As an introduction to this story, firstly I must offer apologies for its length. No fishing story should be this long. But I had a day off from the river and felt like writing. So grab a fresh cup of coffee, or a beer depending on the time of day. Secondly, please read with tongue firmly lodged in cheek; this is meant to be kinda fun. At least it was to write…
For those of us who fish through the seasons here in Central Oregon few things give the sense of summer waning into fall as much as the first sighting of a migrating steelhead in the upper stretch of the Lower Deschutes. Note how I clarified a ”migrating” steelhead. That is because believe it or not, there are steelhead that call the Deschutes “home”. These are fish that were either bound for another Columbia River tributary and got distracted, only to decide that our beloved “big river” seemed a good place to stay, or a genuine Deschutes fish that simply resisted nature’s beckoning back to the salt water after spawning. I know, the biologists are all frothing at the mouth in disagreement right now. All two of you. But please, sit back down and hear me out. I, along with many other guides, spend a lot of time on that river. You know, a lot. Some of us to the point that this time of year it’s the days not down there that disorientate, make us wonder what to do with ourselves without the next oar stroke, the next riffle, run, pocket, bank to probe, where to prepare lunch, the dreaded thought of whether or not there’s a cold beer in the cooler to help stow the boat at the take-out ramp to worry over. You know, the important things that our worlds revolve around. This is our daily routine; it is where patterns make sense, where we feel purpose and meaning. Yea, we are on the river a lot. So to both you biologists out there, just let me go on. Put your computer back down. No need to hurl it across the room, not just yet.
So as I was saying there are steelhead in the Lower Deschutes year-round. Why do I state this so unequivocally? Well, because I’ve seen them. Not just once or twice. Not often. But enough to know. The scenario is usually pretty much the same: some unwitting client fishing a 5wt trout rod with two, maybe three bugs under a bobber, making adequate drifts through some random seam (this is where I perhaps stray from detailed, specific locations, as there are a couple spots that lack “random-ness”), and when I have to distract them from whatever reverie they happen to be spacing out on to set the hook, our collective world erupts as a five-pound steelhead surges at the end of their line. There’s a saying we perhaps overuse in this business: “Seen that movie before.” It’s usually in reference to something not great happening, repeatedly. Like a guy tries to wade too far out into “Little Indian” riffle, slips and goes headlong into the current. Or an angler continuously casting over their right shoulder from a river left station, even though the wind is howling downstream, eventually impaling himself. These are occurrences wherein we might utter the time-honored phrase, “Oh yea, seen that movie before”. You know, because we know how it ends… You get it, right? Okay, apologize for talking down. But you are all anglers, so I can take nothing for granted.
Where was I? Oh yea, so perhaps a dozen times a season at some “random” spot a client will hook a steelhead on say the 5th of June, by which time we are down to 4 or 5X tippet and some #16&18 flies. Can you guess how this particular movie ends? The truth is there are a few different endings, none of which has the fish folded, over-stuffing a trout net. Nope, that’s just not how this one ends. As much as we’d love to see the Hollywood hero and heroine embracing now and forever into some tropical sunset, sheathed in white linen, tear-inducing, symphonic crescendo filling every emotional sense you possess. Nope. This is the one where the plane doesn’t land safely; the firefighters arrive moments too late. Remember the James Bond movie where he gets married, is off in some rad Aston Martin with his new, smokin’ hot bride and same baddies riddle her with bullets? The cop pulls up and Bond tells him the girl is just napping, that they have all the time in the world to share? Yea, it’s like that. Only harder to watch.
Okay, so I feel I’ve digressed a little here. Already. Humble apologies.
This time of the year, while rowing certain stretches of the river, we stand with oars in hand over every tail out, every likely spot a steelhead might post up. We imagine great, broad-shouldered anadromous beasts spooking out from under our boat. Or maybe we didn’t imagine it. Maybe that really was the first of the fresh fish, right where he ought to be. I had than moment a couple weeks ago just above the ramp at Trout Creek. Absolutely, positively a migrating fish, tucked in right where I see one every year, right where he rests up before pushing around the corner into heavy current. It’s easy to see why he’s always there. That night he’d push the half-mile up to the next easing of velocity. Then he’d keep going, perhaps all the way to the dam. Anyway, I knew some were already in there but to see one with my own eyes gave a renewed sense of the time being nigh, the season being upon us.
Last week we hosted the Remedi brothers, both born in the Midwest, both now relocated to the west. They’ve fished many rivers for many trout. They take such a trip every year. It was a pleasure to have them in my boat. We fooled a bunch of trout, including a lovely little Bull. Sadly, as is the case so often this time of the season when we are down to #18 and 20 flies on either 5 or 6x tippet, many fish broke off before succumbing to the net. But the day went well. Every stop produced some hook-ups. I was feeling really good, both for them and for me. It’s always nice to stop for lunch and know that if another fish isn’t caught, the day will still be considered a success.
