Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Returning to Steelhead Paradise Part 1 - Making the Journey

I first traveled to Skeena country in late September 1995 after reading magazine articles and stories in steelhead fly fishing literature about the free rising, surface oriented steelhead in the famous Skeena tributaries.  I managed to encounter my first steelhead on a surface fly on that first trip along with several more that came to an ugly modified Waller Waker I was tying at the time.

My early successes in surface steelheading could directly be attributed to and inspired by the writings in Bill McMillan's book Dry Line Steelhead.  As noted in a prior blog post, Bill has been my hero and mentor in the realm of steelhead fly fishing and steelhead conservation.  I have been blessed to have become friends with Bill through ongoing email dialogue and a few meetings in person.

Since that first trip to Skeena country in 1995, I have taken subsequent trips there in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007.  On most of those trips, I traveled solo from my home in Hawaii, on a very frugal budget, for jaunts lasting 10 to 12 days.  I had become acquainted with Cary and Collin Shadrech, who at the time, were the owners and operators of the Frontier Farwest Steelhead lodge, during my trip in 2006.  I had been walking past the Frontier Farwest Lodge (as my economical means of transport to steelhead runs was strictly footpower) and I got to chatting with Cary Shadrech as she was mowing the lawn in front of the lodge.  She was very warm and friendly and we got to talking about my love of surface fishing for steelhead.  She said "you've got to meet Collin" and a minute later, Collin pulled up in one of their Suburbans after returning from town to repair a tire.  As dry fly steelhead enthusiasts, Collin and I spoke the same language and his legendary stature as a steelheader who had a feature chapter in Trey Comb's epic book on Steelhead Fly fishing was not lost on me either.   I was delighted to find Collin to be a very humble and warm hearted individual.

Collin and Cary invited me to the lodge for dinner and informed that they were planning to sell the lodge and retire after completing their final season the following year, 2007.  After being treated to a wonderful gourmet meal and great visits with the guests and guides there, Collin told me he'd like to offer me a week at the lodge the following year at a "brother in law rate".  He took my contact information and stated that he'd get a hold of me prior to the following season.

I returned to real life in Hawaii after that trip and surely enough,  Collin called me in the Summer of 2007 and offered me a significant discount off the normal weekly rate at Frontier Farwest.  I was deeply appreciative of Collin's generous offer, but I had to decline due to the fact that I didn't have enough mad money on hand to even make the plane fare to Canada, much less the added expenses once I got there.  It was most difficult to decline such a wonderful offer and all I could do at the time was dream of what a week at a steelhead lodge would be like.

At the time, I did a lot of car repairs at my home as favors to friends from my church and as a side business.  Folks would generally insist on paying me, even when I was extending my services as favors and I also had ongoing car repairs that allowed me to earn some extra funds.  In addition, I was sometimes given broken down vehicles that I would repair and sell.  As the summer of 2007 progressed, through the car repairs I had done and used cars sold, I unexpectedly ended up being able to accumulate just enough cash to make one of my "super cheap" trips to BC - enough to cover plane fare, fishing license/classified waters fees, and enough junk food for 10-12 days.

I thought to give Collin and Cary a call to let them know that I was coming over on one of my spartan trips and asked if I could stop by to say hello when I was over there.  Collin offered, or I should say, insisted, that I stay at Frontier Farwest in their final season of operating the lodge.  I explained that while I had enough funds to make it over to BC, that I still fell way short of the generous discount he had offered me for a week at the lodge.  Collin and Cary persisted and basically told me "tell you what, whatever you pay for your inexpensive trip is what you can pay us instead, we want you to come stay with us in our last season".  In the end, I was getting a week of guided fishing in a posh lodge setting for the cost of what I'd normally pay for my prior trips to BC  which would consist of staying at a cheap motel and eating a lot of junk food!

When the time came in mid October 2007 for my week at Frontier Farwest, I felt like I was living in a dream.  Spending a week under lodge accommodations with first class guides, gourmet meals, and access to prime steelhead water, including remote sections of river not frequented by the general fishing public was such a blessed experience.  Unfortunately, it was the year of a 100 year flood and the river was running higher than normal.  Fishing was tougher than average, but guests fishing sinktips were getting into a few fish.  True to style, I persisted with the surface fly with no feedback for the first several days.

The guides were feeling pressured and nervous over my lack of success.  Even Collin was telling me "hey Todd, you might try the tip tomorrow".  Understanding the pressure fishing guides feel to put clients into fish regardless of whether a crazy client (me) is fully content to fish surface flies with or without success, I relented.  On the fourth day of fishing, I took out a light Skagit head with an old Type III sinktip made out of a 9wt Scientific Anglers shooting head.  In a quiet pool, I hooked and landed a nice 16-17lb hen on a red/orange marabou spider tied on a plastic tube.  A fish this large is big enough to actually scare me a bit with it's sheer size and power and I was thrilled to encounter that steelhead, but of course the question lingered - "wonder if that steelhead would have taken a skater?"

