Thursday, December 3, 2015

A "Collaborative" Summer Tradition



This has been the third year of gathering with my good friend Adrian Cortes, Keith Tymchuck and others on our favorite Oregon summer steelhead river.  I'm not sure if this qualifies to be called such, but it is becoming a summer tradition for us to schedule this gathering each July, It is always a great time of getting like minded souls together to obsess over this obscure niche known as steelhead fly fishing.  Hanging out with others who actually understand the language and thought process that comes through our unique passion is so refreshing.

Adrian initiated the planning and logistics with our "raising a ruckus" get together this year.  Bucky Buchstaber, Executive Director/founder of the Fly Fishing Collaborative (FFC) and Dave Fineran, Communications Director with the Fly Fishing Collaborative joined us, along with Josh Browning, a prolific donor of classic flies to the FFC.  Dave's fiancee Lindsey Wayman was even brave enough to join a group of crazy steelheaders for the weekend.

Keith and Adrian were the first to arrive at the river and staked out a campspot.  I arrived on the evening of that first day and caught up with Keith during his evening session on a favorite run.  It was a beautiful time on the river and a great pleasure to watch Keith fish a promising tailout that has been a well known producer, but has yet to yield a steelhead to either of us to date.

Upon arriving back at camp, Adrian soon arrived from his evening session and reported that he had not encountered any steel yet either.

Guide Mark Stangeland was also camping and fishing the river as well.  He came over to visit and we stayed up later than we should have as we caught up with the latest steelhead talk and we tried to absorb every possible bit of river wisdom that we could from Mark as he shared of his years of experience on this famed river.

Adrian and I fished together the following morning and we hit some of our favorite spots with no action until we got to the last pool.  Adrian was fishing through with one of his classic wets and halfway through the swing, line started slowly pulling from his reel, then nothing.  Most likely, a steelhead stopped his fly and started to slowly turn with it and the hook pulled out.  We surveyed the water and there didn't appear to be anything that would have snagged his fly in that area.

Bucky arrived that afternoon and Adrian introduced him to me and Keith for the first time.  I spoke to Bucky about the FFC and how I remember the time a few years ago when Adrian had mentioned to me about when it was just being birthed as a concept ministry to enlist fly fishers to come together for the cause of stopping human trafficking in third world countries.  I admired Bucky for the visionary he has been and praised God for bringing Bucky's visions to fruition as the FFC is a thriving ministry today.

Kudos must also go out to Adrian Cortes, Josh Browning, Matt Zilliox, and others who have generously donated their time, skill, and resources by tying beautiful classic salmon flies that get packaged in classy leather fly wallets that are much in demand by discriminating classic fly lovers around the world, with proceeds going to support the FFC.  Several guiding operations contribute guided trips to the FFC as well, including Marty and Mia Sheppard of Little Creek Outfitters and others.

During the evening session, I took Bucky out to some of the famous pools on this beautiful river.  We hit some of my favored spots with no steel action, but Bucky was in awe of the beauty of this place.  I pointed spots out as we drove by and gave some history on the river along with any personal stories I happened to have about runs we passed by or stopped at.

Bucky fishng a famous pool

Back at camp, we settled in, ate dinners of a simple sort, tied flies, and again stayed up visiting until later than we should have.  Mark Stangeland joined the crew again and talk of steelheading began flowing again.  A major topic of conversation was the upcoming emergency closure issued by ODFW.  The river would be closed to fishing from 2pm until and hour before sunrise the following morning each day until further notice.  We lamented the elimination of our evening sessions, especially in light of the fact that the river has been running at normal summer temperatures after we came through the heat wave earlier in the month.

The following morning, I took Bucky out to some of my other favorite spots on the lower fly water.  One of the spots I took Bucky to was an obscure out of the way, single person deal.  I pointed out the holding lie for Bucky and watched him swing his fly into the zone.  Bucky covered the water well and by the time he reached the limit of the holding water we accepted that there was no one home.

When we arrived back at the rig, a fellow had stopped by and said hey.  We realized it was Josh Browning, a friend I had made through Speypages and Facebook and a very talented tyer who has been donating some spectacular classics to the FFC cause.  We decided to escort him back to camp so he could drop off his car and fish with us for the remainder of the morning.

After getting Josh situated at camp, we jumped in my trusty Honda and headed back to the river.  As we drove along the river, we ended up at a run that is still fairly new to me, but was selected since it still had some shade on it.  This run had a riffly head that deepened into a slow pool and the lower section formed a tailout below a rocky break.  I gave Bucky and Josh the choice of water to fish and I'd just get in behind either one of them.
A beautiful freestyle tied by and gifted to me by Josh Browning

For no particular reason, Bucky ended up at the riffly head in and Josh ended up in the tailout.  After getting the guys set up in their respective positions, I decided to take a break on a convenient log as I watched Bucky fish his water.  After a few casts, I hear Bucky yelling over to me that apparently, Josh had raised a fish, which Bucky surmised from Josh's hand motions that he could see from his position.

