and I could even feel the air temperature starting to warm a bit. For those who have ever had their fingers go completely numb, you know that the warming process – before it gets better – gets worse. As my hands began to thaw, the stinging pain became acute. Fortunately my feet were still completely devoid of sensation because I like to give one source of pain my full and undivided attention. While distracted by the searing pain in my finger I took an errant step on a particularly slick rock that resulted in the mother of all lower back spasms. For a few moments I could barely manage to breath. Somehow I was able to stagger to the nearest boulder, where I sat down and hoped a brain aneurism would take me right then and there. After sitting motionless for a short while I made my way delicately upstream past Albacore, who seemed to be enjoying himself almost as much as I was. Without the need to exchange words it was mutually agreed that the time of death would be called: 10:47 AM. Rigor mortis had already set in. Welcome to Catatonia.
I am not a snob, but I am stubborn. When I go trout fishing I tend to like throwing dry flies, not because I’m some sort of snooty highbrow angler of considerable cultural refinement, but rather because of my German heritage. And it’s that Kraut stubbornness that finds me staring obvious fact straight in the face and refusing to comply. It’s a commonly known fact that fish take 99.999% of their meals under the surface. The other .001% of the time they will take a surface fly – not out of hunger, but to mess with the heads of anglers like me (seeing a fish take a swipe at my fly gives me a false sense of confidence in myself as a fisherman). It makes obvious sense to put one’s fly where fish do the majority of their shopping, and armed with this knowledge most any angler will either adapt, or face a skunking. That’s where my stubborn nature comes into play: I know I could catch more fish if I would change my ways, but I derive great pleasure in seeing a fish rise and take the fly. Though not out of snobbery, but because chances are I will miss the hook set, fail to keep a tight line, or violate some other Cardinal Rule for fighting a fish. At least with dry fly fishing I get to see the fish before I lose it. And I believe the fish enjoy the sport of it as well.
Due to the fact that I’m a very visual person, I’ve never much enjoyed fishing nymph rigs under a strike indicator. When one signs over their life to fly fishing, one of the first things they seek is to throw beautiful tight loops. Sexy loops, if you will. When chucking nymph rigs, it involves intentionally sloppy, open loop upstream casts. Instead of gentle fluidity, nymphing mandates that one aggressively throw stack mends into the line. And then you sit back and watch the indicator as it bobs downstream, all the while trying to detect a subtle change in the indicator’s “action” (a blatant oxymoron if there ever was one). This has always held the same appeal for me as watching paint dry or being a roadside flagger on a deserted highway. Nymphing is called “dead-drifting” or a reason, and frankly I prefer to feel somewhat alive when I fish. Because of that I have always held the position that no matter how effective others say nymph fishing is, there’s more to fishing than catching fish. I don’t mind stripping a streamer from time to time, particularly if it’s an olive woolly bugger, because at least one is engaged in the action of actually working the fly. But there’s something about a dead-drifting nymph dangling under a strike indicator that reminds me too much of childhood excursions spent passively sitting in a boat on a lake with an actual bobber, waiting impatiently for a trout to take the worm hanging deep below the surface. Out of sight. Another part of the equation is that casting an indicator and two flies joined together by a length of tippet is a good recipe for a nasty case of the tangles. And I have enough trouble as it is with a single fly. At any rate, I want to make it very clear that I’m no snob. I’m merely quagmired in a status of quo – unwilling to adapt to fishing a method that catches fish. Besides, if I started catching a lot of fish, I’d have nothing to write about.
Now, nymphing for steelhead is something I’d never done before prior to a recent trip. I’ve begrudgingly fished nymphs for trout several times, but the only steelheading I’d done (admittedly not much) involved swinging streamers. And so on this trip with my college buddy, Large Albacore (not his real nickname), we were doing just that: Swinging streamers with our Spey rods on a river in north central Washington. Weeks leading up to the trip were spent salivating over widespread reports of record steelhead numbers (something like 475,000 fish) returning over the many dams on the Columbia River. These fish were headed into the many tributary rivers along the way, and unfortunately I misinterpreted this as meaning that catching would be pretty good. It’s not often that I anticipate plentiful catching when I go after fish, but this time was an exception.
Admittedly most of these returning fish were of hatchery origins, but for those of us who are unfortunate enough to call western Washington home (where the dismal numbers of steelhead returning to our Puget Sound rivers are a troubling reality) these bloated figures were more than a good enough reason to travel across the mountains to visit the welcoming anglers from the dry side of our state. A river ripe with prospective steelhead attracts angling folks in a similar way that opossums attracts vehicle tires, and while I felt a little guilty to be part of the problem, I quickly got over it. With so many fish in this river, surely none of the locals would mind if I came over and caught a few of their surplus hatchery brats. As a gift to these parched folks I brought with me some much-needed rain, arriving with my Spey rod, an assortment of colorful streamers and a tent that would prove to leak horribly. I was ready to get it on.
