winter steelhead fishing
The word Tetanus apparently stems from two words: Tet and Anus. We’re all familiar with the Vietnamese New Year, which has no bearing on today’s discussion. It’s the latter word that we’ll be focusing on.
Young middle-aged men like me know that when we submit for an annual physical, certain procedures are going to be a pain in the arse. Surprisingly, however, it was something completely unrelated that proved to be the biggest pain of all: a simple tetanus booster. No, I did not get a tetanus shot in my backside. You see, I had scheduled the routine physical months in advance; long before a 3-day steelhead fishing trip with the Brothers Albacore was even a blip on the radar. As it turned out, my doctor appointment was the morning of the day we would depart for Forks, WA. All the expected things occurred during my physical, butt what I did not expect was the suggestion of a tetanus shot.
Apparently this tetanus vaccination is being recommended by the mysterious people who recommend vaccinations, and since I just happened to have intentions of stepping on a rusty nail very soon, I agreed to the shot. No big deal. To paraphrase my doctor, the residual affects of the tetanus booster would be some localized soreness in my shoulder. Not a problem. Just stick me in the left arm because I’m right-handed. I’d be casting my single-handed rod as well as my Spey rod; any discomfort would be a mild annoyance at best. Piece of cake. The shot into the muscle was hardly felt, and before long I was on my way to the Edmonds-Kingston Ferry with my fishing companions. Bring on the rusty nails.
The forecast looked promising. Flow graphs showed a steady drop on the Olympic Peninsula Rivers, with no rain forecasted. That in and of itself was a strange prospect: fishing the OP without rain? What?! We did drive through some snow showers between Port Angeles and Forks, but once we arrived at our destination the weather appeared to be improving as we fished a run on the Bogachiel River that afternoon. The river was cloudy with very compromised visibility, but things were dropping and clearing. Though we didn’t touch a fish that first day we looked ahead to the next morning with confident anticipation.
I am not a morning person, and steelhead fishing comes with early risings. So when the alarm sounded at 4 AM it came as no surprise that I didn’t feel 100%. I prepared breakfast for the three of us and sat down to a plate of eggs, hash browns and sausage—hearty fuel for a long day ahead; a meal I could eat with confidence knowing that my cholesterol levels were all good. But as I stared at my plate I felt myself feeling worse by the minute: Headache, check. Muscle soreness in the left arm, check. Overall body aches, check. What the hell? I understood the sore arm—that was to be expected. But the other symptoms were an unpleasant surprise. Oh well, this was no time for being a Nancy Boy— we had steelhead to catch, so out the door we marched. Overnight the temperature had dropped and brought with it a dusting of snow. It would be a cold start to the day, but clearing skies were promised.
By the time we launched Large Albacore’s raft and ran our shuttle, we got on the water by around 8 AM. I was feeling even worse by this time, but I did manage to nymph the first short run from the back of the raft. We then pulled over to swing a run with the “Poles of Futility” (as our friend Joe Willauer lovingly refers to Spey rods). With each passing moment I dropped deeper in the abyss of misery. Rather than swing the run I remained perched on my ass in the back seat wondering how I could possibly have the flu, given that I’d had the flu shot earlier in the winter. While my partners angled I took the opportunity of good cellular coverage to consult the internets about possible side affects of the tetanus booster. Loe and behold it appeared that I was a poster child for flu-like symptoms that are not uncommon side affects (although I was not informed of these potential side affects when I agreed to the shot 24 hours earlier). My only hope was that the symptoms would be short-lived; that I would feel better sooner than later. I could have exited the raft at this point and walked back to the truck but I elected to stick it out. If by chance I started to feel better during the day, I wanted to be in the boat—not back at the Pacific Inn Motel. My decision, while perhaps noble, was misguided.
As the day wore on, my arm became so sore that I could barely get my hand in and out of my coat pocket. Slumped in defeat, my chin rested on my chest as I either slept or remained partially conscious in the back of the boat while Junior rowed and Large fished, or vice versa. Throughout the day we would stop at a good piece of swinging water so they could both ply the waters with their Poles of Futility. I hardly lifted my head to watch. On occasion I would get off my ass and climb from the boat just to get my blood moving in an attempt to stave off the cold. It was an increasingly nice day, but there was a chill in the air; especially for the semi-comatose. At times I would get a case of the shivers but didn’t know if it was due to the cold or the side affects of the shot. Damnit either way. As the day droned on my backside was killing me from having sat on it for so long without budging. At some point during the day, after initially ribbing me for being a wuss, I believe the Brothers Albacore actually began to take pity on me.