I decided to grab my camera and head over to Josh's position in case he was able to get the steelhead to come back.  When I arrived on the scene, Josh informed that he raised a steelhead near a boulder in the lower part of the tailout on a little wang skater that I had given him.  When I asked if the steelhead came back on successive casts, Josh stated that he had made a same cast a few more times and there was no response from Mr. Steelhead so I suggest that Josh shorten up and go back with a different fly.

Josh reeled in 10 or so feet of line and I grabbed his tippet and tied on a greaseliner tied by and gifted to me by Adrian Cortes.  By this time, Bucky had come over to watch the events unfold with Josh's steelhead encounter.

Josh cast the greaseliner out and I was explaining that the riffle hitched fly sits lower in the water than the foam skater and can be more difficult to see.  I was trying to locate the greaseliner in the chop and had just spotted the fly as it started to come into the slower inside cushion.  Just as I said "there it is" and pointed to the riffle hitched greaseliner coming across, the three of us witnessed the open mouthed attack of a nice steelhead as the greaseliner disappeared in a great rise followed by three jaws dropped!

Josh was expertly able to delay lifting the rod until he felt the weight of the fish and the fish was on and fighting.  The mighty creature gave at least 3 clean jumps as it cavorted up and down the tailout.  Bucky and I gave encouragement and affirmations to Josh as we shared and relished in the excitement of this special moment.

After several minutes, Josh had the beautiful steelhead close to being in range to be tailed.  By the visual glimpses we got of this steelhead during her jumps and flashes during the fight, we judged her to be a fairly bright hen in the 10-12lb range, and a nice hefty, larger than average steelhead for this river.

Just when we thought Josh would get his hands on this beauty, the fly pulled out.  A brief moment of disappointment was followed by true joy as the three of us collectively felt enormously blessed to be able to witness and share in a very special experience together.  As we thought about it, we realized Josh's grand steelhead encounter was a "four way collaboration" in that Josh raised the steelhead, Bucky alerted me to the situation, I played amateur fishing guide and tied on a comeback fly for Josh, Adrian Cortes had tied said fly, and then Josh was able to raise and hook the steelhead for the three of us to witness and enjoy, with a grand tale to tell.

Fish on!  Josh hooked up to surface steelhead - a collaborative effort! 
Back at camp, we compared notes with Adrian.  It turned out that Adrian found some surface excitement as well.  He told the tale of fishing a favorite run when he raised a steelhead halfway down.  Just as he was about to make his comeback attempts, a flotilla of rafters went through happily waving and talking as they passed.  A little frustrated, but not dissuaded, Adrian decided to rest his fish while responding to a call of nature and changing his fly.  When he got his greasliner back in the zone, a nice steelhead came up with a confident rise and took his fly solidly on it's way back to where it came from.  Some headshakes and reel screaming followed until man and fish parted ways as Adrian proves that a guy shouldn't be discouraged by the "rubber hatch".

Dave Fineran and his fiancée Lyndsey Wayman showed up in the afternoon and with the 2pm closure and no more fishing to be had for the rest of the day, we went to work tying our favorite flies and visiting.  I got a few more of my foam jobs tied up and Dave tied up a deadly looking marabou fly on a shank.

With time on our hands, we decided to visit Lee Spencer on big bend pool.  There was approximately 160 summer steelhead milling around in the pool and we would watch as one would randomly jump for no apparent reason.

I got to chatting with Lee and we talked of the futility of having a broodstock hatchery summer steelhead program on the North.  Lee reminded of how wild steelhead populations have particular habitat niches within a given watershed so randomly pairing steelhead from different habitat niches can't be good.  I mentioned about how hatchery summer steelhead stray all the way up and down the fly water and likely reduceds spawning productivity as these hatchery strays surely intermingle with wild steelhead on the spawning beds.

Lee and I also talked of our shared respect and admiration for Bill McMillan and all Bill has done to teach an angling ethic of self-restraint and respect for wild steelhead.  Lee  has also had communications with Bill and they have discussed the historic carrying capacity of the Umpqua watershed among other conservation related issues with the wild steelhead populations on the North Umpqua and beyond.

Lee also talked of angling with surface flies with the hook points cut off so that when a steelhead comes for his fly, he just feels a headshake and a few pulls before the steelhead is off after a second or two.  What led him to this point, is that Lee felt that even while utilizing a surface approach, that he was still making too big of an impact on the wild summer steelhead population with the hookups he encountered,so he starting angling with his hook points cut off years ago.  Even then, Lee told us stories of actually landing a couple steelhead with no point on his hook!  He was apparently able to keep enough tension on the blunt end of the hook bend of his fly to bring those steelhead to hand.

