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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Maiden Voyage

After years of being a die hard bank angler, I finally succumbed to the allure of boat ownership.  For my 50th birthday gift, my dear wife Wendi decided to generously supplement my meager savings of mad money in my boat fund so I could go boat shopping right away, rather than having to wait until I had enough pennies saved on my own to put me in the ballpark for a decent drift boat.

Thanks to my good friends Tony Torrence, Craig Coover, Cory Dixon, Keith Tymchuck, and others, I got great advice on what to look for in a reasonably priced, yet functional boat.  I scanned Craigslist and watched our local area for used aluminum drift boats on the market.  I almost jumped at a deal on a 14' Alumaweld, but thankfully, a quick call to Tony Torrence kept me from making the mistake of purchasing a boat I would quickly find to be too small.  It seems all of my friends who are experienced with boat ownership were unanimous in recommending a 16' drift boat, probably 54" wide, though some, like Tony, still preferred 48s.

I found a listing for a 16' x 54" RB drift boat that had been on Craigslist for awhile.  I called the seller and the boat was still available.  I emailed the add to Tony to look over and he said "looks good".  I went to look over the boat and it seemed to be in decent, well used condition.  The trailer looked ok, two pairs of oars plus a spare, anchor, and many extras were included in the deal.  The only real issue I noted were a couple dents in the chine, but the seller assured me the boat didn't leak.  I made an offer which the seller accepted and arrangements were made to return with cash and to pick up the boat the following day.

 Go Ducks!

Dents in Chine - adds character

Today was the day set for the maiden voyage with my new/used toy.  My classic 74' Bronco had been sitting in my garage for the past few years (due to it's poor fuel economy) and now was it's time to be put back on insurance and enlisted for boat towing duty.  My old friend started right up after getting the carburetor fuel bowl filled and pumping gas into the cylinders.  It was great to hear the roar of dual Flowmasters behind the healthy 351Windsor, a sound I'm sure my neighbors hate.

I felt it only right to offer the first boat ride to my family.  My 21 year old son, (also named Todd,  TJ to mom and dad) and son-law Shaun decided to take up my offer.  Towing the boat and launching went without a hitch.  I think all the years of watching and helping friends with their boats sunk in and I was blessed that my father in law Jim Jones taught me to row in his 16' x 54' Willie in 1994 when we lived in Montana.

Today was a perfect overcast day and I was optimistic for steelhead and I figured TJ, who doesn't fish very often, would do well in fishing for trout.  I had the guys fishing out of the boat between spots and we would spread out when stopping at runs.  We were having a great time enjoying the new luxury of fishing out of a boat.  I found this drifter to be smooth riding and easy to maneuver, so I was thrilled to realize that I got exactly what I needed in a used watercraft.

We fished in familiar spots that are known to hold fish in this stretch of the Middle Fork Willamette.  Seeing this stretch of river by boat was all new to Shaun and TJ.  I felt so abundantly blessed as we drifted the river and fished our way to the takeout.  I don't get to spend a lot of time with TJ and I realized that acquiring this boat was an avenue for us to get out together more often.  TJ had only been out fly fishing with me a couple times before and I was amazed that his fly casting came back to him quickly and with some brief tips from me, he was throwing some pretty loops.  TJ was jazzed about continuing to do more fly fishing in the future and I was glad to hear that since TJ wasn't one who took to fishing as a child.

I'm hoping that today's memorable float is just the first of many to come.  For some reason today's fishing was unremarkable even in what seemed to be perfect fall fishing weather.  TJ got a small rainbow, Shaun got a small cutthroat and a tug that may have been steel.  As for me, I just continue with skunkitis.  I had a couple nice trout go after my skater but steelhead ignored me completely.  Great company in my new boat more than made up for the slow fishing with TJ's renewed enthusiasm for fly fishing a great bonus. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dry Line Fellowship

Just got back from spending a great couple days on the water with my good friend and brother in Christ, Adrian Cortes.  It was a glorious time of enjoying the beauty of God's creation as we marveled over our majestic surroundings and mused over all of the blessings in our lives including our wives, children (and granchildren for me), and the wonderful opportunity to pursue our favorite fish.  While Adrian and I reflected on our greatest blessing of all - being saved by God's Grace, we also stood in wonder that God orchestrated our friendship through our postings about steelhead fly fishing on internet message boards!

Adrian has also developed into a dedicated dry line steelheader in recent years, so it always great to have his company being that we speak the same crazy language!  Adrian may be even crazier than me in that he ties incredibly beautiful classic Atlantic Salmon flies (in hand), and actually fishes them!

