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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Fly's Significance

by Adrian Cortes

Having recently returned back to Oregon from a steelhead trip of terrific proportions, I find myself attempting to reconcile my extraordinary experiences on a magnificent river and the day to day drama that is required by life. I am not complaining but grateful to have enjoyed something so noteworthy, however, so brief.  The challenge lies in the transition to also relish in what I have in the present. My daughters are getting older and their conversations are colored with names of school friends, and who did what, and guess what she did, and also sprinkled with "Minecraft" vocabulary such as "blocks"/"creeper"/"soul of light". I face a dilemma that I am sure will find its own course and I must be content with the journey.

With that preface completed and no one else to share my BC steelhead experience, I will indulge myself with the memory of my first BC steelhead:

I was accompanied by two wonderful steelheaders and friends in Steve Turner and Todd Hirano. Both gentlemen were strangers to me just a few years ago but for some reason God weaved His tapestry so that we could take this journey together. I will skip the fantastic beginning of this trip and will fast forward to the significance of my first steelhead on our destination river. On our way up to Skeena country, we planned to stop by James Reid's Bamboo Rod making shop in Vancouver, BC. James gifted me with some vintage English irons and I was more than ecstatic to tie some dressings on them.

With the BC rivers being known for dry fly steelhead, I planned to tie up a pattern by Harry Lemire called the Greaseliner. Mr Lemire is an icon of the sport and one who inspired me to tie flies without a vise. I only met Harry briefly at a tying event and shortly thereafter found out that he had passed away from illness. Somehow, I clung on to the spirit of Harry's tying and made it an enjoyable effort to tie classic patterns without a vise. Well, that Greaseliner pattern found its way to the hooks gifted to me from James Reid. I tied my first Greaseliner in hand while on the drive up to Skeena country, but I did not know how it would fare on our destination river.

The first day on the river float found us experiencing beautiful surroundings of evergreens with the autumnal splattering colors of aspen, cottonwood, and alders. Hudson Bay Mountain towered on the horizon as we drifted on. Bald eagles and ospreys screeched their disapproval of our intrusion as the gauntlet of crows harassed those regal birds of prey. But we weren't there for sightseeing, we were on an adventure to angle for the finned unicorn of these majestic rivers. Todd and Steve had already hooked steelhead on a dry and wetfly respectively, while I had just a pull on a Jock Scott. While we floated a stretch of water, Todd mentioned that he witnessed Harry Lemire fish one of these runs when Harry was still wading the rivers. That was all I needed to tie on the Greaseliner.

The sun was high on the water, Todd was at the top of the run fishing the faster chop which he enjoys fishing. Steve took the lower chop where it transitioned into the seam (truly fishy water). I took the lower run with a downed tree resting near where the water formed some sort of a tailout. Now before one was able to get a full head of flyline out, Todd had already hooked up and landed a nice fish on his skater at the top of the run. That just amped up the intensity level of my angling. After congratulations and quick pictures of Todd's fish, we all settled back into our positions. I stripped enough line out and fired a cast directly to that downed tree. The fly was roughly 10 feet above it and swung to the hangdown untouched. With a few steps downstream, I launched another single spey. The Greaseliner sat bobbing on the surface waiting for the slack in the leader to straighten from the current to get it skating. Approximately 5 feet above the downed tree, the fly started its surface wake. I wasn't expecting much this early in the game, so when a steelhead crashed on that Greaseliner I am sure my heart went into conniptions.

Of note to those that do not fish for steelhead on the swing, one does not set the hook when a steelhead takes. The proper angler reaction is to wait until the fish starts taking line off the reel and then to smoothly swing the rod to the bank. Well I didn't even have this chance. The fly was gone, the line never straightened from the weight of a fish, and obviously the old vintage reel was as quiet as a church mouse. What the heck just happened, I screamed in my head. I could still see the ripples on the water, I raised my arms up in perplexity then I dropped them to my knees in anguish, of course holding on to my rod this whole time. I looked upstream to my buddies and yelled I just had a huge take. They both had that look of What? I can't hear you. Did you get one?   That all-too-familiar searching expression that elicits the I-can't-hear-you-pal-because-I'm-upstream-aways-and-the-river-is-loud reaction.

