Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.
~Henry David Thoreau
This little nugget seemed to me to be the natural foothold of any sap whose trip went awry, the river that was blown out, the hurricane that kept you huddled indoors, the plane that never took off. The quotable version of "it's just nice to be out here...". And now, looking back on what was certainly a "fish" successful fishing trip on the "D", it is apparent that perhaps Mr. Thoreau was onto something. I came away from the 5 days and 26 (or was it 27?) river miles floated, not so much with fish on the brain...but with a broad appreciation for all that happened after I grabbed my bags and stepped out of my front door.
The fish tales will come, but first let me say that without the people involved, this trip would hold a fraction of the value. First and foremost my thanks to my wife who has yet to change the locks and even went so far as to drive me and Shox McSteel to and from the airport. She worked double time while I was away and if she ever takes the time to read this page..."THANK YOU!" Certainly other wives and girlfriends carried extra loads and without their help the 3 outstanding humans that joined me on this trip would not have been in attendance. It should be mentioned that the ride back from the river was provided by NK's significant other and she not only drove the 3.5 hour round trip with a smile, she also let us eat most of the cookies she had in her day-pack and entertained us on the ride with stories of local rivers, fish and geography etc... Considering NK wasn't even in the vehicle (as he had a guide trip the following day) I was doubly touched by the effort. Lest it be forgotten, I gained a few extra pounds eating her coffee cake and cake/cookies that were stowed on the boats and ravenously devoured throughout the trip. My sister-in-lay KC did all of the grocery shopping, helped make the planned meals and let Shox and I crash for a night prior to our early morning flight back to "the world". Thanks KC. And the front men...my brother T-mos and his good friend (who I am pleased to call my own friend) NK. It's very difficult to wrap my head around the effort, unselfishness, hard work and good will that these two guys hit Shox and me with. I've spent hard earned cash on guides that didn't work half as hard as these guys did. With Shox floating in NK's boat and me riding the "0 calorie burn" front seat on T-mos' raft, they did all of the heavy lifting, pushed the oars full time, ran the class 3's with ease and grace, gave us first crack at new water, set-up camps, tore down camps, cooked, cleaned, and showed us the finest 5 days on one of the finest rivers that you could ever hope for. They even had the PBR count dialed in so that by the time we hit the unload ramp on the 5th day, there were only 3 lonely cans left. I spent a lot of time with my younger brother taking him fishing, sharing my gear and time. I suspected that it may come full circle and I can say it most certainly has.
T-mos, I think we're even...NK, I'm indebted.
Finally, thanks Shox, for joining me on the trip. It's never easy to make these things a reality...but it's always worth it and when you are along...doubly so (if for no other reason than you bring "aphid farming" into the cocktail hour conversation).
I'm not sure if I was keyed in on fish, rods and flies too much and missed the message that the "D" river canyon is an INCREDIBLE place....or if nobody happened to mention it. My brother said "Isn't it weird to be fishing for steelhead in the desert?" I think I might've said, "yep, really weird", but what I was thinking was "It's just weird to be in the desert". The canyon walls reach two thousand - plus feet above the river in some sections. It probably would have been a little unnerving for this flatlander if the geology wasn't so damn fascinating.
|T-mos, NK and Shox...a little down time between casts.|
The first night I thought I heard a loon until I realized that it was the call of a coyote echoing through and off the dark canyon walls. A haunting start to be sure. Rattle snakes, scorpions and black widow spiders were mentioned on the drive out to the river and with the exception of one especially large and reportedly shy rattler that Shox jumped the 2nd day as he scouted the 2nd river side camp site, nobody else had any run-ins. (Note: though we didn't see any more rattlers, a fair sized garter on the river trail made both Shox and I put the brakes on until we ID'd it). Shox and I decided to "mountain goat up" one of the canyon walls on day 3 to have a look around, see if we could get a cell signal to check in at home and get a little exercise after living in the lap of luxury. NK said he thought that most of the snake activity was down by the river. T-mos said he figured every inch of the canyon had seen a rattle snake belly at one time or another. Not being sure how to process the intel, we decided to just start walking uphill. At the 1 hour mark we hit about two thousand feet of elevation with the river (at roughly 500 feet of elevation) fifteen hundred feet below us. A grand spectacle to be sure...and still no cell signal. I guess some things are just meant to be.
|Shox, 2000 feet above sea level|
Shox and NK spotted and photographed a few Bighorn sheep hidden against the canyon walls and I watched a pair of Blue Herons fight over a fishing spot (glad to see that it isn't just a human trait to hog a good run). The river is basically a ribbon oasis running through this high desert. The amount of insect life is staggering. Giant October Caddis bounced through the air and remnant stoneflies made periodic appearances. NK introduced us to a wingless stonefly he called a "Runner" that covered ground on foot faster than you'd believe. Our last night's camp was infested with millipedes...they covered the ground and the trees...I found that if I sat or stood in one spot for over a minute or two they'd be crawling up my pant legs. Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas...