Suffice it to say the day was long, and not just for the miserable non-angler in the back of the boat. After 9 hours on the water, neither Junior nor Large Albacore had been shown any love by the wild steelhead in the Bogachiel River. Had I been feeling better and able to fish I’m confident that there would have been 3 skunks dealt. But this was just Day One, and because we’re all three sunny optimists, it was agreed upon that at least Mother Nature had been kind to us; more typical Forks weather would have made my predicament a whole lot more miserable. Had that happened I would have complained incessantly, making the day miserable for my two angling companions. Yes, it could have been worse.
At this point the question on everyone’s minds is, “Hey, Unaccomplished Angler—how’d you feel the next day and did you guys catch any fish?”
The answer to the first question is, “Like crap.”
And the answer to the second question is, “No.”
After running the shuttle for the Albacores the next morning, I packed up and made the 4-hour journey home. It wasn’t until the next day that I felt better, and not until the 4th day that I was back 100%. It was on that 4th day that I called my doctor’s office and spoke with the nurse practitioner. I told her how sick I’d been from the shot and her response suggested that that was very common. What!? Very common?! Had I been told that there was a likely chance of that I would have scheduled the tetanus shot for sometime AFTER my fishing trip.
When I get my bill from the doctor, I’m going to invoice them for the cost of my ill-fated trip. The invoice should come as a surprise, which seems like a fair trade to me.
I haven’t been fishing in what seems like a long time. For those who live in trout country, this probably isn’t such an odd thing. After all, when the water temps dip into the 30’s and the trout enter their catatonic wintery coma, fishing for them tends to grind to a halt. That’s when the trout fishermen (which is a term to describe those who fish, be they men or women, or some surgically-created hybrid) turn inward and do other things related to fishing to keep them busy. They tie flies, clean lines, rearrange gear, make plans to attend some of the upcoming fly fishing tradeshows, etc. This is all well and good. And because I do fish for trouts I do have the excuse that trout fishing is shut down for the winter. However, I live in Anadromopolis. I should be out casting a Spey rod for sea run rainbow trouts: steelhead. But I haven’t been yet.
Why not? There are reasons, and three of them sound like valid excuses to me:
• Winter steelhead fishing really starts in earnest in January. That’s true. There may be some early fish in the river systems, but typically January marks the true beginning of winter steelhead fishing around here.
• There aren’t that many fish in our local rivers. Again, true. But that’s nothing new. Our local Puget Sound rivers have not been very productive for steelhead fishing in years. It’s not getting any better, but that shouldn’t stop the fisherman who enjoys getting out for the sake of practicing their casting, with the remote hope of hooking up with a fish.
• The weather has been crappy and the rivers are blown out. Not true. While that was definitely the case last year thanks to La Niña, the same cannot be said of this year. And while the meteorologists told us we were in for another La Niña winter this year, that has not proved to be the case so far (knock on wood). We had early snow in the mountains before Thanksgiving, but precipitation since then has been low. The weather has been cooler than normal, but also drier. Consequently our rivers are in good shape.
• I’ve been traveling for work and unable to find time for fishing. HA! I don’t travel for work. In fact, I rarely leave my home office for work. Truth be told, my work has been slow for the past couple of months. Too slow. I’ve had plenty of time for fishing, but I’ve been burdened with anxiety over the lack of work, which has kept me from feeling much like fishing. Work has to pick up (knock on wood).
• My waders leak and I’ve been waiting to get a new pair for Christmas. False. My waders are fine. They do not leak (knock on wood), nor am I getting a new pair for Christmas.
• I broke my Sage Z-Axis 7136 Spey rod on a huge fish, had to send the tip section in for warranty repair, and Sage has been very slow to return it. This is both false, and a crock. I did not break my 7136 (knock on wood). But even if I had , Sage would have turned it around in short order as they are known to do.
• I’m recovering from knee surgery. An old college football injury that has plagued me for years finally begged to be corrected. Uh, false. I did not have surgery. I have never had a knee injury (knock on wood). I did not play college football.
• I’m just a worthless excuse for a fisherman. I’ve been in some sort of funk, have no gumption and simply have not gone fishing. This is true.
I’m out of excuses and there’s no more wood upon which to knock. There’s only one thing to do…
By the time you read this we’ll be on the road headed toward the northwestern most tip of the Lower 48. “We” consists of yours truly and my wee lad, Schpanky, and the road we’ll be on is the one that leads to Forks, WA. We go not in quest of vampires, but to seek out the majestic wild steelhead of the Olympic Peninsula (the OP). Like the one pictured above, caught recently by
Josh Mills Old Man River, of Chucking Line and Chasing Tail fame.
