“Marilyn or Raquel?”
Late September 2017
I’m pretty sure that if you ask any of us that guide the Lower Deschutes on a regular basis what we’d do with three or four days off, we’d answer “Trout Creek to Maupin!”, the “Camp Stretch”. This time of the year some might argue for Mack’s to the mouth. I get that for steelhead, but the road will rattle your fillings loos AND break your trailer. Last week I was reminded why that we all love the “Camp Stretch” so much. We hosted four guys from Colorado and Ohio on a fully supported four-day trip down the “Camp Stretch”. These guys had come out to enjoy some early fall fishing down there, targeting whatever felt like eating their flies. As many of you most likely know, this is steelhead time on the Lower D, but this has not been a stellar year for numbers at the dams where these counts are taken. Having said that, on the “Day Stretch” my clients started hooking steelhead a month ago, and we’ve had some pretty good camp trips too. While we haven’t been specifically going after steel, we’ve found that even the big anadromous fish will fall for certain “hybrid” rigs. So for the boys joining us on this trip, there was reason for hope that amongst the Redbands, we might encounter a bit of steel.
We all met up last Sunday and headed for the ramp where dry bags were stowed, as was a not insignificant stash of adult beverages. This would not be a dull trip, nor a dry one. Two of the four clients, brothers Dan and Brett, had been down there before and had an idea as to what was in store. The other two, Tony and Dale were new to that stretch of river so they hadn’t a clue what lay ahead. It should be noted that none of these fine gents had ever tangled with a steelhead. The Fly and Field crew consisted of Austin running camp, Andrew and I guiding. This was the gang that ran most of our trips through April and May. Andrew spent several months at a salmon camp in Alaska and the trips we’ve run since he got back I couldn’t do. So this was the “band” getting back together.
Day One we floated from Warm Springs down to “Hobo Camp”. The upper stretch has been fishing great and also we wanted to stagger our group with another heading down with a friend’s guide service. The day was beautiful and warm with fun fishing. There were some really nice trout caught, most falling for the same little nymphs we’ve been having success with for the last month or so. The day was relaxed knowing that we had plenty of river to fish and an awesome camp waiting just down river from Trout Creek. We enjoyed lunch at Basalt and then made our way to Trout Creek where I called my girls to tell them I love them and they’ll be with me every oar stroke of the way, as they always are.
Speaking of oar strokes, I suppose this would be as good a time as any to introduce the newest member of our family. For those of you who’ve suffered through any of my earlier drivel, you’re familiar with the boat that has mercifully stayed upright and afloat beneath me for the last five years, ‘Ruby Redside’. She’s been as noble a steed as there ever was. It’s hard to imagine a more impactful and intimate relationship with an inanimate object as the one I’ve had with that boat.
So without belaboring the point further, I had and will always have a deep affinity for that boat. A month ago, through a simple happenstance I came upon a boat for sale that just checked every box, including the one that didn’t require a quilt-ridden search, which would have had me wracked with questions as to why I’d betray Ruby. The new boat is a beautiful ’07 Willie’s, 17×60. Her name is “Opal”, Lola’s idea. Brilliant on several levels. This trip would be her first below Trout Creek. And if I didn’t admit to a bit nerves I’d be lying. I’d never rowed another boat down there. Ruby will always be part of me and every reflex I have as an oarsman nowadays pertain to how she behaves. There would be whitewater. With clients. In a new boat.
We had Trout Creek in our “rearviews” by four in the afternoon. The epic, massive canyon welcomed us with a soft autumnal breeze. As it was we floated casually towards camp, deciding we’d just fish the water down there into the evening. Opal felt great in Trout Creek Two, a nice rapid that’s always a bit of a test. Austin had an awesome camp set up and we de-boated to a cold beer. Andrew’s boat showed up soon thereafter. The hilarious chatter started immediately. I forget whom it was that chimed in, quite out of the blue, with “Stones or Beetles? One, two, GO!” And with that a four day, mostly friendly, debate began over the merits or shortcomings of artists spanning the last seventy or eighty years. While, for obvious reasons I won’t even to attempt posing each and every query, I will relate that we dissected out many, many of the great, imposing and eternal questions mankind has troubled over since, oh I don’t know, 1950. This would not be the trip for shutting down the brain. Nope, until sometime around midnight, whether over beer, wine and food, bourbon, or any other creativity-inducing factor you might imagine, we hashed it all out, sometimes in complete agreement, sometimes utterly unable to reach consensus. We found that the role of contrarian moved freely around the table. There were even debates over most disgraceful legend. “Rod Stewart or Richard Gere?” Think about that one for a few seconds, folks.
In the morning Andrew and I groggily went over options for the day. I could only get as far as my request for first stop, which he agreed to. I was having a harder time projecting all the way to Whitehorse, only knowing it was waiting, utterly uninterested in the discourse of the previous night.