Nothing to do at this point but to keep fishi....wha?! Why's my line taking off?! Well I'll be! There's still a fish on this line! The line tightened up to the Dingley reel and then the old winch started screaming. Lovely! After a brief battle with jumps and runs, a beautiful hen came to hand. She glistened in the sun and showed off the few spots that she had on her back. Oh, was it glorious. My first BC steelhead caught on a skated dry pattern originated by Harry Lemire and tied in hand the old way on an old vintage iron. She was released back to her lie and this to me was an event worth celebrating. A toast with my steelhead friends ensued with fine single malt and coffee.

In regards to the steelhead take, all I can theorize is when that fish crashed on that Greaseliner, she went straight back down to her lie with the fly in her mouth. In the meantime, I was on the bank with all the angler gyrations of a missed fish. Little did I know that the current was slowly taking the leader downstream gradually lodging that Greaseliner in the fish's mouth. When that hook stuck, the surprised hen ripped line off upstream and captured my attention once more.

I have retired that Greaseliner just like I do with all my significant flies. And I hope to be able to tell this story to all who would be interested in a personal quest that was achieved. Many more fish were taken on this trip with such extraordinary grabs that more notes will have to be written. But for now, that first Greaseliner hen on one of Harry's runs deserves a toast.
A Greaseliner tied in hand on the river
A Greaseliner tied in hand on the river
Greaseliner that took my first Bulkley steelhead after the fish release
Greaseliner that took my first BC steelhead after the fish release
The first and last time I met Mr. Lemire, a fine angler and exquisite tyer
The first and last time I met Mr. Lemire, a fine angler and exquisite tyer

Monday, October 20, 2014

Returning to Steelhead Paradise Part 2 - Day 1

After visiting with Bill McMillan and James Reid, we continued on with our non-stop drive to Skeena Country.  We drove through the night without incident except for being briefly pulled over by RCMP in Cache Creek at about 1am during Adrian's driving shift.  The officers claimed that they pulled us over because they had difficulty reading the license plate number on Steve's boat trailer and because they wondered what folks with Washington plates would be doing passing through town at 1am.... guess it wasn't obvious enough that we were on a mission after steelhead!

We knew we had arrived when we pulled into a place proclaiming itself as "Steelhead Paradise"!  We had finally made it to the spiritual center of our worlds.  We proceeded to grab some coffee and breakfast, anxiously milled around town, grabbed some groceries and then drove up and down the river to scope out put ins/take outs until it was time for us to check into our quaint motel.

Since we had some time, we took a drive over to look at the Kispiox.  It was running low, but it's potential could still be seen as we watched a nice steelhead roll in a pool as we looked down from a bridge.
Kispiox River.  A Black Bear can barely be seen in the background.  
Don't tell James Reid about this scene.
 After checking in and getting settled into our steelheadquarters for the week, we ran back to town for dinner, then came up with our game plan for the next day when we would begin our 5 days fishing during the weekdays allowed to us "NRAs".

I had "hyped up" the guys on dry fly steelheading in BC with stories of aggressive wild steelhead that would often come to the surface multiple times on the swing, explosive rises to skaters, loaded runs that provided multiple hookups, etc.  Memories from my prior trips were vivid in my mind and my excitement had rubbed off on Steve and Adrian.  I prayed that our fishing would play out with at least some semblance of the surface steelhead successes I had experienced on some of my prior trips to BC.  Of course, there are no guarantees in steelheading and slow fishing for no apparent reason in what appear to be ideal conditions happens often enough wherever one chases these unicorns.

I got back to tying skaters in the motel room before going to bed, since for all I knew, my newest black/blue creations could be the ticket on those BC steelhead.  We slept restlessly in anticipation of our first day of fishing, but we managed to get up at the appointed time, loaded the boat and got to the the put in at dawn.

