|The Big River. Photo by Todd Hirano|
Sometimes things come together in a way that just happen to line up good fishing opportunities in the mix. My in-laws Jim and Barb Jones recently retired and decided to move to a town that is a hub for at least 3 great eastside Pacific Northwest steelhead rivers. When Wendi and I made plans to visit Jim and Barb this past Thanksgiving, you can bet that there was more on my mind than turkey, stuffing, and gravy.
The scheming began with texts and phone calls going back and forth with Jim. After he and Barb got settled into their new digs with a new house built, lawn installed, furniture bought, and wrangling with the contractor over with, Jim had time to focus on more important things, like learning to spey cast and becoming more familiar with the steelhead nirvana he found himself immersed in.
Jim had been asking me about a good spey outfit to purchase to get started with so I suggested a 12'6" Echo classic and 390 Airflo Compact Scandi head. I still own the original Echo classic and the same Airflo line and found it to be a very easy setup to learn on and a good all around kit. I also put some of my skaters in my trademark Altoids cans in the mail to get Jim started before my arrival. I wasn't too long after that when Jim texted to let me know that he got a 30" hen on a sinking poly leader and lead eyed fly, a great start for a beginning spey caster!
Up to then, Jim had been hesitant to get into fishing with the two handed rod. His trips to steelhead country were limited when he lived in Montana and he was wary of starting fresh with learning a whole new style of casting and fishing. Now that Jim is living in the middle of steelhead country, taking up the two hander seemed inevitable.
As Jim and I continued planning in anticipation of getting together over Thanksgiving, I recalled when Jim and his friend Toby met up with me in BC for our first trip to Skeena country in 1995. That was a trip that sealed my fate as a dry fly steelheader and two handed caster. I was glad to see signs that Jim was starting to lean towards being taken by the affliction of steelheading as I know it - its always great to have more like-minded company in this strange niche I am part of.
In the course of planning my trip east, I contacted Zack Williams, renowned steelhead guide and editor of Swing the Fly. Zack had previously mentioned to contact him if I ever got out his way, so I figured this was a good opportunity to do so. I emailed Zack asking for any advice on fishing the area rivers he would be willing to provide me. In response, Zack went far beyond offering advice, he offered to take Jim and I out for a day and to even get us out on his sled, depending on where we ended up fishing. Of course, this was an offer I could not, and would not refuse!
As the departure day came upon us, we loaded into Wendi's 2006 Chevy HHR, which is a far cry from my dreaded "steelhead taxi" (1987 Chevy Spectrum). Unlike the steelhead taxi, Wendi's car doesn't smell like wet boots and waders,and doesn't have empty sandwich baggies, cookie crumbs and stray potato chips strewn about it. Somehow, my fishing gear didn't look like it belonged in such a sanitary environment, but I got over it and we went on our way.
We travelled north on I-5, then east on I-84. As we drove through the evening, we encountered some heavy traffic in areas due to all the Thanksgiving travelers doing the same thing as us - heading off to spend the holiday somewhere away from home.
We arrived in town at around 1am and got mixed up with how to get to Jim and Barb's home so we called Jim and he was gracious enough to drive down from his home so we could follow him back to the house. Wendi and I got settled in for bed after a quick tour of Jim and Barb's beautiful new home that was built in a new subdivision on a hill overlooking the river valley.
After sleeping in for a bit the next morning, I got busy with important things, like eating a huge breakfast that Jim and Barb cooked up for us, then figuring out how to get an out of state fishing license on Thanksgiving day. We found that a couple gas stations carried fishing licenses, being an area where fishing is an important recreational activity.
Having the fishing license out of the way was a relief in that we would not have to worry about scrambling the next day when we were scheduled to get out with Zack Williams. While Jim helped out with preparing Thanksgiving dinner, I made some feeble attempts to give him some spey casting lessons on his lawn, between him checking on the thanksgiving turkey cooking on his grill.
I also occupied some down time before and after thanksgiving dinner by tying more skaters on Jim's luxurious tying desk so I'd have a few to gift to Zack the next day. Jim's tying area was notably cleaner and neater than the smoking crater that I typically tie in.