I’d have the brothers Day Two. We stopped a mere ten minutes into our row and began working one of my favorite spots on the entire river. The day was overcast, a little cool, and steelheady as anything. It wasn’t long before we had bent rods and some really beautiful Redbands in the net. Dan was in the upper slot where the current pinches into the run. Brett was midway down, working line out nicely into the fishiest bucket ever. We were there an hour before I really got to begin fishing Brett hard down there, but once we were getting after it, I just felt that all the elements were right for something special to happen. A couple nice trout rewarded his initial efforts, but my focus was on something a little different. We worked on extending his tension casts, pushing the rig out with big roll casts and then easily the most important tool in the box: the “stack” mend. As each presentation improved, as his comfort level with what was required increased, I moved back to the boat to give him some space; let him spread his wings without me in his ear the whole time. As a guide, this is far and away the most rewarding part of the gig. I love a fish in the net as much as the next guy, but beholding an already accomplished angler dig hard into getting really good at a new technique is when I find myself sighing that particularly contented sigh. Well, that, and when a beautiful woman turns to look at me with a wondrous smile and total excitement at having a trout thrashing on the other end of her line. I like that too. Just differently. And that’s for another story anyway.
“Hey Brett,” I offered from thirty feet away. “Let’s get a bit deeper, buddy. Slide that bobber up a foot.” Then from my left Dan chimes in, “Got another one!” I announced that I’d be right there. First I had to watch Brett’s first cast with the newly adjusted rig. Midway through the drift his bobber absolutely shot down. “Get ‘em!!” I ordered. He slammed the hook home and immediate tension shot into his rod. There was big thumping, a different brand of heaving. I looked up to Dan who was landing his fish. After making sure he was good, I turned my attention to Brett’s line, which was slicing into the big pool right in front of us. Then it arced towards the surface and a big fish sort of half-jumped before heading back towards the bottom. Then it ripped thirty feet of line out towards the faster current.
Fifty percent sure at that point.
Then the fish came back towards us and gave some big head shakes no more than twenty-five feet out. “Whadaya think you have there, Brett?” I casually asked.
“I dunno,” he began, about half as excited as he should have been. “A big whitey?”
“Yea, I don’t think so, buddy.” I had waded a little downstream of him to get the shot of the brothers doubled up and still stood there. Just then, the fish surfaced again. Not enough to sail clear of the river. Not enough to freak out the guy with the rod in his hands. Enough to show me what I was looking for. As it began streaking for the middle of the river I took a few steps towards the boat.
Seventy percent sure now.
“Tell you what, Brett. I’m gonna go grab the bigger net real quick” I was back near his side thirty seconds later, just in time for the fish to make a proper dash for the Columbia. I watched what was left of his fly line and then at least a hundred and fifty feet of backing exit the reel in a matter of seconds.
Eighty percent sure.
“Alright, man. We’re taking a walk. Reel when you can,” I urged grabbing the back of his waders. “I got you, Brett. Let’s go as quick as we can.” See, what I’ve learned over these years of guiding the uninitiated is that the less they know, the better we are. The instant they know what they’re quarrelling with a different, destructive instinct takes over. So I did my best to keep Brett calm as we quickly waded to the lowest point of the run. Below us was now mucky, unpredictable bottom. We would stand ground. The line was around the hummock below us, where the run continued. I watched his rod tip and could tell that the fish was still there and fairly hooked. “Just a big Redband?” he asked now, still pondering the original question.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” I replied. “Get some line when you can.”
He really was playing the fish beautifully, considering it was now probably a football field away from us. “It’s hard to tell what’s going on down there,” he said with just a hint of panic.
“If you can get this fish turned and swimming upriver, bury your rod tip in the river and reel as fast as you can.” He gave me a confused glance. “Just make sure your measuring the line on the spool as you do it,” I continued, not returning his look. Within a minute he suddenly began reeling, almost as if the fish was off. It’s so hard to tell at that distance. “Still there,” I asked”
“Think so,” was all he could offer.
“Bury that rod tip and GO!” This was the first time I expressed urgency. “Do it and don’t stop till I tell you to,” I sort of ordered. “Measure that backing onto the reel. Don’t let it stack up.” There would be no more casual banter. No more mincing of words. “GO GO GO!!”
This is called “Walking the Dog”. It is a great way to get line back in a hurry on big fish. For some reason steelhead are especially susceptible to it. Once you get the fish going a certain direction by keeping the tension low it won’t struggle as much until it’s belly scrapes the bottom or some kind of structure. Or…. When you finally have to lift the rod when the fish gets in front of you. Brett reeled at a furious, blurring pace I urged him to keep going. As the bobber came into view, I noticed it angling slightly out towards the middle of the river.
Ninety-five percent sure.
Brett kept reeling. Then the bobber was only fifteen feet in front of us in water five feet deep.
