Saturday, December 26, 2015

All I want for Christmas

The email came through from my Mom suggesting that a trip out west to Portland, Oregon (over Christmas) to visit my younger brother and his family might be nice...

Council was held, tickets purchased.

Moments later I was on the phone discussing winter steelhead with my brother.
No need to bring a rod, he said, NK would set me up.

The plane touched down and we dropped my family at the house and bee-lined for NK's to grab a rod and the keys to the boatyard.  NK's wife led us to the garage and handed over a Burkie for my use.  My brother said, "This has a scandi on it, where does [NK] keep the skagit heads?"  NK's wife swiveled, opened a bin and handed us the correct grain skagit head for the Burkie.  I was in good company.

Christmas night:
We were right up to the wire.  Listening to some extraordinary fiddle playing by Bacon's wife in a Portland bar, the night before we were to be going fishing.  Phones were out, river flows being checked, options discussed.  The target was identified and I took a cab home to attempt some sleep.

In what can only be described as one of my worst nights ever, the alarm on my phone would have woke me if I was actually sleeping.   Even so, there was fishing to do.  I brushed the remnant vodka from my my mouth, slid on my wool long underwear, layered and we left.

We arrived at NK's a short time later.  He asked us to call him before we got there so he could get up and see us off.  That's how you know a true friend, somebody who will hasten a day after Christmas hangover to be sure to cheerlead you in your adventures.  Good stuff that guy.

With the raft in tow, we took off into the rising sun to find a piece of sloped back into a Columbia River tributary.  We would have been on the water 30 minutes earlier if NK's 96 quart cooler hadn't decided to flip it's lid and fly out of the raft on the highway.  My brother was just off the phone with the shuttle driver when he stared into the rearview mirror and exclaimed,  "What the eff!!!?"

"What the eff" was the cooler going airborne.

It happened on a stretch of highway that required an extra 2 miles to an off ramp, and then an 8-10 mile backtrack to another off-ramp.  We finally located the (now 2 piece) cooler and did our job of not leaving litter on the highway.

We discussed the premonition and wondered if it was a sign of things to come or just getting the bad juju out of the way early.  I considered just breaking NK's Burkie over my knee at the raft launch so I could accept bad omens on my own terms.  Turned out, that was the last of it.

It was December 26th, a day when I normally spend hauling cheap crinkled wrapping paper to the recycling bin.  This year I was in the front of a raft, zipped into a PFD, clutching a borrowed rod and wondering if it was possible to dog paddle with one hand while still being able to return a fly-rod to it's gracious owner.

My brother rowed like a champ and thoughts of swimming vanished as I stepped into the first run.
Stripping off line and rolling out a short cast, I got my fishing song stuck in my head...John Lennon this time. 

I might have hummed a few bars...

..."So This Is Christmas"

Friday, December 18, 2015


It was at the garage gathering a few weeks ago that JH showed up with a mitt full of musky flies.  Beautiful ties...all of them.  After 25 years of tying I've never really sat down to tie a musky fly.

I'll say this, you aren't going to tie a dozen in an hour.  I'll also mention that materials that I've had on hand for decades were depleted in just a couple of flies.  Nothing like burning through the inventory.

Thanks for the nudge JH.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sunday, October 11, 2015


I was calling and texting with McSteel, KZ and RS, putting a plan into motion.  KZ and BL were heading up north to set up a huge canvas wall tent, throw down some cots, and fish.  McSteel and I were hashing out our plans for a slightly smaller canvas wall tent, some sleeping pads and fish.  RS had been up to the river a couple of weeks before and he was jonesing.  The itch got the best of him and he planned to load the getaway car on Thursday and drive up that night for a day or two of swinging flies.

On Tuesday, McSteel called to tell me that his son had just taken a nasty spill and broke his arm.  There might be a consultation or surgery or both.  Up in the air.  Not Sure.  Waiting for an update.

Wednesday he confirmed that he wouldn't be up that night and that he'd keep me posted on the other two days.  KZ said he had plenty of room in his tent so I blasted north with nothing more than a lodging revision...hardly a speed bump.

The tent was lantern lit and warm with the glow from the wood stove.  A huge pot of chili, recently unburdened from a majority of its payload, sat on top of the stove.  Instantly welcomed, warm and fed.

The rain fell through the night and didn't stop for daybreak.  Mostly well rested, KZ and I trekked upstream and fished. 

Rain be damned. 

