Before we begin, I do offer some apology for the length of this story. So in preface, please grab a fresh cup of “joe” or crack a brew depending on mood and time of day, then settle in…
THE PILGRIMAGE—–A NON-RELIGIOUS STORY
BY GRIFF MARSHALL
I saw the most beautiful sunset the other night. It was similar to so many we get treated to around here this time of the year; all streaking pastels over jagged ten thousand-foot, snow-covered volcanoes; all transient explosions amidst color gradient perfection. What made this one especially cool was that I was “watching” it in my side view mirrors, driving east on 20, Pilot Butte bacon cheeseburger and onion rings causing threatening rumbles. Minutes earlier I had kissed wife and daughter goodbye, filled the gas tank and begun the four-hour drive east. This has become something of a pilgrimage for me. Each year, after the Sportsmen’s Shows and still feeling a little soiled, I unplug, disconnect, grab a bamboo fly rod, fill the cooler with beer, the dog jumps in the back seat and we go. Where? Well, many of you can guess. Many will recognize the canyon or the fish. This is not a secret river. I’m still not naming it.
The drive was mellow. There’s a new speed limit out there but for the most part I stroked it at around seventy miles per hour, listened to music and eased myself into the idea of no cell phones, no computers, no talking and no one to discuss plans with.
The concept of an annual pilgrimage is not new for me. Back in California, for a couple decades there was an autumn trip to Trout Country every year, no matter what. The trip was always taken solo. Sometimes I just went to the McCloud for a few days; sometimes I’d sweep from the Upper Sacramento to the McCloud and then on to the Pit River and Hat Creek, depending on weather and fishing conditions. There were years when I’d get a hotel room in Mt Shasta and wander mile after mile of the Upper Sac in snowfall and massive Blue-Winged Olive hatches. Those trips were my time to ease out of trout season and back into some semblance of “normalcy” that awaited in the low lands. I’d write in journals, read, sing to campfires, drink tequila and beer, smoke some grass, fish and sleep. Not always in that order. I’d gather and organize months worth of fishing notes, plot trips for the next season, process the meaning of my life amongst the chaotic cosmos. But mostly I’d fish my ass off, dawn to dusk, just me and Satchel, the lab.
And so now I’ve begun a new ritual of anti-social self-indulgent trout bum disappearance. And as the Eastern Oregon night engulfed me I felt free, Eddy the Aussie perched on the center console staring off into the headlamp glow. At some point early on I realized I’d left my reading material -the latest Vanity Fair and David James Duncan’s classic My Story As Told By Water, my only literary fodder for the trip- on the arm of the sofa. I planned on doing a bunch of editing of my second book, tentatively titled “Fool You Once, Shame on Me…”, so it wasn’t as if I needed something to read. At some point, still a ways west of Burns, I acknowledged that only having my own writing to keep me company out there for three days might provoke lunacy. So once in town I pulled in to the Safeway and went shopping. Now were I a gun fanatic, I’d have had literally dozens of quality magazines to choose from. Or if off-roading was my thing, boy could I have gotten my hands on a bunch of good stuff. As it was, and after several minutes of standing statue-like, I grabbed a Maxim and the latest Rolling Stone tribute to David Bowie. The Maxim, if anything like it used to be, would prove entertaining on some entirely base level. It promised an article about Stef Curry, a baller we been loving for way longer than his mega-star days, and also a story about the Virgin Islands, a land I once called home, and some pretty pictures of, you know, stuff. The Rolling Stone, well that was just to make me look like something other than a complete pervert. And I’m a Bowie fan.
Back on the road, the 5-Hour Energy doing its dirty work, the stereo up a notch or two, the blackest night you can imagine. Freedom personified.
The throat of the canyon greeted me around 10:30. In the absolute dark I stumbled around till I found my favorite campsite. Getting the tent set up went quickly. Within minutes the Aero Bed was inflated, my Kelty bag was laid out with an old comforter over it, a pillow placed just so. I’ve gotten quite good at this “roughing it” thing. This was going to be the best night’s sleep ever. The night was still and so quiet. The river through there is defined by long stretches of barely moving water. I was camped on one of these, with the slightest riffle hum just upriver. But there was much bird song, distant coyotes, and the occasional sound of a large trout attacking a hapless mouse. Sometimes I hear the otter that lives across the pool coming over to tear a branch from the willows near my tent. And then sleep overtook me.
For about one hour.