|Salmonfly, on the oars.|
THE FISH and THE FISHING
As I have written in previous posts, I have never labeled myself a steelhead fisherman. I think it takes more time than I have spent, more observations than I have gathered and a real focus on that species to wear that badge. The good and bad news in all of this is that I know that I don't know jack about them. Because of this I have no real preconceived notions about how to fish like a steelhead fisherman. So, on day one, I tied on a waking dry fly and followed the prescribed methodology. I raised a steelhead on that fly in the first few hours of fishing and have to say...preconceived notions or not...it was pretty damn cool. I never hooked it, but it certainly left wherever it was hanging out and presumably rose up to take a look. That's never happened to me before. I tried hard, in the shaded portions of the day, (which in the canyons can be longer than one is accustomed to) to hook and land one of these chrome rockets on a dry, but despite another couple of looks over the next 4 days I never accomplished the task. My philosophy was this: If I was going to fish a floating scandi head and floating poly leader, I was going to fish dry. If the fish were going to come up, I wanted them to come ALL the way up. Nevertheless, I hooked all but the last fish of the trip on a skagit head/tip combo and either leeches or intruders. Also, fine by me.
|My first "D" Steelhead - Day 1|
By mid-day on day one I turned to tips and deepwater flies. I found my first "D" river steelhead, or rather we found each other, and we danced the dance of the newly acquainted. It turned out to be a 26" native that appeared to be as thrilled about being released as I was to release it. The 900 pound gorilla in the room had turned into a monkey and that monkey promptly got off my back. I was golden.
|First "D" Steelhead, as seen from above.|
As Shox put it, fishing two handed fly rods or spey rods (call them what you will) is akin to being a very good alpine downhill skier and strapping on your first set of telemark skis. You know what needs to be done...you've done it with the other equipment, you just can't seem to do it now that your ankles aren't connected to the boards. It helps and hurts when you are joined by two guys like T-mos and NK who know how to make a two-hander launch. In my twenty plus years of fly fishing I can tell you that I have never seen longer tighter loops thrown with complete composure than I witnessed with these guys. I stared in wonder as piles of running line chased laser point loops out from my brother's St Croix rod tip. I'm still trying to figure out when he learned to do that (?). And NK...such a sweet caster. I watched him throw 100'+ of rat nose point loops that were no more than 8" from shooting line to uncoiling leader. Maybe prettier than the river itself. In a word: ENVY. (OK and ADMIRATION!) I normally go to the river or the lake or the flats and I can boom out 80 or 90 feet with a single hander and it is comfortable, second nature. On this trip, my first real two handed rod outing, I felt like a complete noob. My anchors slipped, my casts collapsed, I pushed wayyy too hard every single time. I fell into the cliche reaction of trying to pound grace out with muscle...and failed. Humbling to be sure. I've got a new madness...
On day two after one of his masterful casts, my brother hooked his first fish of the trip. I scrambled up from my position downstream and watched him land a beautiful native buck.
|T-mos, putting on a clinic.|
|Native, going back.|
The background noise on this stunning waterway was the native redside. These river rainbows reportedly grow to over 20" and for some reason choose to stay in the river. In a conversation on the drive in, somebody said, (T-mos I think) that 10% of redsides born will make the trip to the Pacific and become steelhead while 10% of young steelhead opt to stay in the river and become redsides. I'm sure there is a sound evolutionary explanation for this, but it's lost on me. Only on a river like the "D" have I ever walked past, through and around beautiful strong (and native) surfacing trout to search out their larger cousins. Shox caught a few and commented on how tough they were. On the second evening on the water I caught and released a 13" fish that jumped higher than any stream trout that I've ever hooked...twice. Thick and strong, these fish don't particularly like swinging flies and so we didn't end up with as much "by-catch" as I would have liked. If you want a surreal trout fishing experience and are prepared to overlook the rock stars you'd be hard pressed to beat the "D".
We hit a slow stretch in the middle of the week, which is exactly how you want it if you are obliged to hit a slow stretch. I think we'd all landed a fish or two and for some unknown reason, the catch rate tumbled to near zero. It's nice when you don't have to question your prowess as an angler which can sometimes happen if you start the week off slow. It's certainly no fun to end on a low note either, so these two days tucked in the middle were perfect. It may have been the weather, it could have been that we were fishing between pods of fish or it may be that T-mos was correct when he said, "sometimes they just get dour". Half hearted plucks at swinging flies and a couple of heads showing for dries assured us that there were at least a few around.