But back to the point about nymphing, or more specifically, fishing “dirty” as Large Albacore refers to it. It’s bad enough to be fishing with a nymph setup, but unthinkably shameful when using a plastic bead egg as a dropper “fly”. So maligned is nymphing for steelhead that a recent thread on the very popular Washington Fly Fishing online forum saw 24 pages of heated discussion about nymphing. You see, Albacore is a man of some refinement: He enjoys a fine cigar, a good glass of wine, a quality beer, and an appropriately aged single malt. As far as the single malt goes, he enjoys it as both a beverage and as a wader deodorant (a story for another time perhaps). I, on the other hand, never evolved past the cheap cigars and union-made swill we enjoyed in college (some 25 years earlier). We do share a common viewpoint of nymphing, however, and agree that swinging streamers with a Spey rod is the preferred method of steelhead angling.
I’ve been told that it is not an uncommon practice for an angler to catch a steelhead on a dirty nymph rig, only to remove the unsightly tackle from the fish’s mouth before snapping a photo. At least I’ve heard of this taking place.
Over the course of 2 1/2 days we fished hard: Up at 5:15, on the water from sun-up until mid-day, with a quick break for a bite to eat and a cold beverage of one’s choosing. During this brief fishing reprieve I would also take the opportunity to soak up as much water from inside my tent as possible (praise be to the Sham-Wow I’d packed in my duffel bag). Then we were back at it until it was time for the evening meal and fireside chat to talk about how swinging streamers was a preferred method of fishing for steelhead. We also grumbled about how crowded the river was and bemoaned the slow fishing. Steelhead fishermen know that steelhead are the fish of 1000 casts, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Not on this trip.
As it turns out, according to intelligence provided to us by a state fisheries employee logging catch rates on this river, only about 25% of the returning fish had entered this particular section of the river. The other 75% were stacked-up in the closed lower section of the river, waiting, I assumed, for me to return home before heading upstream en masse. Because of this, the hookups were few and far between, and the number of fish landed even fewer. Given the number of anglers who had descended upon this river on this particular weekend (the nerve of them to do so anyway), we felt lucky just to find a spot to fish. When we were fortunate to find a roadside pullout not occupied by another vehicle, we skidded to a halt and rejoiced at our good fortune. Every run we approached gave us new hope, even if it had just been pounded by other fishermen moments before our arrival. And each time we would start out by swinging flies with our Spey rods, working every run twice through. When that yielded no interest from fish, out would come the “Meat Pole” (Albacore’s Sage XP 896 rigged with a Thingamabobber looped above a stonefly nymph residing above a bead egg with trailing hook). It resembled the hardware that a Icehouse-guzzling gear fisherman might be chucking from his lawn chair on the bank of the river (by the way, there’s nothing wrong with Icehouse or gear fishing). The only difference was that we were presenting our offering with a fly rod, and we weren’t sitting in a lawn chair (and the cheap beer was back at camp in my cooler).
Upon hearing the first declaration that it was time to “get dirty” I balked. I was here to swing – not fish with a bobber. Being the visual angler than I am, I just couldn’t see fishing a nymph rig so I politely declined and went about swinging. At least by fishing in this manner I got ample opportunity to work on my Spey casting, which is always in need of more practice. As I threw unsightly casts that emanated from disfigured D-loops, I glanced over my shoulder and saw Albacore with a bend in the Meat Pole. I reeled in my line and dashed upstream to watch him land the fish. Albacore has never been one to speak in a manner that is anything other than direct and honest, and so he was blunt in his admission that it pissed him off to have to fish this way, because he’d never had to resort to this manner of angling on this river before. He was equally honest in stating that he would be even more pissed off if he didn’t catch a fish. With size 15 wading boots, Albacore is not a guy that you want stomping around in a foul mood. Catching this first fish insured the safety of everyone back at camp that evening, and I breathed a long sigh of relief.
After pulling that first fish out of the same run we’d just covered diligently with our Spey rods, Albacore handed me the Meat Pole and told me to have a go at it. I looked over my shoulder to make sure nobody was watching, and within a few minutes proceeded to catch my first steelhead of the trip. And so began a pattern that persisted for the remainder of the trip: Work a run twice with our Spey rods before grabbing the Meat Pole, going dirty, and catching a fish. Did we catch a fish nymphing each run? No–but it was the only method that produced hookups, and our Spey rods gently wept in silence from the riverbank.
