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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Going East

My good friend Adrian Cortes had hatched a plan to visit a famous eastern Oregon steelhead river after driving by it's lower section with our mutual friend Steve Turner this past August.  Adrian was taken by the beauty of the place and vowed to put a plan into place to make a fall trip a reality.

I had previously visited this river in October 2008 and fished it's lower section with my father in law Jim Jones, his brother Mel and his friend Toby.  Reportedly, the fishing had been good before our arrival, which happened to coincide with a sudden cold snap, which of course put off the fishing.  None of us landed a single steelhead that trip and I only manged to raise one steelhead to the surface.  Not even Mel and Toby dredging with Teeny lines did the trick.

Adrian's and my plan came together in early October with Adrain showing up a day before me.  I used Google directions and got put on a long gravel road.  I'm surprised that the Steelhead Taxi's suspension didn't fall off going through the wash boards, but I managed to make it to the bottom of the grade in one piece and met up with Adrian by 8am.  I was running about an hour behind schedule due to the unexpected gravel delay.  I figured I'd find Adrian to be on the river fishing when I arrived and in fact Adrian was near the top of a nice run when I pulled in.  I waved over to Adrian and he quickly came over to greet me.

Adrian had actually been waiting in his rig since daylight in anticipation of my arrival and while waiting, he got some tying done.  He tied a beautiful Thompson river caddis in hand which he gifted to me shortly after I arrived.  Adrian had only stepped into the run a few minutes before I pulled in when it became apparent that I was delayed longer than expected.

When we greeted each other I told him that I  felt badly for rushing him, but he mentioned that he was happy to wait for my arrival until seriously hitting the water.  After our greetings, Adrian calmly told me about the incredible evening session he had the day before.  The events that unfolded involved 7 to 8 rises, 3 hookups, and two nice wild steelhead landed!  I was tired, but ready to fish!!  Adrian tells the story in words and pictures below:

"First fish on this particular river. Spent all day skating dries with nary a rise. After a beer, I find a run that is tough to wade in...and then it becomes magical...numerically magical."

"The second steelhead on this river was memorable. Big surface crash...and nothing. Dangle...recast...nothing. Shortened up, recast progressively to the zone...Kaboosh! Then nothing. #@$%&*! That fish missed the fly again! Dangle...single the zone...Kaboosh! ZZZZZZzzzzzzzz......I put the glass to it in a spectacular battle of jumps and runs. Beautifully wild, big, and full of vinegar and piss. Bent out my dryfly hook"

Lemire's Thompson River Caddis tied in hand by Adrian Cortes.  Adrian Cortes photo

Greaselined.  Adrian Cortes photo

Wild and Free.  A hefty buck that ate Adrian's Greaseliner.  Adrian Cortes photo

The result of Adrian's battle with a wild and hefty buck.  Adrian Cortes photo

Wild and Free of another type.  Four legged critters seem drawn to Adrian's presence on rivers.  Adrian Cortes photo

After getting the skinny on Adrian's encounter with the loaded run, I quickly wadered up and we fished the nearby water.  This was a big run and we spread out as I re-fished the choppy head and Adrian went to the lower section of the run.  A couple gear guys ended up between us so I ended up moving towards Adrian in the tailout.  We examined the fish holding possibilities of this water, but with sun directly on it, we decided to move on after fishing it just briefly.

We then headed to camp where I quickly set up my tent so I wouldn't have to worry about it after our day's fishing.  We then hurriedly packed into Adrian's Land Rover and hit some water that Adrian fished the day before.

Adrian and I were blessed to have gotten some intel on spots to fish from our good friend and steelheading icon Bill McMillan.  Bill had lived on and fished this river a good deal back in the early 90's.  Bill was excited to hear of our trip to this special place, a location that has much spiritual meaning to him.  As we drove along we sought out some of the spots Bill described for us.

We hit a spot with three distinct runs strung together.  The short run directly out from the trail called out to me so I waded to mid river to hit the slot on the far side.  In the meantime, Adrian walked upstream to the uppermost of the three runs, leaving the middle one for me to hit after I got through with run I was fishing first.

I quickly fished through this short riffly run with no result and looked upstream to see Adrian fishing the upper run, but with a raft and three guys right by him also fishing the run.  I figured that the raft must have been carrying a guide and two clients and Adrian gave them water to fish.

Rather than heading up towards Adrian, I decided to just re-fish the little run again to kill time.  With all the October Caddis fluttering about, I figured to change to an October Caddis version of my foam skater.  As I got into the lower section, I made a cross stream cast in front of an exposed bankside boulder.  The main current caught my line and leader, causing a belly and pulling my skater briskly down and across the face of boulder.  A small steelhead of maybe 24" launched across the top after my skater.  This little fella missed his target, but I was pleasantly surprised by it's sudden and aggressive response to the surface.  Of course I went through my comeback dance, but no followup  rise came about.

