It's been awhile.
Not because I have been lazy and too "busy" to write.
It's because this is a fly fishing blog and there has been no fly fishing.
There is an upside. I've watched my girls play some great soccer and work is going well.
.... it has been awhile.
I flew in from the East Coast on Friday afternoon, packed up some gear and hit the road on Saturday morning. I met up with Brother Bill and McSteel, loaded the Tacoma with rods, flies, waders and provisions. McSteel offered to finish off the last two hours of the drive and I was all in.
We pulled into "the" campground as the light was falling. In the deep gray November evening we saw only one other tent...a nylon version, perched lonely and coldly deep into one of the campsites.
The three of us were amazed less by the empty campground during steelhead season than by the soul who would choose to sleep a November night in a cold plastic dome.
Nylon amazement...because we have yielded to a higher power: The "IC" (Idiot Central).The IC is the name given to the community canvas wall tent we were free to erect in any (of all the rest) of the other campsites we chose to claim.
The IC is the most satisfying temporary structure in existence.
Warm in temperature and ambiance, the outside world ceases to matter/exist once the steel stove is fired up and the IC is glowing with help from a lantern. McSteel and few others plopped down some cash to acquire her a number of years ago. I am not an "official" owner/member of the community canvas but I think I have established a solid foothold by virtue of squatter's rights.
AK pulled his truck in just before the evening's food, drink and incessant banter ensued. Later, post lantern light, the BBC rolled out of McSteel's portable radio with a timer set to shut it down in 15 minutes. My personal dosage of the newsfeed from the UK lasted far less than the prescribed amount.
The tent was dark inside when I rolled up my sleeping bag, set a pot of coffee on the stove and opened the damper. I stowed my sleeping pad, set up my chair and started getting ready. I was in no real rush since the others were all still asleep or at least holding out. I opted for a quick mash up of scrambled egg/sausage breakfast burritos on the cast iron skillet. The morning unrolled as all camps will on morning one....excitement mixed with the slow confusion laced fog of the final night-cap and the disjointed order that is living, for the time being, out of duffels and totes.
We dropped a truck at the take-out and then took the shuttle upstream to the put-in. By whatever forces are at work, McSteel and I headed further upstream and AK and Brother Bill headed down.
I don't really remember what happened next. I just stepped in and started swinging. I was telling the guys in the IC the night before that I intended to go "full-on west coast swing" and pull my hood up and tuck my left hand in my wader pocket just to see if I could hit groove and if not, I intended to look cool/foolish doing it.
My line slid down and across current and I fished the fly. I had the sense that I was in the zone. In retrospect I also remember thinking that I didn't care what zone I was in. My hand was tucked and my hood was up. My line tracked true and my guides froze. Every 6th or 7th cast I popped the offending crystals out of the snakes and kept stepping down. After what might have been 30 minutes but may have been two hours, I crossed the river and felt my waterproof camera bag hanging heavy. I made it to the far bank and opened the bag to find standing water and destroyed camera. A camera that has taken a majority of the photos on this blog and been with me everywhere.
My reaction was to bring it back to my truck, deposit it on the floor of the driver's side, step back into the river and step back into the zone.
At around mid-day when McSteel, Brother Bill and AK stopped for a brilliantly planned riverside fire, I just kept stepping down. Swinging through. I meant to care and I meant to turn around and join them fireside...but I didn't. It had never been like this before, never felt quite this right. I'm not sure if I was fishing or just enjoying the ride down river. What I knew was that I didn't need to stop.
So I didn't.
I felt a small tug, pulled in a 10" river bow and snapped a quick pic with my phone, de-iced my guides and kept going.
Along the way after the boys had tracked me down and AK was standing behind me on the bank he watched as a fish plucked me briefly and smartly. I came up blank and uttered my best string of profanity just before ducking back into the zone and keeping on.
Fishless with the exception of one small river trout and the sun was dropping. The air was hovering in the mid to high 20's and the water was not much better. I fished my favorite run (after the group kindly ceded it to me....or perhaps they walked away cursing me after I jumped in first and staked my claim??) I was leaning in certain of a take, poised heronlike....ready to react.
I reeled up.
Thrilled at my day.
There was some talk of the runs further downstream and I figured that I'd watch the guys fish and just bask in my day of being in the zone. I heard AK mention the second to next run downstream and then he stepped in to join Brother Bill on the current run. McSteel decided to try the tail out of the run he was standing on. I asked him if anybody was heading down and he said, "No man, you take it."
I thought I was done but decided to walk down for a look.
This is a fools run.
Easy access, hit hard, no secrets.
A slow corner, with a relatively shallow flow that drops off only slightly on the outside. It is a beautiful place to cast and it allows for a decent length of line. I stepped in, dropped a snap-T upstream and fired off handed to the close side, extending each cast out and across until I reached the far side. I stepped down. Still in the zone.
I was third of the way down the run, still hitting my daylong stride in the zone when the fish creamed my fly and ran straight at me. The ice in my guides popped under the strain as I stripped in line and stepped back trying to reduce the slack between me and the fish. The boulder under my left foot was the perfect shape and height to drop me.
I think I've only fallen while fishing maybe two or three times in my life.
Never in November.
Never in water this cold.
I regained my footing and started stripping line.
The fish was midstream now. It bore down and tested the drag on my reel. I recovered and stood wet and cold, in the deepest zone of the zone, feeling the strain and watching the spray.
It was probably the largest steelhead I had ever hooked in this river. 27+ inches and fat so fat.
But I never touched it. I never got the hero shot with my back-up phone camera. I never got to hold it in the current and watch its gills flare before thrusting its broad tail for deeper water.
It seems that as I stood enjoying the lively thrum of graphite against freshwater power, the head shakes worked their magic and the hooked popped clean.
Yet...I was still in the zone.
I can honestly say that I can't remember having ever had more fun steelhead fishing.
It was blue fingers, iced guides, botched fish, big one that got away, falling in, ruined camera...
...and the zone.
It's a magical place.
Go there if you can.