Prior to this trip I had only caught one steelhead before, so simply catching another was a thrill for me. Would I rather have caught the fish on my Spey rod? Absolutely. However, employing this dirty method of fishing I felt very fortunate to have hooked 2 fish and landed one. I would have landed two, but someone’s left-handed reflexes proved too slow for even a hatchery slug, and the fish, lying at my feet in 2 inches of water, got away before someone (who shall remain anonymous) could tail it. The established trend is that everyone I fish with out-catches me, so it should come as no surprise that Large Albacore faired better. Besides, he’s a much better fisherman than I am. Collectively, the total number of fish caught swinging with the Spey rods: 0. Total fish caught fishing dirty: 4, or maybe 5. What I came to accept on this trip is that nymphing catches fish, even though swinging flies is still the preferred method of preserving our dignity: Swing first; fish dirty as a last resort to save face completely. And if both methods result in a skunk, fall back on the comfort of knowing that there’s more to fishing than catching fish.
By the way, I recently picked up a used Sage XP 8 weight. Now what am I going to do with that?
While I’ve got your attention, I wanted to publicly express gratitude to Bob White for some recent kind words posted in his weekly “Thursday Morning Art Review” newsletter. Bob is a very accomplished fine artist whose work is well known in the fly fishing world. His beautiful paintings accompany the writing of John Gierach (an accomplished angler and author) in each issue of Fly Rod & Reel. Among other beautiful offerings, they have a line of “Small Fry” cards that are really nice. I picked up a couple sets this year which prompted me to actually grab a pen and write notes to people. Please take a moment to visit Bob’s website: Whitefish Studios. Thanks for the support, Bob and Lisa!
(I’ve been accused – mostly by Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler – of having a tendency, as it were, to employ the excessive use of run-on sentences in my writing, and so to that end I have decided to try something different: To change my ways – please bear with me.)
We pulled up to the gravel bar. We anchored the boat. It was a cool gray (or grey) February morning on the Sauk River. We were just downriver a short ways from Government Bridge. It was probably raining lightly. I’d never been on the Sauk before. I was in the capable hands of Brian Paige. Brian guides on Pacific Northwest “S” rivers. These include rivers such as the Skagit, Sauk, and Skykomish. I don’t think he’s quite gotten the Sammamish Slough dialed in just yet. He may be working it (insert sarcasm here).
(OK, that’s not working for me, but I tried, and it’s always good to try something new, if only to determine that the old ways were, in fact, better. Or at least more effective.)
When he’s not guiding, scouting or fishing for his own peace of mind, Brian can be found doing time behind the counter at All About The Fly in Monroe, WA. Actually, “doing time” might be a poor choice of words because there’s also a state prison in Monroe, and as far as I can tell, Brian is free to come and go as he pleases. Anyhoo, I’d met Brian the year before when a mutual friend (I’ll call him William Fly – not his real name) introduced us. We stood to mutually benefit from the introduction: Brian needed a logo designed for his guide business, Steelhead Fly Anglers, and I was a freelance graphic designer (still am) interested in learning the ways of the two-handed rod (still interested). Over lunch and a beer it was decided that I’d design him a logo in exchange for some time on the water slinging a two-hander. Good trade for both of us, although I’m reasonably sure I got the better end of the deal: Brian was easy to work with, while conversely I think I tested his patience. The month was January when Brian first got me out on the Skykomish River for a day of casting instruction (and the distant hope of a hookup with a winter fish). I’d fished for steelhead enough times with my 8 weight single hander to know that catching was the exception to the rule, and to that end I was not disappointed on this first day out with Brian. The chance encounter with a fish didn’t happen, but l learned more in a day about steelhead, fly presentation and Spey casting than I could have learned in a lifetime of reading books and articles or watching DVDs. I feel compelled to note that I did purchase a copy of Rio’s Modern Spey Casting DVD and have found it to be excellent (I watch it whenever I want to see how it should be done). I also discovered on this first outing that swinging the long rod was an awful lot of fun (and served up with a heaping portion of humble pie). It was obviously going to take me a long while to get used to it, and the fact that I felt reasonably proficient with a normal fly rod didn’t mean squat (see prior post: If you don’t Spey, don’t start)
And so a few weeks later I found myself on the banks of the Sauk River with still very little idea as to what I was doing with this long rod gripped tightly with both hands (and therein lies part of the problem – I need to learn to relax and loosen my grip a bit). I was properly rigged with a red and black marabou streamer provided courtesy of Brian (when you fish with Brian, black and red is the go-to combination, with the exception of course being red and black). “Start fishing about 60 feet below the boat, and fish close to shore first,” instructed Brian as we stepped onto the gravel bar. I did as I was told, which worked well for me because I really wasn’t capable of more than a short cast anyway. “Cover the tight water first.” Roger that. The plan was for me to molest the run first and Brian would drop in behind me and pick my pocket. I peeled the length of the Compact Skagit head from the reel, and laid out a very unimpressive switch Spey. I gave it a quick mend and let the fly swing in the current of the reasonably clear waters. It should be noted that the Sauk clouds quickly and easily after a rain, but we hit it on a day when the water was nicely colored with a few feet of visibility. As the fly settled into the “hang down” I pondered how the day might turn out. Word on the street was that it hadn’t been a particularly productive winter steelhead season to date, and these fish were hard to catch regardless. Add to the equation the fact that I was a hack (still am), I stood very little chance and held out virtually no hope of catching a fish. No matter, I was here to practice casting and there would be plenty of that. It was all good. There’s more to fishing than catch– well, you know the drill.