Preparing for the first days fishing by tying more skaters.  Photo by Steve Turner

We were floating a stretch of river I am most familiar with and early in the float, we stopped at several runs that had provided some memorable fishing on my prior trips.  The first run yielded a rise to my new black/blue skater, but this steelhead would not come back for any of my followup attempts.  Steve got a pull on one of his wets and Adrian also got a pull on a Jock Scott.

First run of the first day.  Photo by Steve Turner

Adrian rocks his JM Reid "Summer Run".  Photo by Steve Turner

At the next run we stopped at, memories of consistent, multiple hook ups replayed in my mind and I was somehow able to convince Steve to go through first.  I pointed out "the bucket" of this juicy run and anxiously watched Steve fish down into the zone.  Steve fished the water well and surprisingly, no steelhead came to his fly.  I went through behind Steve and noted the features of this piece of holding water did not appear to have changed much in 7 years, probably due to it's bedrock nature.  Neither I nor Adrian moved a fish in this run as well, so we moved on.
A rare sight, Steve Turner going through first.
 As we floated down, I rather impulsively suggested that we fish the very next run.  Being that it was a clear day, the sun was bright and shining directly on the the water by the time we began fishing this run.  As I surveyed the water, I noted that it appeared shallower than I thought compared to how it looked as we floated down to it.  We decided to fish through anyway.

Adrian took the top, Steve the middle, and I fished the bottom third.  As I fished down, I still thought this water looked marginal at best, especially in the bright conditions.  My casts were landing in water with some chop and then coming into softer shallow water near shore.  As I approached an exposed boulder, a buck in the 9-10lb range came up with a broadside rise and took off with my new skater in it's jaw.  I got a couple headshakes and the fish was gone.  A few casts later, I raised another steelhead but could not get it to comeback.

As Steve came down behind me, he apparently found "my" fish.  Steve was fishing a small steelhead coachman and it did the trick.  Steve hooked and nearly landed the beautiful hen that looked to be about 5-6lbs.  The hook pulled out just before Steve could get his hand on her.
Steve picks my pocket
We continued down and we passed through some water I vaguely remembered from my prior trips, then we came to a bend pool that I readily recognized.  I took the top, Steve the middle, and Adrian took the lower section.  The beauty of these luxurious big river runs is that they generously afford enough room for three anglers to spread out and fish.

Bright day steelheading

As I fished the upper section as the river comes into the bend, I was making short casts with my skater into the chop of the faster main flow with the lower third of the swing coming into the softer inside water.  As I got my full casting length out and had just started taking steps down, a steelhead charged after my skater on the soft inside water with it's broadside form clearly seen in the sunny conditions.  I made the same cast, nothing.  I shorted up a couple strips of line with the same fly and a couple casts later, the steelhead came back with a slashing take and was on solidly.  After a spirited battle this little buck came to hand, validating my newest black/blue creation.

Photo by Steve Turner

I had mentioned to Adrian that I recalled seeing the late great Harry Lemire fishing this stretch of river during my first visit in 1995.  This inspired Adrian to tie up some Greaseliners on the irons gifted to him by James Reid.  I happened to have some natural deer hair in my tying kit, along with some loose grizzly feathers given to me by a co-worker who raises chickens at his home so I passed these materials over to the masterful tyer of flies "in hand".

Adrian tying a Greaseliner streamside.  Photo by Steve Turner

After I landed my steelhead, we returned to our stations in the run.  Adrian had a freshly tied Greaseliner on as he fished the slow, quiet, lower section.  He was fishing some soft water near a log laying in the water.  As his Greaseliner approached the log, a steelhead exploded on his fly, but due to not feeling any initial resistance, Adrian throught he missed the fish so he dropped his arms in despair as he motioned to us that he just missed a fish.  Before Steve and I realized that Adrian was trying to communicate with us with his contorted body gestures, Adrian's Dingley was singing!  He didn't realize that he had a fish on the whole time - his "delayed strike response" was the perfect medicine on that steelhead take in the slow water.  This hen gave Adrian a spirited battle and we celebrated with high fives and a toasting of single malt and coffee (for the wimpy Asian guy, name starts with T).

