Weather or not to go steelhead fishing
Forecasting the weather is not completely unlike forecasting whether or not one is going to catch a steelhead when one goes steelhead fishing: neither is a certainty. The difference is that predicting the weather is a whole lot less accurate, because based on my experience it’s safe to assume that when I go steelhead fishing I am not going to catch a steelhead, and I am seldom wrong in that prediction.
Despite the fact that the weather forecasters were calling for the biggest windstorm to hit the Pacific Northwest since the great Columbus Day Storm of 1962, I packed up my gear and headed east for a couple days of steelhead fishing on Idaho’s Clearwater River. I have to admit that I felt a tad bit of remorse leaving I left Mrs. UA behind to fend for herself during what was sure to be a catastrophic weather event. However, before I left I did get the generator ready to go with plenty of fuel and instructions on how to use it. She would be, in her words, “FINE.”
It was raining steadily when I departed on Thursday morning. The rain increased as I headed east over Snoqualmie Pass, lightened up as I neared Cle Elum, then picked up again and maintained a steady pace all the way across the state of Washington, down the long grade into the Lewiston-Clarkston valley, and another 40-plus or so miles up the Clearwater to the campground known as Pink House. That’s 352 miles without turning off the windshield wipers. Fortunately I had new wiper blades. And I enjoy road trips, especially when I’m going fishing. Just crank up the music and settle in for the long haul.
The first, and lesser of 2 storms was due to hit western Washington that evening. Friday was a bit of a reprieve before the main storm—the remnants of some damn typhoon in the Pacific that was said to hit the Washington coast Saturday afternoon, with “damaging winds” upwards of 50mph with gusts much higher. The weather forecasters had been talking about this storm for days and things didn’t look very encouraging. My hope was that when—not if—the power was knocked out, Mrs. UA wouldn’t have to endure too long before I returned home. Again, the remorse for having gone fishing gnawed at me, but there was little I could do about it now, other than go fishing.
The Albacore clan had arrived the day before, and Large and Junior were still on the river when I pulled into camp. Their pappy, Papa Albacore, had opted to sit out the afternoon in the comfort of the tent trailer, rather than fishing in the rain that afternoon. When the brothers returned they looked as if they’d been fishing for steelhead in Forks, where it always rains (and seldom gives up fish to the swung fly). I wasn’t surprised to hear that no fish had been encountered that day. As the rain kept a steady beat on the roof of the trailer we enjoyed a delicious supper prepared by Papa, and toasted the fact that tomorrow was a new day.
The next morning we decided that we would take two separate rigs and meet up at the Holy Waters just a couple miles up the road. Under the cloak of darkness, Spey rods were stowed in their
appropriate rod holders and we headed out as a moderately annoying rain continued to fall. When we pulled into the parking area there were two vehicles already there, which meant there was no room at the inn for 4 more anglers. We decided the best thing to do was split up, with each team of 2 fending for themselves in the quest for open water. With that, Junior and Papa pulled out ahead of us and proceeded downstream.
When Large and I arrived at our spot to fish I finally realized that the rod in the holder was not mine, but rather Papa’s. That meant my rod was with the others, so we headed down the road in search of them. We drove for miles without seeing their car, passing up several runs along the way. We were burning daylight and Large Albacore was not happy about the whole matter. When we failed to locate the others we decided the best course of action was to get on the river with what we had, and catch a fish. We pulled into the Gravel Pit, parked the truck and hiked toward the river. Armed with Papa’s rod I waded into the head of a run while Large fished down lower. It took some time getting used to a different rod and line set-up than I was accustomed to, but before too long I was producing adequately functional casts—pretty much what I am capable of, even with my own gear.
Despite that the rain had all but completely ceased, there was no bright sunrise, and thus no need for sunglasses, yet (mine were perched
safely atop my hat for later). At least they were safely perched atop my hat until they became dislodged. When the glasses hit the water directly in front of me I instantly lost sight of them. The current wasn’t fast, so I figured I had a pretty good chance of finding them, but the problem was the glare on the water’s surface which made seeing below the surface challenging. If I had only had a pair of polarized sunglasses I very likely would have been able to see my polarized sunglasses as they bounced slowly along the bottom of the water. Despite every effort, I was unable to recover them. That was the second unaccomplishment of the day (the rod snafu being the first) and it wasn’t yet 9AM. Things weren’t playing out the way I had imagined. Neither Large nor I had so much as a bump as we fished through the long run over the course of the next couple hours. We decided to head back upriver to meet with the others for lunch, and along the way we stopped at the Red Shed where, fortunately, Poppy had a pair of sunglasses in stock that fit me well. And he gave me a good deal, which I appreciated. That’s the kind of generous guy he is and what makes the Red Shed stand out as an icon in the Spey community. The future was looking brighter now that I had eye protection, and soon thereafter I would have my own rod back. Cautious optimism ensued.
We met up with Junior and Papa for lunch and chuckled about the rod snafu. When I asked Papa how he liked casting a compact Skagit with a sink tip (sink tips are frowned upon this time of year), he responded by saying that he didn’t even know it wasn’t his rod until he’d made a few casts.
I was relieved to learn that my knots had held when Papa hooked and landed a 34″ hatchery hen—the largest fish any of the Albacores had caught in their years on the Clearwater. The only downside to the fish was that, despite being a hatchery brat, it had to be released as this was the last day before the catch and kill season was to begin. It’s a damn shame to have to throw a hatchery fish back.
