- By: John Gierach
- Illustrations by: Bob White
A MOMENT COMES ON SOME FISHING trips—maybe sooner, maybe later—when you begin to wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. Never mind that it had been raining hard for weeks on the Oregon coast and that the rivers we intended to fish were swollen and dark. Steelhead fishing is stingy with straight answers, but one way this can go is that a flush of high water in March brings steelhead out of the salt, and when the rivers begin to drop—as they must eventually—they’re stiff with bright, grabby fish. Or not, but that’s one way it can happen.
More to the point, it seems ridiculous on its face to call a trip on account of rain in a region that gets enough of the stuff to support a temperate rainforest. When you live in semi-arid northern Colorado, a climate this wet seems pleasantly exotic. You picture a version of the tropics with all the green lushness, but without the oppressive heat or the sunburned fun-hogs. And anyway, it has rained harder there. One year there was so much rain the salmon couldn’t pick the rivers out of the general deluge, so they just swam across Highway 101 and into the flooded pastures around the Tillamook Cheese Factory.
My flight out was uneventful in the modern sense that being frisked by a stranger is now standard procedure. As usual, some fellow passengers spotted me as a fisherman and asked about my trip. I don’t actually wear a badge that says “Fisherman,” but I’m carrying a rod tube and wearing the sweat-stained Filson packer that my friend Anne Ripley calls, “That dreadful hat,” so I’m rarely mistaken for a guy on his way to a board meeting.
I’d missed that morning’s exchange of phone calls between my fishing partners. Seems they were re-thinking the trip because of even heavier rain than expected, a grim forecast and rivers rising toward flood stage. The way I heard it later they were exchanging sentiments like, “Dude, it’s not looking good,” while stopping just short of actually pulling the plug.
For that matter, I only caught snatches of the breaking news from Japan of a terrible earthquake and tsunami that had killed thousands and severely damaged several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. I may have experienced compassion fatigue. That is, the disaster seemed remote and I was busy retrieving my duffel in Portland, renting a car, threading my way through city traffic and then heading west through the rain. I was just happy to be on the ground and going fishing.
The first I heard about tsunami warnings for the Oregon coast was from one of those lighted highway signs that usually warn of road conditions. I thought about stopping, but the sign hadn’t said to turn back and there were other cars going in the same direction, most with Oregon plates. I thought the locals must know the score. Then it occurred to me that that’s what every lemming in the pack must think.
At a gas station in Garibaldi a guy said the tsunami had already hit farther south, causing plenty of damage, although less than feared. “Course there can be more than one wave,” he added, “but I wouldn’t sweat the tsunami, I’d sweat the plume of radioactivity on its way from Japan.”
I was the first to arrive at our rented cabin. Per the landlady’s instructions, I worked the combination on the cellar hatch, ducked in to turn on the electricity and get the key from under a tin can, and then let myself in the front door. There was moss growing on the welcome mat. The firewood stacked on the covered porch was technically out of the weather, but it was visibly damp.
I knew that before a tsunami hits, the sea recedes, giving the fleet of foot time to dash for higher ground. So I peeked out at Tillamook Bay through the window over the kitchen sink. Except for being out of focus through the pouring rain, it looked normal. Then again, I’d only seen it for the first time an hour and a half earlier, so didn’t really know how it was supposed to look. And of course there was no way to tell if the stiff breeze off the Pacific carried an invisible freight of radioactivity. At times like these it’s worth reminding yourself that every step we take, even on a trip from the couch to the refrigerator, is a journey through time into the unknown. The only way to be sure how a fishing trip will turn out is to not go, but the regret that can dog that decision is the kind that breaks spirits and ruins lives.
When my writer friend Scott Sadil pulled in that afternoon, he filled me in on the talk of canceling the trip. There’d been serious dithering right up until the moment they realized I was already on the plane, at which point they’d decided we might as well soldier on. Scott was grinning the whole time, but then writers have a unique perspective on these things. Sometimes the disastrous trip makes a better story than the one where everything goes right.
I’d managed to get a fire going in the stove using wet wood from the porch, but along with the groceries, Scott had brought a load of bone-dry oak and cedar that would come in real handy. I always get a rush of confidence when a fishing partner reads the conditions right and comes prepared. I think, It’s gonna be OK. At least some of us know what they’re doing.
When Rob Russell pulled in after dark towing his drift boat, he was all smiles and confidence. Rob has since come in out of the cold with a job selling fishing books, but he was once a steelhead guide and still exudes the kind of optimism that sheds doubt the way a tight shake roof sheds rain. We were three guys going fishing. What could go wrong? Scott and I had been lounging and talking, but suddenly there was activity. Dinner was rustled up, the coffee pot was primed for the next morning, and there were fly boxes to be picked through, leaders to be tied, drags to be adjusted.
