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Thursday, February 12, 2015

High Water Cane Clave

It was to be a blissful weekend spent fishing coastal Oregon winter steelhead streams with a couple friends.  The plan was to fish with cane rods the whole weekend, specifically cane rods built by contemporary bamboo rod builder James Reid of Vancouver, BC.  The plan was hatched a couple months ago.  James had contacted me and mentioned that he was coming to Oregon in early February and asked if I would fish with him.  I did not have to give much thought in my response to James - of course I'd take him out to my local water. 

I would also be getting the 8592 "Wee Heavy" - 8'5" 9wt single hand cane prototype back in my hands when James came down.  I had stopped the rod off at James's shop in September on our way up to Skeena country.  James needed to make final inspections of the rod and tweak if necessary.  It turned out the "Wee Heavy" prototype passed James's inspection and had fared well in surviving a hard winter of dry line steelheading while on my watch last year - no tweaking necessary.  As a blue collar steelheader, being able to wield a custom built cane rod is a great luxury and has been an opportunity I never would have had if it weren't for James thinking to build a rod for the kind fishing that I do and inviting me to field test the Wee Heavy last year.

Adrian Cortes would be meeting up with us saturday evening and fishing with us on sunday.  James was also bringing down a replacement tip section for Adrian's 12' 6/7 weight "Summer Run".  Adrian had broken the tip of rod while fishing in December so he was glad to have his beloved cane two hander back in commission.

My dear wife Wendi gave me her blessing to fish saturday and sunday with James (and Adrian on Sunday), in addition to my regular friday fishing day.  Wendi also blessed us with welcoming James and Adrian to spend the night at our home (Wendi and I have been "empty nesters" for the past several months!) along with preparing "Steelhead EnCroute" for dinner on saturday.  I married well!!

As we approached the weekend before James's arrival, I began watching the weather and river level forecasts.  Things were looking good.  Forecasts called for a bit of rain that would bump the rivers just enough to bring them to a good level, then flows would be on the drop during James's weekend of fishing with me.  Anxious emails and texts went back and forth between James and me as we anticipated great conditions with chrome rewards.............

As the week progressed, things started to change.  We realized that weather reports are not written in stone and can be subject to variation, whether we like it or not.  By mid week, more and more rain became part of the weather forecast.  I remained optimistic and undaunted even with the predictions of increased precipitation.  I'm a steelheader afterall - I've got a backup plan - hit smaller flows that still fishes in big water and drops quickly - no problem! 

Closer to the weekend, things started to look grim.  Big rains were coming with the lines on the river forecasts pointing straight up in the coming days.  I still remained optimistic, but started to warn James by text that fishing conditions might be "marginal".  James is no stranger to tough fishing conditions on his homewaters on the lower mainland of BC and Vancouver Island.  I was pleased to hear that he remained game even as we looked at the prospect of fishing a blown river - the question soon became whether we would be able to find any fishable water all!

On the friday before James's arrival, I got out to our smaller ditch with Craig Coover, with river levels already on the rise.  As we descended through the coast range, to our great dismay, we found our ace in the hole high water stream dirty, and growing in size.  Craig looked at the river and made the call to ditch it.  Craig was the one driving and I was along for the ride.  I was then along for the ride home.

When I got home, I checked the river graphs and the forecast called for a slight drop in the levels for Saturday.  Things could work out for James and me after all.

I met up with James in Springfield Saturday morning.  James had made the drive from his friend's home in Portland that morning.  James arrived in his cool 94' Jeep Cherokee that he had modified himself.  James told me of fabricating his own bumpers and roof rack, installing a lift, and boring and stroking the 4.0L inline six.  We briefly traded gear head stories as I also shared about my beloved Classic 74' Bronco with a 351Windsor under the hood.

James talked of monsoon rains all along his journey south from Vancouver, BC and that he felt like he tends to have rain clouds following him whenever he made trips to go after steelhead.  I was reminded of his stories of blown rivers during his prior Skeena trips and started to wonder if he was the cause of all the rain we were getting!  We jumped in my venerable 1990 Honda Accord (only 327,000 miles on this beater) and hit the road.

