Here I sit, again at the kitchen table in my apartment on Bainbridge Island. My head has been in the clouds since I left and it's still up there now. It'd be impossible to tell the story from start to finish, so I've just written some thoughts on a few subjects. Give me a shout if you want to hear more about it or about anything specific.
Some statistics: I fished for eight days and averaged a fish a day. I got blanked a couple days, my best day was three and I landed the last five that I hooked.
I reached the river with a box of a couple hundred flies. While this tally eased my mind in preparing for the trip, it would turn out to be a bit of a hindrance when I was riverside, about to make my pass through a greasy run. I was determined to catch my first fish on a fly I tied and succeeded in this on the second day. The pattern that took off my skunk was a 3" unweighted red, orange and pink Popsicle pattern. For me, the general rule of bright flies for bright skies and dark flies for dark skies held. After stinging one on my tie, I switched over to a fly tied by my roommate, James. This fly hooked two fish on back to back casts! One would be a fresh hen of about 8 pounds that I would get to tail a few hundred yards downstream and the other was a smolt of about 8 inches! In the end, James' patterns would account for half of my fish. At some point on day 3 or 4, it felt I was in a bit of a slump. I was reaching the end of my second fishless day and was becoming a little frustrated with my casting, was hooking bottom and bushes and just generally not feeling fishy when swinging. I ended the day by losing my fourth fly in the same run. When I'm steelheading (or fishing in general, I suppose), I like to think that things happen for a reason, so I told myself that the fish didn't want to eat that fly and I took to the bank to take in the scene and collect myself while my friend finished the run. It was then that I made these realizations: the four flies I had just lost were store-bought, and all the flies that had taken fish were either tied by me or someone I know. I concluded then that flies without soul would not work on this river. I spent the rest of the trip fishing flies that I had a connection to, and enjoyed greater catching success on the second half of the trip. More veteran steelheaders have probably enjoyed this realization years or decades ago, but for me, it happened when it happened. With this new knowledge in my pocket, my fly box was promptly halved. Choosing which fly to tie on was still difficult though. I consider myself to be a fairly decisive individual and I understand that indecision can be a handicap in certain situations. That said, nearly every time I was to change flies, I found myself hunched over my box, three or four patterns in my hands, contemplating the merits of each. In hindsight, I think nearly all the patterns in my box would've worked, but for whatever reasons, only a few felt right at times. Confidence is key in this fishing game, so I guess it doesn't matter if it took me two or ten minutes to decide my fly so long as the one I did choose felt good to me.
Encounters, pt. 1
Third day, second fish hooked. One of those grabs where your fly is swinging quietly through a run one moment, then in an instant your reel is screaming like the fish was on its way back to the ocean and you tail-snagged it. The next thing I recall, my shooting head left my view, shooting line followed and backing was passing through guides. The fish broke the surface of the water, cleared my buddy's swinging line and then was again peeling off line, heading downstream further still. At this point, I realized that on its path downstream, the fish had gone under a log. Fuck. The fish had by now slowed its run, so I gained some backing while walking downstream towards the log to inspect the situation. "I don't think you'll be seeing this one, Jess." I said to myself. The log's roots were twenty feet off shore, in waist deep, swift water. I was able to get to the roots, and get good footing there. The fish must've tired at this point, because I started gaining line. The backing knot passed through the guides. Soon the head was in sight. My three compatriots watched as I brought the fish closer and closer, my line still under this log, which extended way beyond what I wanted to wade into, angled slightly downstream. As I got the head into the guides, the fish began to run again. We quickly discussed tactics. Visions of Lee Wulff passing a rod through/under/around roots and trees flashed in my head. I had actually performed such a feat myself years ago, but the log in question was in a couple feet of slow water, not a waist deep current that didn't look like it should be messed with. We grabbed a Water Master and contemplated getting into it and floating alongside the log to get downstream of it, but eventually decided against this as it didn't look like we could row off the log in time to clear it. Sooner or later the fish was at the log and I could see her under the surface. I tried hard to get her out of that log, but it wasn't happening. One last pull from me, one from her and off she went. I stood there looking at the log and my fly-less tippet. My friends offered some words that I don't recall. Then one said, "Well, you'll never forget that one!" I glared at him and then started laughing. "No shit!" We all laughed.