Adrian doing battle with his first surface steelhead in the bright of day.

Adrian's first steelhead taken on his greaseliner.  Photo by Steve Turner
Adrian's Greaseliner.  Photo by Steve Turner
Adrian's take:
 While I hooked up on a few different patterns, Lemire's Greaseliner was my go-to pattern this trip. Part of the allure was that Todd had mentioned that he saw Harry fishing one of the runs we would float by. Being an in-hand flytyer myself - with Mr. Lemire as one of my inspirations, it was only proper to swing the Greaseliner. That hen steelhead "shark-attacked" that Greaseliner for my first BC fish to hand. As Todd and Steve can attest, I went through a lot of emotions on that take that may have to be re-enacted over a steelhead camp.

 (Adrian wrote a wonderful piece on this special encounter which will be posted up very soon)

We continued on and fished several more runs over the course of the day.  Some of these runs were just as they appeared on prior trips.  We basked in the luxury of having the space to spread out in these large, gravel bar runs that seem to go on forever.  It turns out that we took too much time in the upper half of the float and as we tried to time our fishing to get to the take out before dark, we realized that we had to pass up a ton of great looking water in the latter half of the float.  Note to self: move more quickly through the float to be able to fish some of those great looking runs in the lower section next time.
Photo by Steve Tuner

Big Water.  Photo by Steve Tuner

Interesting to note that the action we had took place during the bright parts of the day.  As time goes on, I am coming to realize that bright conditions are not necessarily a dealbreaker when it comes to surface fishing for steelhead, especially in Skeena country, but I've also noted the same on my local waters in Oregon.  I continue to fish with more confidence during bright conditions and our fishing during our first day in BC validates this notion.

It was great to be back in Skeena country after a 7 year hiatus and I was thankful that I had decided to fish the same area during my prior trips which lended me some familiarity, even as a visiting fisherman.  We felt so abundantly blessed to be in such a beautiful place with a few fish encounters as a great bonus.

Adrian's beautiful box of Classic Atlantic Salmon flies tied in hand.  This box of flies taunted Adrian with conflict because of his crazed addiction to surface steelheading!  Photo by Steve Turner

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


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Wild On the Willamette

A quick fishing story...

I had a small window of time to fish today between the time I got off from work at 5pm, until 7pm, when I'd need to leave the river for my men's bible study.  Of course I'm always prepared for any opportunity to fish, so my waders, rod, reel, and flies were already in my car.

I got suited up and hit my fav little run.  I started a bit higher than usual, just to be sure to cover all the holding water.  I made casts and extended each one until I got my Rage head and nine strips of running out as my working length of line.  I had just started stepping down and a rise came to my #6 purple/black LW.  The size of the rise said steelhead to me.  This steelie actually made a second grab at the fly on the same swing before the skater settled at the dangle.  I made the same cast and the steelhead came up again and missed.  I made another cast and the steelhead came up yet again and this time it had the fly.  The line came tight and I held on, feeling a few headshakes, anticipating the reel to bark and any moment.  Instead, the fly popped out of the fish's mouth, fish off.  I was disappointed that I missed an opportunity.

I figured that there was no way that fish would come back after feeling the hook.  However, I remembered a story told by my friend Mark Stangeland, of a steelhead he hooked/landed after it had previously come to his fly and pulled 10' of line from his reel.  I thought, well, anything's possible.  I took a few steps upstream and reasoned that if nothing else, another steelhead might be laying near the one I hooked into.  As I got back to the zone, another rise came!  The steelhead missed the fly again - same fish??  I got the idea to pull one more strip of line before making the next cast and I would hold a loop and release it if the steelhead came to the fly again.  The next cast went out and in the same spot, a steel form came up and I was ready - the loop was dropped and the line almost immediately came tight as the steelhead made it's first run.  Hey, this loop dropping thing can actually work!  The steelhead gave a spirited battle despite the absence of reel melting runs as she fought mostly in close.

