Journal notes from quality destinations across the country...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Winter Break

I'm officially in the winter months of my season and this is the time I traditionally take off each year to rest and contemplate. It's also when I get around to working on the journal I publish for friends and family each year. It's been such a busy year that I wasn't sure I would get it done. And while I probably won't finish before Christmas, I will get copies out to everyone as soon as I can find the time. The cover art is done (see the photo) and I think its shaping up nicely.

I'm not the only one who preaches that what a good fisherman needs is a good three months off each year. There's just something to be said for having a beginning and an end to each season. For myself, it just adds to the celebration of the sport. After all, any good tech-head worth his weight knows that puttering with the gear bag in preparation for the first trip of the year is almost an event in itself. I relish the anticipation of that first trip and I enjoy the melancholy of the last day of the last trip of the year. Life is all about cycles and this just fits...

Truth be told, I also need the downtime for tying more flies. I can never keep enough Stimulators, Sealbuggers, and Water Boatmen in the fly box. There's also a certain white and chartreuse minnow pattern the Smallies slobber after... I've never been a fast fly producer so having the quiet months to focus on refilling stock is a real plus.

However you spend the winter, whether its ice in the glass in front of the TV or ice in the guides in front of a cold Steelhead hole, I hope you find the time to look back on what was another great year of fishing. I am grateful to all the friends and family who accompanied me and I look forward to the new season after I come out of hibernation...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Oregon in October

We were up at 5:30 am to meet my cousin, Alex, who would act as our guide. We launched his drift boat around 6:30 at a dark and empty boat launch on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. It was a cold 36 degrees but at least it wasn't raining. Terry, my fifteen year-old, sat and watched the boat while we ferried Alex’ truck and trailer down to the take-out. An exciting day got off to an early start when we got back and heard Terry’s story.

“While you were gone, a cougar came down to the water across the river from me. He was making lots of hissing sounds and hunting a black housecat that hid in the rocks. I was trying to decide if cougars ever swim across rivers and whether I should be worried when it ran off...”

Leave it to Terry to have an animal encounter.

“Did it catch the cat?”

“No, that’s the funny thing. The little cat snuck out the back door when the cougar wasn’t looking.”

After meeting face to face with a bull Moose (twice) in Idaho in August this year, Terry decided he might be the victim of bad outdoor luck. After all, he and I were the ones actually charged by a Moose in Yellowstone six years ago.

Now he’d had a near encounter with a cougar. These things make for great stories as long as you’re around to tell them later...

I expressed amazement and quizzed him all about it as we shoved off. Light was in the sky now and we fished yarn puffballs on heavily weighted lines. I had tied up a couple dozen glo-bugs, or egg flies as I call them, and rigged two together with a Utah bounce rig used for nymphing with a couple large weights at the end of the line. Casting out ten to fifteen feet, I let the weights go to the bottom and tick along the gravel while I waited for that moment when something might stop my line.

Alex had a heater set up in the front of the boat for us lilies from Seattle. I didn’t mind a bit. Everyone could call me whatever they wanted to. I was warm on a day that was very close to freezing. I was wearing a couple jackets, ear muffs, and gloves and the heater topped it all off, keeping me pretty warm, relatively speaking. At one point between holes I turned to Alex.

“Terry’s hot. Do you mind turning off the heater?”

Alex was chuckling.

“Sure, give me a minute to turn off the propane tank.”

Terry wasn’t going to give him the chance.

“No!” he said quickly and firmly. “Leave it alone. I’m just fine.”

It had been a couple years since I'd come to Oregon for the Steelhead so it took me a while to get the hang of ticking those weights along the bottom and, in fact, it was more than two hours before I really got the technique down properly. During that time I’d snagged and broke off multiple sets of flies and at one point was beginning to feel like I would spend my entire day tying flies on my leader instead of fishing. I complained to Alex.

“You know, when we launch tomorrow I think I’ll just pull two flies out of my fly box and throw them in the river to get it over with.”

Alex was laughing at me.

“Do you think two will be enough?”