I fished a few pools before Adrian arrived on day one.  I managed to raise a fish to my green butted skater that would not come back despite my best efforts.  Adrian arrived by mid morning and we got situated with a campsite, then hit a familiar riffle.  This run fished nicely and with the lower angle of the September sun, it was mostly in shade even in mid day.  This was among the reasons that we both agreed that fall is our favorite steelheading season along with the cooler weather, the beautiful changing colors of the surrounding foliage, and most of all - steelhead grabby on the surface.

Adrian gifted me with this gorgeous Blue Charm, probably the nicest one I've seen:

Adrian's Blue Charm sitting atop his classy Reid cane rod:

Photo courtesy of Adrian Cortes

I decided to show Adrian the runs that I had already fished before his arrival since he had not fished these particular runs before.  At the first run, I made sure I laid out "Todd's rule" which is that whenever I show a friend a new run, they go through first.  Adrian hesitated, but I stood firm.  As Adrian worked his way down to the lower part of the run, I started in at the top.  As I began casting, I noted that Adrian was just past where I hooked and lost a nice steelhead a few weeks ago. 

After  I made a few casts, I notice Adrian's rod bowing and bucking.  At first, I couldn't tell if Adrian had a nice sized trout on, but by the increasingly powerful tug of war the fish was giving him, I knew it had to be a steelhead.  This steelhead didn't make long runs, but stubbornly fought in close.  Upon landing the fish, we found it to be a hatchery hen of about 8lbs with one of Adrian's classy wet flies lodged firmly in the corner of the jaw.  The fly pattern: the "Magic".  We were surprised that Adrian got a hatchery steelhead in an area primarily populated by wild steelhead.

Adrian gave me some background on his successful fly:

As far as the fly, it was the "Magic" a recipe I followed although in a low-water style from 1884. Here is what William Murdoch had to write about this pattern:

"Regarded principally as a grilse lure, is a first-
rate clear water fly, and used more generally in
dull than bright weather. It is, however, a good,
fair all-round killer. WM describes this fly as
“one of our own patterns”."

The Magic,  Photo courtesy of Adrian Cortes

In one of the next runs we fished, a run that is also fairly new to me, Adrian raised a steelhead to his skater, right in front of a mid-river rock in the tailout of the pool.  The steelhead gulped at the fly and missed, then Adrian saw the fish porpoise upstream after the rise.  Good to have confirmation that a newly "discovered" spot holds fish as suspected.

We continued on fishing a few more runs and as evening approached we selected a particular run for it's easy wading, an important consideration with the fading light at dusk.  I started up high and Adrian got in midway down and would fish to the bottom.  As I worked through the upper section, I struggled to track my fly through the choppy flow compounded by the low light level.  I was getting into the heart of the run, anticipating a surface attack when.....I hear Adrian holler with his Reid bamboo spey rod bent over with a good fish on!  I reeled up and started down towards Adrian to take photos and give encouragement (hopefully being helpful).  Adrian tells me that a good sized fish literally attacked his skater and was immediately off to the races.  I hear Adrian's old Dingley screaming and in the dimming light, saw the fish make a few jumps.  We were figuring a very nice sized steelhead was the cause of all the commotion coming from Adrian's equipment and also the reason for the sudden spikes in our adrenaline.  The fish fought downstream at first than it slowly came upstream, once making the quick "steelie turn", temporarily tricking us into thinking the fish was lost, then as Adrian reeled to take up slack line, the fight resumed as the fish bored upstream, seemingly at will.

No palming rim or exposed spool face on Adrian's Dingley - no problem, Adrian applies pressure to the inside spool to slow the speeding fish down:

As the fight wore on I thought to grab the trout net I had in the trunk of my car to at least get the head of the fish contained so I could attempt to tail the fish when it got close to shore.  I was relieved that Adrian still had the fish on when I returned to him.   The fish was tiring and Adrian was able to lead it into a perfect place for me to use the net to help corral it in.  Just as the large fish got close enough for me to take a swipe with the net, the hook pulled out.  I tried going after the fish as it slowly swam off and it was then that I saw a broad, slightly bronze side and realized this was no steelhead, but a chinook salmon!  The broad sided fish looked to be at least 15lbs and seemed to be in good condition considering it was probably a springer, and quickly approaching spawning.  The fact that this Chinook aggressively took a skater (a green butted model that I gave Adrian) and fought with speed and acrobatics, fooled both of us to assume it was a steelhead of a lifetime.  Nonetheless, we high-fived, and were overcome with gratitude for such a unique, exciting encounter with one of God's wondrous creatures.  A Chinook salmon attacking a skater and fighting like a steelhead - definitely an experience Adrian and I will treasure.

Back at camp, we ruminated over the wonderful day we just had.  Adrian was still coming down from the adrenaline rush of hooking and fighting the Chinook.  He actually felt disoriented from the experience and it took a bit for him to get his bearings on what he needed to get done to settle in for the evening.  We just continued to reflect in amazement over the blessed day we had shared.