Standing knee-deep not 10 feet from the water’s edge, the tip of my rod dipped gently and I felt a bit of tension in the line. Naturally I assumed that my fly had hung up on a rock, but something felt a little different – I’d hung up on rocks enough to sense that this was no rock. Maybe a stick, instead. Remaining uncharacteristically calm, I laid the tip of my rod toward shore and that’s when it became clear to me that there was a fish on the other end. I forget precisely the exchange of wordsthat passed between us, but I seem to recall Brian saying something about “FISH!!!” I jumped to the assumption that it was a Dolly Varden – common to these waters – until the fish rolled near the surface and presented a dark, olive-colored backside and a flash of silver flank. “Steelhead!” declared Brian. He was certainly enthusiastic, whereas I remained seemingly calm, in much the same way that a deer in the headlights appears calm (when in all actuality they’re so scared they simply can’t move to save themselves). Sensing the significance of the moment, I pumped myself up with a good pep talk: “Alright, Jackass – do not lose this fish – given your fishing prowess you’ll likely never get another chance like this.” With me, fishing is nearly always about the ill-fated pursuit of elusive fish: I wade often in the shadow of a dark cloud of fishless despair. But as I began playing the fish the clouds parted, figuratively and literally.
I entered into what seemed in retrospect to be something of a dream state: A dream in which a dime bright wild steelhead, still oozing with salt and harboring sea lice, comes to the stark realization that it’s hooked and immediately freaks out and does it’s very best to put maximum distance between itself and the angler who is also freaking out. The fish takes off downstream, leaping and tail-walking and generally displaying impressive aerobatics. The reel sings and the drag is pushed to its limits. The fish is running as if shot from a cannon and takes the angler deep into their backing: The angler realizes that this is why reels are loaded with a half mile of the stuff – because with a fish like this, the backing is actually needed for more than just filling up the spool and reducing fly line memory. The steelhead angler sprints downstream at breakneck speeds, across ankle-twisting river rocks and wader-shredding fallen trees in an attempt to keep up with the fish. The fish is hell-bent on getting back to the salt and doing so in double time, and if that means dragging a fisherman along for the ride, so be it.
Yeah, well this was not quite how my experience played out. There were no acrobatics or drag-smoking runs, nor did my wading boots see double duty as track shoes. My backing never left the spool, though the fish did take line from the reel at will. Thankfully the drag on the Ross was smooth and proved worthy, and eventually I managed to steer the fish toward the shallows, where Brian was able to tail it and quickly remove the barbless hook. It was a beautiful native hen in the neighborhood of 32 inches and an estimated 14 pounds (these were, by the way, Brian’s estimations and not mine, so if you have an issue with the accuracy, please contact Brian through his website). Chrome bright she was not, but I’d like to think that she hadn’t been in the river for too long. While the fight was perhaps not quite the epic struggle one envisions, I have to give the old girl credit: She bore scars indicative of a close call with a gill net, and she’d likely made a fast run up the Skagit and into the Sauk: Who wouldn’t be a bit tired after all that? She’d beaten the odds in an era when fewer and fewer wild Puget Sound steelhead survive the round trip to the rivers of their birth. As I released her back into the river, a turd-eating grin spread across my face. There would never be another first steelhead – I had lost my innocence. And while I felt just a little bit dirty, I was OK with that.
It should be noted that after the drama of the first cast, the day turned mostly clear and beautiful. Fishing remained exceptional, but catching returned to what would be considered normal. Thanks to Brian for a great day and ruining my life.