Three generations of anglers on a steelhead stream
- By: E. Donnall Thomas
The morning had turned positively pleasant by the standards of southeast Alaska in early spring: high overcast skies, inert mist rather than driven rain, temperature conducive to line handling without the bother of fingerless woolen gloves. A solemn cathedral of cedar and hemlock towered overhead as we crept to the bank and peered into the tannic water below. I didn't really expect to see fish. With the tide falling just beyond the next bend downstream, the water looked low enough to wade and that was all I asked.Four other people stood by me streamside-my wife Lori, teenage stepdaughter Nicole and my parents-and two of our party could not be called upon to challenge strong currents. I guided my folks down the bank and across the stream where an open gravel bar offered good footing and room to work a line. Pointing out the slot where the fish would lie if any had arrived on the last tide, I stepped back and watched as they began to cast. Both my mother and father handle fly rods well, and each soon had a bright streamer coursing through the heart of the run, leaving me little to do but relax and savor the sound of the current. My father was in his mid-80's (a gentleman never mentions a lady's age). A former college athlete and the 1990 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, he remained intellectually and physically vigorous long after most of his contemporaries had slowed the pace of their lives. Then came the stroke. His recovery proved prompt and gratifying and the important faculties-the ability to think and to fish-never wavered. His coordination suffered subtly, however. Covering uneven ground became difficult and the best wingshot I've ever known began to miss pheasants that would have dropped in a cloud of feathers a few years earlier. But my father never had any intention of going gently into the night. We promised each other we'd find ways to work around the difficulties-and we did-and there he stood casting to wild Alaska steelhead as if to prove the point. Mother, father, stepdaughter, wife: a 70-year span of family surrounded me as I watched the stream ease its way past us toward the sea. The platitudes I imagined sounded straight from a fortune cookie: Long Life, Happy Family, Success in Your Affairs. But after an hour of stubborn silence from the water, I began to fidget despite my intentions to the contrary. The promise of wild steelhead does that to me, and no one knows it like my father. "Why don't you take off upstream and find some fish?" he finally asked. Was this a request for scouting data or a release from heel? Don't ask, I told myself. After a mile of tough wading upstream, a horrific undeveloped trail connects the river to the road. Lori knows its location, and I asked her to drive everyone up to meet me at the trailhead in two hours. Confident that my folks would be in good hands, I set off along the bank. The first two runs produced nothing except a faintly guilty sense of release from responsibility. As I stood with my back to the current watching an Egg-Sucking Leech swing through the third run, I heard a sloshing sound behind me and turned to see a large male black bear crossing the creek barely 30 yards away. With a stiff downstream wind and the gurgle of the current to mask the sound of my bootsteps, I easily closed within point-blank range. My longbow, however, rested back in the truck, leaving me free to admire the bear's prime spring coat and visualize the spot behind his shoulder where I would have put the arrow if I'd had one. I still hadn't touched a fish by the time I reached the pool near the trail. Fatally inattentive after hours of unproductive casting, I flipped the fly behind a rock and watched open-mouthed as a long shape appeared from the depths and struck. But steelhead seldom reward carelessness, and I missed the take like a rank beginner. Fortunately, I've been at this way too long to experience anger over anything that takes place between fish and fisherman. I knew exactly what had happened and why, and as I moved three steps farther up the pool I began to cast again with renewed concentration. Five minutes later the line hesitated briefly and this time I strip-set the hook as if I were trying to start a balky outboard. Unfortunately, my strike came at the exact moment the 15-pound fish chose to go airborne, snapping the tippet on impact and leaving me with nothing but a memorable glimpse of three feet of steelhead suspended above the surface with my fly hanging from its jaw. For someone who practically grew up on steelhead streams I was hardly putting on a clinic, and my only consolation came from the lack of witnesses. That morning, the pool provided a classic example of the principle of feast or famine as I struck two more fish during the next 15 minutes. And I actually managed to stay attached to the last one for a while. Fresh from the sea, the bright hen seemed determined to fulfill the reputation of her species as a game fish. After four quick jumps, she tore downstream through an obstacle course of boulders trailing a hissing arc of fly line. The fish was swimming a lot faster than I could run, and it soon became clear that she was going to spool me unless I applied heroic amounts of pressure, which I did with the inevitable result. Shaking my head in dismay, I reeled in the lifeless length of line and headed back to the top of the pool to consider my options. Greed seldom plagues me in the outdoors nowadays. Game birds don't arouse it; I've taken my share, and in the midst of a productive patch of cover I'm happy to step back and let someone else do the shooting. I'm even willing to be a gentleman about big whitetails and elk while bowhunting. But wild steelhead still arouse my most determined instincts. Obviously stuffed with fish, the pool presented a true dilemma. As badly as I wanted to belly up to the current and keep fishing, I recognized an obligation to share the bounty. The problem was that I didn't think my folks could physically make it down the trail to the