Sometimes a guy just has to do Winter Steelhead Camp.
Sometimes a guy just has to do Winter Steelhead Camp.
Winter 2013 Steelhead Green and Pink
- Photography by: Greg Thomas
Sometimes a guy just has to do Winter Steelhead Camp.
by John Larison
Photographs By The Author
Call it crazy.
There comes a time for every angler to grow up, supposedly. We’re expected to give up the weeklong road trips with buddies; now vacation time is parceled between in-laws. Extra income no longer accumulates in the “tarpon fund”; it is divvied between college savings accounts.
New rods and reels are passed up for briefcases and car seats and maybe even a minivan. And yet there we are thinking: This minivan would be the perfect rig for chasing hatches with the guys. Within the vortex of responsibility, some men thrive. I have deep respect for these specimens of manly productivity. I hope to be one some day. For the time being, my tarpon fund still retains $102.
I suspect most wives don’t like to hear this brand of blasphemous talk. How could recreation compare to family life? “Of course it doesn’t, honey.” And yet, most of us angling men would agree privately that without a regular fix of river or flats time, we become—somehow—less.
Let’s blame our hunter-gatherer DNA; men used to leave for extended periods to chase bison or wildebeests or whatever else humans used to eat. Salmon, maybe. Now we’re biologically programmed to depart, to explore, to light a big fire in the wilderness and shout all night.
That’s how I got here, to the dripping rainforests of Washington. My comrades—Viking, Perky and Bomber (nicknames retained from our youthful forays)—all had their own spousal negotiations and treaties, the details of which I’ll never know because home isn’t discussed at Winter Steelhead Camp, the capital noun of our angling year, our own dudely Christmas.
But, here we are again, four brothers-of-different-mothers sharing a blueish-green steelhead run. Back in the old days, we used to take long trips two, three, four times a year, back before the hullabaloo of adulthood. I’m so grateful to be here now that I’m not even casting; I’m standing on a cliff over the water, pointing out a lie to Viking. See, Viking hasn’t caught a winter steelhead in a long time.
Perky has one young daughter and a flexible job, so he manages to fish once a week on our local waters. Bomber—a.k.a. Nate Koenigsknecht—and I have it better than most; we’re steelhead guides, so we’re on the water regularly, even if we’re in work mode and not casting ourselves. Viking has two kids under four, a working wife, a demanding 9-5, and no family support within 2,000 miles. Viking needs a hard-charging steelhead in his life.
“He’s earned one,” Bomber says, his two-hander leaning against his shoulder, his hat pinned with five-inch Intruders in pink and hot pink and neon pink and pink with holographic reds. Steelheading must be the only sport in which men can wear pink with a straight face.
Bomber and I toast our coffees. “To Viking touching chrome.”
The problem, of course, is that winter steelheading isn’t exactly a sport of numbers. Sure there are the glory moments, but normally you work hard for your fish. A weeklong streak without a grab is common, even for pros. Some call winter steelhead “the permit of fresh water.” I wouldn’t know because my permit fund still hovers at $0, but I trust the analogy isn’t far off.
One thing is for sure: Catching winter steelhead becomes even less likely when you’re desperate for one. I don’t know why, but that kind of aggressive determination makes steelhead avoid your flies. Like spraying your marabou with DEET. And that’s precisely Viking’s headspace.
A little later, three of us are around the raft eating lunch, and Viking is still waist deep throwing a long line to a distant lie.
“You want a sandwich?” Bomber calls.
Viking’s head shakes so subtly it’s hard to tell if he’s answered or not.
“You hungry, bro?”
“I’m fishing. No.”
And fishing he is. Viking’s loops are neon darts that keep unfolding until the fly hits the far side with a splash. What makes his casts even more impressive is that he is making them out from under a canopy of alders; he’s sidearming 12 feet of T-14 and a weighted Intruder. If only good casts alone earned you a fish. Sometimes winter steelheading feels like Texas Hold ’Em: Play perfectly and you still lose three times out of four to some dufus who’s never held cards before.
Later that day, for instance, while we’re taking out the raft, a new Tacoma pulls up, bait rods racked on top. The window comes down. “How’d y’all do?”
