November 19, 2013
Slipping in the back... quietly.
Of course your own life is your truest story and it blinds you unless it is heavily edited.
Jim Harrison, p.2, Off to the Side
I haven't really reconciled myself to the idea of being a writer, at least in the sense of assuming there would be at least a modicum of consistent output. Having said that, and though there is no real evidence to support a viable move in that direction as of yet, I nevertheless periodically run the idea up my personal flag pole, sit down and attempt to make sense out of the mosh of itinerant musings bouncing around in my head.
Maybe that's what derails me. Trying to connect all the dots.
It's been at least seven months since my last post, for those of you who are keeping score. That might seem like a long time, I guess, when thought of in the conventional, day-to-day, put a line through them on the calendar-style of timekeeping. For me, it's been a blur. Maybe that's what happens as we age, although I'm supposing that as if I had some experience with getting old; I'd be assuming then that I understand just exactly how my aging process works. But, in looking at where I am now in reference to total years spent, the gradual process of learning how to dial in on a certain facet of my life to the extent that all else becomes quite frivolous or encumbering might have something to do with the accelerated passing blur of larger and larger chunks of time, at the same time understanding that it is more than favorably offset by increasingly frequent periods of nothing less than total liberation. A more than equitable tradeoff, in my mind. Not that I've shirked my duties or obligations to others along my way, quite to the contrary. I've been johnny-on-the-spot wherever, whenever I've been needed, and I keep my yard clean and teeth brushed, but more and more there is less and less room in my shrinking cylinder for that which does not involve all things revolving around casting a fly onto moving water. I suppose I could've said just that and let it be, but since I believe there's more here than meets the eye, I've returned to my blog in what I hope will be more than another wordy exercise in a frustrating effort to sort out it all out. Maybe more for me than anyone else, I'm trying to make a semblance of sense out of my journey. Especially the last seven months. The period of enlightenment is really a time for discovery. Upon examination of my discoveries, I have now arrived at the next dissemination waypoint.
I think the last post had me out at Rocky Ford, remarking on the fact that I was just happy to be there blah blah. I was, and will be again, I'm sure. Big fish are big fish, they're fun to watch, to stalk, and fabulous to feel on the end of a good rod no matter what else you may conjure up to throw at me.
After the interminably long doldrum of spring it eventually came to be summer and the river. I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow of the fishing, save for the fact that it was the Spokane at it's beguiling best. Sometimes good, sometimes not-so-good, almost always a mystery. Flows were good enough by mid-June to begin the search in earnest and I was there regularly.
By mid-July I'd begun my two/days, totally submerged in the tunnel of my fishing routine. On the river before dawn. Fish until the sun shut them down (depended where I was), head home to clean lines, tie/conceptualize flies etc., and oh yeah maybe mow the lawn and eat something and by then it was time to figure out where to be fishing as darkness enveloped me. Fish until I couldn't lift my arm and then get home and start the process all over again with maybe a meal and some sleep in between. Exceptional days. Not so much in regard to numbers of fish brought to hand, but in the way I chose to spend them. It was during this period when that little voice in my head finally went silent.
I began to see time passing, and the way it did, from a different perspective. In allowing myself the freedom to pursue total immersion, it became easier to flow through all the congestion that attaches itself to real life. Time lost became less and less problematic; it will happen, often, and letting it get to me wasn't going to get it back. The best way to deal with it was to 'keep my eye on the ball'. Easy to say, harder to facilitate, until presented with an extended period of perfect conditions that seemed to reward me as long as I kept 'my eye on the ball'. And when I did, I granted myself the ability to see what, in all likelihood, I'd been seeking for a very long time without knowing what it was I was chasing.
The weather was nearly perfect, cooperating to the extent that I got a little superstitious and made a bit of a conscious effort not to take notice, without much success.
Several good flies evolved into being over the summer, and most of them have found a permanent spot in my box and therefore my future river strategy. A couple of them have become 'go-tos', fish catchers no matter where I use them. I should've taken pictures of each of them as they transformed from one to the next, but I say that every fall. When it's all said and done there will have been a lot of pictures.
I didn't fish with dries very often last summer, at least on the Spokane. On each occasion it was to fish rising to blue-winged olives. I resisted the temptation only so long before caving in, lengthening my leader and playing the game, but I was thrilled to finally hook several fish on a cripple concept I've been toying with for a few years. When it comes to BWOs on the Spokane, they will come off in prolific numbers for days at a time, but as the hatch progresses each day the window of opportunity shrinks until finally you must have the perfect fly on the water at the most opportune moment in the most advantageous drift or it'll all amount to little more than a multi-layered casting exercise. Time was when I would spend untold hours plying the waters with every imaginable artificial trying to figure out what would work. My quest fizzled when it dawned on me that the fish get extremely dialed in to what they want because the surface film is absolutely covered with them. Trying to discern which one is yours is difficult enough without factoring in how many real ones are in very close proximity to your fly.
But, when caddis were out and fish were willing to come to the surface, I swung soft hackles through and did quite well. The caddis more often than not coincided with the olive hatch and the fish were inexplicably not eager to show themselves for anything that was offered, natural or imitative. There were many days where the surface was absolutely covered with hatching BWOs and caddis and yet nowhere could I see even a single nose breaking the surface.
Along came August. The fishing was still good, as it always is, but the catching part slowed considerably. My rod of choice at this time had become my 5120. It allowed me to reach out some distance further than my 5100. In my way of thinking, probably flawed but making perfect sense to me at the time, getting the soft hackle to water that was beyond the limit of most casters would put the fly in front of fish that hadn't been hammered with this year's crop of flies.
And, for the most part the strategy worked quite well. But the flows kept receding, and soon enough it was back to favoring all the off stretches and little slots that most everyone else would pass by. Since it was no big deal if I came up empty through these areas, it was always a thrill to hook up, especially when the fish was a sizable beast that had probably taken up station there to keep a low profile. Usually it was one and done, and if there wasn't a take on the first or second swing, well, it was time to move on.
As August reached its midpoint, my son and I hit the road for Oregon and the Metolius River. I'd read about it for years, getting caught up in the mystique, and so when Aaron asked where we should go on our less than annual fishing trip this year, I hesitated not a second and spit out, "the Metolius River"...
And so off we went, and got our collective asses kicked.
For three days we fished our brains out, covering every inch of water that ran through the series of campgrounds upstream from Camp Sherman. Three or four miles of beautiful, fishy-looking, rather fast-moving water. Upon our arrival we were chagrinned to find that the lower section was still closed due to the fire situation which put an immediate crimp in our plans. Still, we hit the water each day with renewed determination, only to return to our Smiling River camp several hours later, tails between our legs. I felt bad for Aaron. I'd really built that place up. Despite the lack of catching, he really impressed me with his patient approach to the increasingly depressive atmosphere surrounding our stay. In fact, he basically out fished me while donning the mantle of the optimist. I spent a lot of time morosely going through the motions, but enjoyed watching my son fish. I've said it before and I'll say it again; for as much as he gets on the water, it's amazing what he's managed to figure out.
Having a new rod in his hands also helped. A few weeks prior to our trip I was pleasantly surprised to open an e-mail from him with pictures of his brand new Sage 486-4 XP and a new Ross reel lined with a Scientific Anglers GPX, all of which made his time on the water much more pleasing, and not only for him! It was easy to see that he was finally really in touch with his rod and line and enjoying the feeling that a good cast can bring.
Time after time I watched him from forty feet or so fearlessly drop his fly into thin bare spots between the bushes overhanging the bank and then cannily manage his drifts, secretly pulling for a strike. The guy can wade, too. The Metolius, a spring creek, is swift and cold, flowing over lava beds that are cracked, angled, and covered with a slippery combination of algae, grasses and moss. I got my myself into trouble several times unwittingly following along thinking I'd handle whatever he'd just waded through with as much ease as he did. It's frustrating to be reminded of my slowly diminishing abilities, but I took umbrage in the idea that this really wasn't about or for me. It struck me that I was watching him through the eyes of a teacher who has been surpassed by his student. There's a lot of pride involved in that realization. On our last full day he hooked up, drifting a heavy, soft hackled fly through a deep undercut that I'd tied for the Spokane. Alas, I was upstream plumbing the depths of a rare piece of slower water and missed his triumph. Chagrin, again.
On our way to the Metolius, we drove past first the Crooked River and then skirted close to the Deschutes. After our first two days had ended with zeroes, I'd suggested we take a little road trip. My idea was dismissed; surely we'd figure it out and get back on track.
Three weeks later on a Thursday, I packed up the Suburban, calibrated the Garmin and set out for the Deschutes on my own. I stepped through the doors of the Deschutes Angler in Maupin about 5 hours later. Good folks. No pretentiousness, just friendly talk and reliable information. By noon I'd set up at a great campsite about 7 miles upstream from town.
I fell in love with Maupin at first sight. If I ever decide that I need to get out of here, well, look for me there. And it's full of characters, folks who eat, sleep and breathe fishing, both for trout and steelhead. I'm sure that during the fishing season the town's population doubles. It'd be nice to see what's left when the snow flies, although something tells me that a lot of those characters are still there, sitting in the Oasis munching on outrageous cheeseburgers and telling lies.
Thursday night had been magical. After my initial foray earlier that afternoon, I'd returned to camp to heat up my dinner and was treated to the sight of several October Caddis fluttering along the bank through the bushes. As the shadows grew, so did the numbers of those big orange Caddis, using any and every bush that protruded out over the water as an anchor point. Thousands of them. Soon splashing fish were appearing all over the river, especially on my side! Big fish, and they were definitely after any thing big that got close to or was unlucky enough to be stuck in the surface film. I sat, mesmerized, watching many fish come clear out of the water as they chased their prey. Amazing! And it was all happening right in front of me! I grabbed for my waders, fumbling about almost hysterically trying to get rigged and on the water before the whole thing ended, which it didn't. The nearly full moon rising over the hills downstream allowed me to stay on the water until well after ten and I brought several nice rainbows and a couple of big browns to hand. What a dream sequence it was. Once I understood that my #10 October Caddis needed to be twitched occasionally as it drifted I was at once rewarded with aggressive takes and a couple of break-offs. To look downstream into the moonlight on the river and see hundreds of yards of splashing fish is a sight I will take with me forever.
I was up early Friday morning, having finally fallen into a few hours of sleep after the adrenalin rush of the previous night's glory, formulating a plan for the day at the picnic table, sipping coffee in the pre-dawn next to my tent right smack dab on the river. There was a space between the bushes on the bank of the river. I was absently staring into the water there when I caught sight of a large fish slowly pushing upstream in the trough running just off the bank. It had to be a steelhead. Plan formulated. I grabbed my 5120, a box of flies, donned my waders and gear, and headed downstream to a section of the river where yesterday I watched a couple of fishermen swinging flies with long rods.
By the time I'd made a fly choice and waded to a good starting point, it was almost sun-up. There should be a line underneath this section saying,"this is Steve's first attempt at steelhead while on his own", because that's what was running through my head as I stripped line for my first exploratory cast. The main flow here was pretty swift. The seam was well defined and about thirty feet out, so as the fly swung downstream to about eleven o'clock it would be pulled into much slower water. As the line edged toward the bank at the end of the swing I'd let it slowly go taut and begin a smooth, short strip retrieve. I noticed a pick-up truck emerge from the shadows a few hundred yards downstream, slowly moving up the horrid little gravel road that parallels the river, stopping every now and then to survey the river. On my third cast, I reached out a little more, mended a modest amount of line out behind the fly and settled in to watch my line as it bellied and began pulling the fly. I remember hearing the pickup slow and pull onto the soft gravel of a small turnout just above me. I heard a door shut, heard footsteps on the gravel and then, as the fly transitioned from the swift current through the seam there was a sudden staggering jolt on my rod immediately followed by the sight of a large fish hurling itself into the air in a spastic somersault, with my fly in the corner of its mouth. It was all I could do maintain a good hold on the rod while the fish turned, hastened for the swift water and then downstream, catapulting itself into the air time and time again punctuated by short but scary periods of savage head shakes. My Cheeky shed line at a ridiculous rate and I was reduced to little more than standing thigh deep simply trying to hold on as I watched the backing knot rip up through the guides and disappear into the river. A 5120 is a stout rod, for trout. A steelhead is something else, though, and as the fish got further and further downstream, I began to seriously doubt I'd see it again. So much energy! My thoughts bounced back and forth from sheer joy to dismay to panic. It felt like the fish was getting stronger as the battle went on, and I wondered aloud to no one but me what should I do next, knowing full well that the only thing I could do now was to chase him, and that meant a helter skelter run/stumble downstream over uneven lava rock and slippery shale. All I can say is that adrenalin is an amazing substance!
I'd moved down fifty, maybe sixty yards, alternately stopping or slowing to either test the fish's resolve (or my own) or to respool whatever line I might have regained. It was here that he turned, if only momentarily, but when he did he gradually began heading upstream in my direction. I got on the reel and quickly found that suddenly I couldn't keep up with his approach unless I either backed up or started stripping or both. And it seemed to me then that if I tried to horse him at all, he simply turned and took line back again, so it became a game of a few feet gained then some of that lost if I asserted myself too much. His streaky dashes had shortened considerably, but he still had enough left to demand my respect and attentiveness, especially when he went into those spasm-like head shakes.