Upon arriving at the river by mid morning, we were looking at the prospects of fishing what amounted to be a blown river.  Most sane souls would have considered it a lost cause - probably the reason we didn't see any other maniacs out fishing this day.  A running joke came at my expense as James would periodically laugh during his time with me, whenever he would reflect back on my text warning him that river conditions might be "marginal".


Look Fishable??

So much potential here

I admired and respected James for remaining steadfast, even in the grim conditions we were faced with.  We both have the inclination to "make the best of things" even when we were looking upon a high, dirty stream, with our only option to eek out any bit of soft, inside water we could find.

We hit some of my usual spots and we were surprised and glad that we were actually able to find a few inside cushions of soft water to fish.  When we had initially stopped to look at the water James was ecstatic as he looked into the brown flow and exclaimed "we've got a foot of visibility"!

A foot of vis??

We both adapted to the tough conditions by squeezing into tight spots with brush at our backs and often times, branches overhead.  Creative casts were in order and I think we each may have even invented a few new casts.  James only fell in once when he stepped off an unseen ledge that he couldn't see in the colored water.

Watch for the ledge James!
The Winter's Hope - one of about three fly patterns I know how to tie

The 8592 Wee Heavy felt at home in my hands again and it performed flawlessly in the impossible places I was casting from.  It's firm, crisp action, along with the short, heavy 350 grain Ambush line made this tough game a lot easier.  I readily fell back into the rhythm of casting and fishing this fine piece of steelhead equipment.

On top of it all, it was so cool to be fishing my home water with the guy who built my one and only cane rod.  James and I fell into a comfortable pace with our fishing and I commented to him that I somehow felt like I'd been fishing with him for a long time.  Our levels of determination, tempered with realistic expectations under the adverse conditions, were in sync during our time together.

We even decided to explore some water I'd never fished before and I was pleased that we found a couple more nice swing spots to add to my quiver.  Sometimes it takes having a guy from out of town to get me to think outside of the box and learn new stuff even on my homewater.

James and I actually managed to find enough soft inside water along the flooded river to make a full day out if it.   The isolated places where steelhead could conceivably be holding actually gave us some confidence that we could find a resting chromer somewhere in the compressed zones we were fishing.

Despite our best efforts, we found no willing players.  By late afternoon, we called it a day, satisfied and content that we successfully fished as well as we could in the near impossible conditions we were faced with.  There is a certain joy in being able to take conditions as they are and doing better than just making the best things.

We met up with Adrian back in town and John Sherman of Corvallis also came down to join in for dinner at the house.   John is the owner of one of Jame's custom made bamboo switch rods that he had James make for Oregon coastal winter steelhead.  A tweaker had stolen the extra tip section of John's rod from his rig, so James made a replacement and brought it down for John.

The four of us enjoyed the wonderful dinner that my dear wife prepared for us and we stayed up visiting until about 2am.  We would have just enough time to get a bit of sleep before our 6am wake call for the start of another day of Oregon winter steelheading.

The rain had briefly slowed while river levels crested and a slight drop was predicted for our day on the water.  Upon arriving at the scene of yesterday's crimes, we found the river had dropped about a foot, with visibility of about 2 feet, a great improvement over the day before.  Don't get me wrong, the river was still running high, but compared to the prior day, conditions looked perfect.  Of course, levels were still much too high for sane people and we had the place to ourselves.  Can't complain of having solitude while showing off my homewater to my friends.

James was fishing his newest salt water companion rod that he just built for a bonefish trip he was taking to my former homestate of Hawaii in a couple weeks.  With this companion rod, he is able to fish it as a 8'9" 8wt single hander and with the longer butt section, it fishes as a switch rod.  With the short casts we often needed on the swollen river, James fished the single hand configuration both days.