I awoke to find the Aero Bed had gone utterly flat. The dog didn’t seam to mind as she spooned me. But the cobble rock was now molding into my back in a way that was painful and no doubt causing subluxations. I figured I must have not sealed the vent cap and so took a minute to open and re-lock it. Out into the frigid night in only underwear and Ugg boots -now there’s your mental picture- to start the truck and activate the pump. Once accomplished it was back into the comfy bed for sheer delirium.
For about one hour.
This would prove to be a long night. Much as I’d love to report that I slept through one of these painful alarms, this story must be factually correct and to that end I will dutifully relate that almost exactly every hour I was rousted and made to get out of the tent to fire up the truck and pump the mattress. I did try to pad the spot and sleep through it, but the tent was in a really bad spot.
The places we wake up
Daylight came around 5:30 and I was up and out. Coffee was made. A bamboo rod strung up, waders donned. A brand new day. Sleep? Who needs sleep? Out on the river there was no activity. I’d expect some midges to start coming off soon. Then I saw the first rise. The fish, a brown trout pushing eighteen inches was in maybe ten inches of water, occupying a narrow seam, no more than three feet off the river’s edge. Eddy and I went into tiptoe mode. This is what we came for. This would be three days of fishing with no split shot, no bobbers, no sinking lines or heavy flies. And let’s go back to that cane rod for a second. If any of you suffered through my first book, the literary equivalent of waterboarding and cryptically titled “Middle Fork”, you were properly introduced to this lovely stick in the “Happy Valley with Scott” chapter. Yes, the Jim Hidy built, hollow-core, eight-foot five-weight named, ingeniously, Heidi. This is a rod I’ve had for over twenty years now. These days it doesn’t get much use, sadly. So much of my life is spent in a drift boat with clients, no place for a rod such as this. So she comes out for the once in a while day on the Fall or Crooked. One of these days she’ll make an appearance on the Lower D. But out there, way beyond my “normal” life she gets to play. And then I suppose we should revisit the quarry. This river is home to a truly astonishing number of brown trout. Twenty-five years ago an ODFW biologist with an affinity for browns saw to it to plant a few truck loads, regardless of the reality that the river in question held a genetically pure strain of redbands. But oh well, boys will be boys, and the result is a fishery that boggles the mind. As much as I adore redbands -and if anyone were to see fit to “contaminate” a native strain nowadays, I’d see to it that they suffered intensely in one way or another- the ensuing growth and proliferation of browns out there is mega. So you have this little river, full of big brown trout eating mostly tiny bugs on or near the surface. Oh, how my demented mind warps; my decades long perversion for this situation can finally be fed.
So that morning I tied on the size twenty Sparkle Dun with a size twenty-two CDC Midge a couple feet behind and began casting. The presentation was made difficult by many factors, not least of which I was crouching fifteen feet from where the river started. The fly line and most of the leader would be landing on parched river rock. A three-foot drift would be considered a success. These are the situations I crave; such is my tweaked version of fun. This first fish of the day would not be fooled. I was able to get a dozen or so casts over it before it slid out into the riffle and hid behind a rock. This is a scenario that plays itself out repeatedly there. Oh, there are easier fish to fool. Lots of ‘em. There are more rudimentary tactics to apply, sure. But I’m there for the challenge of a big fish on a tiny dry; much else doesn’t interest me. I’ve caught browns there on mouse patterns and leeches; actually had a carp eat a little leech last year. But the amount of quality fish eating dry flies through the day is what I make the trip for. And I’m just fine with not fooling one, because there’s a good chance another fish is working very nearby.
And so on the third or fourth fish I went after I got to watch it tip up and to the side just a little as it ate the midge. Now for those of you who don’t know me well, that is the instant that still makes me get all giggly as an angler. Much as I love a grab on a swung fly, or watching a bobber dive for the bottom after a glorious, complicated drift, or a Chubby Chernobyl vanish in a torpedo attack, the fish holding in shallow water moving casually to eat a size twenty fly is the thing for me. As this fish ate, I stood up and set the tiny hook and all hell broke loose. The wild thing was to see how many fish spooked out when this one began thrashing. I hadn’t even seen them until they all bolted in different directions. And these are large fish in super skinny water, blending in magically. The browns out there this time of the year tend to be a bit snaky and don’t fight with a ton of vigor, which is just as well; sixteen to twenty-inch fish on little dries fished off 6X tippet is hard enough without getting broken off all the time. The winters are tough for the big fish with no bugs of substance to eat. The pool fish are usually chunkier, but most times getting them requires stripping leeches, which we’ve now come to understand I am at loathe to do there. So it’s the tight, technical riffle water I prefer. Getting an adequate presentation takes every bit of what mediocre skill I possess, making the reward of fooling one all the greater.
