Saturday, April 22, 2017

He Is Risen!

A solitary morning in a quiet place
It was on the eve of Easter when I headed to the river on yet another solitary late winter quest after a seemingly unattainable prize - to find a winter steelhead willing to rise to a surface fly.  As I drove through the coast range in the predawn light, I reflected over my winter steelhead season, which was quickly drawing to a close.  As usual, I started the season with great optimism.  Rivers were flowing at winter levels beginning in November so my hope was for some early winter steelhead to be in the river by opening day on December 1.  As the season progressed through December and into January, it became apparent that this was going to be a tough year for winter steelheading.   Along with the cold, sometimes snowy conditions and endless successions of high water events leaving limited windows of good conditions, reports from fellow fisherman were depicting a poor return year.  Many of my friends either got blanked all together or were getting far fewer hookups than average on their swung flies.  While I was hearing of some isolated reports of good fishing in some areas and by some fisherman who were lucky enough to encounter pods of steelhead, the overall picture had most of us getting lots of casting practice, racking up lots of character building time, and reminiscing of the good old days (which could have been just a few years ago for some like me, when I recall actually catching a few winter steelhead on the dry line).  It has been pretty grim as I even heard of some gear and indicator guys getting skunked on the combat zone hatchery ditches that normally produce good numbers of steelhead, especially on those deadly methods.

 This has been a season where I have taken mostly solo trips over to the coast.  I started a new job within the state of Oregon in the late October, where I no longer work 4 ten hour days a week.  This means no more Fridays off for me.  While I miss my three day weekends, I currently work in a position with the Self Sufficiency program where I have about 10 times less stress than I had while working in Child Welfare, so I feel healthier and less traumatized.  With my fishing days now coinciding with the weekend warrior crowd,it sometimes takes some delicate domestic negotiations each week in my efforts to maintain a regular fishing schedule.  My strategy has been to kind of let weekend fishing plans sneak up on my better half as the time approaches or I just let things "hang" as my wife always knows fishing is "in the air".  Sometimes I just say nothing until Friday evening, then Wendi says "so where are you fishing tomorrow?".   That's when I know I am golden.  This pattern of getting last minute hall passes to fish can make advance planning difficult - tough to get a buddy to fish if you have to call or text at 10pm Friday night to fish the next morning.  When I have had the opportunity to make advanced plans, things have usually not worked out: one time my buddy Craig was out of town fishing elsewhere and another time, my friend Lee was down with a stomach bug.  I have often met up with my friend Keith on the river, but for the past two weekends, he has been indisposed as well.

I actually don't mind solo fishing at all. I can hit whichever spots that I like and I can fish at whatever pace I feel like.  On this day, I idly wondered the normal things like, since I haven't hooked or risen a winter steelhead the entire season, what would make this day any different?  My routine doesn't get too creative as I settle into the normal sequence of: getting to the river, get wadered up, hit familiar spots and every now and then explore a new run, try not to fall in, and throw a few casts out without getting hung up in trees.  I have not veered away from using a dry line at all this year.  With the milder conditions of spring, I have been fishing my wacky foam skaters the great majority of the time and this day was no exception.   In fact, with the increased possibility of inadvertently casting over actively spawning steelhead in the late winter season, I am fully committed to fishing surface flies during this time to avoid head on collisions with unseen spawners. 

There was a recent rain event which bumped the flows, but by the time my weekend fishing window came, the river had dropped into shape, barely on the low side of perfect.  This was a rare day when it didn't rain at all so I didn't have to deal with my leaky rain jacket sticking to my cheap hoodie while I would slowly become a damp mess.   It was so pleasurable to be fishing in dry, yet mostly overcast conditions.   My game plan was to start in the upper stretch of river that I normally fish.  All of the upper pools fished nicely and even despite my chronic lack of success, I continued to fish every likely spot with confidence and anticipation.

With the moderately low flows and excellent clarity and visibility, I settled on one of my skaters in size 6.   For some reason, I either had a bunch of flies in either large or tiny sizes and had neglected to stock up on medium sized, natural colored skaters.   I found a single bedraggled "royal green" little wang between the two boxes of skaters tucked in the top of my waders.   The bright green floss body was ragged from being chewed on by overly aggressive trout on trips in seasons past, but I decided to tie the battered skater on anyway.  I chuckled to myself wondering how a guy who has tied over a gross of these skaters, just over the course of this winter, can find himself "short" when attacking the river.   Of course I made the mental note to tie myself a few Royal Greens when I got home.

In the course of working my way downstream, I did end up exploring some new water that I had eyeballed down around the bend from a short run that my friends and I often fished. This riffly run always looked inviting when we fished the pool above and this day was a good time to check it out since the water was low enough to allow me to confidently wade across the tailout of the pool I just finished skating a fly through. As I got closer to the new found water, I quickly realized that it didn't look as promising up close as it did from a distance.   There were a couple big exposed boulders that broke up the flow and too many uneven currents to make for a good swing run.  I fished the pockets that I could since I was down there, then quickly turned around and headed back towards the car.
This was a day when I did not see another soul out fishing.   It felt like nobody else got the memo that this was a perfect day to be out and I didn't mind that at all.  Every run that I wanted to fish was open, which actually made it tough to decide where to fish next.  This is a predicament I prefer to have rather than picking your next spot based on what's open.  As I looked at my watch and figured that I'd call it a day my mid afternoon, I decided to continue in the downstream direction.  I wanted to cover as much water as possible so I planned to fish a couple runs that where right near pull offs which didn't require much walking.  I fished through two quick, short runs and at the current flow, with the river on a slow drop, these runs fished my foam skater beautifully.  The conditions were absolutely perfect for my chosen method and I simply relished in what were rare circumstances for the season.  I continued to feel hopeful, especially when my fly swung over areas that have produced hookups in the past and were known to hold steelhead.

