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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Player

Solo camp.  Todd Hirano photo
For those that visit my blog from time to time, I must apologize for being  remiss in posting for over 6 months! I actually have a good "excuse" for being absent from my own blog - I've been fishing like a maniac (what's new, right).  The long days of summer put me into a frenzied state where I was fishing before and after work, not to mention on my days off and weekends.  My determination has been further fueled by the fact that this summer and fall have been producing some decent dry fly steelhead action.  However, not to complain, but all of my surface steelhead success has occurred on my homewater. I am ever so blessed and thankful to have dry fly steelhead opportunities 10 minutes from my home or work, but as is often the case with steelheaders, the grass always seems greener if I drive at least two hours away from home.

Now, being in the middle of fall and looking back on my road games, I have recalled perhaps raising a couple steelhead to the surface and very briefly feeling a pull on one of those rises.  I also hooked and lost what appeared to be a small one salt steelhead/large half pounder that I mistook as a trout so mostly stripped in until the hook pulled out.  All this amounts to a dismal record for all the hours driven and gas burned in my crazy pursuit of dry fly steelhead.

In spite of my poor road game record, I recently decided to make the multi-hour drive to one of those fall dry fly friendly rivers that flow east of Portland and west of Montana.  It was to be a solo overnight trip which would involve putting more miles on my faithful Geo Tracker (286,000+miles on the odometer and a leaking front crankshaft oil seal) and the risk of freezing my gonads off while sleeping on my cot in my thin walled tent.  The weather forecast only called for lows in the 40s at night so I hoped to have a chance at staying toasty as a marshmallow as I slept

Upon my arrival in mid afternoon,  the day was warm and bright so I decided to leisurely set up camp and ate a late lunch consisting of a tuna sandwich,  crackers, pepperoni and cheese (non keto, right?).  I then wadered up and pondered my game plan for the afternoon/eve.  Three runs are near camp so I would start at one where I found success before and then hit the others.

The first run fished well, but no steelhead made their appearance on the surface.   I fished the second run, again with no excitement provided by the steelhead.   By the time I finished fishing the second run, there was still ample daylight remaining.   I thought of taking a second pass through the run to fill the remaining 45 minutes of daylight in my typical never give up, diehard style, then I remembered that in my rushed packing routine, I forgot to bring my headlamp and lantern. I decided to go back to camp, eat more of the same junk food for dinner and then get situated for bed before darkness set in.

With the short days of fall, I had a long, lonely night ahead.  I turned in early and decided to trust the walls of my tent to protect me against any cougars, bears, or psycho deer or elk that might want to harass a lone Asian. Sleeping on a cot is nicer than sleeping on the ground,  but it is still not the same as my bed at home.  I tossed and turned,  periodically woke up and checked my watch.  All the while I kept thinking it felt cold for being in the 40s.  I also noted weird noises being made by critters outside during the night, but I tried not to think too much of what was causing them.  Hopefully, the racket was being made by harmless birds or overactive trolls, rather than some apex predator plotting my demise.

Morning came and I found that I didn't feel as rested as expected,  probably due to the cold and freaky noises I tried not to think too much about.  When I rolled out of the tent, I realized why the night seemed cold for being forecast to be in the 40s.  My waders were frozen solid as they were perched from the roof rack of the Geo and the Geo's windows were frosted over.

Since there was no point in rushing to the river under the frozen conditions, I leisurely broke camp and ate more junk food for breakfast.  In the meantime, I pried my waders off the roof rack and let them thaw while I blasted the Geo's heater on them.

When my Simms G3s thawed enough to be manipulated without breaking into pieces, I got suited up and realized that I forgot my winter gloves and cap at home as well.   Obviously, I have not gotten fully into the cold weather fishing drill after months of tropical fishing conditions.

I did my best to stay warm with all the layers that I brought,  along with my hoodie and rain shell as a windbreaker. My first steps across a little side channel allowed my boot laces and gravel guards to fully thaw out so I was able to fully synch myself together as I walked to my campwater run.

This run is classically configured,  with a nice head and broadening seam.  I felt like a steelhead could be holding anywhere from the very top, down to where the current began to tank.  I got into an easy rhythm as the quiet morning allowed smooth cack handed single speys with my lightweight Cabelas 10'6" 5wt switch and my newest favorite 3 5/8 Hardy Perfect.  The 330grain Rage head flew out with tight loops as it pulled out 10 strips of 25lb slickshooter with a satisfying jerk at the reel arbor at the end my better casts.

By the time I reached the bottom of the run,  I realized that no steelhead interrupted the bliss I was experiencing as I exercised my favorite equipment and latest version of my foam waker.  I pulled out my thermometer to take a water temperature reading, as if that would explain my ineffectual effort.   The thermo read 51 degrees, after the freezing night, not surprisingly, down from yesterday afternoon's 57 degrees.  Of course 51 degrees is still ideal for surface steelhead activity so maybe no steelhead were in the run or they weren't awake yet.

I arrived on the second run which is one where I have encountered surface steelhead in the past.  I started in the faster water leading into the head of the run so my swings would be covering the uppermost corner or "armpit" of the run.

As I began to get past the armpit and into the upper seam of the run, I remember feeling discouraged and thinking I would probably be chalking up another empty roadtrip to my season record.  I then prayed for a steelhead rise to my green butt yellow stimuwaker.  As I contemplated feeling guilty in praying for something I wanted as a selfish indulgence rather praying for something of noble need, I noticed a surface disturbance in the periphery of my daydreaming gaze.  Before I fully realized what happened,  the steelhead made another lunge at my fly as it swung through the seam along the main current.

My selfish prayer was promptly answered, proving that sometimes God even answers prayers of the self-absorbed!  I stayed calm and allowed my fly to settle into the soft water near the bank at the end of it's swing.  I made the same cast and the steelhead came back with a playful rise, clearly short of the fly.  I made another cast with no results.

I worried about the possibility of not bringing this steelhead back to the surface so I decided to take my time in tying on a different fly for a comeback presentation.   My new friend Adam Snyder had just gifted me with some Lambroughton style wakers so I tied one on with a Garoutte hitch.   I made the cast and watched for the fly on the swing. I could not spot the fly and realized it was being pulled under the surface.  When the swing was completed,  I stripped the fly in and applied some paste floatant to it.  On the next cast the moose haired waker was still being pulled under so a change was in order.

A size 10 purple and black wang was knotted on for the next comeback attempt. The little fly was quickly spotted when it splashed down in the main flow.  As the tiny waker came through it's swing into the near seam, a head appeared making a "slurpee" kind of rise, missing the fly.  The subsequent cast brought a similar rise and miss of the fly.  The cast after that brought no response.

By now, my system is in overload with excitement while also dealing with the anxiety of whether I would get this steelhead on the hook or be given the cold shoulder after being strung along for this cruel, crazy ride.

Next on the docket was a size 10 Royal Green wang that I normally use for trout skating.   I tried shortening up, in case my steelhead moved into the armpit of the run after all the commotion I was causing.   Nothing happened until I was back to casting with 8 strips of running line behind the Rage head.  The steelhead came back to the surface in the same place and nosed at the trout sized offering,  again missing the fly.  The repeat cast brought a boil behind the fly along the inside edge of the seam.  The next two presentations drew blanks and I feared that my window of opportunity was closing.

I remained hopeful and the only thing I could think of doing at that point was to tie on the original fly that drew that steelhead to the surface to begin with. The green butt yellow stimuwaker (GBYS) went back on the line along with another selfish prayer. The fly landed on the far side of the main flow and came across broadside as I gently twitched it along during it's swing.

As the bright posted circus on a hook came into the danger zone it was aggressively intercepted by a "big gulp".  I  soon felt tension on the line and I responded with a smooth lift of my rod.  The steelhead took off on a run then made a short jump and thrashed on the surface.   A few more runs followed and my little Perfect did its job of recovering line and slowing the steelhead down as I applied pressure to the spool face.

I eventually brought the modestly sized wild hen near the bank as I tailed it in the shallow water.  I was filled with joy and gratitude as I gazed down at the answer to my selfish prayers and exclaimed to myself  - God is good!
This player made for my first victory on the road for 2018.  Todd Hirano photo
After I got a few photos of my hard earned prize, she swam off with vigor, having had enough of my harassment.   I reflected in amazement of the thrill that this steelhead provided through coming back with 7 rises through 4 fly changes and finally eating the fly she originally rose to.

I love every surface steelhead encounter I am blessed to experience,  but those players that keep coming back through multiple fly changes until getting hooked are among the most memorable. The suspense that builds as one strategizes through the excitement of getting a series of comeback rises make my connections with players the highlights of my dry fly steelhead seasons.
Evidence of the comeback routine. Todd Hirano photo

Green Butt Yellow Stimuwaker opens and closes the deal.  Todd Hirano photo

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