Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Salmon River (A Trip Report): Days Four and Five - Photo Dump

I've been thinking about the final two days of Steelhead Mania 2013, and I find I just haven't the words to articulate all that happened as the trip came to a close. We did well and had fun, but saying as much doesn't quite do justice to our time on the water.

For my part, I think I learned more on this trip than I have on any other in recent memory. I can say without reservation that I am a better spey caster today than I was a month ago. I am better able to manage my line when it's on the water, and the flies I am fishing today are undeniably better than those I tied last year (better does not necessarily mean that they entice more fish). And isn't that what it's really all about?

Every time I'm on the water I manage to get the job done just a little more handily than I did previously, but more to the point I've learned to recognize and appreciate certain moments when they happen: the sun rising over a favorite run, fresh spikes on old boots, courteous guides rowing their boats behind wading anglers, a friend hooking ten pounds of steelhead on a 75 year old bamboo rod. I've learned that fishing stories aren't always about the fish. More often than not, fishing stories are friend stories, and friend stories are the stories that most matter.

And I'm reminded that I love my friends. I love them when they're hooking up and I'm cursing the gods, but I love them more when they're having a hard day and still they're quick with smiles and a net. I'm fortunate to share the water with the men I call friends; they're the reason I look forward to steelhead fishing the way I do.

All that having been said ... and since a picture is worth a 1000 words (or approximately 207 cliches and hackneyed phrases), here's the remainder of our trip ...




Photo by Adam Kettering

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Salmon River (A Trip Report): Day Three - Swing That $#!% Until Your Arm Goes Numb

Day three began with a little prayer to the river gods; a prayer that day two would not repeat itself. We were ready - all of us - for some assurance that we were still men, that we could not be emasculated by a river, that if the apocalypse came tomorrow we could provide needed sustenance for our loved ones. We were ready for a good day. I was especially hopeful given we had decided to fish one of my favorite runs.

We arrived at a little before 5 a.m., and were pleased to see no one else parked in the lot. With headlamps ablaze I imagine that from a distance we must have looked like so many will-o-wisps flittering back and forth among the trees. Carefully, we made our way through the twilight darkened thicket and crept single file toward the head of the run. No sooner had we dropped our packs in a line than we heard the distinctive "creak-thud ... creak-thud" of oars and water working against the hull of an aluminum drift boat.

As the guide and his clients drifted past they complimented us for having the resolve to get down to the water so early in the morning. I couldn't help but marvel at the dedication of a guide who rows his sports down midnight-dark currents in hopes of being the first boat to reach many of the river's better holes. I wish it had been light enough to see his face or read the markings on the boat as I'd be sure to recommend him to anyone that asked. As the drift boat floated out of sight we began the process of rigging and re-rigging, and when the light began to peek over the edge of the horizon we were gifted one of the most beautiful sunrises I've seen in some time.

I'm hardly a snob insofar as fly fishing is concerned. My philosophy is pretty simple: I'll fish the way I do, you'll fish the way you do, and if we're not crossing lines mid-river then we'll never have a problem. Respect the resource, and I'll never make a judgment. I don't care if you're a swinger, nympher, pinner, or knuckle dragging gear head. All that aside, there is something special in the rhythm of fishing a swung fly on a spey rod.

I've always been impressed by a well executed spey cast - long before I ever picked up my first two-handed rod I was fascinated by the mechanics of the process. To my eye, a well executed spey cast transcends anything even the most accomplished angler might do with a single-handed rod. The structure of the spey is a marriage of form and function, a testament to efficiency, and when done especially well the process culminates in one of those rare moments when art and science blend to create something that cannot exist outside of the moment. The rod - twelve or thirteen feet of woven carbon fiber, or fiberglass, or fire-hardened bamboo - is a calligrapher's pen painting enigmatic characters in the air. And the line ... 

The line is anticipation. The line is potential. The line is all the promise of a day on the water. In a well executed spey cast our line is fluid - as the water we fish is fluid. She bends and yields, twists and tumbles. She dances for us, begging for the climatic moment when all of her potential is set in motion.

"Pffffffffffffffffffttttttt ... click."

In a well executed spey cast we wait to hear that click, and as soon as the line leaves our hand we know whether or not it's coming. One click. The reel wants to give more, but can only spare a click's worth. The rod jumps a little in our hands, and automatically we throw an upstream mend to slow and extend our drift.  In the course of a day we might do this hundreds if not thousands of times. Over and over again we probe the dark corners and recesses of the run the whole time waiting expectantly for some sign of life.

Then it happens.


Then it happens again.

Then you realize that the river gods were listening to your twilight prayers, and you run the remainder of the evening without so much as a thought of fish. You're content. Everything is right in the world, and as you watch the moon rise up to replace the sun you cannot help but smile at thoughts of the day.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Salmon River (A Trip Report): Day Two - Bust

The thing about dreams is that they sometimes do come true. Sometimes you pick the winning horse. Sometimes you kiss the prom queen. Sometimes you get to play the hero.


More often than not, however, dreams remain dreams. Your horse breaks a leg before it ever reaches the starting gate. Try as she might, the prom queen cannot pick you out of a police line up, and the closest you've ever come to being a hero is when you camped out to be the first in line for opening night of the Star Wars prequel. Jedi dreams die hard, and on that second day of fishing, our steelhead dreams may as well have been Jedi dreams.