I ended up fishing the middle run and it swung my skater really nicely, but no foam eating steelhead appeared.  Adrian and I caught up with each other shortly thereafter and Adrian reported that indeed, the folks in the raft was a well known PNW steelhead guide with a couple sports.  Apparently said guide liked the run Adrian was fishing well enough to have been willing to park and wait until Adrian fished through.  Rather than looking over his shoulder while the guide and sports waited on him,  Adrian let them have the water and then fished through behind them.

Adrian then took me to another spot he fished the day before.  This was one of the spots that Bill had described to us.  Adrian reported that he had raised a steelhead low in this run but did not hookup.  I started at the head of the run and Adrian walked further up and fished the run above me.  As I got about a third of the way down, a steelhead came up with an aggressive rise to my skater.  Again, this steelhead responded to a fast swing facilitated by a cross stream cast bellied by the main current.  I made the same cast and this steelie actually came up a second time but the hook point didn't find purchase in steelhead matter.

At the next run, I started at the riffly top end and worked my skater along the broadening seam as I got into the heart of  this fishy looking piece of water.  About a third of the way down, a steelhead came up and charged up after my skater as it came out of the chop into the seam.  I shorted up and started back in with my foam skater hoping for a come back and just then, the famous guide we saw earlier came through the top of the run with his two sports and politely rowed his raft quietly behind me as Adrian had been able to alert him that I had just raised a fish.

As I went back with my October Caddis Wang, the guide and sports also watched the bright "indicator post" of my skater as it came through the choppy main flow.  After a couple casts, no return appearance of steel appeared.  As the guide and sports were getting past my position, the guide remarked to Adrian with a wink "steelhead on this river think foam is gay".

I changed over to a riffle hitched greaseliner and gave it a go.  On the first cast with the greaseliner, the steelhead returned with a bulge at the fly as it came into the soft seam.  Unfortunately, further comeback attempts were unsuccessful.  I continued down the remainder of this beautiful run with no other feedback to my surface presentations.

We concluded our day at Adrian's "loaded run".  Being the gracious friend that he is, Adrian insisted that I go through first.  Adrian grabbed an IPA and took a seat on an exposed boulder as I started up high in the run.  I decided to give my Fenwick 8.5' 6wt glass rod and 6wt Ambush line some air time.  I was getting back into the rhythm of single hand spey casting as I chatted with Adrian about the potential of this juicy run.  We noted current seams created by the bouldery structure and commented on how all that structure provides great cover for steelhead while also providing for the difficult wading I was experiencing.  These characteristics probably attributed to Adrian finding multiple steelhead holding in it the evening before.

The upper section of the run called for short, controlled casts in the conflicting currents.  I was casting the Ambush head with maybe six strips of running line and was just starting to step down the run.  Adrian and I were both watching my baby blue foam skater coming across the current when a steelhead made a broadside launch across the surface and solidly grabbed the skater.  I simply did nothing and the steelhead came tight on the line and began making some short powerful bursts on runs that made my cheapo ebay special (battered Shakespeare Beaulite 3.5") create a joyful blue collar racket.

Fish on!  Adrian Cortes photo

Taking a load off while Ms. Surface Steelhead bores down stream.  Adrian Cortes photo

The hook held and I eventually got this beautiful little hen to shore.  Adrian and I high fived and Adrian got some photos of a happy Asian holding a steelhead.  We were delighted that both of us had the blessing of witnessing a beautiful surface steelhead grab and I thanked Adrian for his generosity in putting me through his new found loaded run.

Chunky hatchery hen that obliged to a "baby blue" wang.  Adrian Cortes photo

Baby Blue Wang does the trick.  My angry hen chewed hard enough to open up the stinger hook a bit.  Adrian Cortes photo

I was quite surprised to find that this perfect steelhead was of hatchery origin.   It just happened that an ODFW creel checker was driving by when I had the fish on so she stopped to check in.  I decided to harvest this steelhead so she took down data that she needed and returned my fish in a tidy plastic bag.  When Adrian and I commented that we were impressed with this steelhead even considering it was a hatchery steelhead the creel checker responded "of course, they're all from native stock", reminding me that the hatchery program there comes from wild brood stock.

ODFW creel checker taking stats on my steelhead.  Adrian Cortes photo.

We went through the remainder of the loaded run and we were surprised to find no one home as we fished in to evening's darkness.  We then headed back to camp where stories were shared and a few more foam skaters tied as two crazed surface steelheaders ruminated over the wonder of steelhead that come to the surface for our chosen patterns.  Gourmet dinners that came out of cans and packages were prepared and eaten before we turned in for the evening.

We spent the next morning fishing some of the same runs and we also walked into another run described to us by Bill McMillan.  We had an enjoyable morning expoloring new water and I bid Adrian farwell by mid day.  I fished the evening session and a quick morning session the following day and continued to find surface steelhead elusive.  Such is the surface steelheading game, you may not get into topwater steel on every outing, but the journey is always satisfying.

