Friday, November 23, 2012

The Salmon River: A Trip Report (Part Four)

Day four. The final 24 hours of our annual steelhead bender. Shawn and Mike had quit the day before, and when my alarm sounded at 3 a.m., I woke hoping the boys hadn't taken our luck with them when they left. Our plan was to get Milo into fish; seventy years on this Earth and the man had never hooked a steelhead. Tragedy of tragedies.

The plan was simple: plant Ben's father in what is arguably the most prolific run on the river, give him the right fly and a reasonable chance to learn the drift, and defend the man from the inevitable low-holers and dog walkers who would try to crawl into the slot. The first part of the plan required us to be the only cars in the parking area at 4:00 in the morning, and while we were the first to arrive, little time passed before approaching headlights told us we needed to head down to the water.

The rabbit runs round the hill, through the loop, and ...

By 4:30 we had humped all of our gear a short distance to an equally short run that is - rather ironically - known as Old Farts. I can't say I'm entirely sure why this piece of water is named as it is; other sections seem more aptly named: Schoolhouse, Trestle, the Flats, Black Hole, Church Pool. Perhaps the run had been named for a group of aged gentleman who once frequented it currents. Perhaps Old Farts is a reference to the stench that hangs perpetually low and oppressive over the water: putrefying salmon, diesel fumes, and cigarette smoke. More likely, the run is named as such because it provides ridiculously easy access to some of the river's best fish and fishing. Old Farts may be the only run in the river where an angler - even a septuagenarian like Milo - can be absolutely sure of his footing as he fights steelhead that are both ridiculously big and scary fast. The process is usually only complicated by those fish that choose a long downstream run. If that happens we'll usually break off so as not to intrude on the folks fishing below us, unless - of course - the fish is exceptional.

As we hoped, the river gods were kind to Milo, and gave him the opportunity to tangle with some very respectable fish. Ben played the part of his father's guide, patiently explaining the mechanics of the run, showing Milo exactly where to place his fly (Milo's switch cast became increasingly accurate as the day went on), helping with fly changes, and otherwise doing what he could to get dad into fish. 

Here is Milo hooked up ... again ... moments before the fish throws the hook ... again.

Unfortunately, the river gods' generosity only goes so far, especially as it surrounds the newest of initiates. Milo hooked several fish over the course of the day. Every one of those fish would likely have scaled 10 pounds or more, but we'll never know for sure as we were not able to put even one into the net.

One of Milo's steelhead haunts me. The fish was an honest 14 or 15 pounds; for most bug chuckers she would have been the fish of a lifetime. As Milo played the thick bodied hen, I found myself whispering little prayers to whatever divinity chose to listen. Everyone wanted desperately for Milo to land that fish, everyone except the chuckleheads fishing just downstream of us.

On the last of its runs, Milo's best steelhead of the day tore off downstream but came ridiculously close to the near shore, perhaps only one or two feet off the boots of the group occupying the territory on that downstream flank. As I chased Big Bertha past the demilitarized zone, net in hand, I explained as I ran (by ran I mean that I was moving as quickly as my morbidly obese backstrap would carry me) to anyone listening that this could be Milo's first steelhead. "Pardon me ... excuse me," I kept repeating. "The old fella's hooked up on a slob - it could be his first fish in the net - and he can't get down here quickly enough to get his line and the fish out of your way."

"Mind if I step in with the net?"

No reply.

Again, "Mind if I step in with the net?"

Blank stares.

"Fish off."

Really? Really.

None of them moved. Not so much as a twitch. I'm fairly certain one of those boys actually stepped farther out into the water solely to complicate things. They had been trying to low hole us all day, and I am convinced their lack of cooperation was deliberate. For the life of me, I just do not understand the logic. They were hooking as many fish as were we. Could the grass really be any greener over our septic tank? Had they moved, I am certain I could have put that fish in the net. Modesty aside, I am generally surgical with a net.

