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Monday, February 1, 2016

Surface Steelheading on the Dry Side

When a surface steelheading opportunity knocks, I never pass it up.  It just so happened that my dear wife Wendi had informed me that she had a work training in Las Vegas in mid November so I was left to figure out what to do with 5 days, sans adult supervision.  Hmmm, not much thought needed, it was time to scheme another trip chasing my favorite fish with my favorite method.  Somehow, staying home alone with our 100lb pit bull and cleaning the house/garage never entered my mind.

Of course, I clued a few friends into my plans and Adrian Cortes, not wanting a fellow steelheader to have to endure a multi day trip alone, requested time off from work even before his wife Amy knew anything about it until I accidentally spilled the beans on Facebook (sorry man).  Aaron Ostoj, Steve Turner, Bucky Buchstaber and Dave Fineran were also added to the invitation list.  By the time plans actually gelled together it came down to me going over alone for the first two days for some recon, Adrian would join on the third afternoon, Bucky was to join on the evening of the third day and Aaron would join on the fifth day.

With this being a low water year, we were a bit concerned that our destination river seemed to be running on the low side of average.  I figured since I was going over alone first, I could check things out and assess whether to stay or change rivers.

I was also concerned about timing and weather as it was mid November and I recalled experiencing freezing conditions at night during a prior trip to this river a couple years ago in early October.  I was prepared with three sleeping bags, plenty of warm clothes, and I planned to sleep in the back of my car if necessary.  I was also mentally prepared for difficult fishing.  I had spoken to experienced guides and anglers who have gotten steelhead down to 39 degrees on the surface in these eastside rivers so I was encouraged by knowing it is possible, but I also reminded myself of the reality that odds would be against me if I stayed with surface methods in frigid water.  Why do I always have to make a difficult game even more difficult??

As I packed the Steelhead Taxi with my gear, I realized that this has been my year for an "eastside steelheading tour" as I had taken another trip to an eastside river in early October and I'd be also heading to yet another eastside river over thanksgiving along with the present trip I was taking.  It's a great coincidence to be traveling to these Columbia tribs this fall as I have not gotten much further than the North Umpqua for the past several years and I just love the high desert country.

When the day came, I headed out in my yellow machine and arrived on the river by mid day.  There was a huge group of gear anglers camped in the nearby campsite so I grabbed a primitive spot just upstream from them.  I was pleasantly surprised with the mild conditions, with the day bright and clear.  I actually got overheated as I pitched my tent, but during this time of year, I know conditions can be volatile and I could be freezing in the next instant with a quick weather change.

As I looked down at the river, it was running low, but I saw that the heads and tails of runs and some pocketwater still looked fishable so I was eager to give it a try.  Being that I was alone, I was in no hurry, so I casually got my waders on, rigged up a rod and ate some junk food for lunch before walking down to the river.

I started off fishing the tailout of a long run out from my camp spot and realized too late that I went in too low in the run as I waded right up to the best looking structure in the tailout.  In the soft flows, I didn't immediately notice the gentle wakes made by some large boulders in the deepest part of the run before it shallowed up in the very bottom of the tailout.  I knew for next time to go in higher in this water to take advantage of hitting this prime structure.

I fished through the tailout, waded across and hit the next couple runs and some pocket water below.  Being able to get around easily is one of the things I like about low water conditions.  I found that even in the low flows, there was still plenty of fishable water where steelhead could be holding and I figured it would be worthwhile to remain on this river for the duration of my trip.  I took a water temp reading and found the flows to be running at a very mild 50 degrees, unusual for mid November.

I got back to my tent before dark and made a quick dinner consisting of something out of a can that I heated on my coleman stove.  I don't mind being by myself, but when it gets dark at 5pm and there's no one to talk to, I found myself left with not much to do.  I sat in my tent, did some reading, and I had enough phone service to get a text out to Adrian to let him know I was staying put and I was also able to text Wendi to check in with her.  I probably turned in before 7pm and wondered how I would try to sleep for 12 hours.

The next morning, I got up, tired from laying down so long, but surprised that it never got very cold that night.  I have a cheapo tent made for summer camping with vents all around so the night breeze was blowing through the whole time and I was just fine with just doubling up sleeping bags and covering my head.