For an unaccomplished steelhead fisherman, this trip to the Mecca of lower 48 steelhead fishing is both exciting and daunting at the same time. First, let’s examine the excitement factor: You see, being a lifelong resident of the state of Warshington, I’ve never been to Forks. I’ve been close, but never actually to the town of Forks, and I’ve never fished for steelhead on the OP. Schpanky has never been steelhead fishing, per se, period. The boy is now 17, and as with most kids that age he’s rather busy. In fact, so busy is he during the prime months of winter steelhead fishing that there is hardly a weekend available from November through February to go out and chase the great anadromous rainbow trouts of winter. Being on the high school wrestling team means weekend tournaments begin right about the time the fish start moving into the rivers, and the season concludes about the time the Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife decides to shut down the local rivers. So I booked us this trip months ago, knowing that we had one opportunity to get out and fish the waters of the Promised Land before the rivers close in April.
I didn’t have much of a winter steelhead season My winter steelhead season was a complete bust this year. La Niña (The Bitch) brought with her incessant rains that swelled our local rivers multiple times during the months of December and January. When I did have a day available to go fishing, the rivers were not in good shape. Around here, rivers closed before February began, so the result was zero fish hooked. So yeah, we’re kinda excited about this trip. At least I am.
Now on to the daunting aspect of this trip: pressure and unpredictability. The OP rivers are rain forest rivers, and not just by some stretch of the imagination: it’s an actual rain forest. It rains a LOT out there. Like upwards of 120 inches per year. Seattle is known for it’s rain, but the Jet City actually only gets about 52 inches of measurable precipitation annually. Do the math: The OP gets more than twice the rain that Seattle does. Don’t quote me on it, but I believe Forks and the surrounding OP may be the wettest location in the Lower 48, with only Yukatat, AK and Hilo, HA being wetter places in the non-contiguous United States. In other words, we’re taking our Gortex. That same precipitation that grows massive, moss-cloaked cedar trees also causes OP rivers to blow out quickly, and within the past week the Hoh River, which typically fishes well around 2500 CFS, spiked to nearly 10,000 CFS. I know many folks who canceled long-standing trips to fish out there last week. I felt bad for them, and felt relieved that our trip was not scheduled for one week earlier. When you book a trip to fish for steelhead in the wettest location in the lower 48 during late winter, you close your eyes and roll the dice. Knock on wood, things are looking favorable for us at the time of this writing. If the rain
holds off remains moderate, the rivers should be able to handle it. It is imperative that we encounter prime conditions. We HAVE to catch a fish. At least one. There is great pressure to do so. The forecast calls for showers and light rain. Not rain, but showers and light rain. We can work with that, I hope. Fingers remain crossed–there’s a lot riding on this trip.
You see, Schpanky has followed me on many trout fishing excursions over the years, and while he has caught some fish, we’ve encountered way too many “less than stellar” days on the water. I’ve always reminded him that there’s more to fishing than catching fish (which is always met with a blank stare). I impart upon him the vast wisdom that an angler has to get on the water as much as possible in order to maximize their chances of having that one great day—of catching that one great fish. Well, it hasn’t worked out that well for the lad. In fact, a year ago I planned a Yakima River trip during his Spring Break that was canceled due to broken Spring weather. By the time we were able to reschedule the trip it didn’t live up to
expectations anticipations. In fact, it didn’t even come close: the boy was sick, the river was rising and a weather system was moving in. With increased atmospheric pressure, the fishing shut down and neither of us touched a fish all day. Too many days like that will sour a young, occasional angler.
If I can hold out the slightest glimmer of hope that the boy will maintain even a slight interest in fly fishing with his old man in future years, that hope lies on the success of this trip. We’ll be fishing with my buddy Joe Willauer, who guides for Jeff Brazda during the late winter/early spring months on the OP, before returning home Montana for a summer of guiding the heralded waters around Twin Bridges.
And so, with Spey rods (and one meat stick) stowed along with our rain gear, Schpanky and The Unaccomplished Angler are about to meet the rivers of the OP. It is my hope that Schpanky hooks into a 35 inch, dime bright slab still dripping with Pacific Ocean salt…and that the fish runs downstream like a locomotive, dragging the lad behind as he sprints over the river rocks like a spazz, chortling like a schoolgirl (or maybe that’ll just be me in pursuit).
Joe, are you reading this? There’s a lot riding on this trip (including guide gratuities). Please see that the boy hooks into some wild OP chrome. I don’t care so much if I do, but the boy MUST catch a fish. The future depends on it.