Unwinding after a memorable day of surface steelheading.  Adrian Cortes photo

The Steelhead Taxi parked along a morning steelhead run

Friday, October 2, 2015

Dry Fly Steelhead Window Of Opportunity

Being in the midst of the fall season, I have gotten into the rushed, frantic mode of trying to get every bit of steelhead skating in that is humanly possible.  It is a mixed blessing to have a hatchery home water in my backyard.  The convenience is great, but it makes me extra obsessive each Fall.  A sense of urgency is felt with the shorter days and with the weather and water temps cooling.  The inevitability of winter coming around the corner puts me in a state of mind where I am always scheming for every window of opportunity  during this most wonderful time of year when steelhead will be most willing to break the surface to grab my weird pieces of foam and hair surfing across my favorite runs.

In my experience, Fall is consistently the very best time of year to get into steelhead with surface methods.  I suppose it is a variety of factors that seem to consistently make fall the prime season to skate steelhead to the surface including the lower angle of the sun, rivers filled with the majority of the summer run, fewer anglers out (on my water at least), cooling water, steelhead secure in their lies, and frequent overcast weather.

I love steelhead rivers in Fall as well with the brilliant colors as leaves turn, softer lighting, and no longer having to deal with the blistering heat of summer.  Fall conditions also allow one to fish throughout the day if one pleases.  Summer tends to be a morning and evening show and with the shorter days of fall, I am able to get a bit more sleep and still make it to the river at sunrise.

However, the shortening days of Fall creates a nervousness in me as I am constantly calculating how much daylight I'll have left when I leave work to get out on my evening weekday sessions.  Wendi has been promoted as a manager at her workplace this past year which has been great for her, but she tends to be a workaholic so she often works late.  This creates more windows of opportunity for me to get out on my evening sessions.

As noted in my prior posts, the numbers of fish around have been small, but it appears that small pods of fish must be coming into my local water which is enough to keep me interested and obsessed.  Since getting the steehead in my prior post, I had a multi hookup session (both got off)  the following day, then things went dead.

I figure the only way to get into surface steelhead is to keep a hook in the water so I've persisted with my efforts even when it seems the few fish around have left town.  Yesterday was a typical day of going to work with my thoughts going on about how to get an evening session in.  Turns out Wendi was not working late, but had errands to do so she suggested I go fishing afterwork - great advice!

One problem, my daughter had texted and informed that her car wouldn't start.  I ran over to check over her vehicle at the end of the day and determined that her starter was binding up.  I did the tapping the starter with a wrench trick and got her car started so she could drive it to my house for me to repair that evening.

With the impending car repair weighing on my mind, I debated on whether to fish for a bit then run home to work on my daughter's car, or forget fishing all together and just get right to work on the car..... of course, fishing won out.

I rushed to my favorite little run and started at the top.  Feeling hurried while fishing is not my favorite mode to be in while pursing the surface steelhead prize, but obviously, I have a problem so I kept at it anyway.  I tried to move through more quickly than I normally do, but there are multiple spots that have given me fish out of this special place so I found myselft having a hard time just rushing through.

When I had arrived at the run, I noticed that the Army Corps had raised the water just a bit, usually a good thing on this river in my experience.  Sure enough, about a third of the way down, a steelhead came up and charged at my skater with a quick rise.  Went through the comeback routine and no sale.

I continued on down the run and as I got towards the bottom I was thinking how the holds through there are filled in now and could hold fish.  As my skater came through the braided currents a steelhead came up to the skater multiple times as if it was a dolphin playing with a ball on it's nose.  I expected my line to come tight, but no.  With a fish this active, I felt pretty confident about a comeback so I cast again, nothing.  I tried a riffle hitched steelhead caddis - nothing, then a smaller skater - nothing, then a riffle hitched wet - nothing, then a wet with no hitch - nothing!

My time was just about up before I had to get home to get my hands greasy, but something told me to just walk back up a little ways and start back through with a different skater.  I had been fishing my current favorite chartruese/purple job and I then decided to tie on my blue/purple skater I call the "Summer's Hope".

As I got my casts back out with the Summer's Hope, I pondered over my frustration that both of the fish I raised this evening were "one timers" and that I'd have to leave after making a few more casts.  When I got back to where I raised the second steelhead, he came back with a confident, porpoising rise and I simply did nothing until I felt the steelhead pulling.  I slowly raised the rod and the steelhead was on and the stinger hook did it's job in taking immediate hold in the jaw of this buck.

This guy gave a few headshakes and like the last steelhead I got, just came right in and then batlled in close with a few short, stubborn runs.  When I got him in, I found the stinger hook lodged firmly in the lower jaw of the fish.  I got a few photos with my phone and felt overjoyed that the Summer's Hope had proven itself for the first time.  Apparantly, that steelhead wanted the Summer's Hope and not my Chartruese and Purple, go figure.  I'm just glad that the dry fly steelhead mystery is one I'll never completely solve.

The Summer's Hope Proves Itself