“Slow,” Bomber says reflexively. That’s his stock answer to gear anglers. I’ve seen him say it minutes after landing a fish. You might call that fibbing; I consider it part of Bomber’s superb poker face. But this time Bomber isn’t far off.
The guy in the Tacoma lets a moment pass. We all know what’s coming. Any time a rig slows down to ask about the fishing, you know they’ve caught a bunch and the guy finally says, “I crushed ’em today. Slayed ’em. It was a bloodbath. Went seven for 10.”
“Pass me a beer,” Viking says before the guy has left. “Tomorrow, let’s get away from people.”
In camp, it’s my night for dinner. While the other guys change out of their waders, I hurry to get a fire going. Rain is soaking the kindling, and I break three matches trying to light them off a rock. My hands are stiff with cold now, and my breath is filling the glow of my headlamp. Finally a match takes and the fire climbs high into the night: Camp has begun.
Winter Steelhead Camp isn’t constrained by the usual sleep pressures that dog a summer fishing trip. In winter it’s dark by six and you’re fireside and eating by seven, and even if you burn through a whole bottle of Scotch, you’ll be in bed by midnight. That is unless you haven’t shared a campfire with your buddies in a year. Then you open a second bottle even though you know it’s a mistake, and you won’t find your sleeping bag until sometime after three.
But before the Scotch, I’m lifting huge elk steaks from a jalapeño, garlic and maple-syrup marinade, and laying them (pop, sizzle, steam) over coals. My dear wife tells me that humans are supposed to eat a balanced diet. In Winter Steelhead Camp we balance the elk with salami, sharp cheddar, a five-pound bag of peanuts and a heavy tin of chocolate-chip cookies that Bomber’s lady generously made for us. We devour our elk rare, cutting it on paper plates with the blades of our multi-tools.
We’re a little slow out of bed the next morning. In fact, what gets me out of my sleeping bag is the sound of a truck stopping beside me; I open the door, slide into my waders and prepare to convince a police officer that we’ll clean up camp before we leave. But it isn’t a cop. It’s four gear anglers who have come to fish our camp water. I wave in the dawn light. They wave back. Then two more rigs pull in, for a total of six anglers. Welcome to Saturday during steelhead season. Viking protrudes from his tent, a mess of beard and hangover. “Upstream,” is all he manages.
See, there aren’t any boat ramps upstream. There aren’t many public access points, either. The river up there goes through miles of private canyons and moonshine country, thousands of “No Trespassing” signs, a few “Fish Here and Get Shot” signs. Perfect. Exactly the medicine we need on a Saturday.
We rope the raft off a cliff, and Perky and I shoulder our personal inflatables and slide down some scree before coming to a stop on the boulders beside the frothing river. We don’t know what to expect downstream: huge rapids, fallen trees, fences over pools; anything is possible. We’ll be exploring. We’ll be doing what men do best. And nobody dares say it, but we all expect to find grabby steelhead that may have never seen a swung fly. What we find first is an island of black rock that divides the river into two narrow chutes, each churning with whitewater, each obstructed by SUV-size boulders. This is a canyon and there’s no circumventing a tough spot. We scout the water as best we can, clinging to rocks and shouting to each other over the roar. The left channel is the only passable route. I’ll run it first. The guys frequently volunteer me as test dummy.
As I oar in—as I get slingshotted from one mile an hour to 25—I’m struck by a humbling question: If I die here, will I have died selfishly? Here I am in an unexplored canyon pursing a fish that I’m required by law and ethical code to release. I remember my wife’s objection: What the heck is the point? But then I’m safely in the pool, and Perky lands upright too, and then the raft makes it look easy, and we’re all laughing and shouting, and any existential concerns give way to undeniable euphoria: We are looking at a world-class steelhead run. For a hundred yards, the river riffles over cobbles, swells over boulders, stalls behind ledges. There are downed logs on the far bank and eddies of green water behind them. Overhead, the sky is a narrow band of muted gray, and it’s warm enough to take off a layer.
We look at Viking.
He’s already pulling out line. “I’ll start here.”