I managed to get this beautiful hen to the bank and as I reeled in to get a hold of her, for some reason I thought to be sure her adipose was missing as she was such a perfectly formed fish.  To my surprise, this steelhead had an adipose fin!  I got a few photos and by the time I was done, she set off on her way with a flip and as she swam off I noticed a blue tag near her dorsal, probably indicating she had made it to the hatchery at Dexter and been recycled downstream.

After landing this steelhead, I went back up and started in again.  With only five strips of running line out, another steelhead came up for my skater, in water I had already covered.  This steelhead came back after the fly multiple times and several fly changes could not put this player on the hook, but lot's of fun nonetheless.

It is believed that non-finclipped summer steelhead on the Willamette are either "misclips" or feral offspring of hatchery parents that have successfully spawned in the wild.  I tend to entertain the possibility that these "wild"  steelhead are remnants of a run that had been there all along.  Why would there never have been a wild summer run on the upper Willamette??

So, I just got a "wild" steelhead on the Willamette - a hatchery fishery - and just last week, I got my second hatchery steelhead of the season on the North Umpqua fly water - a wild steelhead fishery.

"Wild" Willamette Steelhead:

Hatchery steelhead on the NU:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Scotch Ale, Rainbows, and the Legacy of Ed Muskie

By Alan Yuodsnukis

An advance warning: if you are disturbed, upset, easily offended, or just bored by fishing reports that have no photos of actual fish, skip this post.  No gratuitous fish porn here. (After losing almost $600 in camera gear to two separate wading "accidents," I admitted defeat some years ago.)  There are, however, allusions to certain adult situations that may make some viewers uncomfortable.  There is also some bass fishing involved.  So stop here if you think there is any possibility that your head may explode if you read further.

For the past year or so, I have been on an old school fly tying jag.  By old, I mean 19th century, pre-Irish invasion, Scottish salmon stuff native to the Spey and Dee valleys.  This lovely Lady, in particular has been an inspiration,


along with these guys:


Unfortunately, I don't live on a Scottish salmon river.  And I'll never have the means to fish one.  But I do have access to rivers that are full of wild, hard pulling, acrobatic fish that will slam a swung fly and, lucky for me, are largely ignored.  Those fish eat a lot of these:


I've been looking for a pattern that looks (kind of) like those things, but also (kind of) like my favorite Scottish Lady. But everything I tied looked like this:


But, one day after a little inspiration from a different Scottish friend, 433959.jpg?2

this came out of my vise:


She introduced herself as the Lady McEwen and said she wanted to go for a swim. So I took her (and a few of her sisters and friends).

I tied her to a short leader and tied that to a fast sinking Skagit head and let her swim through the top of a favorite run. She didn't find any fish, but while I watched her swim, I did see a good one make that beautiful, deliberate, I'm-the-baddest-thing-in-this-river-so-I can-eat-slowly-if-I-want-to, head to dorsal roll just below us.  That's almost always the sign of a good fish, and sometimes, a VERY good fish.  Little guys will splash and slash.  But the bruisers often eat with a delicacy that belies their size.  They don't get big by wasting energy. I stepped down, swung the Lady again...and didn't get a bump.  But I saw Mr. Big do his thing again.

Change of plan.  Time for a  floating head and a waker.  I do love Speys and everything about them, but if there are fish showing on top, I become an unapologetic dry fly trollop.  (As one fly fishing writer put it, "Fishing dry is our sport's equivalent to doin' it with the lights on.")  What can I say?  The flesh is weak.  I gave the Lady a rest, rejoined the 21st century, and tied on her crazy American friend, the Flying Circus:


On the first swing, just before the end of the arc, there was a boil and a splash ever so slightly behind the fly.  Now, I'm not one of those super-human lords of self discipline who normally has the ability not to strike when that happens.  Had I been fishing any other way, I would have pulled the fly straight away from the fish, hooked nothing, sworn like a drunken pirate, and hoped for a comeback on the next swing.  But I learned from a steelheading friend that it's a good idea to leave a short loop of slack between your top hand and the reel.  When a fish takes, drop the loop.  This gives the fish an instant to turn with the fly, so that when you do bring the line tight, you get a solid hook set in the corner of the jaw.  Or at least that's how it should work.  Anyway, I actually remembered to drop the loop.  The fly paused, slid backwards with the current for half a heartbeat, and then it was gone in a splash.  Fish on (yes!), but probably not Mr. Big.  The hit was too showy.  The pull was decent, but not powerful, and I thought probably from a middling size bass.  Turned out to be an 18 inch chub.