water. Just then, Nicole popped out of the bushes, sent down from the road by her mother to fetch me. "How was the trail?" I asked as she slogged toward me in her oversize waders. "Terrible!" she shot back. "Thick brush and bottomless mud holes." "Do you think my folks can make it?" "No," she replied without hesitation. "Then come here." Handing her my fly rod, I guided her toward the heart of the run and showed her where to cast. An enthusiastic angler, Nicole proved a natural with a fly rod from the day I first took her fishing, and she had no trouble getting the fly where it needed to go. But no coaching can prepare a novice for that first encounter with a steelhead, and when a fish struck five minutes later she squealed and clamped down on the reel and that was that. "Way cool!" she observed as she retrieved the remains of the line like a trooper. While the thought of walking away from steelhead runs contrary to my nature, I couldn't justify leaving Lori and my folks waiting back at the truck any longer. I suggested a retreat and Nicole agreed. At least I'd managed to share it with someone. But it wasn't enough and I knew it. Over a dinner of steamed clams and cracked crab back at our house that night, I noticed a faraway look in my father's eyes as I retold the story of the furious action we'd enjoyed. Realizing what he was thinking, I described the trail's pitfalls in detail, but I knew he'd already made up his mind. And if he thought he could do it, I certainly wasn't going to argue. Early the following morning, my parents and I climbed out of the truck at the trailhead, donned waders and gathered our gear. Those unfamiliar with coastal Alaska terrain may have difficulty appreciating the difficulties waiting for us. A dense swath of impenetrable brush lay between the road and the stately old growth along the water. Except for the long hike up the river I'd made the day before, the only route to the pool lies along a fisherman's trail that has deteriorated into a series of bog holes filled with tenacious black muck. I could negotiate its course by feeling my way along the exposed root systems beneath the mud, but for anyone with impaired mobility the trail presented a nightmare. Undaunted by my description of what lay ahead, my parents gathered up their walking sticks and we set off into the forest. Whether you're headed to a nearby trout stream or around the world, the secret to enjoyable travel lies in the ability to remove time from the equation. Together, we slowly worked our way along as if we had all day to cover the route to the river, which I suppose we did. I tried to keep myself between my parents and the worst of the mud, and when they had to negotiate a particularly tricky passage I stood by like a spotter at a gymnastics event and thought about all the trails they once led me down when I was too small to get where I needed to go unassisted. Finally we began to hear river music above the sigh of the breeze through the trees and then we broke out onto the open bank lush with uncoiling fiddlehead ferns and brilliant yellow skunk cabbage. We had made it, and I felt as proud as Hillary on top of Everest. As my parents rigged their rods, I resigned myself to the fact that the journey might have to stand as its own reward. Steelhead move quickly through short coastal streams, and a run full of fish one day can easily lie barren the next. Directing the anglers to the most promising stretches of the pool, I settled back on a log to watch and hope, at least momentarily content with the accomplishment of our arrival. And for an hour, hope had to sustain us as the water refused to reveal its secrets. But the low, gray ceiling lifted progressively until the sun finally broke through and made the lonely stretch of river so beautiful that none of us really cared. Then my father's rod tip bucked, changing the mood from contemplative to manic. The fish didn't weigh much over eight pounds, but it came fresh and bright, full of vigor from the sea. For 10 minutes it offered all the magic of steelhead at their best and then it came to rest on the gravel just below the bank and I bent down to release it. Few anglers alive have caught as many fish as my father, but the look on his face left no doubt that this one had made a special impression. And I knew just how he felt. But we weren't through yet. My mother handles a fly rod with her own brand of workmanlike grace, but she lacks my father's experience with anadromous fish and she wasn't getting the fly quite where it needed to be. While Dad retired to the bank, I waded out beside her, asked for the rod, and tried to demonstrate the intangibles I had in mind. "You make that look easy," she observed. "The legacy of a misspent youth," I replied. "And great parenting," I added when she fixed me with a withering look. But she had profited from the quick lesson, and several minutes later the water in front of us exploded in a pink boil. For 10 minutes, the fish bulldogged its way about the pool without ever taking off on the sustained run that would have spelled our doom. Despite far more coaching than she needed or deserved, Mom eventually worked the fish up into the shallows where I gently wrapped a hand around its tail. After a few quick photographs, we slid it back into the current to continue its journey and retired to the bank to bask in the first real sun we'd seen in days and enjoy an overwhelming sense of shared satisfaction. Finally my mother handed me her rod and I waded out into the pool for a few quick casts. But my heart wasn't in it; the river had given us everything we had come for, and it seemed selfish to ask for more. After a ceremonial final cast, I headed ashore where we broke down the rods and regrouped for a long slog back to the truck that was motivated by two unspoken realizations: We had made it once, and turning back would no longer be an option. And as we left the sunlight along the open bank and reentered the shadowed world of the forest, I remembered my imaginary fortune cookie once again: Long Life, Happy Family, Success in Your Affairs. No kidding.