To the promised land
James fishing his bonefish rod while Adrian looks on with anticipation.

Adrian was happy to have his 12' 6/7wt "Summer Run" back in commission and he fished it throughout the day.  He was able to work his longer rod in the tight spots pretty well and he was firing off tight loops as well as ever as he fished his classic irons on a dry line.

I continued fishing my 8'5" 9wt "Wee Heavy" throughout the day and even James commented on how well that rod fished my coastal winter steelhead haunt.  It was the perfect tool for the job at hand.

At the first pool we fished, I actually spooked a little buck of about 5lbs out of a nearshore side channel that I typically traipse through without giving a thought.  This little colored buck simply glided over to the adjoining larger side channel and James actually tried swinging his fly to where we thought the steelhead settled to but James's fly remained untouched. 

Perfect conditions - cane magic by James Reid

Adrian working his "Summer Run" for winter steel with a dry line and classic flies
We fished through runs that we covered the day before and manged to find yet another new pool that swung our flies nicely.  At one of the pools that had produced mutiple steelhead for my buddy Craig last year, I had James and Adrian fishing the upper and lower sections of this water while I took a break from fishing and was able to scan the water from a higher vantage point.  As I looked into the lower section of the pool, I recalled the little buck I saw earlier in the day that was sitting literally right next to the bank.  Accordingly, I focused on the nearshore water that I could see into and lo and behold, I spotted what looked like a bright steelhead of about 12lbs in a nearshore slot on river left in a spot that seemed impossible to swing a fly to.

I alerted James and Adrian of what I saw and James decided to try for the fish with a skater while I watched from above and helped guide his swings.  James tied one of my foam skaters to the tippet section on my Wee Heavy and gave it a go.  Adrian and I watched anxiously as we found that James was actually able to get the skater over the lie.  James was able to make multiple swings in front of the steelhead, but it wasn't a taker, even in the balmy 52 degree water.  As it turned out, the surface fly was the only presentation that could have been put over the fish without hanging up.
James fishing a skater to the steelhead spotted in the slot near the bank, see it??  Photo by Adrian Cortes

We ended the day fishing through the same pool where we started the day.  My pet steelhead was not in the shore side channel but the river had continued to drop over the course of the day.  The run fished beautifully for the three steelhead fanatics waving beautifully built cane rods that were created by a true contemporary master - James Reid.  It was akin to an art aficionado being able to hang out with the master artist himself, pretty cool stuff and quite a privilege.

The drive back to town went by quickly despite our sleep deprivation and lack of steelhead hookups.  Excited talk about our favorite fish, cane rods, and places we've fished and wanted to fish flowed easily.  Our plans for our next BC trip in the fall was discussed and tentative plans to meet up with James again, possibly at the beginning or tail ends of our travel through BC were contemplated.  James offered Adrian and I the opportunity to taste of his homewaters and we spoke longingly of intimate waters with free rising summer steelhead - images that were kindled by steelhead literature I had read.

On arriving back in Springfield, we unloaded my trusty Honda and celebrated over having a wonderful day of doing what we love.   Adrian and I would be getting back to daily life and James was headed back towards Portland with plans to fish the Sandy River the following day with mutual friend and guide extraordinaire Marty Sheppard.  (I later found out that James got a beautiful chromer during his day with Marty)  James harvested a handful of skaters from my box to share with Marty and Mia Sheppard as a token gift from the dry line steelheader in Springfield.  I bid the guys farewell for the time being, and left with the great satisfaction that comes from fishing with wonderful like-minded friends in the beauty of God's Creation.


  1. The water looks surprisingly clear in some of your photos. Great story.

    1. Terry:
      Thanks for the complement on my story. The river had much better visibility on sunday. A short break in the rain was enough to allow that to happen.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Albert, we'll have to meet up on the NU sometime!!

  3. Thanks for sharing another great recap of steelhead adventure - always inspirational

    1. Thanks Lee, it was a fun and educational weekend.