At least getting that fish took the pressure off the guides and I happily went back to fishing surface flies for the remainder of the week.  On the last run of the last day with the lodge, I raised and briefly hooked a steelhead on a skater.  Shortly after that, my late friend Bob Cherry hooked and landed a "Kahuna" (20lb + steelhead) on a skagit/tip/tube fly in the upper part of the run we were fishing.

Since that trip in 2007, I have yearned to return to Skeena country.  In the meantime, our family moved from Hawaii to Oregon in early 2009 and finances have been a limiting factor in planning a return trip.  Of course in the ensuing time, I have fished like a maniac in Oregon steelhead water.  However, the dream of returning to the steelhead paradise of Skeena Country has never died, even with the wonderful year around steelheading opportunities afforded to me in Oregon.

Beginning sometime in 2009, I communicated with and became friends with phenomenal in-hand classic Salmon Fly tyer Adrian Cortes through the Spey Pages and Westfly forums and we began fishing together in the winter of 2012.  During one of those winter trips, Adrian asked me if I had ever fished BC before.  Of course, such a question led to retelling of stories from prior trips to Skeena country and the warm memories generated from encountering the best surface steelheading I've ever had, beautiful country, and wonderful people.

A scheme was hatched out of that conversation with Adrian and we vowed to put a plan into place to go to Skeena country in the fall of 2014.  This would allow us enough time to massage the idea to our significant others, work out logistics, and save for such a trip.  Along the way, Aaron Ostoj and Steve Turner came into the picture as we paved ahead with plotting for our trip north.

Time passed by quickly and we all secured our wives blessings and solid dates were put on the calendar.  A motel was booked well in advance and I got in touch with a local contact I had met on my prior trips.  Unfortunately, several months prior to the trip, Aaron informed that it was necessary for him to bow out of the plans due to changes in his life circumstances.

Before we knew it, the time to check off the final items on our travel preparation to do lists came and Adrian and I were driving north to meet up with Steve Turner.  We would be traveling together in Steve's new luxury Ford F150 with his Clackacraft in tow.

Our plan was to take turns with driving and we had scheduled to stop by and visit Bill McMillan at his home in Concrete, WA and we would later stop in to visit bamboo rodmaker James Reid in Vancouver, BC.

Steve took the first driving shift and Adrian and I got right to work tying flies during the drive.  Adrian got to work on tying a Major in hand and later realized that he forgot his Argus feathers.  As for me, I had just devised the Black/Blue Little Wang the day before so I had a grand total of one of them in my box - time to get busy.  I placed my vise on a pedestal base which was then placed in a plastic tub to minimize the mess in Steve's truck.  Tying on bumpy stretches of road and around corners was a challenge, but I was on a mission.  I needed to have enough black/blue skaters for backups and to share with Steve and Adrian.

The "Asian Sweat Shop":
Photo by Steve Turner
Photo by Steve Turner

We were right on schedule when we pulled up to Bill McMillan's home.  Bill had kindly agreed to have us stop by to visit him on our way north.  Bill's place was just as he described - a quaint cabin at the end of the road, on the banks of the mighty Skagit river.  It was great to see Bill again as I had not chatted with him in person since the time he was at the Northwest Fly Tyers Expo in Albany, OR in March 2012.  Adrian had met Bill at the Fly Tyer's Expo in 2012 as well, when I introduced them to each other.

Steve had also previously met Bill in the early 80's and had actually fished with him one evening on the Washougal, an arrangement made via family connections through Steve's wife Debbie.  After Steve became acquainted with me through Adrian last year and also knowing of my ongoing communications with Bill, I put Steve in touch with Bill through email.  It turns out, Bill had a journal entry recalling that evening of fishing with Steve which included a fish risen to a Bomber and Bill tying a General Practitioner that he gave to Steve.  Steve still has that fly and took a picture of it to share with us.

Bill met us with warm greetings and we visited with him in his den which he calls the "Inner Sanctum".  We marveled at being in the presence of a true icon of our sport and we felt so abundantly blessed that Bill took the time to be with us.  We were flattered and humbled when Bill told us "Lynn told me to clean this place up before you guys got here".  Stories were shared and token items that had been discussed during my ongoing email exchanges with Bill came to life as they were seen right in front of us.  Such items seen around Bill's den were: Conservation Awards including the Roderick Haig-Brown Award recognizing his life's work in conservation activism, wooden Peet's reels that Bill used on his two handed rods, scores of vintage Hardy's, bags of fly tying materials accumulated over years of fly fishing and working in fly shops, etc.