The Rogue River is one of those mythic rivers, made famous by people like the author, Zane Grey, who fell so hard for this fishery that he moved here and bought a house on the river in 1926. The Rogue is known for Salmon and Steelhead. Alex has boated 50-pound Salmon here but this trip would be about the smaller Steelhead, known locally as "half-pounders." Since my family is from this area, it is tradition to fish for the half-pounders in the Fall. These are obviously not the biggest Steelhead you can target but they are special. The smolts, like most Steelhead, move out to the ocean in the Spring when they are about seven inches long. But what is different about half-pounders is that they don’t wait the typical two or three years before returning. They are back that same Fall and average 12-16 inches in length. These fish are not sexually mature and may stay in the river, feeding like trout, for the next year before returning to the salt. Others will head down in the Spring and come back again the next Fall. The river generally holds fish from different stages, ranging in size from half a pound up to the low teens.

On this trip my best moment came on the Pump Hole. My line was pointed directly down over the side of the boat as we drifted over ten or twelve feet of water. I could tell by the steady tick-tick of my weights that the bottom was covered with small gravel, the favored lie of all half-pounders. When my line hung up I lifted and immediately felt the fish on the other end. I stood up in the boat and began stripping to tighten the line against the fish. For his part, the Steehlead came up off the bottom and when he came within sight, maybe five feet below the surface, he began throwing his head back and forth in an attempt to dislodge the fly. Then we watched as he did a series of barrel-rolls. This big guy was giving me a rodeo ride.

I was able to get him next to the boat a couple times but he ripped off line each time the net came too close. Eventually I got him tired enough to plane alongside and Alex slipped the net under him.

I was excited and asked Terry to grab the boga grip while I slipped the hook out of his mouth. Alex held up my rod to get a measurement and then I weighed him. He was 28-inches long and almost 8 pounds. Wow. That’s a nice fish for the Rogue. Half-pounders can go into the teens but most are on the low end of the scale and four pounds was the biggest I’d caught in previous years. This was a record buster for me. What a great place.

Washington in July

My seventeen year-old son, Tommy, was a busy guy during the summer. With his first job and his first car to keep him occupied, it was hard to hook up with him for fishing trips. I got him for a couple days in the Spring on Banks Lake but otherwise we hadn’t done a whole lot together. So when we both had a day off in July, we agreed it was a good opportunity to go fishing, just the two of us, somewhere near home where we could fish for a few hours and still make it home by dinner.

I thought about it and told him I’d take him where I learned to fly fish, the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River near North Bend, Washington. This little stream hasn’t held a decent sized fish in a very long time but it never matters. I love every stretch of it and since the Cascade Mountains will always be my home, I am “returning” when I go there, not visiting.

So, armed with the understanding that four to eight inch fish would be a victory, we headed off. I parked the Tahoe at a turn-out on a dirt road that runs parallel to part of the river and we walked off through the woods to find the stream. Tom was wearing shorts, wading boots, my old fly vest, and the cowboy hat he brought back from his trip to Cambodia the previous summer.

I told him he looked like a throw-back to an earlier time. In fact, he is. He prefers fly vests, leather fly wallets, mountain streams, and dry flies. A William & Joseph fanny pack replaced my fly vest years ago and I’ve been distracted by any new product or destination that offers any hope of big fish—compromise in aesthetics, no problem. Tom is a traditionalist in every sense of the word and, hence, a reminder of my old self and a source of pride to a father who sees the old ways being upheld.

As I stood ankle deep in a riffle, the warm sun made me squint slightly. Tom was making a twenty foot cast to the edge of a current seam along the far bank of the stream. A monster four-inch Rainbow took his Caddis pattern and did its best to put a bend in his 5-weight rod. Tom pulled him in and slipped the hook to let the little guy escape, turning to look upstream to the next lie.

He didn’t know it but he’d just landed a fish on the first hole in which I ever dipped a fly line. The years melted and the scene blurred as I thought I saw myself, young and fit, wading upstream to find the next trout…

Idaho in August

With my left hand gripped tightly on the wheel and a cold diet coke in the other, I was concentrating on the dirt road and driving my Tahoe along the twisting route that runs through the narrow valleys of the north fork drainage. I was doing 30-plus miles an hour and kicking up a lot of dust, hoping to make it away from the creeks that feed the Clearwater River in Idaho and out to civilization in Montana before I got too tired to drive. It would be a four hour haul to the home of my wife’s parents back in Washington where we would spend the night.

