Here’s the thing about road trips: they rock. Here’s the thing about fishing trips: they’re awesome. That’s why I’m digging around in my closet with my headlamp on looking for my fingerless fleece gloves at four in the morning on a mid-November Friday and why I only slept four hours the night before. I was up late tying flies, and in thirty minutes Ted’s gonna be pulling up outside my apartment ready to drive five hours to stand in a cold river hoping to maybe-if-we-are-very-lucky get a tug from a wild steelhead. Oh yeah, here’s the thing about wild steelhead: they’re beautiful and strong, and on my home planet they are rare.
Ted and I are fly fishing guides in Seattle, Washington. This means we are surrounded by hundreds of under-appreciated streams for the fly fisher, but it also means we are surrounded by the ghosts of once famous steelhead water. My home rivers are the Stilliguamish, Skagit, and Sauk, three famous rivers where wild steelhead are almost extinct. This travesty has been brought about by overfishing and habitat distraction. (In previous sentence, reverse to say: Overfishing and habitat destruction have brought about this travesty.) Now when we think about steelhead, we think about the Olympic Peninsula, Eastern Washington, and Oregon.
This gets me back to road trips.
It’s five in the morning; Ted and I are stopped for gas and coffee. I’m calling my mom because the third member of our expedition, Dylan, had to back out at the last minute. Now that there are only two of us, I figure it wouldn’t hurt to see if my mom feels like driving four hours from her own little fishing mecca in Baker City, Oregon to meet up in Maupin on the Deschutes.
My Mom’s husband answers groggily, “Hello?”
“Oh… Sorry, did I wake you?” Stupid question, of course I did. Normal people are asleep at 5:00 A.M. on a Friday morning. “Would you have my mom call me when she gets up?”
We get back on the road, me feeling a little sheepish, heading south down I-5 through the perpetual mist and rain that is Western Washington weather. At Portland we take a left and follow the once mighty Columbia River towards the Dalles. Ted plays Woodie Guthrie’s “Columbia River Ballads,” and we talk about the quandary of dams. There are thirteen mainstem dams in the Columbia river which provide power to Western Washington, Oregon, and parts of California. On the one hand, I rely on the dams for power they produce. On the other hand I detest what they have done to wild anadromous fish. We talk about the dams for a while: electricity, jobs, the economy, and the environment.
My mom calls me back. I explain the situation.
“Want to steelhead for three days on the Deschutes?”
“We’re getting in the car.”
“Cool, see you in Maupin.”
Yeah, I have the coolest mom. Once after getting skunked on a five day guided Deschutes trip she told me she would never spend money chasing steelhead again, then spent a week camping in Southeast Alaska in May trying to catch them. And she succeeded. Now she is pumped to learn to spey cast, and hopefully hook up with a second steelhead. In other words, like any sane person, she is going to drop all her plans for the next three days, drive four hours, camp along a high dessert river in mid November, and quite possibly not catch anything.
In Maupin, Ted and I stopped at the Deschutes Angler to pay our respects. Amy Hazel greeted us warmly and gave us the scoop. The white river was blowing chunks and pretty much shutting everything down below the confluence. But there’s plenty of water and fish upstream. With that info, a tip on a good place to camp, and a note to send my mom in our direction when she made it to town, Ted and I moved upriver to our campsite. Thirty minutes later, camp set up, Ted and I slipped on waders and into the river. I promptly fell in backwards and so, while Ted fished the rest of the run I stripped off my wet clothes. About that time my mom and Steve caught up with us. Steve was along to fish for trout, so we rigged up his rod and everyone wadered up and we were ready to fish.
The sun was starting to sink lower in the horizon when we settled into the next run. I went upstream to start at the head, and Ted took my mom to the middle of the run for an intro to spey casting. He broke it down for her: anchor, D-loop, bliss. It’s pretty simple when you put it that way. Under Ted’s expert tutelage my mom was rolling out sixty feet of line in no time.
The river was peaceful, flowing smoothly towards the ocean way off to the north and west. With each swing I got to watch my mom casting. Then it was too dark to see, but I could hear the ripping water as she made her D-loop and a happy chuckle as her line sailed off into the growing night.
The next morning we were in the river before full light. I started upstream of Ted, a little around the corner to avoid crowding. The water was deep right against the bank, so it took me a little while to get situated. I had just started my first real swing when Ted let out a holler. Really man? You should at least let me get in a cast or two. I reeled in, threw my rod up on the bank and splashed downstream as fast as I could, camera held above my head. Sure enough, Ted’s rod was bent over. I snapped a few blurry pictures (free handing at 1/5 second shutter speed), and a few more as he brought a beautiful, wild hen to hand. She had deep-red flanks and a liberal scattering of spots all along her back. I was in love. I shot a couple of pictures of her in the water, and then we sent her on her way.
The Deschutes is lucky. Despite damming on the lower Columbia, there is still strong runs of wild fish, likely due to selective gear rules and the absence of development and logging along the river. But just because there are fish in the river doesn’t mean all is well. Hatchery fish dilute the wild gene pool making the entire population more susceptible to extinction. Overfishing, even from catch and release anglers could also become a problem as the number of productive rivers shrink and more anglers crowd in on the few remaining strong runs of fish. This is the state of steelheading: the rivers that no longer have fish need restoration and the rivers that still have wild fish need protection and conscientious stewardship.
