nymphing for steelhead
The last time I heeded the call to join Large Albacore on the Methow, we had the entire river all to ourselves and still caught no fish. Of course, that was then. This was now. This time would be different, and it was.
An hour after departing home at 4:30 I ascended Stevens Pass (elevation 4,062 ft) on my 2.5 hour drive to Albacore’s home. An early cold snap had turned the higher elevations white with the first dusting of wet snow, and while it wasn’t a whiteout by any means, there was an inch of sloppy stuff on the highway. This is not your fluffy inland powder, but rather a product of considerable coastal moisture: slippery goo that turns to chunky ice when the temperature dips below freezing. I was glad for good tires and 4 wheel drive so that I could pass the white knucklers doing 35mph in their rear-wheel drive sedans. Early season snowfall always catches a few people off guard—the same people each year.
The snow intensified for a period of time as I crested the summit and I couldn’t help but have a feeling of Deja-Vu. Two years earlier I’d made this same jaunt and the snow that began to fall during that trip never let up. In fact that storm would be the beginning of a winter that seemed to drone on forever. This time, however, the snow gave way to rain. Winter wasn’t ready to take over just yet and there would be no repeat of two years earlier, at least as far as the weather was concerned.
After a late dinner, Albacore and I retired to his basement where we watched a documentary film about Neil Young: Journeys. We’d both been fans of Neil since the days when Young was much younger and as we watched the film we remarked at how the old Neil still had the same velvety tone to his voice that he’s always been known for. Watching this film rekindled our love for the Godfather of Grunge and before we turned in for the night it was agreed that we would queue up some young Young while driving to the river the next morning. We didn’t have to wait long for that.
The alarm sounded at 4 AM and was followed immediately by a solid breakfast of eggs, hash browns and coffee that fueled our enthusiasm as we loaded Albacore’s truck and headed north. Live Rust emanated from the stereo and as we drove through the darkness we did our best Neil Young imitations. Suffice it to say that both Albacore and I have what it takes to be vocal stand-ins should Neil ever need us: we’re every bit as good as Jimmy Fallon. No, really—just ask either of us.
Singing has a way of making time pass quickly and before we’d even finished with the album it was 5:54 AM and we had reached our destination. The intent of our early arrival was to ensure that we got the run we wanted, which we did. We took our time gearing up before slowly picking our way along the dark trail. We waited Down by the River for another 20 minutes before it was light enough to fish.
We each brandished two rods: a Spey rod and a single handed 8 weight Meat Pole. It was agreed that we’d work through the run twice with our two-handers before rigging the Meat Poles. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. Albacore fished the head of the run with his go-to “Blue Moon” pattern; one that he fishes regularly and with confidence. I dropped in below and began slinging a red and black marbou streamer, courtesy of Ross Slayton (check out his newly-launched blog, Should Be Fishin’).
Not long into the morning Albacore hooked up with and landed a beautiful hen which he wagered was maybe 8 pounds. I suggested she was at least ten. Due to great differences in height, our perspectives are vastly opposite and equally skewed. Whatever the case may be, this fish was definitely a better than average-sized steelhead for this particular river and the skunk was off. At least for one of us.
The only fish I’d seen was a big old Chinook salmon that was hanging out in the shallows near a large redd, his tail waving gently back and forth in the current. I gave pause to wonder what the old buck was thinking as he neared the end of his journey. He’d had a good long life and had returned to his natal stream after an impressive upstream trip through several dams on the Columbia River. Though his decaying body was gradually failing him, his eyesight remained keen as he watched me. He was none too shy and only moved out of my way when I got closer than 5 feet.
After a second pass through the run without so much as a bump, Albacore instructed me to do the unthinkable: rig the Meat Pole. As he finished out the run I shamefully headed toward his gear bag and reached into the abyss for a box of dirty little secrets that was tucked away out of sight: nymphs. And stashed inside an even darker, hidden pocket: beads. Now, while there is nothing wrong with nymphing beads for steelhead if you want to catch steelhead, it is said that the noble way to go about catching steelhead is with a swung fly. That being said, if there’s one thing worse than nymphing beads for steelhead, it’s not catching steelhead. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no gentleman anglers were watching from the road above, rigged a black stonefly nymph and trailed a bead off the end. It was time to get dirty.
When one trades in their Spey rod for a Meat Pole, the transformation is remarkable. A Spey caster is a vision of serenity and self control; finesse and fluid beauty. Effortless sweeps of the long rod are poetry in motion and one can imagine the image set to the soothing sounds of Harvest Moon. A bead fisherman is a different animal. His face bears the grimace of a barbarian; yellow teeth clenched as tightly as their white knuckles on the cork. Involuntary guttural sounds are produced as the angler contorts his entire body with each crude stroke of the Meat Pole. Desperate casts lack form in favor of function as the nymph fisherman pounds the water in a manner that would best be accompanied by Hey Hey, My My. But not even playing dirty could produce a fish and so, fatigued and distraught at not having produced any fish even on the Meat Poles, we broke for lunch which Albacore had prepared the night before.
Sandwiches consisted of turkey, cheese and honey dijon mustard. Albacore apologized for the lack of garnishments, admitting that sliced pickles would have added a certain pizzazz to the otherwise lackluster sandwiches. We debated the sweet pickle vs. the dill, and it was decided that dill would have been the preferred choice. I didn’t complain and noted that it tasted great as it was. Albacore insisted that pickles would have been nice, but he worried that they would have just made the sandwiches soggy by the time we’d eaten them. I chewed on that for a minute before admitting that a pickle would have been nice, but not necessary. Sometimes the thoughts in my head manifest themselves into spoken words, not unlike Tourette Syndrome. Before I could stop myself I blurted that if he’d really cared, he would have taken care to slice some damn pickles and place them in a plastic bag so that we might apply them to our sandwiches, solving the matter of soggy bread. We ate the remainder of our lunch in awkward silence.
Like water under the bridge we put the pickle matter behind us and fished the next few hours in much the same way that we’d fished the morning. As a last resort we even revisited the first run of the day hoping to find another fish where Albacore had found his earlier. The run held no steelhead.
But the Traveller was still there. He hadn’t moved much. His tail seemed to flip more slowly but he still kept an eye on me so I thought it appropriate to sing him a little song. It helped pass the time.