Daren, a high school friend of my brother Mark, was in the passenger’s seat and my fifteen year old, Terry, was in the back. Daren had bummed a ride with us as we drove to Idaho to meet up with Mark who was out from Michigan for some trout fishing. We spent the weekend chasing wild Cutthroat Trout on small mountain streams in the Bitterroot Mountains and were now headed back home.

I adjusted myself uncomfortably in my seat and continued my conversation with Daren.

“Look, I didn’t want to admit this to anyone but I've been trying for a couple years to erase the memory of an embarrassing moment here...”

Daren had wet clothes and was sitting on a towel, listening without comment.

“I had climbed up on a giant boulder to fish the Big Rock Hole on Moose Creek and was doing fine until it came time to get down. I was only a foot or two from the ground when my foot slipped and I dropped off the rock. I hit, lost my balance, and fell over backwards into the creek.”

Daren smiled and I continued.

“I was soaked and had sand in every possible crack of clothing. My fishing partner, Duane, came to see what the noise was all about and got a real chuckle seeing me soaked clean through. Now, a guy can do that once and life is okay. But if you do it twice then you start to develop a reputation and I can’t afford that. I’m getting older but I’m not old and the last thing I need is wiseguys like the young one in the back seat here making cracks about me losing the battle with time and gravity. Know what I mean?”

Terry laughed quietly from the back seat and Daren nodded his head.

“I told myself I could get past that if I was careful and made sure not to slip in the river again. I haven’t done myself any favors here. And it hurts pretty good right now…”

Less than an hour earlier, Daren and I had agreed it was time to hit the road and begin the long trek back home. As usually occurs, there was the typical “just one more hole” agreement and Daren had commented that he really wanted to find a nice fish before we quit.

I took him to a favorite hole on Moose Creek where I could be fairly sure to get Daren into a nice Cutthroat. We grabbed our rods and started down the steep bank. It was a ten foot drop from the road to the creek and excitement at fishing the last hole possibly interfered with my close attention to the path. It was dry, loose sand and the felt soles of my wet wading boots quickly caked over. With no warning, both feet went out from under me.

I didn’t fall over. I didn’t tumble down the hill. I didn’t break my rod against a tree. I simply sat down. Hard.

It wouldn’t have been a big deal if it wasn’t for a sharp rock that protruded from the bank. I somehow managed to sit down directly on top of it. And I hit tailbone first.

I couldn’t breath or speak and simply dropped my rod, laying over sideways on the hill to get off the rock. Daren looked back and began repeatedly asking if I was okay. I couldn’t answer for a moment or two.

My wife broke her tailbone a number of years ago in what we now describe as “the tragic roller skating accident” and I immediately thought I might have joined her small club. But, in the end, it wasn’t that bad. I was bleeding but I was okay. And being the die-hard fisherman, I told Daren to continue on to the creek while I followed him like a guy in a Marx Brothers’ movie, holding my dusty fly rod in one hand and my right cheek in the other.

Daren made a few false casts and drifted a dry fly through the small hole. Two or three tries later, a fish splashed and was soon brought to hand. It was a pretty Cutthroat, around ten inches. Casting again, he found the magic seam and we both saw a nice trout take his fly. He immediately knew that this was the bigger fish he’d hoped for and aggressively raised his arm to put tension on the line. The move wasn’t quite enough and, instinctively, he stepped back to give it more tension and buy himself the time it would take to swing his off-hand up to strip in more line. But that one step cost him.

His right foot went back and slipped off a medium-sized boulder in the creek. He immediately lost his balance and fell over backwards, like a tree, into eight inches of water along the edge of the hole. As quick as he went down, he sat up and regained his feet, finding that his luck was consistent—he wasn’t hurt and he still had the trout on the end of his line. Within a couple minutes he was holding a fat 13-inch Cutthroat and smiling.

“That’s exactly what I was hoping for before we quit.”

As the fish swam away, he turned and looked at me. He was pretty wet and I was still holding my rear end. The jokes started in earnest at that point and they continued in the car on the drive out.

“Look at it this way,” Daren said. “If you don’t tell anyone, I won’t tell anyone.”

“You don’t understand,” I continued. “I can’t be that guy with the reputation for falling all the time. That’s just not who I want to be.”

“Want to be... what you are... whatever…” said the mischievous voice from the back seat.