I’ll admit, I can be somewhat of a Quixotic character at times. I’m drawn to activities whose point or purpose tips a bit to the side of aesthetic rather than pragmatic. Most happen outdoors, and are sensuous in nature – the kinds of stuff that feel really good, but are hard to describe. Like a telemark turn, or greasing a rapid in a drift boat. Or like a two-handed cast that lays out perfectly…so naturally, I swing flies for steelhead. I’ve obtained a bunch of soulful Beulah two-handers and industrial-strength reels and other stuff that is destined to handle far fewer fish than any of my other gear. I tie a lot of flies that don’t really imitate anything in particular, but are a kind of swimming poem. I spend time thinking about what the steelhead might be thinking about. And approximately once a year, around when the world’s youth are engaged in elaborate spring-break rituals, I travel to the coast of Washifornegon and spend as many days as I can string together, seeking a bright winter-run fish.
I have this friend named James with a similar set of fishing tendencies, who lives on the southern end of Washifornegon, in a region referred to by its inhabitants as Jefferson. I usually start with him on his home rivers. For a while I’d been on a break from catching winter steelhead, focusing instead on improving my casting, tailing fish for others, and a little bit of rainforest botany and mycology. I have to admit I was hoping I’d find a fish or two this time – it just gets tiresome to explain, you know? – “No, I haven’t caught one in two years. No, I don’t really mind. It’s just nice to be on those rivers, on the hunt, immersing yourself in…Never mind.”
I’ve always maintained it’s better to be lucky than good. I think I’m living proof. Some days, too, if you’re doing it right, before your fly hits the water you count yourself lucky. If you look around and you’re in the Northwest, steeped in moss-covered forest, next to a dropping, clearing steelhead river, aren’t you fortunate enough already? What more do you truly need? Whether or not I truly need it, sometimes I go asking for it.
Against all statistical odds and probably some karmic ones, I got luckier. I didn’t manage much for photo documentation of measurable success, but I have some photographic memories to hang on to. A two-fish day in hammering rain, all by myself in a small inflatable kayak on 6,000 CFS made for a milestone.
A series of 1-for-whatever and 0-for-something days followed that up, but since none of them were witnessed by James or any other living soul, I guess you can decide for yourself whether any of it even happened. In any case, the south coast of Washifornegon was good to me, and the drag on my favorite reel got some solid exercise.
As spring break marched on, I had to follow the open season northward. In the central Washifornegon coast there’s a place where the steelhead streams are clustered especially thick, and some long stretches of swingy water stay open through the spring. I went to that place because I’d never been, and it was time for some solo exploration and reflection. I like adding new rivers to my repertoire.
I found lots of low and clear, which I far prefer to chocolate milk in the trees. And I also found fish. I spotted fish but went grabless on a tunnel-like little stream of clear blue water and unfurling lady ferns. I switched to a larger stream and began to get that funny feeling in well-structured bedrock and boulder runs with broken surfaces…and had grabby days. The punctuation to my spring break was a fish that crushed a UV black-and-red squid twenty feet above the lip of a tailout. The tailout led to a couple tenths of a mile of steep, eddy-less whitewater, and thence to a complicated class-V drop. When this fish headed downstream, things, as one might expect, became epic. I have no photograph to back up this experience, so let your imagination supply the steelhead, the “fight”, etc. I’ve never felt so outgunned and thoroughly ass-kicked by a fish. I’m satisfied to say that I didn’t land it. To do such a thing would have taken a skilled net guy (which I categorically didn’t have), or fighting to its utter exhaustion the most impressive freshwater native fish I’ve ever seen, let alone hooked. I hope he found a lovely lady and spawned like the champion he was.
This is how you don’t ever expect a fishing trip to end: reeling up your broken tippet with shaking hands, squelching your way in overtopped waders up to the truck, changing, getting in, and immediately turning it for home. An hour out from being a rainforest river creature, you’re in the systemic shock of Portland traffic. By the same time the next day, your’e home, the truck’s unpacked and your laundry’s done. Did it all really even happen? Of course it did, but it’s still hard to wrap your head around how lucky you really are to get to live a long-held dream, for a week and a half, every single year.
Postscript, James has made this all possible for me several times; with river beta, sensuously satisfying two-handers, couch space, hotel room sharing, swapped photography, good Scotch, truck shuttles, etc, etc. And for it all I’m duly thankful. Couldn’t have done it without you.