Mr. Big was still out there, then. Keep hunting. Step down, cast, swing. "Be there...right there....." Nada.  This time, two steps down. Cast. Swing.  At the risk of sounding hopelessly corny, moments like that remind me that fishing is like the rest of life.  There is the way you want things to happen, and then there is the way they actually happen.  Often enough, they aren't the same.  But half way through the swing, like it had been scripted and shot in slow motion, Mr. Big's head rose up in front of the fly, the fly slid into his mouth like a car going into a tunnel (really - that's what it looked like), a spiny dorsal followed the head, and the water was flat again.  Honest, if I hadn't had my eyes glued to the fly, I would have missed it.  Classic big smallmouth take.  The kind I see only a few times in a season.  I dropped the loop, came tight, and felt that immensely satisfying STOP that feels like a rock. But you know it isn't a rock, because you just saw a fish eat your fly.  There was a strong pull the other way, and the rod bent into a C.  And then nothing.  The fly bobbed back up to the surface.  A clean swing and a miss to end the inning. Crap.

I fished out the rest of the run and tailout with the waker, but came up empty.  At that point, the river gathers most of its volume and sends it in a fast, deep rush hard against the near bank.  Because of the powerful flow, the only thing left on the bank for the 100 yards or so where the river slams against it is a series of very large boulders and the trunks of blow downs either too big to be moved by the season's high water, or wedged too tightly among the boulders.  Any sand or smaller rocks that might make for good footing at the water's edge have long been washed away.  In fact, there is nothing to stand on below the water's edge; the boulders simply give way to more deep, fast water. It reminded me of the Niagara gorge, only with much, much warmer water.  Still, keep your feet dry, or you're going for a very fast, very wet ride. But it's nice looking water.  Just the kind of water where smallmouths will stack up among the rocks and food rich, oxygenated flow.

And man, was there food.  As I scrambled along on the boulders, I came across hundreds of stonefly nymph cases, countless caddis remains caught in spider webs, minnows schooling in the eddies, and the occasional crayfish darting away from my shadow.  At one point, two different species of mayfly settled on my vest and shirt.  What...wait...crayfish?  Too lazy to change the floating head back to the sinker, I clipped off the Flying Circus and put the Lady M back on.  I dropped her quartering upstream, flipped a couple of quick mends to sink her a bit, and then let her swim. She had just started to swing when there was a gentle pluck and that unmistakable pull and wiggle.  Chub number two, for sure.  Only that chub had spots and silvery flanks with just a bit of reddish blush.  A rainbow trout.  Not much of a fight on a 12 1/2 foot 6 weight, but a pleasant surprise.  From there to the end of the run where the river flow swings back out to the middle and then the far bank, more rainbows and a few middling bass grabbed the Lady on what seemed like every third swing.  All but that first trout came on the dangle or as I stripped the running line back in to make the next cast.  All but one of the bass came on the swing.  (Props to the bass for that ;).)

Those rainbows weren't noteworthy for their size - the biggest taped out at a shade over 16 inches - but rather, for their presence.  I caught them so close to a paper mill that I could hear the hum and clank of conveyors and tell management from rank-and-file by the color of their hardhats.  This mill is on the upper portion of a river that was once so foul, it was dangerous to wade. (Many people still think it is.  In a kind of twisted way, that's OK with me -  helps keep the riff-raff away.) In the late 60's and early 70's, there was more than one river like that in Maine, and many hundreds, perhaps thousands across the country.  That's when the good senator Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) drafted, pushed, prodded, and eventually passed through Congress the Clean Water Act.  So thanks largely to him, I don't have to go to Scotland, or Canada, or even northern Maine to find good sport with a swung fly.

The next one of these beer_879.jpg  is for you, Ed.