Dinner consisted of gourmet meals of the the "just add hot water" variety and we joked about how distorted a steelhead fly fisherman's priorities can become!  We buy the best equipment we can afford (or not afford), obsess over flies, lines, techniques, theories, and the mad pursuit of the mystical steelhead, yet we live like animals in camp in order to get every last minute of fishing in for the day.

Day two began with hitting the same runs we started on the day before.  It was another gorgeous fall day that ended up turning bright and warm, not what the weatherman had forecast (occasional showers throughout the day) .  At the run where Adrian raised a fish the day before, he hooked up while fishing one of his Jock Scotts.  The fish took higher and further out in the run than the fish he rose previously.  The fish grabbed solidly, started to take line, then was off as Adrian began sweeping his rod to the bank.  More confirmation of the fish holding properties of this new run.

At the first run, I ended up taking a dunking, not while wading through treacherous waters to reach for a prime steelhead lie, but while jumping up to grasp an overhanging branch to trim with my pruning saw, heroic stuff.  We continued to fish our way downstream as we enjoyed the warming day.  I showed Adrian a few more spots.  The forecast rain showers came late in the afternoon and it was time for me to leave so I could catch a few minutes with my little granddaughter before she went to bed that evening.  I stopped Adrian off back at his rig and we said our goodbyes and congratulated each other on a memorable trip.  Adrian continued on to fish another run before leaving the river to return home.  He later emailed me the following report:

"After you left yesterday, I fished one last run in the rain. Went through it with dice. Had enough time for another run through with a wetfly and had no action but it just felt so calming to be out there at that moment. The light pelting of the rain on my hat brim...the low clouds embracing the treetops...the gurgling of the river...remembering how much I enjoy well-executed snakerolls. I neared the end of the run, threw one more successful snakeroll as far as my technique would let me: A bald eagle rose from the treetops flying away downstream and a singular bright yellow maple leaf fluttered down from the opposite bank signaling to my senses that it was time to reel in. I just felt in tune at that moment."

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Brief Encounter

Got out to a favorite summer river with fellow dry line steelhead enthusiast Terry Robinson a couple weeks ago.  I hadn't fished with Terry in quite a while so it was great to catch up as we took turns fishing through runs.  We came to a run perfectly made for the surface fly.  After coming through some rapids, the river breaks into a pool where the flow pushes towards the far shore with a perfect seam forming where the main flow softens on the near side.  I started at the head of this run, beginning with short casts and lengthening line until I was throwing my Ambush head and about 7 strips of running line.  I would cast several feet into the choppy main flow and gently twitch my green butt skater during the swing until it settled into the soft water below me.  On each cast, my anticipation would build as I'd watch my skater coming out of the choppy flow and swinging through the seam that formed the transition between the main flow the the slower inside water.

As I got through about a third of the way through this run, as my skater was coming through that fishy seam, a steelhead came up with a slashing rise to the skater and missed the fly.  I kept twitching the fly until it settled at the hang down and closely watched my fly for any follow up attack by the steelie.  Terry was standing about even with me on shore as he waited to get in behind me as I worked further down the run.  I told Terry that I just raised a steelhead.  Terry and I watched my fly closely after I made the same cast.  As my skater came through the zone that stirred my anticipation, the steelhead came back up and erupted at the fly.  A broad flash of silver with a hint of pink was seen as my fly disappeared in the showy rise.  I felt the initial pull and gently raised my rod to remove slack and to check if the steelhead was hooked.  The steelhead gave me a couple head shakes and as I was bracing to hear a screaming Hardy Perfect on the steelhead's first run, the line snapped back into my face in a tangled mess.  As I sorted things out, I realized that my fly was missing from the end of my tippet.  I noted a small curl about where I had tied the loop knot on my skater.  I wondered if I had tightened down too hard when tying the loop knot or maybe I had a wind knot on my tippet??  I was puzzled over the quick loss of the steelhead which looked to be a broad shouldered specimen in the 12lb range.  It didn't seem that this steelhead was yet pulling hard enough to break even a weakened knot at the fly.  Perhaps it just got the right kind of leverage and flopped it's body against the tippet just after the hookup to cause the break - no matter, my questions would not bring it back.

I was so glad to be able to share in the excitement of that brief hookup with Terry as he was able to watch the whole thing unfold as I made a comeback cast to that steelhead.  Terry was at a slightly higher vantage point and he was actually able to see that the steelhead had "nosed" at the fly a couple times in the choppy flow before attacking the fly in the softer seam where it come up initially.

This brief steelhead encounter left a burning image in both mine and Terry's memories that will last at least until our next surface steelhead encounters!