The river we launched on the next morning was bank-full and opaquely green, like thin pea soup. It looked pretty good. A little higher and faster than you might like, but still with defined runs where steelhead could lay up. We fished heavy tips and big, weighted flies according to the common wisdom, but Rob didn’t think I was getting deep enough in the heavy current with my type-8 sink tip. He let me fish for a while, but finally couldn’t stand it any longer and handed me an old Burkheimer loaded with a 550-grain Skagit head, a two-foot cheater, 10 feet of T-14 and a four-inch-long Intruder fly with big lead eyes. I’m not much of a Skagit caster, but after a few false starts I was lobbing this depth charge across the river and ticking gravel in the tailouts. I was feeling the surge of conviction you get when you believe you’re in the zone, and incidentally re-thinking my entire Spey-casting program.
Not long afterward I hooked a sea-run cutthroat—a nice 15-incher, but still a disappointment. It was a momentary heart-stopper, but the strike was light and hesitant and I knew it wasn’t a steelhead even as I was tightening up. When you’re fishing deep, the take of a steelhead feels like the smooth, deliberate motion of someone lifting a watermelon into a shopping cart. Even before you set the hook you get an intimation of weight and strength.
When we got off the water that afternoon, we looked at another nearby river. It was pretty well blown out, but we each made obligatory passes through the one nice run that still held its shape.
On the way back to the cabin, we stopped at a place on the bay for a few dozen oysters right off the boat. It had been breezy on the river, but out here in the open there was a 30-knot wind, whitecaps on the water and horizontal rain. The bay was churned up brown, but we could see the greenish plume of current from the river we’d been fishing extending for thousands of yards. It was easy to imagine steelhead coming in from the North Pacific, sniffing out the first scent of their home river and nosing deliberately up the familiar-smelling current.
At the door of the oyster joint I remembered a childhood filled with women saying, “Don’t you track mud in my kitchen!” and tried to shake off and dry my feet. But the guy behind the counter waved us in past the more or less permanent “Caution, wet floor” sign. The oysters were raw, cold, slimy and salty with a dash of Tabasco. Like winter steelheading, they’re an acquired taste.
At the cabin we got a fire going in the stove, hung our waders and raingear around it to dry and tossed the rest of the clothes we’d been wearing in the dryer. This was the first time all day that I realized I was soaked nearly to the skin. I’d just gotten used to it, in the same way a frog sitting in a pond no longer notices that his ass is wet.
Scott had an errand the next morning. He had to drive an hour south to give a presentation at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, where he was ensconced in the writer-in-residence program. He said that when he was awarded this honor, they probably hadn’t expected him to check in to his secluded cottage and then immediately leave to go fishing. On the other hand, they knew what kind of books he wrote, so they couldn’t have been completely surprised. He said that so far no one had batted an eye, but if it came up he’d say he was doing research for a story, which would be just true enough.
While Scott was gone, Rob and I did some wade fishing in the same water we’d floated the day before. The river was high and off color, but the runs still looked good and I thought it was only a matter of time. I kept picturing a big, bright steelhead fresh from the ocean charging around in the confines of the river like a bull in a china shop attached to a 10-pound leader, but no dice.
We drove upstream on a logging road to look at some water above the first put-in. The river was narrower up there and most of the runs we looked at were flowing too high and too fast. One looked marginally fishable, but there were already two guys parked there stringing up Spey rods.
Farther upstream we walked out on a bridge to look at a beautiful pool. There was a deep slot on the far side and a long sloping tailout. You’d have to swing the whole thing from one spot on a short gravel bar, but it was doable. After looking at swollen rivers for a day and a half, this was as pretty a pool as I could remember seeing. Even the color of the water was that smoky grayish jade I think of as “steelhead green.” The same kind of water a client of Rob’s once thought looked like toxic sludge.
We were standing there hoping to spot a steelhead holding in the tail when four guys paddling brightly colored plastic kayaks came under the bridge and headed into the pool. We cringed, but they cut to the inside to set up for the next rapids and missed the sweet spot by 30 feet.
Rob fished the run a little more cleanly than I did, but we both managed to swing flies right into the soft spot at the tailout where I fully expected a pull. I understood that from there a single flick of the tail would take a steelhead into the rapids and there’d be nothing I could do about it. I remembered a friend telling me he’d hooked a steelhead on a tributary of the Skeena that took him so far and fast around the next bend that when the fish broke off, his backing was stretched across dry land.