It was about this time that I realized I had some company. A wader-clad gentleman stood on the bank, a huge pair of binoculars around his neck.
"That was a classic!", he exclaimed, "I saw him turn! What a take!"
It took what seemed like an eternity to get him out of the current into slower water where I could more effectively manage him. The fly was lodged securely in his left upper jaw which meant as he faced upstream he could resist being pulled toward me by simply maintaining his position in the current. Still, he persisted in sudden short-lived dashes for deeper water, and, as I slowly gained the upper hand, rolled incessantly when his energy flagged.
Finally, triumphantly, as I brought him past me for the fifth or sixth time I was able to firmly grasp his tail. He lay, exhausted on his side, my fly embedded in his jaw. It struck me that I was out of breath, and also that I'd had a witness!
For a wild Deschutes steelhead, he was of reasonable size, measuring about 27 inches. Still very fresh and bright. I worked the fly easily from his jaw and turned him upstream. My hands and legs were shaking. It wasn't long before I felt him regaining strength and after a couple of attempts to escape, I let go of his tail. He hovered there for a second or two, allowing me one last close look, and then, with a quick thrash of his tail, he was gone. I stood, turned toward shore, and took the extended hand of the gentleman who had been my witness.
"Well done", he said, as we shook hands. "I was coming up the road scouting and saw you were at the top of the run I fished through yesterday, so I pulled off to watch. What a show!"
And so we chatted for awhile. Straight away he wanted to see the fly, was surprised by its size, but impressed that I'd gotten, in his words,'the colors right'. Also, according to him, I was fishing with a fly that was about half as big as the articulated stuff he was swinging with his old 9140. When I extended my rod to him, he shook his head in disbelief.
"Now I see why the small fly. You obviously know what you're doing. Haven't seen you here before, do you fish the Deschutes a lot?" I told him no, this was my first time here, and this was the second steelhead I'd ever hooked and landed in my life. He grinned, shook his head, and told me I was breaking a very old rule. "Nobody hooks up here the first time. That's not supposed to happen. Not here."
After a few more minutes of back and forth, he looked at his watch, we shook hands again and he clambered back up the hill to his truck. After I heard his truck start and move off upstream, I cupped the fly in my hand and sat down for awhile. It seemed the right thing to do, because I'd just experienced a quintessential moment in my life, and I wanted to savor it for awhile.
The next day and a half were spent in search of a repeat of that morning's success. I didn't even get a bump. I made a lot of good casts onto water that looked every bit as sweet as the place where I'd hooked up. I tried every last one of the steelhead flies in my box. Nothing. It didn't matter. I'd broken through. And, I'd been allowed entrance into a world that until now I hadn't experienced. It is both humbling and addictive. One strike, one fish, and my journey is forever altered. I could never know that it would be so until it happened. And yet, maybe it was really just a matter of time. Maybe I was destined to finally understand what it is to feel the unmitigated strength of such a noble fish only after I'd somehow measured up against whatever standard the gods determine, I don't know. What I do know is that the years I spent swinging flies in search of trout had pointed the way to this day, to that fish, to that run, and to that place so far from my home water. And the best part of it all? I did it all myself.
I like to think that the cumulative effect of my years has allowed me to begin to realize what makes me tick. I think we all ascribe to that theory, although maybe some of us grow more adept at deciphering the codes along the way. And we're all blessed (or cursed) with any number of quirks, deficiencies and eccentricities (DNA gifts or independently acquired) that are going to either make or break you as your years unfold. Maybe not a big deal through a good chunk of your life, but at some point, the feeling that 'time's a wastin' begins to elbow it's way into conscious thought. If and when you finally break the code and understand, it's either "we blew it Billy" or "now is the time".
Fishing with flies has long been a much larger part of my life than I still yet realize. I'm getting closer to understanding all the ramifications of my involvement. I suppose there is no finite way to estimate the real impact it's had on my life beyond the fact that I still have a liver. But I'm getting further and further down the road; far enough now to know there's an end to all this and it's closer all the while I'm tying this, casting there or staring into my Garmin in search of another blue squiggle, and I begin to understand that what I've been given in return for my obsession will probably never be truly appreciated until I can't do it anymore. Only then will I fully understand. I think that's how it should be, how it should end. And, having said that, I can also finally clearly see that the best is surely yet to come.
All I need to do is to find the way. The journey doesn't really ever end!