As I got ready to fish, a couple guys from Portland showed up and  parked up from my tent.  We got to chatting and I found these guys to be really nice fellows.  One of the guys had his dog along and this happy pooch decided to take a dump on a bush close to my tent so his owner was kind enough to pull said bush out of the ground and tossed it away so I wouldn't end stepping on a landmine at some point.  These guys decided that they'd walk upstream and so I'd walk downstream and maybe catch up with them at the rigs at lunch time.

I fished the same water that I did the evening before and I even was sure to start in higher, above the structure I found low in the run.  I also fished the lower runs and pocketwater and found no surface action aside from a spunky 10" smallmouth bass that attacked my skater in the tailout, giving me a brief thrill, then a let down.  The water had cooled just a hair, 49 degress, but still surprisingly warm for this time of year.  I thought that any steelhead around should be very active.  So far, no indications of steel to be found.

I stopped back at the car for lunch and just when I was about to leave for the upper stretch of river, the guys from Portland made it back and we got to visiting again.  They shared a beer and teriyaki chicken with me so I felt it only right to trade them each a couple of my strange flies in return.  They mentioned that they didn't find any steelhead encounters upstream either.  They had run into the gear crowd, who congregated in the slowest, deepest pool above so those guys were not any competition with us for any of the fly water that we liked which tends to have some current running through.  These guys were a bit discouraged with the low flow so they considered calling it a day after eating lunch or they figured they might try to find other water and camp in their vehicle.  I invited them to join me at my camp spot if they decided to camp and couldn't find any where to park for the night.

I walked upstream for the afternoon and fished a familiar run which still fished well enough in the lower level, although it seemed a bit shallow overall.  I continued upstream and came to the big gear pool and then fished the riffle coming into it.  This riffle fished well and I was able to fish the nearside, then I waded across the top and fished the opposite bank as well.  A fellow fly fisher who was walking down confirmed that the riffle I just fished definitely holds steelhead when they are around and I didn't raise a single steelhead there so they must not have been around.

On the way back to camp, I got to chatting with some of the gear guys who were parked at the deep pool.  They said that they get together every year and between their large group, they typically bring 100 steelhead to the bank, but this year, only 15, so fishing's been slow.  They also mentioned that they'd be vacating thier nice campspot the next day and they'd hand it over to me when they left around noon.

I had another cheap dinner at camp and another pleasant, mild evening sleeping for too long in my tent.  I did notice that the breeze picked up a little that night.  It was still comfortable sleeping in my tent and I was thankful for the agreeable weather.

I had a raspberry danish for breakfast in the morning and hit the water.  I decided to head upstream first and hit the nice riffle heading into the big pool that the gear guys liked.  I fished through the riffle and didn't find any players.  The breeze picked up significantly but at least it was blowing downstream so I could at least get my casts out.  Apparently the breeze quickly discouraged the gear guys and they started heading back to camp.

After a while, I figured I should head back to camp too in case the gear group decided to leave early.  I got back downstream and noted the gear slingers were still casually breaking camp so I headed down and fished the lower pools again while keeping an eye on the progress of camp breakdown.   As noon approached, I went ahead and broke my camp down and drove down to wait on my gear friends to pack out.  After the last of the group drove off, I pitched my tent and put up my folding camp table to give the site the look of being occupied.

I went back to fishing, but stayed on the lower pools so I could watch for Adrian's arrival.  I cycled through these pools a couple times and still found no players, no matter how good the water looked.  By about 3:30pm, I spotted Adrian's Land Rover coming down the hill.  I waved over to Adrian and I made my way over to meet Adrian at our campspot.
Fishing low water runs below camp.  Adrian Cortes photo.

By the time I arrived, Adrian was nearly ready to hit the water, so after some quick greetings, we hurried upstream to nearby runs before darkness closed in on us.  I put Adrian in a nice run with a short riffle heading in and gradually deepening along a nice seam.  I hit a shallow run above and moved through quickly with only about a half hour before it got too dark to fish.  Neither of us found any players by dusk so we walked back to camp.