But again, no dice. Maybe the fish were there, but they were sulking. Or maybe they hadn’t made it this far upriver in the high water.
We waded off the gravel bar and climbed back up to the truck. Rain was falling outright on the river’s surface, but under the canopy of trees it was more of a fine spray punctuated by steady drips. We were waist deep in ferns, and the crowns of the massive western red cedar and Sitka spruce trees were out of sight in the low ceiling.
Scott got back a little after noon. He said he’d talked a little about writing and fishing, tied a simple Green Butt Skunk—which had amazed the audience at the Center—then made his escape and headed back to the river. That first afternoon at the cabin Scott had said it was odd for a writer who thinks of himself as a journeyman to be thrust into the company of people who were encouraged to think of themselves as Artists. I quoted Richard Russo to the effect that art is just “solid craft with a dash of style.” (Actually, he said “maybe” that’s what it is, leaving himself some wiggle room.) Scott agreed that it was best to simply do what you do and let it stand. Whether or not you’re an artist is something other people decide. What the artist himself thinks is immaterial.
There was still time for an afternoon float and we launched on an empty river. If other boats had gotten out ahead of us, there’d still be trailers at the put-in, but the parking lot was vacant. It looked as though everyone had bailed except those two die-hards on the logging road that morning. We waded some runs, but swung most from the boat, if only because the river had come up and there was no place left to stand.
We ended up anchored in a good run, one long bend upstream from the takeout, trading turns swinging from the bow. Hope remained high. If tide fish were here this is where they’d be, and there was no earthly reason why one of us shouldn’t hook one. I’m far from adept at this, but I know enough to get by and I’m comforted by the knowledge that although a good steelheader owns many skills that serve him well over the long run, he’ll sometimes be out-fished by a persistent klutz.
That’s what I was thinking when the squall hit. We heard and saw it coming upstream for a few seconds: a roaring sound, trees leaning dangerously and an opaque wall of water I thought was rain and Rob later said was spray boiling off the river. We just had time to grab the spare rods and hang on before this thing spun the boat around on the anchor rope, pushed boat and anchor several yards upstream and slammed us against a high bank. We came within inches of swamping, the bank-side oar shot out of its lock and into the river and the temperature dropped 30 degrees.
It lasted a few minutes, and then things went back to normal except that the rain-spattered river was now littered with good-size tree branches. Scott asked, “What the f**k was that?” but there was no answer. Rob was busy putting the spare oar together so we could catch up to the one we lost before the takeout. I thought Microburst, but didn’t say it out loud because it was just a word I’d heard somewhere in connection with weather.
Rob left after dark that evening in order to make the long drive home in time for work the next morning, and Scott went outside to check in with the guide we had booked for the next few days. Cellphone reception on the coast is worse than spotty, but Scott had discovered that if you stood in the rain on the bottom porch step you could get a signal.
I was fussing with the cranky flu on the stove when Scott came back in and said, “The guide’s not coming.”
“He’s not coming. He said he checked the weather forecast and the flow and it’s pointless.”
We decided to put in one more day on our own. No telling why except that there’s something resembling a work ethic in operation here. Or maybe it’s just the good-natured stubbornness I like to think of as uniquely American, whereby no one wants to be the first to call it quits. Not that there’s anything heroic about fishing. Remember, when a non-angler sees one of us casting in the rain, his likely thought is, Now there’s a guy with nothing better to do. Still, I couldn’t help thinking how sweet it would be to land a steelhead after the guide had said it was no use. You wouldn’t be mean about it, but you would e-mail him a grip-and-grin shot of a stupendous chromer with the message, “Sorry you couldn’t make it.”
We ended the next day standing on the bridge where Rob and I had seen the kayakers. We’d spent hours driving up the river, casting halfheartedly to some runs and simply looking at others that would have been beautiful at half their current flow. At some point we stopped carrying our rods down to the river, a sure sign that we’d quit fishing and were now just sightseeing. Of course the run Rob and I had fished a little more than 24 hours before was now a shapeless torrent. I could pick out where the tailout and the handy gravel bar had been, but there was now no sign of them.
As we stood on the bridge in the rain, possibly looking a little dejected, a rusty pickup pulled up behind us and stopped. The driver rolled down his window and asked, “How’s the fishin’?” We turned to reply, but then saw that he was wearing the lopsided grin peculiar to fishermen who already know the answer to that question.
John Gierach has written FR&R’s Sporting Life column since 1992. His latest book is No Shortage of Good Days.
by John Gierach
illustration by bob white / whitefishstudio.com
I always get a rush of
confidence when a fishing partner reads the conditions right and comes prepared.
That’s what I was thinking when the squall hit.