I once said that I fished for trout because fishing for them takes me to beautiful places. The same holds true for steelhead. If you appreciate beauty, take the time to walk along the floor of the Deschutes River canyon. If you fish, get in the water. If you fish, I’d also recommend trying it with a spey rod, swinging flies. I don’t want to start a debate about what’s better or whats proper; I’m just going to offer this thought: when you swing for steelhead you give yourself a chance fish with feel and instinct and allow your eyes and mind to wander across the natural beauty of flowing rivers and rolling hills, something you can’t do with an indicator. When a fish does take the fly, your body knows before your mind. Fingers tighten on the line, arm and back tense, even before the first tug. Your mind, off contemplating the flame-orange of fall foliage, hears the whisper of fish in the line and starts to refocus. But before the thought is formed, the fish is on, the rod rising by instinct, and wild, pure energy pulsing through the magic connection between you and fish.
Afterward you’ll think about that instant, unique to fishing, and contemplate the beauty of the moment. Fall colors. Cold air. Clean water. Dessert, rocks, and sage. Instincts and Wild fish. It’s the type of experience that makes you want to restore the once famous steelhead rivers.
Mom was falling in love with spey casting. The river was stunning. Life was good. A fish would be good too. Right about the time I had that thought, my swing stopped abruptly. Up went my rod, and I felt the heavy pull, pull, pull of a big fish. Then nothing. The fish was gone as suddenly as it was there. I brought my rod down, shaken out of my reverie. I thought about my last steelheading trip, the one up in Alaska with my mom. On the last day I still had not caught a fish, and on the last cast, a fished touched my fly in the same way. Just for an instant and then gone.
Now, on this trip, it’s almost dark and I have maybe three more swings in the run. Ted and Steve already quit for the day. I contemplate calling it a day, change my mind and lay out another cast. And another. One more. Snap-T. Rod tip sweeps upstream, then snaps down and back. Anchor set, sweep back upstream and around. The line rips through the water, invisible in the dark. D-Loop. Rod tip forward, bottom hand back. The loose line snaps against my fingers on my rod hand as it shoots into the dark. Mend blindly, and settle into the last swing of the day. Dinner’s gonna be burgers tonight. We picked up avocados, provolone, and red onions in the Dalles. Lettuce and pickl– arm’s up, rod pumping. The fish is maybe seventy-five feet downstream of me. Holding. I can’t see anything but I can feel his head shaking. The angles all wrong. Straight downstream, barbless hook, big fish, bad angle. I stumble blindly downstream. Keep tension, change the angle. Now he’s moving up and away from me. The angle feels better. I look up. It’s too dark to see the line. I work the rod around and upstream, in control a little now. Mom’s upstream so I let out a wordless shout, just to let her know. Now the fish changes directions, moving fast and downstream. The line and rod feel loose for a second. I hear a splash. Dam I wish I could see. He’s still on. Now working back towards the bank. Now out in front of me. Mom pokes through the bushes behind me somewhere. “Fish on?” “Yeah.” My voice is shaky with excitement. God, I love fishing.
I work the fish around and up. The sink tip hits the end of my rod. I’m fishing a short one, it’s only 12 feet long, so the fish is really close, but now I can’t tell which direction he’s pulling. The rod tip flips around the wrong way and he’s upstream of me somewhere, now downstream again and running. In the murky dark I can see his form as he turns. I work him back up to me and with one hand I reach down feeling. Firm muscle and smooth skin. I wrap my hand around his tail, drop slack into the line, and slip my other hand under his belly. In the dark I run my thumb over his adipose. Clipped, but damn is he a beautiful fish. Not that I can see him, but his firm muscles and vibrancy… In the dark he is a wild shape momentarily held in my hands. My mom blindly snaps a picture and then he’s off with a powerful sweep of his tail.
Mom and I walk back to camp, grinning and laughing, I’m wet up to my elbows and deliriously happy. That night I fall asleep grinning.
The next morning dawned cloudy, though we’d been up for an hour. Soon though, the day cleared and I traded the rod for a camera. We didn’t catch any fish on the last day, but when it was time to put the rods away everyone was satisfied. Truly that’s what steelheading is all about. Satisfaction. You don’t go out chasing a fish like steelhead with the expectation of catching one. You go out for the satisfaction of casting well in a beautiful setting. At the end of the day you go home happy. If you were lucky enough to hook a fish, you go home euphoric.
In the pacific Northwest steelhead are in decline. Someday these magic fish may well be gone, living only in the memories and images collected by those who chased them with a rod. That future is one I don’t want to see happen. Road trips to the Deschutes and other western rivers remind me why the fish are so worth saving. Trips to the Sauk, Stilli, and Skagit remind me why we need to act now, because it’s almost too late. Steelhead are being killed by habitat distraction and over fishing. Politics and the necessities of life don’t make the issue any easier. We can’t simply remove the dams on the Columbia or stop logging in the cascades. We can’t instantly make it better. However, we can be conscientious anglers. We can be as low impact as possible. We can be stewards of the river and we can support the organizations that help protect and restore habitat for these amazing fish. I urge you to check out some of the following organizations. They do good work.
Western River Conservation
The Hoh River Trust
Wild Steelhead Coalition
Wild Fish Conservancy
Save Our Wild Salmon
Native Fish Society
Steelhead Society of British Columbia
The Nature Conservancy
North Umpqua Foundation
North Coast Steelhead Alliance