This is what it looks like to get low-holed on the Salmon. On the right is Ben Jose: gentleman, fisherman, sometimes doberman. Only moments before he had been standing in the space on left, which is (in this photo) occupied by one of the river's many low-holing chuckleheads. Ben only moved to the right so as to extricate his fly from a snag. Barely two minutes. Barely a rod length. There you have it.
A consummate gentleman, Milo only smiled, and I am told - quietly whispered to his son that the fish he had just lost was the largest he had ever hooked in fresh water. I hope we can get him back on the water before the first real snowfall. 

As for the rest of us, we all caught fish. Adam brought in his best ever brown trout, and Bennie stung a couple of steelies. I was good for a few myself. Altogether, this year's trip will be remembered as one of the best if not for the fishing then certainly for the personalities involved. I am a lucky man for many reasons. I am blessed with a wonderfully understanding wife who abides my passion for the long rod, three beautiful children who love me without reservation, and friends who are every bit as passionate as am I about swift water and silver fish.

Thanks for a great trip guys.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Salmon River: A Trip Report (Part Three)

Day three marked a turning point in the trip. Once again we were out of the rack by 3:00 a.m., breakfast was another two dozen eggs (chickens hate us) - this time with a side of sausage (from pigs raised by one of our group, Mike Healy). As soon as we donned our waders and stepped outside the cabin door, we could feel change in the air. Each of us remarked on it. This was going to be the day; we knew it from the outset. For the first time in three days, we were genuinely hopeful (and hope arrived just in time as Shawn and Mike were slated to leave before the end of the day).

Perhaps because we sensed the change, perhaps because we're gluttons for punishment, or maybe because we're simple minded chuckleheads - we decided to revisit the run we had been fishing for two days. To a certain extent, fishing this particular run has become something of a tradition - we get together in November, and we fish this one piece of water. Even more than giving a nod to tradition, however, we were convinced that the fish were there. We only needed for things to heat up and turn on.

As it happened, things did heat up - both literally and metaphorically. Day three witnessed a dramatic change in the weather. The cold front that had been so persistent throughout days one and two finally gave way to weather that was downright balmy by comparison. Whereas the high temperature over the first two days might have scraped the low side of 40 degrees, by the afternoon of day three the air temp had exceeded 60 degrees, and the fish responded.

Everyone hooked fish that third day. At one point, we had hooked so many on the swing, I remember thinking that fishing with the long rod should always be so easy. If the fishing was easy, the catching remained difficult for just a while longer. By mid-morning I had jumped three solid fish, and as they did the day before, each came unglued. As if to rub a little salt in the wound, Brillon's third swung-up steelhead came - once again - to a generic Popsicle style fly in purple and black. Black over purple was the color combination all week long.  

Bug chuckers are a funny bunch. We love our friends; really, we do. We want to see them be successful, and we want to share in that success. We chase their fish with our nets. We photograph their catch, and post the pictures on our blogs. We do this - not because we expect our friends to reciprocate - but because they are our friends, and we love them. But love isn't enough - is it - to take the sting out of a friend's high rod?

While I was happy to see Shawn hook the fish he did, I have to admit that the last one stung just a bit. At the point in the morning when I looked upstream, and watched Shawn's rod buck in synchronized rhythm with the desperate antics of yet another steelhead, I was on the verge of piscatorially induced hara-kiri. I had jumped three fish and had at least two other pulls (maybe three but one might have been that snag that pulls back - you know the one). Yes, when Shawn hooked that last fish ... it hurt.

But the river gods weren't intent on my continued suffering. After a disappointing skunk on the second day and an early morning that saw several fish released at an unacceptable distance, I finally stuck one with which I managed to stay connected. That one fish was all I needed; anything else was gravy.

And there was gravy, but the details aren't of any real consequence. Suffice to say we did well on day three. Shortly after noon, Healy and Brillon decided to call it a day, packed their things, and said their goodbyes. Just before they left, Ben and I were joined by Adam and Ben's father, Milo - both of whom were eager to wet a line. Much planning and attention had been given over Milo's time on the water as he had never hooked a steelhead.

