The opportunity arose for taking a few days, mid week to excuse myself from society and all of its attachments by venturing off the grid on the Oregon coast in search of wild steelhead on a small, very difficult stream to access. I had been introduced to this little gem via a now good friend Conrad Gowell who had been courting me for a visit for a number of years, well the time had come. “This is not your average walk and wade trip or even hike in access steelhead trip. Quarters are tight and the only real trails are made by the likes of elk and bear and at best are broken into barely discernible fragments, can you handle that?” asked Conrad and of course the answer was “Yes!”, you can always bail if it gets too tough right?
I asked good friend Rob Masonis to join me on this little adventure as some of the history of this stream might be of interest to him as V.P. of Western Conservation for Trout Unlimited and Conrad knows the history of this place better than just about anyone. So we left Seattle at 5am watching with a critical eye as the weather pattern for the region was calling for some heavy rainfall. As it turned out, the rain landed squarely on the O.P. but left less than a trace where we were headed so water was low and clear…not ideal but better than the alternative. 6+ hours later we arrive at our meeting point with Conrad, unpack, gear up and head out for the river.
Within a few minutes we are on the water and this place is stunning…giant old growth forest carpeted with thick super green moss and little or no evidence of any human presence at all…and it is all ours.
As a life long steelhead angler who only enjoys swinging, small water like this presents new challenges and often times a fork in the road for many. This would easily be nymphable water but with some thought on what, how and where swinging is completely possible…certainly more of a challenge but worth the effort in my book, it is always worth that effort. Small water like this forces one to become a better fly angler by micro analyzing how to manage all facets of your presentation and approach and naturally engages your mind to a level of escapism from everything but the task at hand. My issue here is that I am also toting around about 60lbs of camera gear for the sake of documentation…fly rod or camera, fly rod or camera…
About a mile downstream we enter a tight gorge which requires a “hike” up and around to access some of the middle water. Well this ends up being more of a crawl, uphill breaking trail through Salmonberry, fern and the soft decay of the forest and as I periodically stop to watch and laugh at Rob (or myself more likely). I realize I am not the super human I once was and Conrad I am pretty sure is part elk or some other 4 legged animal that has evolved to ascend such terrain with ease making it evident that getting old sucks. Fingers full of thorns we reach the top and walk and spine to our point descent…keep in mind, what goes up must come down and this presents a whole new challenge.
This goes on for most of the day, one steelhead seen(spooked) and with daylight barely lingering we begin to escape up and out. We get to an old forest service road right about dark, exhausted and out of water with a 3 mile hike back to the starting point and as we walk and talk, we come to a sign that says 1 mile to…Rob and I both about fall over as it seems we have been walking for miles already. Once back at camp, Conrad confirms out assertion that we likely rose nearly 1000 vertical in about a quarter mile…on no trail! Legs burning we eat, enjoy some malted spirits and hit the sack exhausted, hoping to be up for the challenge again tomorrow!
Waking up, I have a much clearer picture of how to pack and what to bring for the day, more water, steri-pen, 3 flies instead of a huge box and have Conrad carry the underwater camera gear for me! That makes things much easier which turns out to be a big help on day 2 with some precarious situations ahead. No fresh rain over-night, Legs feel good, hearty breakfast and a drive to the lower river where we fish a mere 3 miles from the Pacific. Today begins with a serious hike down and in, no easy entry today and after the bushwhack of yesterday, hoping my Patty waders held up and be better than mesh today…amazingly, zero leaks, wahoo!!!
Again…incredible! Giant boulders make even stream-side transit a challenge and as I watch Conrad and Rob fish I take in all the other goodies that come from being deep in the wilderness. Fairly fresh cat prints and scat, signs of elk everywhere, a lizard Conrad has never seen and tis the “season” for the salamanders, hundreds mating in every little bit of still water they can find and as I watch, I think of how my daughter would be happy to waste an entire day in a 20 square yard section of where we are…that thought stays close for the rest of the day and will for life.
We move out of the 5th gorge and into a more open stretch and voila…3 chrome, almost opaque steelhead hanging behind a rock. Conrad turns one on his 3 cast which seems to put them off as they proceed to ignore our presence and our flies for the next hour as we trade off turns fishing and watching!
We end the day with an elk sighting, amazingly the one and only considering all the tracks around, a few sea run cutthroat to hand and just to remind us, a long and arduous hike out. All told, we likely hiked, crawled, scrambled, scaled, waded and slid a good 15 miles or more in 2 days over some rigorous terrain…all for a few cutthroat and the sight of 5 steelhead. Was it worth it, would we do it again, fish or no fish? No question…absolutely! Henry Van Dyke puts it perfectly: