The trials and tribulations of winter steelheading in the Northwest
- By: John Gierach
Weather isn't the only thing that can go wrong on a fishing trip, but it's high on the list, which is why fishermen have an almost pathological love/hate thing with meteorology. If there's such a thing as perfect fishing, it would depend on perfect weather, but in actual practice it's either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, too sunny or too cloudy, too windy or too still, and on those rare days when it's just right, we know it can't possibly last. In February, when Mike Clark and I drove out to the Sandy River in Oregon to fish for winter steelhead, the forecast was for rain, and that was good.The river had been low and rain was needed to bump up the flow a little and get the fish moving. Or so they said. Mike and I are both new to steelheading, and how these fish feel about their rivers rising and falling is just one more mystery we might eventually understand. The Sandy is a 1,200 mile drive from home-a little less than a day and a half with a motel in Idaho one way and Utah the other. We hit snow on the east end of Boise-a little better than half way there-and it was snow on the passes and rain lower down the rest of the way, including a modest blizzard on Dead Man Pass in eastern Oregon where we followed a snow plow for 20 miles and were happy to do it. We were floating the Sandy with Mark Bachmann, who'd guided us for steelhead on the Deschutes River back in October. That trip was our first try for these big West Coast, sea-run rainbows, but with Mark's help we managed to catch a few (our first ever) and immediately developed yet another expensive habit, complete with new tackle, new flies, non-resident fishing licenses and the need to travel far from home. This is how fishermen end up broke, but happy. It seems unavoidable. We also learned first-hand what we'd always heard about steelheading: that success is rare and fleeting, but worth the effort if you can appreciate the poetry of it. That's one of the ways that steelhead resemble Atlantic salmon, and of course that's why you fish for them. Even more than their beauty, size and fight, it's the unlikelihood of catching one that makes them so sexy. Entire sub-cultures have developed around big, sea-run fish that can just barely be caught. The English call Atlantic salmon fishing "the sport of kings." Americans say, "the best head is steelhead." Different responses to the same problem, both of which breed quiet fanatics who can go for days or weeks between fish without visibly losing heart. I had a brief flirtation with Atlantic salmon fishing a while ago, but it didn't take, even though I liked almost everything about it: the rivers, the talk, the fat books by stuffy English writers, the fish themselves (the few I saw, plus the larger idea of them) the rods, the flies and even the long aristocratic history of it that you could take seriously or not, depending on how you felt that day. Even the nose-in-the-air snootiness of it could be amusing as long as you kept your distance. The only thing I didn't like was the money. After a few tries, I began to suspect that doing it well on good water would end up costing me a fortune, and then on an obscure salmon river in New Brunswick a kindly old salmon fisherman confirmed that. "If you want to pay 20 times what this is costing for the best weeks on the best rivers," he said, "you can catch all the bloody salmon you want." I understood this might not be true in every case, but it would be true enough in the long run, and since fishing had already come close to bankrupting me a few times, I just couldn't see upping the ante. But steelhead are more accessible in every way if you live here in the northern Colorado Rockies. Starting from home at dawn, I can drive to some steelhead rivers in a day, and a hell of a lot more in two days. Three days could put me on some of the best steelhead water in the world. Once there I can stay in cheap motels, or maybe camp, and fish free public water. Beyond that, it's just time, and thank God I still have more time than money. You can drive yourself to tears of frustration just as easily with steelhead as with Atlantic salmon, but you can do it at blue-collar prices. Things looked good that first day on the Sandy River. The water was clear, Mark said the flow was right, and I'd been practicing with the big 14-foot, two-handed Spey rod, so I was getting the casts out well enough-at least while I was alone. If I knew or even suspected that I was being watched, I'd begin to blow casts out of self-consciousness, but Mark said that's not peculiar to beginners. He said you can make the best caster in the world screw-up just by staring at him. I've tried that a few times since, and it seems to be true. Mark had the boat-a simple handmade pontoon job-and of course knew where to fish. He fishes and guides on other steelhead rivers, but he's fished the Sandy for over 30 years and has literally written the book on it: the Sandy River installment of the Steelhead River Journal series from Frank Amato Publications. I can tell you that having written a book simply means that you wrote a book, but it was clear Mark knew his stuff after our first day on the Deschutes back in October as things went smoothly with no apparent effort on his part. For instance, I do a double Spey-cast much better right-handed than left-handed, and toward evening of the first day I thought how lucky it was for me that almost every good run Mark put me on was on the right side of the river. But then, was it really luck? That kind if thing. It rained constantly on the Sandy and it was pretty chilly, but that was just fine. We were dressed for it, the fish like it, and it made the river beautiful with wet colors and banks of cloud obscuring the rim of the canyon. In this stretch the Sandy flows through primeval-looking rain forest with large trees, giant