By the fourth afternoon we were back in business, I watched T-mos get jacked 3 times in a nondescript flow that we decided to pull off and fish. He finally landed it, or at least one of them, and let me follow through where I got blanked. The next run was a sweet long pool that was best swung from river left...my strong side with the two hander. I fished long and slow and even incorporated a couple of my brothers tricks for deepening the swing of the fly. I got to what I thought was the end of the swinging water and was considering starting over at the top when T-mos said, "from what I can see you are just getting into the bucket." So, I kept swinging and stepping down and missed two grabs until the third connected with a nice steelhead. I didn't officially land this one as it decided to go all Flying Wallenda on me. It popped the hook after two last minute skyrockets a rods length away...It seemed the game was back on.
We hightailed down stream at 4 PM and met up with Shox and NK who'd secured, what NK considered to be, one of the best camps on the river. After we made a hasty sandwich and devoured a handful of chips, T-mos and I crossed over to river left to fish a run directly above camp.
He gave me first run through. On the third short swing through the head of the run, I hooked up with a 6 pound hatchery fish whose temples were summarily massaged with a fair sized river rock.
Later that evening the three others caught and landed fish a few hundred yards below where I privately hooked and landed a 8-9 pound native buck. He came in pretty quickly and then I spent 15 minutes duking it out with only 15-20' of flyline out of the rod tip. In my haste I snapped two pics with the macro focus engaged and they turned out in a blur. I released it and it was still punchy.
When we settled into camp that night we had a couple of hatchery steelhead to clean and ate one of them along with our beef fajita's for dinner. I watched closely as NK prepared the fish and can tell you that ingredients are not as important as the critical amount of time above the flame...it was delicious.
|NK head chef at camp kitchen.|
The last day, we started out fishing the same water that we'd conquered the night before. I had a few plucks and NK and Shox both connected. T-mos fished his run hard and if I remember correctly scored a fish just before NK landed his second.
Boats loaded we pushed off, lifejackets on, for a run to the takout through 3 sets of class 3 rapids. NK and Shox stopped along the way to fish sweet spot and T-mos and I blasted toward the bottom of the float with plans to fish one more section before rods were cased and the trip was complete. We slid into the long stretch that we intended to fish and had the pick of the run...nobody else was fishing (despite the relative ease with which others could access this lower water). T-mos said he could never decide which side to fish since both were good. I suggested river left as it would make the final fish a little easier for me. I slid off the seat and started down the run, casting as if the previous 4 days of swinging flies on a two hander was all of the practice...and this was the test. Cast after cast blasted out, caught the current and swung my wet across the river just under the surface. I was approaching a submerged rock at the tailout when I looked up and noticed NK's drift boat making it's way down the run. I figured that T-mos would want to follow them down but decided that I wouldn't quit until I reached the rock. An obvious holding lie (as any seasoned steelheader will tell you!) I cast, swung and stepped. Repeat. Repeat.
NK and Shox in the drift boat were a few yards above me and out in the middle of the flow just as my last cast was swinging the wet past the submerged rock. The fly got throttled and the rod bucked. The fish held down by the rock for a few moments and then slowly started to make it's way up the center flow of the river. It seemed as though I was going to pass my final exam with the bleachers full. My casts were as good as they'd been all week, this was the first fish I'd actually hooked on my floating Scandi line and it was the last run and perhaps the last cast before the curtain fell. It seemed too good to be true.
And it was.
All was going well, the line was tight and I could feel the head shakes...then the tension on the line disappeared and the fish was gone. I later learned that Shox had the same thing happen upstream and it seemed to me then, as now, that perhaps the chrome sirens had to get their final taunt and tease in before we left...just to assure our return.
As you may have discerned from the report above, it is illegal to kill native steelhead on the "D". Hatchery fish may either be released or kept with a daily limit per angler of two. It was the directive of both NK and T-mos to end the lives of all of the hatchery fish we could (within the limit of the law) in the hopes that they would NOT spawn with the natives and further dilute the species. I couldn't help but notice that the "harvest tag" that each angler must fill out and submit at the end of each trip would indicate how many hatchery fish were kept. My guess is that despite saving a native from crossing with a hatchery fish, we may have also reinforced the ODFW's hatchery program by, in a sense, becoming consumers of the "product" they are selling. Either way it's disheartening to know that the once great spawning runs of our Pacific salmon and trout are now supplemented with inferior concrete tank clones. The good news is that guys like T-mos and NK care enough to pay attention and ask the hard questions. They understand that Shox and I are likely to pay closer attention to the issues now that we, like them, have tasted the sweet water of this high desert steelhead river.
Well done boys.