“Get the bobber a foot off the tip then lift the fish into the net. Do it in one move.”
He did as told. And for reasons unknown to any and every but the fish, it slid right into the net. “There’s you steelhead, buddy,” I announced with surprising calm in my voice. Before we get into Brett’s experience, I should announce that after perhaps a dozen confirmed encounters this year, this was the first steelhead to end up in the net. As for Brett… he just about shat himself. I cannot now recall his exact words. They hardly matter. He was experiencing a revelation, that particular transformation as an angler that only comes with your first steelhead. I truly and honestly don’t care with which technique you utilize a fly rod to capture this fish. And frankly I begrudge anyone who does. But that’s a discussion for another day. This was fooled on a 6wt nine-foot rod with a Jimmy Leg on 4x tippet. It was as badass a brawl as you could ever wish for with a fly rod. And there in the net lay a sea-run fish that would probably tape out around 26” and weight in the neighborhood of 6 pounds. I’m admittedly crappy at measuring these things. So please don’t get all uppity if I’m off with those estimations. The reality is that the size of this fish hardly mattered. Brett’s experience was from here to the clouds and back. He was lit up like a little kid who just tasted chocolate for the first time. A teenager having just gotten a little upshift from the girl of his dreams. A man parched from a week amongst the desert dunes upon feeling water on his lips. His brother, having seen the massive tail hanging out of the net, had begun making his way to us. “It’s a steelhead!” Brett announced with a mixture of excitement and astonishment. Then he turned to me. “Can we get some pictures?”
“Hell yea, man. Let’s head up to the boat.” Just then the fish gave a lunatic flop and sailed above the net, still trying to get free and almost succeeding. “Stop it!!” I growled, nearly falling in the river to re-net the fish. “Re-net” now there’s a term you don’t hear much in fishing. I need a deeper basket net… The fish tried another three or four times to get free. That is certainly one of the defining character traits of steelhead: they really just don’t quit. We finally subdued the fish and prepare for the “grip-n-grin”. Dan was with us now and held the net while I got the camera ready. The sequence of photos are classic as Brett grappled with how to hold a fish of that size. But we got one or two for the books before releasing the fish back to its realm.
Thereafter we toasted our good fortune, the day, the trip, the river and its incredible denizens. I passed on the Bourbon and beer part of the toast until I remembered that one of the two times I ever drink on the job is to commemorate the first steelhead of the season in the net. So a Vicious Mosquito was popped open and I was able to, if only briefly, live among the living on the river.
As Dan went back in, Brett and I hung out next to the boat, enjoying the beer, the recounting of the fight, the wonder of all that surrounds life down there. My attention was drawn downriver, to other favorite runs, riffles and buckets. To Whitehorse. To the precise oar strokes, the raging torrent, the rush of adrenaline. To the second beer I’d enjoy on the river that day.
We joined to other boys for lunch around one o’clock. They were fishing as we pulled in. Brett asked Andrew and Dale how many steelhead they’d caught. “Ten,” Andrew replied, lying. “That’s nine more than us,” I offered.
We had a couple good sessions before the rapid, including a mysterious stop at Oscar’s Hole. Mysterious because every time Dan dropped a rig in, it got eaten. Every time Brett put the EXACT rig through there, nuthin’. Dan landed three before Andrew came around the corner. “We’ll catch up,” I called out.
“Want to scout it?”
“Nope.” I’ve taken to rather not gazing upon Whitehorse any more than I must. This spring, when we had around 8500cfs in there we all scouted. We all just about pooped ourselves too. I’m glad we did, but when the flows are steady as they’ve been and there’s been no word of hazards, unless there’s a sign at the scouting beach, I’d rather just get through it.
We caught up with Andrew’s boat just passed Pony and took a minute to make sure all the lifejackets were fitted, the anchor properly stowed, no unnecessary loose objects lingering about. The music was canned. The guys asked to speak only when spoken to. The river bent right. The cacophony grew. My heart lodged firmly in stomach. New boat. Longer oar shafts. Afternoon glare. Then a massive exhale. Then an inhale to match. Spin the boat at the ‘Knuckles’. Judge the right time to ferry her back the other way. Then let experience and the movement of the river guide… Opal sat down perfectly above ‘Hogsback’. I gave her one little nudge to straighten out right of ‘Slide Rock’. That’s all it took. The rest was as normal as that rapid can -or should- ever get. We took on maybe a half gallon in the ‘Washing Machine’. That’s it. One of my better passes to be sure. This new boat, with all the rocker and width, is super stable while also spinning on a dime. Pleased, I am.
Below ‘House Rock’ and above the first reef on the left, I flipped open the cooler lid and grabbed three beers. That toast was a good one, full of celebration, relief, an acknowledgement that new chapters were written.
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO NEXT WEEK