Milo Jose first cast a fly rod some fifty odd years ago. To hear him tell it, he had been rather successful as a young man growing up in Idaho's corner of the Rockies, but his most memorable fish were all caught in San Francisco Bay on conventional tackle and hardware. He didn't quite know what to make of the 11' rod we put in his hands, and our first afternoon on the water was spent teaching Milo a basic switch cast. He was a quick study. After an hour or so of practice, Milo felt his first sign of life at the end of the line.

To Be Continued

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Salmon River: A Trip Report (Part Two)


Day one left us exhausted and tripping over ourselves as we made our way back to the cabin and up the stairway to our room.We stripped off waders, shimmied out of double thick socks and triple layered thermals, took our showers, and swallowed bowls of seafood chowder. Sleep came quickly, and so too did the following morning.

The alarm sounded at 2:30 - a less than soft serenade courtesy of Google Play and The Dropkick Murphys - I stumbled to the kitchen and started on making breakfast for everyone: eighteen jumbo, grade A eggs and a pot of organic, free trade, wake-the-flock-up coffee. After rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and prepping our gear, we were out the door, into the frosty morning, and on our way to the same run we had fished throughout the previous day.

Our logic for revisiting that piece water was simple: the run is usually loaded with fish and fishermen, but yesterday we saw few other anglers. Absent the occasional wanderer, we had one of the best runs on the river almost entirely to ourselves. We only hooked a few fish, but we were chalking that up to an obstinate cold-front that reportedly had the fish down throughout the length of the river.  We knew the run would break open eventually, and we wanted to be there when it did. So, there we were on day two, in precisely the same spot we had been the day before, staring - headlamps ablaze - into precisely the same fly boxes, hoping for just a little more magic. What is they say about bug chuckers who do the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result?

Photo: Mike Healy
As tough as was day one, day two was that much tougher. A bitterly cold wind came west off the big lake, and traveled - so it seemed - up 16 miles of river valley to the very run we were fishing. That wind stayed with us throughout the majority of the day. Accompanying the wind were any number of anglers, most of whom were kind enough - or perhaps sensible enough - to limit themselves to the extremities of the run. A few stragglers tried to wedge their way into the mix, but for the most part the other bug chuckers we encountered we very courteous, and we did our best to reciprocate. 

Ben was once again the first to move a fish, although he wasn't blessed with a solid hookup. The steelhead - what appeared to be a chromer in excess of 12 pounds - moved to a Wiggle Minnow of all things. The fish slammed the gyrating foam bug as it swam just inches below the surface. Crashing the fly, the steelhead made a vicious boil, and for a brief moment Ben had the attention of everyone on the run. When the whole episode was over, I found myself thinking how swinging a Wiggle Minnow to steelhead would rankle the sensibilities of more traditionally minded bug chuckers. To steal a phrase from my more digitally savvy students ... I laughed out loud.

Shawn was next to sting a fish, and as he did the previous day he quickly guided the outsized trout to a waiting net. This beautifully colored up buck wasn't the biggest of the trip, but he may have been the most photogenic. After a few photos and a fist bump or two, the fish was back in the water with one heck of a story to tell his piscatorial pals, but otherwise no worse for wear.

Bennie's next hookup was the one - THE ONE - he had been hoping for since he started steelheading some three or four years ago. He had done much to prepare: purchased a spey rod and matching line, loaded up with poly leaders and tungsten impregnated tips, worked on his knots, and even tied a few spey flies. He was fishing the bottom end of the run when the fish pounced on his chartreuse and purple intruder. After watching the steelhead's enthusiastic acrobatics I had the privilege of wrapping her up in the net, and snapping a photo to commemorate Ben's first steelhead on the swing. 

First steelhead on a swung fly ... the beard hides the smile
Mike Healy and I were very badly blanked on the second day; I wish I had something better to report, but wishing doesn't make it happen. We each had pulls from seemingly solid fish, but even when we managed to hook up, the result was ... less than ideal.