By the time I arrived at what would be my final run for the day, I figured that I would have enough time to fish this larger piece of water at a leisurely pace and maybe even make a second pass if I felt so inclined. Getting to this run does require a short walk, but it is surely worthwhile because it is one of the juiciest spots that we have found on this river.  With the lower flows, the upper section of the run revealed some exposed mid river brush that was typically covered in the normally higher flows that I was used to this season.  I started right out from the trail and gradually began lengthening my casts.  I was fishing my recently purchased Cabela's LSi 10'6" switch rod with an 8wt Ambush line and vintage Hardy Marquis 10 reel.   I was enjoying the way my toys were performing as this set up made for a perfect match under the current conditions.

When I had the 20' Ambush head and several strips of running line out, my casts were settling into the zone where my skater was landing in the middle of the deeper channel that was running about 2/3's of the way across the river.  On one of those casts, as the purple/green skater was coming towards the nearside edge of the channel, a greyish form with a hint of pink suddenly appeared and made a half-hearted charge at my fly. It took a moment to register - that was a Steelhead!  After going literally months without a steelhead rise or hookup, my brain had gone numb.   I continued gently twitching my skater as it came towards the dangle hoping for a follow up rise, but my fly continued uninterrupted on it's journey.  I paused and made the same cast with tensed nerves and as the skater again approached the zone, but nothing happened. I decided to change to the all black Ninja, size 10.  I cast back to the zone and as I watched the black posts of the Ninja slicing through the silvery surface currents, I saw the greyish form appear and nudge at the fly for a brief moment before it turned away, just as the Ninja came over the shelf on the nearside of the channel.  I made the obligatory second cast with the Ninja, but I got no satisfaction.

I took a breath and considered my options. I had finally raised a winter steelhead to the surface and wanted to maximize my chances to hook into the beast on my terms.  I decided to try the smallest foam skater in my box - a grey/black Little Wang tied on a short #10 Mustad S80 hook.   I had tied this fly to go after trout, but hoped that the small drab fly might entice this stubborn steelie back to the top.  I took my time tying the tiny skater to my leader to rest the fish.  I put the tiny fly back out to the lane where the steelhead showed and after a couple casts, there was no sign of interest.    

By this time, despite my stubborn desire to get this steelhead back to the surface, I decided it was time to succumb to trying a wet fly on the comeback, before my fish was totally put off by my pestering.   I peered in my box and found some inspiration when I remembered a Lady Caroline that Tony Torrence had gifted me on our trip to BC last fall.   I pulled the classic fly from my box and admired the sleek precision that my good friend is gifted with in his tying.

I reeled in several feet of running line to start in about 10' short of where the steelhead initially appeared, just in case he moved upstream.   I anxiously made my first cast back in, then the second, and then the third, which put the fly right over where the steelhead came up for the skater.  The Lady Caroline swung through the channel and over the ledge with no signs of enthusiasm from my finned quarry.  I resigned myself to making one last cast over the lie and then I would continue working down through the run, under the assumption the steelhead was either bored or left town.  My cast ended up further upstream in an unintended departure from the swings I had been making.  This caused a belly to be formed in the line which in turn pulled the wet fly in a downstream direction before it would begin tracking cross stream.

The take occurred just as the fly began to straighten out on the turn with the line suddenly coming tight and then a couple headshakes were felt as I swept the rod towards the near bank.   As I felt a lively weight on the end of my line, I saw the form of the steelhead at the edge of the channel as it made a turn.  I held back on the rod to keep tension on the fish and in the next second, there was lifeless resistance and my prize swam off, probably giving me the fin.

I felt the sting of disappointment, yet a spirit of appreciation quickly came over me for what I had just been blessed to experience. I fished through the remainder of the run hoping for another player, but I was left to be content with my single steelhead encounter for the day. As I walked the trail back to the car, I realized that I had waited the entire season to raise a steelhead to the surface and it finally happened on the eve of Easter. The parallel of the timing of this special event with the day I was about to celebrate served to remind me of the salvation that I have through my savior Jesus Christ, who suffered the most painful death on the cross to pay for our sins, who was then raised from the dead and lives in me. I am always thankful that believing in and confessing Jesus's sacrifice on the cross makes salvation a gift to anyone who chooses to receive it. May God's Grace be a gift that all will receive!
The sequence:  Royal Green, Ninja, Lady C

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful story Todd. I can't imagine the dry spell life would be without God's grace. Blessings to you and your family.

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  2. Thanks Aaron. Very true, God's Grace sustains me during those times when I am lost in the wilderness. Wishing blessings to you and your family as well. Hope to fish with you this summer.

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  3. Thanks Adrian. Hopefully we'll raise one tomorrow!

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