The little Sparkle Dun right where I like it the most!
That morning maybe a half-dozen really beautiful fish were fooled before I drove upriver to a spot we call The Aquarium. Unsurprisingly, there were already a couple guys up there, fish rising everywhere and a whole lot of head scratching going on. A nice, older guy walked down the far bank, across maybe seventy-five feet of silent river. He sat on his bank and me on mine. We ended up chatting for a solid half hour about the river. I didn’t get his name but he used to live in Bend and now calls La Grande home where he owns a sporting good store. He had great stories about fishing around Bend in the 60’s and 70’s. I’d never heard about the Rotenone dumped in the Fall River years ago to try eradicating the brook trout. He also told me that ODFW plants rainbow trout in the river right where we were chatting. I was under the impression that no fish were stocked out there anymore. I can only imagine how the big browns must enjoy those days with a bunch of hatchery dummies swimming straight into their toothy mouths. Eventually the guys bailed from The Aquarium so I went up and began fishing. This spot is so named because you can see the fish clearly as they fin in a fairly narrow channel no more than three feet deep. I love to just stand and watch them eat. Most times you can easily see fifteen to twenty fish within a short cast. The thing is that these fish are probably the most attended to on the entire river during low-flows and so are the hardest to fool. The Blue-Winged Olive was just beginning to come off. There were still a bunch of midges around too. So I put a Baetis Hackle Stacker on the end of fourteen feet of leader and tippet with a Biot Midge behind it. The first grab was a cool one to watch. The fish twitched when it saw the dry and then as soon as the midge nymph came into view he just crushed it. This was another sixteen-inch beauty, all heavy headshakes and short, thrusting runs. I netted it and then giggled softly at how ridiculous the tiny fly looked in its gnarly mouth. I suppose it’s no wonder the fish are a bit skinny this time of year; such little bites. Maybe I should try that diet.
Two pictures of this fish: This of its (almost) entire glory
This of the little Hackle Stacker pegged in its beak
At some point I was shaken out of my fishing reverie by the reality that I had to figure out some solution to my mattress situation. So I drove back down to camp passing run after run full of trout eating Blue-Winged Olives. I went out to look at the river right in front of camp and sure enough it was boiling with rising fish. So I caught a handful and then attended to the previously mentioned issue. I diagnosed that the problem was the cap wasn’t sealing. I found some duct tape in the back of the truck and set about attempting a patch. No matter how I tried the air still leaked out if even the slightest weight was put on the mattress. Eventually I just taped over the entire opening wherein the cap sits. I did find another small leak in the actual bladder and taped over that too. After filling with air I put the mattress back in the tent and lay down. A couple hours later I awoke to find some air still held. I’d napped into the evening. A quick inspection of camp water showed no fish rising, so it was campfire time.
Yea, that’s what it looks like. Doesn’t mean you’ll get ’em to eat…
After a dinner of big steak and some fire-baked spuds it was back into the tent and out of the elements. The wind blew rain sideways much of the night. My mattress patch job held as well as could be expected. I got a few good hours of shut-eye at a time. I’d have slept better but for the wind. This trip was turning into a sleep-deprivation experiment.
I was up again at first light, groggily making coffee, stumbling with a distinct lack of clear thought and balance. Coffee helped. So did the pack of donettes. I read an interview with Bowie’s from the mid-70’s, a time during which he did massive amounts of cocaine and babbled on as if a man possessed by Kerouac, on blow. Hilarious stuff. Then I edited one of my stories for a bit, had a second cup of coffee and began feeling it.
“Breakfast” in my “Office”
That morning was spent at a couple pools above camp before heading to The Aquarium where I was planning on meeting a guy I know well from the shop, Brian. Two things of note occurred that morning once at The Aquarium. One: a couple old dudes waded in below me, where the river loses almost all momentum and behaves more as a pond. They began making long, elegant cast and then slowly retrieving some kind of offering. And they started catching fish. Lots of ‘em. I mean like tons of fish. Double after double, hootin’ and cacklin’ away like drunks. I’ll come back to these old fellas in a minute.