Adrian got set up to be able to sleep in the back of his Land Rover and we ate our typical quick dinners.  After eating, we awaited Bucky's arrival and with it being after dark, we started worrying if he got lost.  I sent him a text to be sure he understood my directions on how to get down to where we were.  After just a minor bit of confusion, Bucky made it to camp.  As Bucky got settled in, he informed that he ran late because he couldn't pass up the chance to swing another favorite run on another steelhead river on the way over - of course being steelheaders, Adrian and I get that.

After going two nights with no company and nothing to do from the time it got dark until bedtime, it was great to have Adrian and Bucky to visit with.  Bucky has been staying busy as the executive director of the Fly Fishing Collaborative, a ministry that is now a full time endeavor for him.  We talked of how God has been using the FFC for His Glory and how the FFC continues to grow.

We got a leisurely start the next morning and we decided to walk upstream to fish pools that I could show the guys.  We hit the riffle above the deep hole that the gear guys like then we continued further above and found another great looking run.  This run starts with a narrow head as a wide, shallow riffle above funnels through a channel.  The fishy seam widens as the flow spreads out and slows.  Some nice structure was noted as the flow slowed and spread out in the heart of this pool.  This run was big enough for the three of us to split up with Bucky taking the very top, I took the middle, and Adrian took the bottom.
Bucky carrying faithful companion Coco across a side channel.  Photo by Adrian Cortes
 A few minutes after we started in, Bucky got a solid grab on his wet fly fished on a light sinktip.  He went back with  follow up casts, but no comeback pulls came to his fly.  I fished through my water more quickly than I anticipated, even with the slow flow in the middle of the pool, and found myself coming up closely behind Adrian so I decided to head back up behind Bucky at the very top.  I took a water temperature reading and found that the water had cooled to 44 degrees on this day.

As I fished through the upper section of the run, I felt great anticipation for a surface grab as the water just had that feel to it.  Despite being on high alert, no steelhead broke the surface for my latest foam skater.  When I caught up with Adrian, he revealed that he had two two surface grabs; one to a greaseliner and another to a Lemire Fall Caddis in the lazy froggy water down low.  Both came up with slow, subtle gulps.  Adrian felt head shakes on one of the rises and a brief pull on the other, but no solid hookups.

Of note with the particular greaseliner that Adrian had been fishing:  Adrian has introduced his two daughters Emma and Lauren to the joys of fly tying and the girls have shown much talent at the vise - not surprising with their gifted, thread pulling dad.  Emma tied an incredible married wing freestyle several months ago and Lauren has taken a liking to the Greaseliner.  Adrian gave Lauren a tutorial on tying Lemire's famous fly and in short order, Lauren was proficient at tying the pattern on her own.  In fact, Lauren told her dad she would only charge him $4 for each of her flies.

Greaseliner for sale, only $4!  Lauren Cortes (age 10) creating a perfect fly at the vise.  Photo by Adrian Cortes

Lauren's Greaseliner about to take a swim.  Adrian Cortes photo
Adrian was fishing one of Lauren's greaseliners when he got the surface grabs in the slow, cool water.
After fishing through this beautiful pool, Adrian briefly hiked further upstream to explore.  He found another pool with some decent looking water but it was difficult to get to from his side of the river so he came back down.  We continued downstream and fished a few spots on our way back towards camp.
Some classic Haig-Brown on cane rod, Cortes-stylin'.  Photo by Adrian Cortes

By mid afternoon, Adrian and I were fishing a riffle about a quarter mile above camp when we saw another fellow who had also been fishing.  This guy came up towards us and stepped in below Adrian and asked if Adrian minded if he fished the marginal water below him.   We were both wondering what this guy was about, when he turns to Adrian and says "aren't you that guy Adrian on Speypages??"  Adrian responds yes, and asks the guy who he was and when we got a better look at the fellow, we realized it was Aaron Ostoj playing a joke on us, trying to impersonate a clueless fly fisher.