We enjoyed a wonderful thanksgiving dinner where we all ate well and considered all that God has blessed us with so abundantly. After dinner, we cleaned up and set aside some turkey for making sandwiches for the next day's fishing.
We met up with Zack Williams the next morning at a local diner for a hearty breakfast. This was a little local joint where everyone knew each other, except us - we felt like outsiders overhearing personal conversations among this tight knit group of locals. This was my first in person meeting with Zack and it was great to put a face to the name. We talked of the local fishing conditions, Zack's guiding business, and of course Zack spoke excitedly about how he was working hard to get Swing the Fly in print. This is a big undertaking that Zack has ambitiously taken on with some inspiration coming from those old classy, glossy issues of Wild Steelhead and Salmon Journal. In fact Zack has been able to consult with editor Tom Pero about strategizing and potential pitfalls to avoid in such an undertaking. Zack's vision was to have a publication that would be of such quality that would be worthy of collecting and cherishing.
After breakfast, we followed Zack to the put in. As we drove along the river to the put in, I was amazed at the size of the runs I was looking at. This water was several times bigger than my typical homewaters. I was intimidated and awed all at the same time. This is the land of guys who wield long belly lines and 16' foot rods and I could now see for myself water where such mega sized tackle would be right at home. (Zack is actually a talented competition spey caster who has traveled to compete in Spey O Rama in San Francisco for the past few years) I would "make do" with my Sage 8136 and 9140, but I wondered if my little rods would make a dent in the potential water to be covered.
During the drive, I also noted Jim's truck thermometer reading outside temps in the high teens in places then going up into to the low twenties when we approached the put in. I questioned the accuracy of the temp readings I was seeing, but when we arrived at the put in and as I wadered up, I felt the bitter cold and realized the sub freezing temps were a reality. Surface steelheading didn't seem like the optimal mode of operation, but knowing myself, I'd still have to try.........
|Zack Williams on a guide's day off. Photo by Todd Hirano|
|Pate manning the bow and directing us to surface steel. Photo by Todd Hirano|
Never mind about ice forming in my guides and on my line. Using a Delta spey line helped with it's "longer" head and reduced stripping. It's funny how a few years ago the 54' heads on Deltas were considered short lines. As time goes on, lines have gotten shorter and shorter. I thought my Ambush lines were very short, but now we have even shorter lines, like those Commando heads.
|Iced guides were the norm for most of the day. Photo by Todd Hirano|
We had no takers in that first run so we headed downriver to another expansive run on the other side of the river. I hit the upper corner of this run and Jim and Zack split the lower sections. By the time I walked to the top of the run, Jim and Zack were little specks in the distance. I enjoyed the water I was fishing and I was even able to reach the seam a bit easier this time as the fishy currents ran closer to shore.
|The sun came out and warmed the day above freezing for about an hour! Photo by Todd Hirano|
I was happily working my way down the run and noted that the day was starting to warm and there was less ice forming in my guides. After a while, I saw Zack walking back up towards me. By the time we caught up with each other, the day was bright and it even seemed the air temps got just above freezing! As I chatted with Zack, I thought he had come up to tell me we were ready to move on to another spot, but instead, he calmly told me that he raised a steelhead to the surface in the water he was fishing. When I asked if he was just resting the fish before going back to cover the fish for comeback, he said "no, you are". See what I mean about Zack staying in "guide mode" even on his day off?? He wouldn't take no for an answer and insisted that I walk back to his position to put one of my skaters over his fish.
When I got back to where Zack raised his steelhead, he put me in the exact spot he had been standing at and even pointed out the exact foam line to cast to so I could put my fly over the lie his fish lived in. Surprisingly, it didn't even take a very long cast to cover this lie and as I lengthened my casts and got to where I needed to be, Zack pretty much called it when he said "he should be right about there", and sure enough a nice steelhead came up and lunged at the fly.......and missed. I made a few comeback attempts and no reruns from this steelie.
The remainder of the run still looked great to me so I quickly worked my way down towards what passed as the tailout of the run. I lengthened my casts a bit and continued down at a brisk pace to cover as much water as I could. Jim and Zack were taking a break as I continued in my mad pursuit. I happily noticed that air temps had definitely gotten above freezing with no more ice in my guides - sweet relief!