Lunch was grilled steaks, some Caesar salad, local chips and salsa. They enjoyed beer. Then after the cookies it was time for them to get back in the river while I cleaned and packed. I sent them down to a little spot where I figured they could be trusted to fish without any real harm coming their way. Perhaps fifteen minutes later, just as I was finishing the packing or the boat, there was a great, panicked, almost guttural scream from down river. “GRIIIFFFF!” That was it, and it sounded bad. In the proverbial heartbeat I was heading their direction, having the presence of mind to snatch my pack. I’m guessing if there were a film crew there I’d have done a pretty good David Hasselhoff imitation. You know the way he grabs that little buoy thing on his way into the surf? That was me, only with my Fishpond Waterdance Guide pack and Nomad Series hand net cleverly attached, but nonetheless fearlessly venturing to where the distress signal had emitted. Vainglorious, I know, but I’m quite sure that is how it would have appeared on film. Quite sure indeed. Hmmmmm, just a moment to reflect on how awesome that would have looked… Where was I?
Oh yea, so downstream I ran, feeling pretty assured that I would find one of the brothers in some state of drowning. The call had been that of life-threatening panic. Someone had fallen in and was most likely clinging to an overhanging tree branch, moments from an inelegant death, the river bottom only inches beneath his studded boot soles. So this is the day it happens, I reflected inwardly. Upon arriving on the bank above them I was more than a little surprised to find both brothers standing, neither reckoning with death in any way. And one was standing upstream with a bent rod held high overhead. The other was perhaps forty feet downstream, peering into the river with a small trout net in hand. That would be Steve, a fireman from Arizona. The one with the bent rod was Kevin, an airplane mechanic living in Las Vegas. He looked up and asked, “You got your camera?”
“Yea, my phone’s right here,” I replied setting it up to snap some pictures.
“Awesome!” Kevin said, with a genuine enthusiasm. “I got something HUGE on here.”
I looked up at Kevin, then down at Steve, examining the bend of the rod, the angle and tautness of the line, and then tried to gain some focus on what he had hooked down there. The general lack of commotion where the fish was laying lead me to believe that perhaps he’d got one of those big ‘Butter Bellies”, maybe even hooked somewhere other than the mouth… I reflected briefly that he was using a relatively light trout rod on very light tippet (but more on that later) and seeing as though the river quickened just downstream from him, I’d just stay up there on the bank until it broke everything off. Not trying to be a negative Nellie or anything. Just then Steve made an abrupt stab into the river with the little teardrop net.
Then the movie began.
As it was, the net actually jabbed the fish. And the fish turned out to be a steelhead. And it didn’t like being jabbed. The fish blew up right in front of Steve, no more than fifteen feet off the bank. “Steve,” I said utilizing my least flippant tone. “Get out of the water. Grab my phone and stay on the bank.” Then in Kevin’s direction, “Hey Kevin, you got a steelhead on here. So let’s just try to keep some even pressure and see what he does.” As I slid into the river with the relatively new Nomad Series carbon fiber trout net at the ready, I tried to keep an eye trained on the fish. It was a solid one; four to five pounds, and just dogging in the drop-off water twenty feet out. In assessing the situation, I came up with the following: 1) His knots were sound because we’d re-rigged right after lunch. 2) Above the split shot was 4x, below it went 5x to the first fly and 6x to the others. 3) The largest fly was a #18 Anato-May with a #18 Trina’s Bubbleback BWO emerger and #20 Olive Soft Hackle behind it. 4) We were pretty much screwed. Once in position thirty or forty feet below, I kept looking up at Kevin anticipating that I’d have some sagacious advice to bestow. Yet every time I looked up there he had the rod in the perfect position, bent nicely into the fish that for the time being, it appeared, had forgotten was hooked. Now this wasn’t any rod, mind you. No, we’re talking about an Echo rod. And not just any Echo rod, but the Echo Carbon series in a nine-foot 5wt. The rod was equipped with the glorious little Echo ION 4/5 reel. Both have been in the boat for three long seasons, subjected to abject abuse at the hands of countless clients. I actually have two such set-ups, monickered Echo 5wt Number One and Echo 5wt Number Two. They are, without doubt or suspicion, rods worthy of such esteemed appellations. Not sure which one Kevin was now bending so epically into the steelhead, but I knew in his capable hands that the Umpqua Feather Merchants Fluorocarbon Tippet would be protected. It was a moment of symmetry; water, sun, sky, the ghosts of ancient tribes, otter, osprey, all that’s ever been or will be, present, witnessing the struggle. You could almost feel the stars align. A man waist deep in the mighty Deschutes River confronting an ornery denizen. A tug of war proposing historic proportions. And yet it would only ever end one way. The movie was surely nearing that moment you can barely stand to watch. My certainty of the outcome was unwavering. And yet the tippet held.