Bomber, Perky and I start at varying intervals farther down, leaving Viking a wide berth of clean water to himself. The wading is tough, water over our waists and trees leaning low. I’m making my first casts when I hear Bomber hoot. Upstream, I see a slab of chrome in midair. It’s a buck, a good one, and Bomber’s old reel is filling the canyon with its happy song.
Viking will go fishless.
By afternoon we’re miles downriver. We’ve run the sketchiest whitewater I’ve ever seen, water so fast and violent and remote that I’m left quiet and contemplative. For the first time in my life, I have a visceral understanding of how rivers carve valleys, how passive water grinds immovable mountains into sand. I have felt those forces today; I have felt the Big Picture.
So I’m content to sit on a bank and watch Perky throw lasers under an alder on the far bank—easily 110 feet. As if I wasn’t impressed enough. His cast lands, the current curves the line into a smooth C, and I see his big fly down there as it swings broadside through the trough.
I’m watching as another of Perky’s perfect bombs lands, comes into swing. Just as the fly crosses a deep ledge there’s a flash the size of a car door. Perky drives home the hook and the car door goes contorting through the air—the first of five or six cartwheeling jumps. I’m up and shouting, Perky is palming his reel, and the fish is thrashing at the lip of the pool. When the steelhead is finally worn, Perky muscles it in close and we both laugh as the hook pulls free at our feet. No big deal. Perky sits on the bank and starts laughing in that way that only we, his fishing buddies, ever hear—the laugh that earned him his nickname.
At the same moment in the pool upstream, as Viking throws yet another fishless, perfect cast, Bomber gets grabbed and knows immediately he’s into a big one. The buck thrashes, then turns and runs past Viking into the deepest part of the pool. Bomber gives him the cork, his rod tip in the water and 13 feet of Burkheimer bends to the reel seat; the fish only comes in when it is ready. The tape says it’s 17 pounds. The biggest fish of Bomber’s winter. Viking gives Bomber a fist-bump, and goes back to casting. Darkness is nearing. Viking is running out of time. There’s a gust of wind and we can all feel it: A storm is coming, a lot of storm, and tonight the river may blow out. Bomber, though, is aglow, still laughing at his luck. He sees the riffling water, and figures he might as well cast while Viking finishes the pool. Bomber doesn’t even check his leader for knots—that’s how sure he is he won’t touch another fish. But he only makes five casts before his line stops, strangely, in the middle of the swing. No, he thinks. Can’t be. But it is. And it’s bigger. At a single moment the line is peeling downstream so fast we expect Bomber’s reel to glow red, but then a fish—his fish—jumps upstream. It takes a second for us to figure it out: the steelhead ran upstream so fast that the line couldn’t catch up. Minutes later, in Bomber’s hands, the fish is gorgeous. The tape says 19 pounds. Bomber says 18 pounds. Viking will say that night in camp, “Twenty if it was an ounce.”
In the days ahead, as I think back on these events, I realize that we angling men need not just to explore—to chase our wildebeests, so to speak—we also need confirmation that undeniable achievement still exists in this world. Not the mixed-bag achievements of the workplace; every advancement in pay or position comes with increasing headaches. No, we need to glimpse the orgiastic success that is the bison kill, the flats grand slam, the back-to-back monster steelhead. We need bros slapping us on the back saying, “That was unbelievable!” Because those moments, without doubt, transcend the efforts expended to attain them; those moments lift us from our quiet, striving realities and remind us that this world is one that rewards due diligence. And that’s a lesson that every working man and father might well carry with him in his briefcase or diaper bag.
In the final minutes of light on what will be the final day of Winter Steelhead Camp, Viking wades into the last run before the takeout. On the horizon, the coming storm is a mountain of black, the sunset lost behind it. The air smells of hard rain. Viking thinks, Well, it’s been a nice trip anyway.
Perky and I are already breaking down our rods. Bomber is organizing the contents of his raft. And Viking casts one last time. I struggle in the dusk to see where his fly lands. But there’s no missing the swirl of water, the purr of a disc drag engaging. Viking sets the hook. He shouts. And three friends converge on a fourth.
John Larison guides steelhead in the Northwest and teaches fiction at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Photograph by Greg Thomas