In fact Adrian had mentioned that he had forgotten his Argus feathers and Bill kindly offered him anything he wanted from his collection of materials since he does not tie flies very often, much less classic Atlantic Salmon patterns.  Adrian found a bag that contained some Argus feathers, among some other select materials that had come from another famous tyer.  Bill generously offered the entire bag of materials to Adrian, who was grinning from ear to ear at that point!

Photo by Steve Turner

Photo by Steve Turner

Photo by Steve Turner
Photo By Steve Turner
Photo by Steve Turner
Bill kindly signed our copies of Dry Line Steelhead:
Photo by Adrian Cortes
Steve was able to reconnect with Bill for the first time since they fished together in the early eighties:
Photo by Adrian Cortes
After visiting in Bill's den, we moved over to the beach out from Bill's home which fronts a prime steelhead run.  Many of the fishing stories Bill has shared with me have taken place in the beautiful piece of water we were looking upon.  We pulled out lawn chairs and partook of lemonade and fresh cookies baked by Bill's wife Lynn that Bill generously offered to us.  Bill described landmarks in the surrounding area and their signficance to the Skagit ecosystem.

We talked about the immense body of scientific work Bill has done over the years in the name of protecting wild salmonids in the Pacific Northwest.  We also reflected on the exciting changes coming about with fisheries management, namely the 12 year moratorium on hatchery winter steelhead plants on the Skagit, wild gene pool designation on SW Washington rivers, etc.  I extended kudos to Bill for playing no small part in the wave of positive changes that are coming about for wild steelhead in the Pacific Northwest.   

As we visited, I remembered another story that Bill had told me about a vintage Hardy St. George fly reel that he had lost after it got swept away when the Skagit flooded.  (A photo of this reel appears in Dry Line Steelhead)  Bill had left the reel, mounted on a Sage rod, leaning on a tree near the river for ready access for fishing.  He had forgotten about leaving the rod/reel near the river and when he realized this, it was too late.  Several years later, his neighbor saw the tip of a rod and some fly line buried in the dry riverbed downstream from Bill's home.  The neighbor dug the rod/reel out of the riverbed and it turned out to be Bill's rod and reel!  The rod was broken, but surprisingly, the St George had survived the ordeal with only some slight pitting and a missing handle to show for it's misadventure.  Bill was able to get the reel back from his neighbor by trading another working reel for it and he was later able to get a repair person to replace the handle on the reel.  Bill showed us this reel when we stopped by his shed on the way out to the beach and we marveled at the journey that St. George took.

Our visit with Bill was very special and will never be forgotten, as two hours have never gone by so quickly for me!  We weren't anywhere near Skeena Country and our trip was already memorable! Beyond Bill's vast knowledge of steelhead, foundational writings on steelhead fly fishing, and tireless conservation activism, Bill is above all else, genuine, humble, warm, and kind - just truly a great man.

After bidding farewell to Bill, we were back on the road with hearts warmed from our wonderful visit with an icon.  Our next stop, James Reid's bamboo rod building shop in Vancouver, BC.  We managed to get through the border crossing without any trouble and pulled into James's shop, nearly on schedule.

Adrian had met up with James a few months ago when James came to Oregon to fish the Deschutes.  I have been corresponding with James by email since James had graciously provided me with a single hand cane prototype to fish all of last winter.  I had a blast with the 8592 prototype and I needed to return the rod to James for some final tweaking.  Adrian had a 13' 7/8 Spey Classic prototype that he was returning to James as he contemplated ordering a current model of the same rod.

It was great meeting James in person and very cool to see his shop.  James is a talented cane rod builder whose meticulous attention to detail can be seen in his finished products.  We chatted about cane rods and current conditions on the river.  James had a friend who was fishing our destination river at the time and fishing was good.  That was all the encouragement we needed.  I gave James a few flies and James gave Adrian some vintage English irons for tying some summer flies on.

Adrian's take:
James Reid, was just as welcoming and a true craftsman with a contagious passion in his trade. I've enjoyed fishing his spliced cane two-hander for over a year now, and it was terrific to visit his shop and see all the cool vintage reels & rods he had on site. Along with some guidance on fishing those BC rivers, James gifted us with some vintage irons. Now, I don't deserve all this kindness, but I excitedly accepted the gift! On our way to Skeena country, I finished tying in hand the Major, Harry Lemire's Greaseliner, and AHE Wood's Blue Charm with Bill's material and James's vintage irons. I was a kid in a candy store.

Photo by Adrian Cortes

Photo by Adrian Cortes


No comments:

Post a Comment