The fish made a dash for the middle of the river. The tippet held. The fish somersaulted repeatedly. The tippet held. The fish got downriver and rubbed the line on a rock. The tippet held. Who had tied these knots of steel you might ask. Well, that’d be me. Suddenly the sun shone brighter. God? Is that you? No, just the day wearing on into the afternoon. Or maybe it was. Who am I to say? I’m just a guide who ties superlative knots. But enough about me. Kevin was really the man of the hour. Somehow he maintained the perfect pressure on the fish, able to steer him away from the rock the steelhead and I were both presently behind. Several times I thought to attempt a net job, but discretion got the better part of valor. And throughout all of this, the tippet held. I’ve seen a lot of duress inflicted on light tippet before, but never anything like this. Boy, that Umpqua Fluorocarbon is the real deal. I’ll tell ya that much. And the Echo Carbon nine-foot 5wt must be the most capable big fish-fighting rod ever constructed from anything other than bamboo. But I digress yet again.
For some reason, perhaps ten minutes into the fight, the steelhead simply cruised back above the rocks we’d been behind for so long. I climbed back level with the fish and began girding myself for the decisive moment wherein I’d masterfully scoop the beast into the net. Most of us guides have been in this situation: we want it over with so badly that we start strategizing how to get the fish landed, sometimes perhaps prematurely, sometimes perhaps even losing the fish in the process. Having broke off a client’s steelhead last season only to feel his wrath for the rest of the day, I’ve gotten a little more circumspect about just thrusting my net at a fish. But with this fish I knew we had to get it done. You can only hold your breath for so long. All this fish was doing now was going out ten or fifteen feet, giving a few headshakes and then finning back in no more than five feet from me. This happened several times and on each I imagined getting the net under it. On perhaps the fifth or sixth move, I went for it, punching the gorgeous, lightweight net in and down and then forward. I won’t claim to be the most stylish netter of fish. No, that distinction would irrevocably belong to Dave. But in this case the frantic scoop resulted in the great fish folding heavily into the new net, which had just earned its price tag.
What followed immediately were the obligatory high-fives, deep, relaxed breaths, a war hoot echoing off canyon walls. And me, standing over the fish, stunned. This steelhead had eaten the Trina’s. And so yes, here was incontrovertible evidence that migrating steelhead eat insects when back in the fresh. Sorry you two biologists. That’s just how it is. Deal with it. You’ve permission to heave your computer against the nearest wall now. The tiny fly was lodged fairly in the corner of the mouth. But the other flies and tippet were wrapped around the head to the point where only six inches of tippet remained below the split shot. Still, that means the fish was landed on 5x. Shortly thereafter I realized it was a hatchery fish. When I announced to the guys that we’d have to kill it they were a little bummed. But as I looked for the right rock, I explained why such fish are in the river and the importance of dispatching with them when they are caught. Those who know me understand that this is difficult for me to do. Hatchery fish or no, this one has lived a hardcore life, enduring life-threatening hardship we can’t even begin to comprehend, unless you’ve been at war. I know why these fish are there and have grown accustomed to what needs to befall them, but I still give a little prayer each time. I call it “Eddy’s Prayer” in honor of the love interest in the book “The River Why”, a brilliant tome by the then quite young David James Duncan. In the book Gus watches Eddy catch a crawdad to use for bait and before twisting its tail off she whispers to it, “Life’s short. It’s God’s fault. I’m sorry” And so that is what I said to this steelhead just before the first of the five or six blows it took to finally render it inanimate, releasing the proud fish into the waters of another, better world.
Kevin posed for pictures. We talked reverently of the fish and it’s journey and how lucky we were to have encountered it and what a fine bit of angling it took to play and land such a fish on the tackle we had. Then I broke my rule of not drinking on the job with a few sips of a beer. Most of it went into the river as part of my prayer and thanks and an invocation that the river and I might be able to continue this mind-blowing relationship we’ve forged over these last four years. And the beer was offered as a humble request that this be the first of many such fish we encounter over the next few months.
After the unceremonious placing of the fish in the cooler, Kevin went to get his brother. I sat on Ruby’s gunnel and exhaled deeply. The emotions were that of confused reflection. The movie hadn’t ended at all the way I expected. Like all the great films, this one had the twist, a mis-direction leading you down one path only to divert you unwittingly back; so masterfully done as to cause a brief lack of balance. Perhaps a European directed this particular movie. You know what I mean? Ever seen those movies that end and you’re thinking, “No way! That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” Only I actually like this one. So I sat there in the emptying theater, shedding a confused tear, eating the last of my soggy, cold popcorn, cogitating. It would still be days before it made sense. Or maybe I just imagined it made sense because I need answers, clarity, closure.
What a place I call my office. Come spend a day with me sometime. You never know what might happen!
As always, thanks for your time. Now go do something fun!