ferns and moss on every permanent surface: the kind of thick temperate jungle where rain isn't the least bit unusual. You felt that if you stayed still too long you'd end up covered in mushrooms. By comparison, the lower Deschutes had been entirely familiar: a dry canyon in October covered with bare rock, grass and scrub, the weather cool and bright-a little too bright for steelhead, they said-with a narrow band of alder and hackberry along the water. Just enough trees and in just the right place to hamper a back cast, hence the Spey rods. The Deschutes could have been any one of a hundred trout rivers back home, except that it was three or four times wider and its fish had recently been in the Pacific Ocean, possibly as far west as the Sea of Japan. (A friend once said that when you catch a steelhead, you can feel the ocean in it. I thought that was nicely put.) The florid, dripping, fog-shrouded Sandy was more what I imagined about steelheading when I knew nothing at all but tried to picture it. In that first full dawn-to-dusk day on the river, we each got several tugs, I got a steelhead right to the beach before he threw the hook and escaped and Mark landed one and lost another. All in all, it was a better than average day of steelhead fishing and I learned more about the cast, mend and drift from watching Mark fish than I had when he was guiding us on the Deschutes, standing on the bank trying to tell us how to do it. We fished large tube flies on sinking-tip lines. Four months previously on the Deschutes we'd fished small wets on floating lines, at least in the mornings and evenings. Apparently that's the seasonal difference. In a very general way, it's small and shallow in the fall, big a deep in the winter. It makes a kind of instinctive sense. These tube flies were brilliantly simple: marabou wound on an inch-and-a-half plastic tube with a few strands of tinsel, then strung down the leader onto a short-shank hook that gives the fish less leverage than a long-shank and is therefore more likely to hold. It also amounts to a large fly that's nonetheless almost weightless, so it's easier to cast. I'd always wondered what the deal was with tube flies. Now I know. The favorite tube fly colors on the Sandy were red and orange and black and blue. Mark said they probably mimicked squid getting excited and turning colors or getting scared and squirting ink, two things steelhead would key on in the open ocean. I love hearing theories about flies. True or not, they always sound so good. The strikes were different, too. On the Deschutes, you'd hold a shock loop of line under your index finger that you were supposed to feed to the fish when you felt the strike, giving him enough time and slack to turn and take the hook in the corner of the jaw. But the strikes were violent, and if you were half asleep-as you could easily be after hours of methodical casting-the fish would take the fly, pull out the loop, hit the drag of the reel and be hooked before any of it registered. All that was left to do was say "Oh shit" and hang on. On the Sandy, in the winter, in the rain, the takes were hesitant: more the tick-tick-tick you'd get from a bluegill worrying a nymph than the slam you expect-or at least want- from a steelhead. I just stood there through the first two not knowing what else to do. On the third, I fed the loop at the first tick, set when the line came tight and had the fish. It was heartbreaking to lose him right at my feet, but I'd hooked him and felt I'd learned something. This is early in the romance when each day brings new discoveries because you still know next to nothing. It rained all that day, sometimes hard, sometimes just enough to keep everything wet. It rained all that night. It was still raining when we got on the water the next morning. The river didn't exactly have trees and barns floating in it, but it was up and rising, and since things were less than perfect, the fish were not pleased. In one good run we strung up the heaviest sinking-tip any of us had and took turns trying to cast it. Even Mark had a lot of trouble with this depth charge, but when he finally hit the slot, he caught a bright, 12-pound steelhead. Mike had gotten a halfhearted tug and hour earlier, and I never had a touch. At one point Mark said to me, "You're starting to look like a real steelhead fisherman." I hoped he meant my casting, but he might have been referring to the blank stare. That evening we checked with the guy at the fly shop in Welches, who said things looked grim. The river had been almost too high to fish that day and the forecast was for more hard rain with no end in sight. He said, "If it snows above 4,000 feet, you might stand a chance. If it rains, you're screwed." It rained hard through the night and the next morning we were, indeed, screwed. The Sandy was blown out and, according to the all-knowing, all-seeing computer in the shop, so were all the nearby rivers that had runs of steelhead. It would be days before anything came down enough to fish even if it stopped raining. It would stop eventually, but there was no telling when. There were big smiles all around. If you can't see the humor in a busted fishing trip, you're in the wrong sport, and of course to be a real steelheader you need an entire repertoire of stories just like this, so you might as well get started. With nothing else to do, Mike and I packed up and set out on the 20-some hour drive home. As it turned out, all but the last 60 or 70 miles of it would be in rain or snow. Fishermen have been known to either complain or brag about the abysmal boredom of steelhead fishing, but it's nothing compared to two-and-a-half-days of driving with bad weather, bad food, gut-wrenching coffee, excessive speed, suicidal truck drivers, sore backs and poor radio reception, with nothing much to talk about except the next steelhead trip. We wished we were back on the river. It was more fun than it sounds.