That afternoon Large and I fished the Pleasure Palace, without so much as a sideways glance from a fish. While it felt good to be casting my favorite go-to rod (my Sage Z-Axis 7136) something wasn’t quite right. I noticed that the cork seemed a bit cleaner than it should have been, and when I looked more closely I realized it was my Z-Axis 8134, a rod I seldom fish (thus the clean cork). I was sure I had strung up my 7136 the night before, in the dark, but apparently I had not. Thinking I had grabbed my 7136, I had put the right reel and line on the rod, which meant I was casting my 7 weight line on my 8 weight rod (unaccomplishment #3). Despite the mismatched rod and line, my casts remained adequately functional, but fell short of hooking a fish the rest of the day. Large had no better success despite that he was fishing a floating line matched for his rod. The good news is that the weather had improved throughout the afternoon and it turned out to be a mild, dry day, with enough sunshine to make me glad I had new sunglasses.
That evening back at camp—while there was still daylight—the first thing I did was put the proper reel and line on my 8134 so that on Saturday morning I would be ready to go with the right equipment (I continued to use a sink tip, despite warnings against it). After another fine supper, we were able to enjoy a good campfire, around which we laughed, told lies, and talked of Papa Albacore’s superior angling prowess. As the fire burned down we rekindled our hope of a more productive next day, and it was decided that we would meet up with our friend from Lewiston, Owl, at a run far downriver that was capable of accommodating all 5 of us.
We arose particularly early the next morning, properly stowed our rods and set off down river to meet up with Owl, who had, by arriving before 4am, secured the run we had hoped to secure at Lower Log Island. It was still very early when we arrived so we stood around for the better part of an hour waiting for darkness to give way to a sunrise, during which time I sold squares of toilet paper for $5 apiece to those in need, my profits nearly paying for the new sunglasses I’d bought the day before. When it finally became light enough, we spread out along the run and waded into the river to begin
fishing casting practice once again.
Owl had only taken up the way of the Spey a few months earlier and this was the first time he’d actually fished with anyone besides himself, or his casting instructor. He apologized in advance for his ineptitude with a long rod, but his apologies were unwarranted: it was clear that Owl had received some excellent instruction, as his casting was much better than he gave himself credit for. Now he just needs to get a proper wading jacket to replace the rubber Walmart variety he was wearing. But, all in good time, after all breaking into the two handed casting game is not an altogether inexpensive endeavor. Fortunately the learning curve is long, and by the time one’s casting becomes proficient, one may have forgotten how much they’d spent on gear. Then again, angler types are never done purchasing fishing gear, such as new sunglasses. And running line.
The Z-Axis 8134 now matched with its own reel and line, my casting continued to be functionally adequate, and at times maybe a notch better. However, as I mentioned earlier, this rod has seen very little action since I acquired it 3 years ago. Whether due to having spent too much time coiled up on the reel or simply being a problematic line, the Rio Powerflex Shooting Line was constantly twisting itself, causing problems when trying to shoot line. I’ve never had this problem with my Airflo running lines, so I made a note to purchase a new line when I got home. Fortunately none of the fish were so far out in the river that I couldn’t reach them with short casts. Unfortunately there were no willing fish to be found even within my abbreviated casting distance and after a few hours not one of us had so much as a grab or a bump. We split up and moved on to another run, where neither Owl, Large Albacore nor myself had any better luck. We decided to meet up for lunch with Junior and Papa, who had enjoyed no better success on their second run of the day.
After lunch we moved upriver to another run large enough to accommodate all of us. Unfortunately there weren’t enough fish to accommodate any of us and we came away without a single fish to show for our efforts. Owl had to depart early so we bade farewell and shortly thereafter we decided to head upriver in quest of more water. As we drove, the rain began to fall, lightly at first. We dropped Papa Albacore off at camp before Junior, Large and I headed back out into the rain, which was no longer just falling lightly. At around 4PM we dropped into the Pleasure Palace once again, hoping that a late day fish might be inclined to take pity on us. At this point the trip presented itself with another opportunity to unexpectedly spend more money. My Simms G3 wading jacket, which I’ve had for better than ten years, has always had one feature that I found annoying: the storm flap has a frequent tendency to get caught in the zipper, like a slow moving cow jumping in front of an oncoming train. A mild inconvenience at times, this becomes particularly aggravating at other times, such as when one needs to relieve themselves. As Murphy’s Law would have it, I had to pee and the storm flap wedged itself deeply in the zipper (think “beans above the frank”). It was really stuck this time, and Nature was calling—fast. In my desperation I gave a hard tug and the zipper came free, along with several teeth from the tracks. My trip had just gotten significantly more expensive, and my casts, continually hindered by the twisted running line, had begun to take on an angry nature. Dogs can sense when their person is angry, and they tend to give a wide berth when this happens. Steelhead can apparently detect the same thing, and their lips remained tightly zipped, unlike my jacket. We called the time of death at around 5:30pm and limped back to camp.
It continued to rain all night and despite that it ceased by the time we ate breakfast on Sunday morning, it was decided that nobody was willing to subject themselves to more punishment on the river so we packed up and departed. About 2/3 of the way home the stereo in the Man Van started developing problems, refusing to play music on my iPhone. Add one more thing to the growing list of unanticipated fly fishing-related expenses, because you can’t have fishing road trips without music. And when it comes to steelhead, the choice of music is the blues.
Oh, and what about the catastrophic windstorm that was to pummel western Washington? Like the steelhead, it didn’t materialize.