Another reflection that Lee shared that I can totally relate to is his how the North Umpqua has a "personality".  He talked about recently going an entire season without "hooking" a steelhead, yet he often fished with others who were doing fine hooking into steelhead.  I've gone through similar dry spells down there and have similarly been with others who nonchalantly raise and hook into steelhead, seemingly at will, while I examine myself and wonder if I ever really knew what I was doing in this endeavor to begin with!

That evening was spent with mine and other's typical eating of junk food, with the exception of Dave Fineran's camp which was rumored to have produced a gourmet meal of salmon and other high end camp fare.  The caliber of Dave's camp cooking was confirmed when Josh Browning brought over a sliver of Dave's salmon for me to sample - what a tease after eating canned chili!

Camp talk again centered about the 2pm closure and a group of steelheaders lamenting the temporary loss of our beloved evening sessions.  While we appreciated that ODFW was taking measures to protect wild steelhead in light of the warm weather, the emergency closure came after the fact, when there was no longer a threat to willd steelhead due to excessively warm temperatures.  We hoped that this emergency regulation would not set a precedent for future seasons, especially if no threat is present due to warm water temps.

The next day was spent with me taking Dave Fineran out and Adrian, Josh, and Bucky fishing together.  I took Dave to some of my favorite spots and by mid morning we were still seeking the prize.  Dave had never fished this river before and he had never really tried skating for steelhead before either so the whole experience was new to him.  Dave watched me as I fished through a couple runs to get a sense of my casts and method of fishing the skater on this river.  I tend to make more cross stream casts to put some speed on the fly with gentle twiches to simply pulsate my skater.  As Dave watched me, I explained that this is not an exact science and folks have gottten steelhead while employing everything from frightening, aggressive twitches to using no twitch at all - in the end it becomes all a matter of personal style.

Foam skater with weird name coming across a pool in the morning sun
Dave and I ended up at another run so I put Dave through first, advising him to start at the very top and to work all the way through to the tailout.  In the meantime, I walked above to a minor run upstream so I could fish through the lower section and tailout of that run, giving Dave some space before coming in behind him.

By the time I reached the upper section of the run Dave was fishing, he was about halfway down, looked over his shoulder at me and was pointing to the water behind him.  Even from the distance, it appeared that Dave was wide-eyed as he was motioning over to me.  I had a feeling something exciting had happened for Dave....

When I caught up with Dave after he fished through the tailout, he came up and told me the story of his happy encounter.  He was fishing the upper section of the run and during one of his casts, he was watching his skater as it came across on it's mid river swing.  He was concentrating on getting a rhythm with twitching his skater during the swing, when he just saw a mouth appear behind his skater with his fly disappearing in a showy rise.  Dave's jaw dropped as the sudden, unexpected appearance of a hefty summer steelhead on the surface brought on such surprise that all Dave could do was ... nothing.  When Dave came to his senses, he raised the rod, felt a couple headshakes and the pull of the steelhead starting to take off on a run when the hook pulled out.

Dave was still visibly shaken in the recounting of his first surface steelhead encouter.  I was so happy to see a fellow steelheader experiencing the thrill of the surface take for the first time.  It was so great to have put  Dave in water that produced such an adrenaline rush and in hearing about it from Dave, I was just as thrilled as if it had happened to me.   Again, this river produces and rise and hookup to a fella new to the river and new to surface steelheading, leaving me to wonder how a guy like me who fishes this river regularly all season can go trip after trip with nary a rise.  I guess if this wasn't such a beautiful place to get skunked, I'd probably be fishing elsewhere by now!

By the time we returned to camp, we waited for Adrian, Josh, and Bucky to return.  With the summer heat, Dave and I threw in the towel by about 1pm.  Apparently the guys fished right up to the 2pm closure as they didn't show back up in camp until about 2:30pm.

When the guys returned, they told the story of Adrian hooking into a little hen behind a boulder on his greaseliner in the bright sun just before the 2 pm closure on one of the famous campwater pools.  In the meantime Bucky had been fishing another famous spot, also in the bright sun.  He saw a steelhead flash under his fly as his sparkly skunk swung by, but the steelhead would not commit to his fly.  He did a "reverse comback" by tying on an early version Little Wang that I had tied, gifted to Adrian, who in turn gifted it to Bucky.  When the vintage foam skater came over the lie, the steelhead returned with an explosive rise, took the skater, but did not get hooked.  Who says steelhead won't take skaters in bright sun??

I left for home later in the afternoon and Bucky and Adrian stayed on through the following day.  Adrian later reported that Bucky had a surface hookup on the far side on the upper section of one of the newer runs we've been fishing and Adrian had another steelhead on his greaseliner that came unpinned on another one of our favorite pools.  These are some fishy guys!!
Bucky Buchstaber, executive director of the Fly Fishing Collaborative - a worthy cause.

Check out the FFC website and pledge your support to this wonderful ministry: http://flyfishingcollaborative.org/

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