As I approached the tailout, I watched my foam creation coming across on a broadside swing in full sunlight when a steelhead suddenly came up and ate my fly in a quick rise. This little gal was on instantly and went off making some short runs as I overpowered her with my old Sage 9140. She fought gallantly against my 14' stick and after a brief battle, I was able to lead her towards shore where Zack was able to grab a hold of my leader to tail her. Just as Zack was about to get a hold of her, the hook popped out and she was off. I was thrilled nonetheless, to be raising and hooking steelhead on the surface in conditions most would not bother to be out in, much less be skating flies in. Sometimes insanity pays off!
|Hooked into cold water surface steel. Photo by Jim Jones|
We motored upstream to another beautiful run and by the time we fished through and I was nearing the limit of the water I could safely wade through, I noticed that Zack and returned to the sled and also that it was lunch time. As Jim and I approached the sled, I was anticipating eating those turkey sandwiches made from the Thanksgiving leftovers when I noticed Zack was hunched over and steam was rising around him. As we got closer, we realized Zack had busted out his Coleman stove and he was grilling fresh burgers for all of us. Thoughts of turkey sandwiches were set aside as the aroma of freshly cooked beef filled the air.
|Zack grilling burgers in the subfreezing conditiions. Burgers tend to taste extra good when it is 28 degrees out! Photo by Todd Hirano|
During our lunch break we inquired with Zack about his guiding business and he explained that he had moved closer to the eastside steelhead rivers several years ago as the Olympic Peninsula rivers he guided on had become so crowded. He still does some guiding on the OP rivers, but only during select times. In the few years he has been guiding on the eastside rivers, he notes that his guiding calendar is pretty full, mostly with repeat clients. He noted that he has received a golden endorsement from Poppy of the Redshed and Poppy has sent many clients his way. However, it is very evident, that Zack's easy going, polite, and generous ways make him a pleasure to fish with where repeat clients are just about a given.
After lunch, Zack motored us to a few more great looking runs on this expansive river. We finished off the day at a big water run that involved wading on and through a serious of bedrock reefs. It seemed that a rise would be inevitable for one of us, but none came.
By the end of the day, I realized that Zack had been using a 12'6" 6wt spey rod the whole day, one made by a manufacturer that he reps for. I was suprised by Zack's tackle choice due to the big water we were fishing and especially since Zack is a tournament caster who has been competing at Spey O Rama each year. His 15' Bruce and Walker sat in the boat all day and he never used it. Maybe he was just too gracious to cast the big rod and make Jim and me feel inadequate!
Zach trailered up his sled and we bid him farewell as we thanked him for a special late fall day on a beautiful river. Jim and I were so blessed to have been graced by Zach's knowledge of the water, easy-going companionship and being spoiled by a first class steelhead guide during his precious late season window of personal fishing time.
|Last run of the day. Photo by Todd Hirano|
The next morning found Jim and me driving back to the river with the game plan of hitting as many bank spots as we could. We again braved sub-freezing air temps in the low twenties as we subliminally questioned our own sanity for being out in such conditions. We started the day by accessing the same run that we hit with Zach first thing the day before.
I started as high as I could in this large ledgrock run. I was fishing my Sage 8136 and making the biggest casts I could to reach the inner seam of the main flow of this large run. As I made my way to the point where my black and blue waker was swinging into the top of a bay along the shoreline, a steelhead came up with a gulp and then immediately made a jump. I saw the form of a modest steelhead buck in the 5lb range as it leaped clear out of the water. Upon it's landing, the hook pulled out. I stood there laughing to myself as it was about 8:30am on a cold day with ice in my guides and I just had a surface steelhead attack. I'd never experienced rising steelhead in subfreezing air temps before this and I was just amazed with what had just happened. I wondered if these eastside steelhead adjust to cooler temperatures like BC steelhead, which are known to remain active to the surface in much cooler water than most of our lower 48 steelhead.
|Black and Blue Celestial Skater gets a cold water grab. Photo by Todd Hirano|
|Jim disappears in the distance of this expanisve run. Photo by Todd Hirano|