When we set off on Tuesday night for the two hour drive to the river we were giddy with enthusiasm. We believed with every bit of angler-instinct we possessed that the river gods were smiling on us. How could we not? Only three days before we were set to leave, the river flowed at a staggering 1850 cfs. So much water isn't impossible to fish, but it is uncomfortable to fish, and bringing steelhead to hand once hooked can be very difficult in the swirling currents of a swollen Salmon River. But in only three days the river had dropped to 500 cfs - just about perfect for a group of intrepid steelheaders. Surely the fish would agree.

And they did, but only for a day. Day two of our expedition saw air temperatures rise from just above 30 degrees to nearly 60 - a trend that would continue for the remainder of the trip. The sun, high in the cloudless blue sky, shone brightly on the water and cursed us with its warmth. In nearly twelve hours of fishing we managed one fish to hand. For my part, I drew only a single pull after a half day of swinging a 13'6" 8# around my head like a drunken Scotsman practicing his caber toss.

The one fish brought to hand - Photo (and fish) courtesy of Shawn Brillon

So I guess Thursday was a lesson in perspective. Yes, the fishing was difficult. Yes, I found myself frustrated at times, but the old cliché held true: a bad day of fishing is better than the best day at work. Any pressure I felt was pressure I put on myself, and that was pure foolishness. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a bit disappointed, but more than disappointment I ended the day feeling hopeful. I still had three days ahead of me, and as I had the night before I laid back in my bed, closed my eyes, and dreamed steelhead dreams.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Salmon River (A Trip Report): Day One - Boon

Sometimes the best part of a fishing trip happens well before an angler ever steps into the water. The preparation - tying flies, checking knots, patching waders, and mapping routes and destinations - is part and parcel of the hopeful anticipation that characterizes the bug chucking persona. We spend the days and weeks prior to our trip in a prolonged daze. We dream adrenaline fueled dreams of what might be, but oftentimes the reality does not match our hopeful expectations. That's not to say we're disappointed. Rarely if ever do we come back from a fishing trip without smiles on our faces, but more often than not the what was is hopelessly eclipsed by the what could have been. All of this brings us to Wednesday of last week. 

Every November, the boys and I make our annual foray to the Salmon River in New York; the trip is one of many we each make to the river individually, but usually the only one we make as a group. We come not for those fish that share the river's namesake but rather the steelhead that entered the river behind the salmon; brilliant fish that are intent on a feast of decomposing flesh and eggs. By late November the great majority of kings and cohos have expired, and thousands of steelhead remain. These are the fish that fuel our dreams, and last Wednesday was our first day on the water.

Our plan for Hump Day had been made months before the alarm rang at two o'clock that morning. Ben's father was to join us as he had last November, and we were determined to make this year more successful. Milo hooked several large fish - including one of particularly grotesque proportions - on that last trip, but his young buck guides just couldn't manage a single chromer in the net. This year was to be Milo's redemption; we guides made sure to brush up on our net skills, checked and rechecked all our knots, and tied hundreds of the flies we thought might bring Ben's dad some luck. Unfortunately, life is no respecter of fishermen and their steelhead dreams, and this year life threw Milo a bit of a curve ball. Ben's father was forced to back out of the trip at the last moment, and the rest of us scrambled to rearrange our first day.

Ultimately, we decided to stay with our original plan for the early part of the morning, and began at the Lower Fly Zone where we were joined by several dozen of our very best friends. If you've fished the LFZ then you get the joke. In November, this stretch of river is packed with steelhead like Toys-R-Us is packed with soccer moms on Black Friday, and where there are so many fish there is sure to be a corresponding number of anglers. There are some cracks where one or two bug chuckers might grab a small piece of water and expect to be relatively unmolested for the better part of the day; because we arrived well before most other anglers were even out of bed, we were able to slide into one of these sequestered - if not secluded - spots. Before long, however, we spotted little dots of light - other anglers' headlamps - bouncing along the trails on either bank of the river. I was reminded of History Channel video I've seen of the Viet Cong moving supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

As the sun came up over the treeline we realized that we had chosen poorly. We were surrounded by at least fifty other anglers, and with half of our party intent on swinging flies, there was no way we could bear to stay very long.  

In the short time we remained there were fish to be had, and while everyone in our party hooked up with relative ease, the nature of such fishing quickly became tedious. Our proximity to other anglers - many of whom were clearly lifting and snagging fish - prompted us to pack up after just a few hours and find a piece of water that wasn't being quite so rankly abused. On a lark, we drove to the Upper Fly Zone to check on a run that was tailor made by God, Nature, and Brookfield Renewable Power (the company that owns the Lighthouse Hill Dam from which the Salmon River flows) for bug chuckers who like to catch steelhead on the swing.

I won't go into too many details, but suffice to say we finished the evening on a happier note than we began the day. There were plenty of fish in the run, a few of them were eager to chase the big stuff, and those bug chuckers who happened upon us generally left us alone to do our thing. We met another angler who asked to rotate the run with us, and as enjoyable as was my conversation with Tom - I was happier to have met his dog. Copper was the most stick-fetchinest pup with whom I've ever become acquainted. I tried desperately to take a photo, but every time I picked up my camera Copper sniffed the lens - leaving little streaks of dog drool across the glass. Camera shy I guess.

Photo: Ben Jose

As the evening wore on, a couple of the boys wandered off to find an open slot to nymph. When they returned we decided to call it a day. We were exhausted and satisfied. Slowly we walked back to the lot and made the bleary-eyed drive to the cabin that would be our home for the next five days. After showers, unpacking, and a meal comprised almost entirely of useless carbohydrates (read: beer and pasta) we agreed to a later than normal wake up. For my part, I fell asleep filled with the hopeful anticipation that always precedes another day on the water.