Aaron was able to make it over a day early so he was able to get set up at camp and fish for a bit.  After our greetings, we fished for a little longer then headed for camp.  Back at camp, we found that Aaron had put up a tarp over the fire pit and got himself settled in to be able to sleep in his car for the night.  Bucky had his dog Coco along and the poor gal picked up numerous burrs in her fur which Bucky tried to cut out with my Leatherman tool, but there were too many to deal with at the time and Coco would have to stay in camp during our fishing session the next day.

As we visited and heated our dinners, Aaron provided free entertainment as he whipped out his fiddle that he had purchased at a yard sale a few months ago.  Aaron thought he'd clean up the fiddle and resell it, but he ended up getting attached to it and began learning to play.  Through his gifts of natural talent and a little help from youtube videos, Aaron was a quick study with his fiddle.  Aaron played us an Irish folk song and a couple other tunes as we sat in amazement while watching and listening to our talented friend fill the night air with his music.  I almost wished I had my drum set with me to join in the fun with Aaron, but that might have ruined the camp atmosphere we had going.
Free camp entertainment via maestro Aaron Ostoj.  Adrian Cortes photo

As we got ready for bedtime, we noted that the breeze was starting to pickup and it was then that I remembered that the weather report had forecast possible gusts to 25mph or so.  I opted to sleep in my car that night and it was a good thing that I did because the wind continued blow and intensify.

When we woke the next morning, the wind was still howling.  Aaron's tarp got knocked down and my tent was barely surviving the gusts.  The rain flap on my tent was hanging on my only one strap so I removed it.  We somehow managed to eat our breakfasts as we held onto every loose item in reach.

Undaunted, we all decided to stick with the plan to fish, even under the less than ideal conditions.  Aaron and Bucky would fish together this day and they would fish the upstream runs.  Adrian and I would fish the near camp water and runs downstream of camp.

As Adrian and I hit our designated water, the wind continued to howl with only brief breaks in the gusts.  There were times when sudden bursts of wind would nearly knock us over as we both wondered what we were doing out there.  Another issue caused by the wind was a tumbleweed hatch.  We found ourselves making our casts and mending to avoid tumbleweeds - definitely a novel situation for me.

Adrian fishing through the "tumbleweed hatch".  Todd Hirano photo

As we continued down to the furthest run that we'd be fishing, I had Adrian going through first since this was his first time fishing this most promising looking run in this section of river.  This is a beautiful pool that starts as the flow comes out of a stretch of pocketwater.  Luckily, the wind was pretty consistently blowing downstream so we were at least able to get our casts out by just aiming high and across stream and the breeze did the rest.

I watched my friend working down the run as he fished his greaseliner through the holding water and reflected on how it just felt great to be out in this place, even in spite of the unlikely conditions consisting of the low water, slow fishing, and fighting the tumbleweed hatch all day.

Just as I was pondering how the odds seemed to be against us and as I was admittedly trying to fight off feeling discouraged, a great thing happened.  I was watching my purple/chartreuse stinger wang coming across on a broadside swing when I suddenly saw this red and orange form appear and for a second, I thought I was in a Koi pond and that an ornamental carp had grabbed my fly.  When I regained my senses, the line came tight and line was peeling off my vintage JW Young.  As I fought the fish, it continued to cause more racket from my click/pawl reel and put a good bend in my bargain Cabela's 11' 7wt.  By then, Adrian heard what was going on and turned around to yell encouragement.  I was still a bit disoriented as said "I think it's a steelhead"...
Who says "bucks don't jump"??  Adrian caputures my steelhead in mid air.
 Of course it was a steelhead, it was just that fishing under the dismal conditions and the sudden appearance of the colors on a brilliant fall buck threw me for a loop in the moment.  When reality set in, I simply enjoyed the sensation of having a powerful steelhead on the line as the beautiful creature gave me his best with a spectacular rise and spirited battle.  To top it off, having Adrian close by to share in the excitement of the experience we most love was a great blessing.  We were able to land this beautiful buck, which looked to be in the 28-29" range and thickly built.  He had what looked like some net marks and abrasions, a possible encounter with the Columbia gill net fishery.
Brilliantly colored fall buck taken on a Chartreuse/Purple/Orange butt stinger wang.  Adrian Cortes photo

Adrian and I congratulated each other as we took it all in and relished in the blessings that being on steelhead rivers bring to us.  We got a few photos of the grand creature and released him as we sat in wonder of what he had gone through to get back to this place and even being willing to strike at a strange fly skating across the surface on a windy November day.
A single malt/coffee toast in celebration of another surface steelhead blessing.  Adrian Cortes photo
 By late afternoon, we walked upstream to try a couple more runs all the while hoping that the winds would finally let up.  Adrian fished the upper run and I hit the lower one below a short riffle break.  As it turned out, the wind did not die down.  We continued to endure nearly getting knocked over by "sneaker" gusts and dodging rampant tumbleweeds being blown around.  By about an hour and half before sunset, we threw in the towel and called it a day.

Back at camp, Adrian and I waited for Bucky and Aaron to return.  It wasn't long before they showed up and Aaron gave us the skinny on a nice buck that he hooked and landed in that upriver pool we had fished yesterday where Bucky had a solid grab.   We congratulated Aaron on his success.  Aaron had gotten his buck on a classic Atlantic Salmon pattern - the Sun Fly, fished on a light tip, and cast with Aaorn's Sharpes cane rod.  Bucky showed us some pics of Aaron's buck.  It was a beautiful steelhead, brilliantly colored like my fish, but notably bigger.
Fall Buck subdued by Aaron Ostoj.  Bucky Buchstaber photo

Aaron doing battle with a Hawg.  Bucky Buchstaber photo
 Bucky and Aaron considered staying on for another day but adult responsibilities took precedence for them over another windy day of fishing.  Adrian and I decided to take full advantage of our remaining time off while praying that the wind would let up by the time we would embark on our last session of fishing the following morning.

As Bucky and Aaron tore down their gear, the wind continued to howl.  We discovered that the winds had blown hard enough to knock over a nearby outhouse.  Unfortunately, the wind had also caused  another problem when Bucky found the top section of his new Echo 12'4" 6wt broken when the wind blew down on the rear hatch on Bucky's truck topper, pinching the rod in the process.
A smelly casualty of the prevailing winds.  Adrian Cortes photo

After bidding farewell to Bucky and Aaron,  Adrian and I visited and obsessed over our common passion for surface steelhead.  We pondered over how we have each come to a common place in our fishing lives where the rise of a steelhead to a fly skating on the surface surpasses just about anything else that could have any real meaning in life.

 Adrian and I crashed in our vehicles again that evening.  When I got up in the middle of the night as I tried to get comfortable in the cramped quarters in the back of the Steelhead Taxi, I noticed that the wind had finally stopped.   I stayed up a bit longer and was relieved when the gusts didn't return, feeling hopeful that the windstorm was finally over.

When we woke in the morning and leisurely set up for our last session of fishing, we were relieved at the quiet we were experiencing - no wind and no tumbleweeds and debris flying around, just peaceful stillness.  We were very encouraged to be able to fish while not worrying about being knocked over by wind gusts.

Our game plan was to fish the water below camp again since I got the one steelhead in the lower pool the day before and perhaps there might be another one in there this day.  If we had time, we'd run upriver to hit the pool where Aaron got his fish.

I started in the mid section of the pocketwater stretch and Adrian started in the short bit of pocketwater above the head of the pool below.  As I fished the small pieces of potential holding water before me, it wasn't long before I saw Adrian raising his arm in the distance.  I wasn't sure what Adrian's arm raising meant, but I suspected it might have something to do with a steelhead coming to the surface so I kept an eye on Adrian as I fished my water.  A short time later, I saw Adrian raise his arm again and then yet again after another short period of time went by.  I figured something was up so I reeled in and began walking over to Adrian, figuring he might end up with a fish on by the time I got to him.
Adrian raises steel in the distance.  Todd Hirano photo
Surely enough, when I arrived on the scene, Adrian informed that he had just raised a steelhead for the fourth time in a little pocketwater hold not far from shore in the broken water.  Adrian was resting the fish before seeing if he could get it to come up for the fifth time.  He pointed out the holding lie to me and I readied my digital point and shoot, putting it in video mode.  When Adrian was ready, he made his cast while I kept my camera focused on the area where the steelhead was holding.  I could not track the fly in the viewfinder, but it swung through without incident.  Adrian made another cast and I again tracked the area where Adrian's greaseliner was swinging through.  As the Lemire classic came over the lie, the steelhead took it and I was briefly able to capture Adrian with a bent rod which quickly sprung back as the steelhead felt the hook and abruptly escaped.

