Friday, November 16, 2012

The Salmon River: A Trip Report


By four p.m. on the afternoon of the 7th of November, the car was packed - items loaded and arranged with double and triple redundancy. For only two men, we had packed three vests, thousands of flies, four pair of wading boots, three sets of waders, eight reels, and six rods. Gloves? Check. Extra wool socks? Check. Fleece? Check. Fly tying odds and ends? Check. Thermal underwear, two sets per man? Check. We were ready to slay some steel, and as luck would have it we were scheduled to leave just a few hours ahead of what was forecast to be the first serious winter storm of the year.

Of course, we left late, and our scheduled five o'clock departure dragged on from five to six and then from six to seven. We finally rolled out of my driveway at 7:15, and counted ourselves lucky that the meteorologists who had earlier warned of an impending nor'easter were once again forced to wipe egg from their faces. The drive to the river was uneventful, but filled with excitement and the nervous energy that is so much a part of steelhead fishing. Two plus hours passed quickly, the time filled with minivan air guitar and the misremembered lyrics to classic metal, including a lengthy course of Iron Maiden.

Photo: Mike Healy
We arrived at the Fox Hollow Salmon River Lodge shortly before ten, where we met the rest of our group at what was to be our home for the next four days. We spent the remainder of the night tying flies, prepping rods and reels, telling lies, and trying to determine where we should set up camp the following morning. Before signing off for the evening, I tacked to the wall for luck a pair of pictures my daughter had drawn for me. Written across the top of each in her best kindergarten script was a hopeful message, "I hope you have a great trip, Love Madison." Before I nodded off for the night, I looked to those pictures and thought, "Thank you Peanut, so do I."

Baby-Girl's mind is in the right place.

There's no secret to being successful on the Salmon River. The simple rule is to fish water that hasn't been trampled under the stampeding hooves of over-zealous anglers. If we choose to fish the more popular runs, then we have to be prepared to lay claim to the water well before first light.In practical terms, this means a 3 a.m. wake-up, a frenetic flurry to load the cars, and four headlamp-adorned chuckleheads stumbling along a well worn trail, praying for that first cup of over-boiled coffee to cut the morning's cold.

Coleman Cooked Deliciousness

Four o'clock turned to five and five to six. By seven we had finished our first pot of "organically grown, free trade, wake-the-flock-up dark roast," and were well on our way to finishing a second. Eventually, dawn cut through the darkness and low hanging clouds, and spread her smile on the water. We spaced ourselves evenly along the run's course - each man had about 100 feet of water in which to swing his flies or drift his nymphs - and we started our rotation.

Bennie was the first to hook up, taking a respectable fish at first light. Stinging a fish as quickly as he did gave us all hope for a very fruitful day, but our hope ultimately proved unfounded. Several hours passed before Shawn had his first pull, a fish that was there and gone in no more than a heartbeat.

One in the net
The day continued in much the same fashion. A cold front that had rolled in during the early hours of the morning lingered throughout the day and made fishing difficult. Near noon, Shawn eventually managed a second tug. This time the fish stayed put, and in fairly short order, Mr. Brillon was hefting a colored-up buck for a quick photo.

Hiding behind the tail, he looks a little like a steelheading gremlin - don't ya' think?

By the time Shawn hooked that fish, I have to admit that I was feeling a little underwhelmed by the day, and I suppose such a feeling is one of the dangers of steelheading. We bug chuckers have a tendency to build up in our minds our too-few trips to the river. Every time we hit the water we dream of glory, but more often than not we fall short. We aren't necessarily disappointed; it's just that most days could not possibly live up to our overly hopeful expectations. This is especially true on steelhead water. Of course, it is equally true that as soon as we begin to assume the worst - at times when we allow our minds to wander off in a funk - we're often caught off guard and sometimes even pleasantly surprised. Such was the case in the hour or so before our first day came to an end.

I followed Bennie in the rotation; I had been following him for over eight hours. My legs were tired. My shoulders ached. My mind drifted off to thoughts of dinner and drinksIf I had been expecting the universe to come unglued the way it did, then I suppose it would not have happened at all. But it did happen. My cack handed cast dropped the fly - a four inch monstrosity that was gaudy as a prom dress - a foot or two off the far bank. Ten feet of T-11 quickly dragged under the feather duster; she swung slightly slower than the river's current and drifted into the heart of the lane.

Tap. Huh?

Tap. That had to be a fish. Maybe?

Tap .... Bam!

Any attempt I might make at describing the struggle that followed would be inadequate. For the sake of brevity, I'll only say that I had no control over the fish - not until the very moment when I guided its head into Ben's waiting net. Twice I was into my backing. Twice he took me downstream to the edge of the tailout only to change his mind and run just as far upstream. After touching the fish just to make sure he was real and snapping a few photos, I watched him swim off into the tanic water and discovered I was absolutely content with what had been - only moments earlier - a rather difficult day.

Funny, isn't it? The effect a fish can have on a man ...

To Be Continued 

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