My bamboo rod, Heidi, in all her glory-Brian Bell photo
I was having fun doing my obsessive dry fly mania over several feeding fish. But my browns were in an especially unsocial mood as I tried a half-dozen flies to no avail. The morning was overcast, warm and without wind. It wasn’t until I put a size twenty-two Tailwater Tiny a foot off the Miracle Midge that I got a grab. Just as I was releasing this fish, Brian and his friend from PDX, Steve walked down. We exchanged pleasantries while I changed to a different fly combination. I pointed out all the fish right out in front of us including one brown that is the most vibrant gold color. I call it The Albino. It sticks out dramatically in the run where most fish blend in. I told those guys I’ve watched that fish eat a hundred times, put dozens of flies over and passed it. It’s never eaten my fly. Every time it eats a natural I find myself swearing at it and calling it really unkind and unnecessary names. Which brings us to Number Two: While those guys rigged up I flicked my latest offering out. I now had on a size twenty Sparkle Dun with the size twenty-two CDC Midge behind it. Yup, two tiny dries. Super perv, huh? On the second cast the golden fish turned and came for a look. Then kept coming, all the way to the midge, eating it in one of the more visually badass grabs I can ever remember. I announced to the guys that I’d got him. Brian took some pictures as I played and landed the fish, which was, like most, a little skinny, not as big as I’d made him out to be, but extraordinarily beautiful. A nice, hearty swig of Scotch followed. Yea, it was only nine in the morning. So what?
The “Golden Albino” at last and after all these years-Brian Bell photo
Later I ventured upriver and found more nice fish in a big, shallow pool. After fooling a couple and spooking many more one really big brown made off with both dries after easily busting the knot. The same two flies went back on, but the action tapered off. At another pool, with at least ten fish working, I only hooked one and he shook me pretty quickly.
Back down at The Aquarium, Brian and Steve had left. The old guys were still downriver crushing. The wind began to blow a bit. I put the Biot Midge off the back of the Sparkle Dun and began casting. On maybe the fifth cast I set the hook at some movement below the dry fly. What happened next is still a little hard for me to believe. The water right in front of me erupted as a rainbow in the seventeen-inch range went completely ballistic. This brawl was way more intense than anything a brown trout is capable of there. Two long runs, each followed by awesome jumps, heavy surface thrashing. The bamboo was utterly in its element now, bending from the cork, protecting the fine tippet, allowing the fish its time to exhibit just how displeased it was. The old CFO reel, long since possessing a functioning drag system, zipped with each burst and actually emanated warmth after the second run. It would take several minutes before this fish succumbed to my net. After removing the miniscule fly from its jaw I actually posed this fish for a palm shot, something I rarely do anymore. It wasn’t a huge fish, just such an anomaly for me out there.
My best ‘bow on that river
The guys downriver had taken to their truck by the time I released the fish. I was ready to head towards camp, maybe fish down there or grab a beer and snack. So Eddy and I got in the truck to go. I had to pass the guys on my way out so I stopped and asked if they were leeching and if so, what kind? You never know how such questions will be received streamside. But as one of them came towards me the other hopped out of the rig and before answering the question, said “Dang, that looked like a good rainbow you just got”.
“Yea, for sure the best one I’ve ever had here,” I said, scrolling through my phone for the picture. They both leaned in.
“Oh, heck yea! Lookie here,” one said to the other “That’s a fatty!”
“Oh yea!” the other replied to one. And then to me, “Nice ‘bow there, fella,”
I liked these guys right away. They end up telling me about some of the truly massive browns they’d caught out there. One of the guys told me he was eighty and had fished the river for seventy-five years! I did get privy to their technique of the day. Good news is that I know it works. Bad news is that I had very, very few similar flies to those they showed me. They were not leeching. We ended up B.S.ing there for ten minutes. They loved talking about the different ways they fish the river. Supposedly, up to a couple days previous, the fish had been on something completely different. But they knew what was up and made a stunningly effective technique change. Those fishy old dudes, with their neoprene waders, baloney sandwiches and big fish stories made my day. And they conferred on the spot that recently they’d hooked, played, seen and almost landed a ten-pound brown right down there. More than once.
On the drive back to camp I passed miles of fishy water, most of it with trout rising. So once there, I grabbed the rod, a cold beer and headed down to the riffle. Sure enough fish were rising everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere, but if I scanned one hundred and eighty degrees from down river to up I could see twenty to thirty fish rising within a thirty-five foot cast. The winds had died, there was one guy fishing way down the pool. Game on.
Camp Water with Eddy-Brian Bell photo
The first cast was accosted. The second mauled. The third annihilated. Each fish was in the fifteen to seventeen-inch class. I honestly can’t tell you how many fish were fooled over the next fifteen to twenty minutes. It was as chaotic as any flurry of dry fly I’ve had in a long time. Then Brian and Steve got there and the fish stopped eating. Seriously, it was pretty bazaar. I may have been releasing a fish when they showed up, or had just put one back, but I remember thinking that it’s gonna be cool to take turns with the bamboo, each hook a few fish and then take a break. But the fish just stopped eating. And didn’t really start again. Oh, how this fickle lass taunts.
That night was unremarkable. A big fire blazed, some BBQ chicken and cous cous went down nicely, I finished the Bowie stories, edited for a bit and then slept. The mattress was much the same as the night before. A proper night’s sleep would evade me out there but certainly awaited back home.
You know those Facebook pictures people post of their manicured toe nails on a beach chair with some tropical backdrop? Well this is my equivalent. This is my “happy place”
After breaking down camp in the morning I made my way to a pool upriver and rigged for the technique the old guys had employed. At least until the real hatch began, this would be a fun experiment and as much as it went against the dead-drifting of little flies on or near the surface, it was done with flies every bit as small, if not smaller! Indeed the very smallest flies I possessed were put into action. Not long after starting, the first fish ate one. This would prove to be the smallest fish of the trip, a foot-long rainbow, but fought with determination. A while later while lost in thought I felt sudden tension in my line. My first impression was that I’d hung up on something. Then that something moved. It didn’t offer any animation, just movement. I raised Heidi above my head and stripped a few feet of line. Then I saw it. Like a serpent it ghosted towards the surface, still offering only weight. This was an enormous, dark trout no more than forty feet out, facing upriver, not struggling in the least. I’m going to tell you the truth about what happens next even though the recollection causes a quickening of my pulse and it would appear a slightly more enthusiastic tapping of the keyboard. I panicked. Instead of calmly putting a bit more pressure on the fish in hopes of burying whichever tiny hook it had eaten into its jaw, I yanked hard; hard enough to simply extract said hook from said jaw. In that moment the fish made for the bottom leaving a swirl that consumed the entire center of the river. Now, I’ll admit to the occasional exaggeration when it comes to fish size. I don’t carry a tape measure and so what might have been a thirteen-inch fish quite easily becomes “fourteen to fifteen”. Over the years, if anything, I’ve taken to under-guessing. But I think with most fish around a foot I can be pretty accurate. So this thing, this beast, this Loch Ness Monster I’d just encountered, well I’m just gonna state here and now that it was well over two-feet long and would have weighed eight pounds, at least. And screw you if you don’t believe me. It is the second such fish in that size range I’ve seen with my own two bloodshot eyes. They’re there. I’ll get one next time.
Not a spot from which to casually extract your #22 fly
That’s really where this story could end. But it won’t; not just yet. I will tell you that the old guy’s technique worked beautifully. The day promised good hatch conditions right up until the wind began blowing. I fished with Brian and the boys for a while. And then I began the homeward migration, fishing here and there on my way out. A fish or two was fooled. Mostly I just wasn’t in a big rush to reenter the world of cell phones, work, chores and schedules. The world of mattresses that don’t leak did have a certain appeal.
The Long Drive Home
Outside Burns I was humming along when I saw a Statey parked on the other side of the road. I looked at the speedo and was a couple clicks over seventy. Didn’t think much of it till he pulls out behind me, tracks me down and began his own little private Fourth of July. Damn, those guys really like all their flashing lights. I pulled to the side and switched off. He approached. “Hi there. My name is State Trooper Rodney,” I’m not shitting you here. That’s how they introduce themselves.
“Good evening, State Trooper Rodney,” seemed the polite response.
“Just want to let you know that we’re being recorded here,” he announced, as cheery as you can imagine. Eddy panted “hello”. “Do you know why I pulled you over this evening?”
“Not really sure,” I lied.
“Had you going eighty back there. That’s pretty fast.”
Against all my overwhelming desire to profess there and then that if in fact I had been going eighty, I’d still have had another forty or fifty in me before what I’d consider ‘pretty fast’ on that particular ten-mile straightaway; that ‘pretty fast’ held entirely varied definitions in this world; I offered only, “Well I don’t recall going that fast, State Trooper Rodney. And if you knew how terrible the gas mileage is in this thing at seventy, you’d know that I’d never intentionally go eighty.”
He requested and made off with license, registration and proof of insurance. Minutes later he returned, handed me my things and wished me safe travels. Yup, let off with a warning. Me. Can you imagine? That only ever happened to me once, and I had to scour my deteriorating memory to recall the event. I’d just gotten my license, pulled over for a “California Stop” -that’s where you don’t really ‘stop’ at a stop sign- and let off with a caution. Oh man, if that little Mill Valley piggy knew what was in the back seat that night…we’d have all been in the papers, but that it’s for another story. This one now must mercifully end.
Thanks for coming along. Until the next time, perhaps you should make a pilgrimage of your own. Just sayin’