The adrenaline rush of getting multiple rises from a steelhead is always memorable.  Adrian and I were thankful to share in the experience as "comeback" steelhead have been hard to come by this year.  It was also cool that I was able to capture Adrian's rise on video, although we were not actually able to pick out the the rise in the video until reviewing it on our computer screens at home.

Adrian continued fishing down into the head of the run below and just where the pocketwater fans out into this beautiful run, Adrian brought another steelhead to the surface and after a spunky fight, lands this fish.  It turned out being a  hatchery steelhead of perhaps 24".  We ended up harvesting this fish to take it out of the system.  This steelhead was yet another testament to "greaseliner appeal".
Adrian demonstrating "greaseliner appeal".  Todd Hirano photo

Hatchery hen destined for the table.  Todd Hirano photo.

As I fished behind Adrian, I continued down to see if there were any steelhead that would respond to "Little Wang appeal".  As luck would have it, I ended up raising a steelhead in the same area where I raised and hooked my steelhead the day before.  This steelhead came up with a gulping type of rise to my foam creation and would not come back to the same fly after a couple more casts so I changed to a greaseliner that Adrian had gifted to me.  I shorted up my line and worked back to the same length of line and when Adrian's greaseliner came over the lie, the steelhead returned with a similar rise.  I waited for the line to tighten, but no such luck.   A couple more casts with the greaseliner brought no result so I changed to another one of Adrian's gifts - a Lemire Fall Caddis.

By this time, Adrian had seen that I doing a comeback routine on a steelhead so he walked up to me and put his digital point and shoot in video mode.  I pointed out the holding lie to Adrian and he trained his camera on that area as I made another cast.  The fly swung through and again, as it come over the holding lie, the steelhead came up with a gulp and no line tightening excitement followed.  At least Adrian caught the rise on video.  Not bad for a couple Go Proless fly fishers.  No further comeback attempts were successful on this stubborn steelie, but that's just how it goes in this game we play.

 We fished through the remainder of the run and a couple other spots before calling it good for our final morning session.  It turned out that we ran into enough surface steelhead action to slow down our pace which prevented us from venturing to the upstream pools.  We were greatly satisfied with encountering some steelhead willing to rise in the 46 degree water and also pleased at being able to find rising steelhead in mid November.  We were definitely encouraged to push the "skater season" as far as we could!!

As we broke camp we reflected on the good times we just experienced on this river and vowed to keep these special eastside rivers on our itinerary for next fall.  The scheming of future trips continued when we met up for lunch at a burger joint on the way home.  We are just a couple guys who are totally caught in the grip of surface steelhead obsession with no end in sight.

A Lemire Fall Caddis awaits the next session of skating over steelhead water.  Fly and photo by Adrian Cortes


  1. That was a fantastic read Todd !! Kudos to you and the lads on another successful trip !!

  2. Thanks Mike! Someday you have to come out west to join us! Bring those greaseliners too...

  3. I am having a wonderful time reading this at work...I am grateful that you are able to document such awesome trips. Such drama on this trip that makes me laugh at our adventures. I can't wait to add more trips in 2016!

    1. I'm so glad that my blog serves the purpose it was intended for which is to relive those fun times on the river. Blessed to share those good times with you! Agreed, looking forward to creating more blog material in 2016!

  4. An enjoyable read, for sure. Thanks for feeding my steelhead "jones" for a bit. Beautiful fish. Best. Ed

  5. Thanks Ed, glad you liked the story. Writing in my blog helps bring good memories back to life, thanks for coming along.

  6. Thanks Stephen, glad you liked the story and honored that you have visited my blog.

  7. That's an awesome river and great spot too! I'm infamous at my work of comping off at 0400 in Walla Walla and stepping into those runs by 7am. Love that stretch!