I have little first hand experience with bears. I've seen a handful from afar and even had one come into the gear room of a cabin I was sleeping in, but I've never ran into one in close range while on foot in the woods. I have done a decent amount of reading on bear safety and how to handle yourself when you have an encounter, but was still nervous about seeing one, especially when every single person I talked to about the trip cautioned me extensively. My parents lectured me. I carried bear spray and a bear bell that still rings in my ears. We started seeing tracks as soon as the helicopter left us. We heard a sow and two cubs were around. In the end, we didn't see a single bear. This is fine by me I suppose, but I wouldn't have minded seeing one across the river. Some other tracks were of concern as well though. On one upstream exploration, two of my crew took off from the raft for a couple hours. On their return, cougar tracks covered theirs. Back at camp though, we had our most bothersome run-ins with other mammals: mice!
Encounters, pt. 2
Fourth day, I think. As a few of my buddies from home will tell you, I sometimes get frustrated fishing the same water day after day and will elect for fishing new water even if the prospects of catching are not as great. I'm well aware of the cardinal sin of leaving fish to find fish, but sometimes you just need to do something different. For a few days, we had spent a good amount of time at one run, each taking long passes through it. Fish were being hooked certainly, but I was in need of new water. First thing in the morning we made our way to this same long run and while the three others got ready, I wished them well and made my way upstream, to fish whatever water I would find. In truth, I was leaving A-water and ended up fishing B- and C-water, but it was what I needed that morning. I fished a couple runs that were a bit too fast and then fished some small inside seams that looked like water a fish would move through, but probably not hold in. Several of these spots were head-casts only, and 8 or less casts would fish the spot. On one such spot, my fly held in the hang down. I watched it for a second or two then looked up to make my next cast. The fly was then grabbed. I quickly turned my head and saw the fish make one big boil before turning and heading directly downstream. My rod high, crashing through a log jam and side channel, I was in tow. A hundred yards downstream, I realized this fish was heading for another log jam that would probably end my hopes of landing it. Thankfully I was able to put the brakes on the fish and slowly it came back upstream where I tailed her in an eddy behind a log. The sun had just hit the water. Fishing usually has a way of working out. Fool-hearty, optimistic plans are sometimes rewarded. All it takes is one fish to make a day, and you never know what'll happen when your fly's in the water.
I have been on a handful of fishing benders over the years and time is an interesting element in each. For rendez-vous purposes, I wore a watch on this trip, though some days it seemed its only purpose was to provide entertainment as we tried to guess the hour. The days are very long in British Columbia right now. As such, we were up between 4:00 and 4:30 every day. We anticipated the fishing to slow down during the high sun hours, which would give us a break for food and maybe a couple hours of sleep. This plan quickly went out the window, as we started hooking fish at seemingly every hour of the day. So nap time was discarded and we ended up fishing from roughly 5:00 am to 10:00 pm every day, with some breaks for food, coffee and bullshitting. To say we left the river sleep deprived is an understatement, but I can't think of any other way to leave it. Without question, these were the eight shortest, longest days of my life. The days screamed by. Moments lasted longer, but still not long enough. The moments shared with each other half-awake waiting for coffeeto be ready, after a fish was landed, staring at a run to be fished or brief campfires where half of us nodded off are ones I will not soon forget. But there were a million other moments I had with myself, in my head that I wish I could return to. What was I thinking about for those 12 hours a day when I stood there by myself, my fly swimming through the currents? The exact thoughts seem to be lost now, but they were mine at the time, so they must be with me still. It's still perplexing to me how time can move so quickly and slowly while fishing.