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 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Broken Glasses

Funny, don't you think, how easily we become attached to things. Not people. Not places. Not ideas. Things. Consider, for example, that I own three bamboo rods. This is barely the hint of a collection, and I am hardly a connoisseur, but I do cherish the rods nonetheless. Truthfully, I'm infatuated with them in a way that borders on clinical obsession, especially when one considers that they rarely ever see the water. I tell myself that I'm holding tightly to the trio so that I may someday pass them onto my three children, but that's not entirely true. I would like for my kids to appreciate fly fishing and bamboo rods as I do, but in the end I expect the rods will be buried with me.

My 7' 4# Quadrate ... love that little stick.
But not everyone is drawn to rods as I am. If you're a reader or follower of this blog then I suppose there's a chance you appreciate over-priced tomato stakes as I do, but there's as good a chance that bamboo does nothing for you. Instead, you've likely a favorite fly box or lucky hat. Maybe for fifteen years or so you've been driving the same, slowly disintegrating Nissan pickup - she's carried you to every river you've fished for nearly two decades. You might cherish your old Hardy Lightweights, or it could be you collect flies designed and tied by notable tyers. Regardless, I think it fair to say that you each own at least one item - probably an item in some way related to fly fishing - with which you would never part. For my good friend and fishing partner, Ben Jose, that item is - or rather was - a pair of sunglasses.

Future's so bright ... he has to wear shades.
Sunglasses? Hey, I'm right there with you. I don't understand it either. I mean, they're sunglasses, right? Most of us lose at least one pair a year, but to hear Ben tell it, these sunglasses were special. They had traveled the country and the countryside as Ben's loyal companions; they had been witnesses to some of his finest and worst moments as a fly fisher. They fit like an infant fits into the bosom of his mother: warm, safe, and loved. They were a comfort. They were essential.

They were.

And now they're gone, having been crushed under the weight of a linebacker sized man and a studded wading boot. Their paths collided in the early morning haze of the river, and now this object that was so very precious, simply is not. Ben's prized sunglasses - trusted friends who had traveled with him to Minnesota, Colorado, Idaho, and numerous points in between - are nothing more than mangled plastic and glass.

In the moments after the sickening crunch of polarized glass filled the otherwise silent morning air, Ben was struck by an unexpected thought: his glasses simply did not matter. We were on the third day of a four day steelheading binge. We had caught fish when river reports were almost universally bleak. Ben took his first steelhead on the swing, and we were sharing a great piece of water with the best of bug chuckers. How could Bennie possibly be upset over the demise of his sunglasses when so much else was going so well? For four days at least, sunglasses and bamboo rods just did not matter. Moments mattered and the people who shared those moments mattered. For Ben, the moments that most mattered on this particular trip were those he spent with his father.

Make no mistake, Milo showed the boys how to get the job done
Milo Jose - septuagenarian, devoted husband, father of three, himself one of 15 children, long time bug chucker, and former Exulted Ruler of the local Elks lodge - was joining us for the final two days of our four day annual odyssey. Milo had never caught a steelhead. Milo had never hooked a steelhead.



A steelhead.

Imagine you have the opportunity to take someone to the river, and put him into his first chromer. Imagine the pressure, the anxiety you might feel, as you stand by your sport's side hoping for that first hookup. Imagine seeing him make that first solid cast. Imagine his fly making just the right drift. Imagine the line going taught as a ten pound, silver jump-jet spools the reel of its line. Imagine the smile on your sport's face, the grin spread from ear to ear. Now, imagine that sport is your dad.

Could there possibly be a better moment, a better gift for a son to give his father?

So what if Milo's first fish wasn't a ten-pounder? This little guy may be even more memorable.
I hope that Milo enjoyed the day as much as his son and I did. I hope that Ben finds a new pair of sunglasses to replace the old, but more to the point I hope Bennie remembers fondly those streamside moments he spent with his dad. More than anything perhaps, I hope that when the time comes, my own son will think enough of me to share with his old man a day on his favorite steelhead run.