The river was high but not too high, off color but not worrisome.  I fished with conviction.  After a few runs we found ourselves split-up on a deep slow corner, me at the head out of sight of KZ, while he worked the corner and tailout.  On the fifth cast, the fly swung across and then stopped.  I set and the tugs and thrashing began.  I gave KZ a whistle and he, armed with an eye for photography and his camera, appeared bankside.  He also brought a net.  "Do you want the net?" he asked.  It was a welcomed concept.  He deftly scooped up the thrashing brown, handed me the net and started taking pics.  Once a guide, always a guide.  I'd say the brown was 24", the second largest of my life and the largest I've caught on his river.  (I haven't seen his pics yet but with his blessing I'll likely hang one here when I get it.)

Fishing downstream that afternoon I got separated from the group and spent 4 hours on my own.  Another nice brown of 19"-20" fell for an Eat A Peach Leech and I fumbled with my own camera to get a shot before finally propping it up on the wet moss of the bank and snapping a decent photo.  I could have used KZ's net and camera skills again.

By 5:30, after 10 hours of non-stop swinging, I pulled on some dry socks, poured a drink and waited for the others to return.  At 6:00 KZ and BL trudged back into camp, at 6:27 RS arrived and at 6:30 McSteel had arrived.  We got the "IC" set-up and started a fire in the lantern light.  Most of these guys were meeting for the first time and fueled with a bellyful of BL's outstanding sausage and a drink or two, it became obvious that there would be no fistfights in camp that night.

The feeling was odd...something in my hair.  I pulled my arm out the warmth of my sleeping bag and swatted at what I suspected was probably a spider, but its departing footfalls on the floor tarp and then its silhouette against the tent wall betrayed the mouse.  It was early, but that was the end of my slumber.  Coffee was made, waders donned.

RS and McSteel and I took a drive down river after finding out that KZ and BL were packing up and heading home.  We took 3 cars to plug the parking lot of the river access we were targeting.  Perhaps a waste of fossil fuels but an excellent method for keeping too many other anglers from joining us.
It was the third steelhead trip of RS's life and he was still looking to land his first.  McSteel, who knows this water well, pointed us to the head of a run and then went downstream to work the tailout.  RS stepped in and started dropping beautiful casts onto the far seam and swinging through.  When he was 50' down river I stepped in and started to work the fly.  On the fifth or sixth cast, as the fly swung through water that I expected to be MUCH too fast for steelhead, the river exploded.  The thrash and run was electric.  The fished started to head downstream but then turned and ran straight at me.  I struggled to keep up and then watched the line go from tight to limp to slack. 

I was laughing at the sheer madness of the event as I checked my knot and then my fly and found the hook bent open.  "That was a nice fish." Was all I could think to say, and then laughed and probably cursed.

It was late morning, fishing behind RS.  He might have made a noise or it might have been the splash, but when I looked up his rod was arced and he was fast to a fish.  I couldn't tell if it was a trout or a steelhead until it rolled and left an impressive wake.  I stood with my camera and snapped pics of the battle. After a couple of minutes he brought the fish in close and grabbed the leader...gently working to coax the steelhead's beak out the water.  It was a beautiful fish, silver with a dark back 25" maybe flicked its head and I heard Rob say, "NOOO!"

And it was gone. 

I tried to explain that a "leadered fish" was a caught fish, but he wasn't buying it.  "I just wanted to touch it."  He said.

It's a strange thing to be happy for somebody when they are disappointed and all for the same reason... but I understood.

An hour and a half later we returned to our original run.  McSteel looked at me and said, "Should we try it again?"  I suggested we run three rods through it and since RS had already caught one, McSteel led the charge and I followed.  RS stepped in much higher in the run than I would've started but I figured he was more interested in fishing than waiting so he moved up river and started casting.  We cast and swung, repeated and then stepped down. The events of the morning were completely reversed now and he swung his fly down through to near where I was standing.  I am convinced it was the same fish in the same fast water, that crushed RS's fly.  I missed the first part of the fight as I made my way to the bank and got my camera out.  By now, McSteel had heard the ruckus and appeared on the bank.  The fish thrashed in the fast water as we discussed how to get this one landed.  McSteel said he could tail it.  I happily stood by shooting pics.  RS made a million snap judgements on how to get his hand on this one.  In the end, the hook held, McSteel grabbed the fish and I stood by enjoying the show.

It was moment to remember...RS holding his first steelhead.

Special Thanks to KZ and BL for your hospitality, culinary, photographic and netting skills.
Congrats to RS for opening the flood gates.
And McSteel...what can I say.  We've been at this for a long time.  It seems to get better every year...Thank you.

RS's first...untouched but it COUNTS!