Encounters, pt. 3
Fifth day. Another guy and I went upstream to explore some new water. What we found was the best water we'd seen all trip. A long, classic run with a bucket that seemed to go on forever awaited us as we fist bumped and giggled atop a log jam. I won the roshambo and was first through. As I reached the bucket, every swing seemed to get better than the last. My eyes widened, my pulse increased with each step and each swing I made. If it doesn't happen here, then where?? I looked upstream, hoping to see my buddy hooked up, thinking maybe I just missed the fish. My swings were now in the tailout and I was trying to judge just how many I had before I should call it. Then a swing slowly came into tension. It was an odd feeling, kind of like I had swung my fly into a big branch. I raised my rod slowly and the tension remained, but it gave slightly. I kept raising my rod and the same happened. I started reeling in, thinking that this branch I had snagged was now coming upstream. "Is that a fish?" my buddy yelled from upstream. I shook my head 'no.' I kept reeling but something was very un-snag like about this. Then I felt a head shake, and another. I looked upstream, flashed a smile and said something silly like, "Uhh, yea, yea! It's a fish!" I thought it was a king. It was a dog fight at the start with no runs to speak of. I held strong side pressure and the fish came close. There it rolled. "Hoooolly shittttttt..." we said to each other. It was a big buck. We had the fish in the shallows at that point and my buddy was able to get a hand on his tail. That kicked the battle into high gear. A half dozen times after that, we'd get the fish into the shallows, only to barely touch its tail and it would be off again, on a strong, steady run right to the middle of the run. Finally the fish tired and we had him. It was the biggest steelhead I have ever held. The moment my buddy and I shared after that fish was one I will remember forever. He could've jumped right back in the run in hopes of hooking his own, but we sat there on a log for what seemed like an hour, talking about how it all went down. 'What do you do after you land a fish like that?' we asked each other. I've landed big and meaningful fish in other places that felt similarly and this is what I think the answer is: you watch your buddy fish and hope like hell that he gets one even bigger.
I camped and fished with three other guys. We were mostly split into pairs while on the river. I had met and fished with only one of these guys before this trip began but had talked to the others on the phone. All from northern California, these guys have been steelheading as long as I had been fishing for brookies in New England, which is to say, most of their lives. Their knowledge on Pacific Northwest steelhead and steelhead rivers was humbling. As is often the case, I found myself learning a lot just by watching them cast and fish. Hearing their thoughts on conditions and specific runs was an education in itself. The two guys I hadn't met before became great friends in a couple days. I've had this happen to me a handful of times in past several years, but when you're placed in an angling situation with another angler, one who can appreciate a day's single fish, or a sunset over a steelhead river, it's not hard to get along well. Tentative plans have been made. See you guys soon. And what a small community this fly fishing one is. I met four people on the river who I have mutual friends with. I've already seen one of them and have plans to talk with another when he gets off the river. There's a bond within the fly fishing community already, but put yourself on that river and the bond is even greater.
Encounters, pt. 4
Seventh day, upstream of camp. It would be my best day of steelheading ever. The trip had been made already. Spirits and confidence were high. The first run we approached, we each made two passes with no luck. We made our way to another piece that we hadn't fished yet and I sent my buddy through first. I watched from the bank as he started his pass. He was a fair ways down the run when I got up and made my way to the river. I made my way to the very top of the run, as I had done every day before and as I had been told numerous times by better steelheaders than I. I wasn't even sure where my buddy had made his first cast, but I'll be damned if on my second or third I didn't stick one just about where he had been standing ten minutes prior. We tailed the fish and took it in. He started the run over while I sat on the bank thinking about what happened. My confidence soared and I began to get antsy watching my buddy make his pass. I needed my fly in the water. Soon enough, we finished the run and were on to the next. It wasn't far downstream. I told him to go ahead and he did. The writing was on the river for me in that run. It wasn't a classic piece of swing water, but it looked like A-water to me: bouldery and fast on each side, but there was a slower piece right in the middle, where a gravel bar dropped off. The wading would be tough and I'd have to high stick the water in front of me, but there in the middle there'd be a fish. I felt it. I watched as my buddy began his pass. He wasn't starting where I would've started. I picked a rock downstream and when he got there, I made my way upstream and entered the currents. As anticipated the wading was tough, but the cast was not long. My first swing into the good shit, just off the gravel bar and it got yanked like I knew it would. We landed this one and talked about the run. I sent him off with my take on the spot and he continued on. I watched and hoped he would get one even bigger. Fifteen minutes later I tailed his.
Release! from Jesse Lance Robbins on Vimeo.