Once Upon an October Day
story about discovery.
cold mist fell from the close blanket of leaden clouds,
cleansing and nourishing each plant and tree.
Every leaf and stem glistened with droplets of moisture.
Wreaths of white fog silently grew in ever-changing shapes from
the vegetation of the canyon floor.
They hovered between the dark hemlocked ridges and ascended
from the yellow maples to the darker sky.
The water cycle was so evident, water coming down, water rising
up, water coursing around my legs as it hurried to the sea-to become
clouds, to return to the mountains, to bathe the earth.
and old, a huge broadleaf maple spread its gnarled limbs over the
river where the rapids lost their momentum in the soft cushion of the
pool. The canopy of
bright yellow leaves gave the river an amber hue.
The water that collected on the big leaves became rivers in
miniature and coursed down the veins to form liquid diamonds that fell
to the surface of the pool with a steady plop, plop.
The leaves of this and other trees littered the canyon floor
and collected in the quiet pools along the margins of the river.
Here they mixed their essence with the clear, cold water.
Slowly they turned from yellow to rust to dark brown.
Each pool was a kaleidoscope in earth tones.
The invisible flow of nutrients from these many pools had
triggered the last algae bloom of the year.
There had been no winter flows to scrub it free.
streambed boulder was greasy slick.
Of these there were many.
The river wound through terrain structured by the violence of
pyroclastic flows had left the area buried in layers of sand and globs
of hot basalt that covered earlier layers of solidified lava.
The perimeter of the pool dominated by the huge maple had at
one time been molten lava. Now
it was a ledge of hard brown basalt.
The throat of the rapids was built from the larger remnants of
the great flows of later periods.
As the water slowed in the pool, the rock in the bottom became
smaller and smaller until the bed of the deepest part of the pool and
tail-out was formed of the size that steelhead like to spawn in.
That wouldn’t be for a couple of months, after the most
violent of winter storms had come and gone.
Nowhere in the pool was sand allowed to collect, because the
current was too swift.
was slow and treacherous, impossible without a staff.
I stepped on top of a larger than average boulder to gain
elevation, scanning with my Polaroids, straining to search water
already fished. Were they
there, those gray ghosts among the tan boulders?
were no steelhead in sight.
mist stopped for a moment. I
slid back the hood of my Gortex wading jacket, fumbled in the breast
pocket of my wood shirt for a cigarette and matches, lit
and surveyed the water downstream.
It seemed almost too slow and flat to hold fish.
It was late October. The
crowds of folks from town were gone, leaving the river to those who
lived along its banks. How
relaxing--not another person in sight.
shot the floating line and dropped the big black and green fly close
to the brown ledge. My
10-foot graphite rod easily swung the belly of the double taper
upstream, and I followed the fly with the tiptop.
The line was freshly dressed and rode the undulating surface
tension in perfect harmony. The
cast was made to place the fly’s speed of travel in contrast with
the speed of the current. It
hung barely submerged in the fast water and slowly arched across the
river until the bend in the line reversed itself and pulled the fly
into the slowest part of the pool directly below me.
take was almost nonchalant.
At first, it was a gentle straightening of the slack in the
line. Then the tension
increased to bend the rod down to the handle as the fish took the fly
from the rear and lazily turned back to its lie.
My adrenalin surged. I
swung the rod toward the bank behind me in a horizontal motion and
struck, driving the barbless hook into the hinge of the fish’s
mouth. There was a shower
of spray as the wide tail broke the surface.
The first run took all of the fly line and some of the white
braided backing as I floundered toward shore.
fish stopped just short of the rapids below the pool and shook its
head as I slung my wading staff over my left shoulder.
Steady pressure from the big rod worked the fish back to the
center of the pool. The
battle was strong and lengthy but not showy, and after a while the
fish was slid on its side into a shallow pool between some boulders
where I photographed her against a background of submerged dead
leaves. The steelhead was
a female of about seven pounds. One
ventral fin was missing, displaying her pedigree as hatchery origin.
She was lean and her flanks rose-colored from a long stay in
freshwater. The thick red
filaments showed through a triangular notch in her right gill plate,
evidence of a previous injury. Yet
she was still healthy and very capable of spawning.
The hook came easily from her mouth.
I grasped her by the tail, slid her into the river, revived
her, and watched her melt into the depths as she made her way back
across the pool.
bedraggled fly was placed in the hook keeper.
I watched the wreaths of fog that hung in the wide canyon.
The air was suddenly fresher, the firs and hemlocks greener,
the river less a mystery. I
stood watching the pool for a long time and finally waded to the
deeper water at center to peer into the channel by the brown ledge.
Several long gray shapes hung suspended in the flow.
I backed quietly from the pool and left them in peace.
It was enough to know they were there.
trail from the river was steep. It
led me under dripping cedar boughs, skirted a tangle of vine maple,
then through a carpet of shamrocks and brought me to a narrow bridge,
which I crossed. I hiked
upstream and ran into an old friend busily tending his yard.
We chatted about fishing, and he told me about his 14-year-old
son’s first steelhead. I
continued hiking upstream for another quarter of a mile to a long flat
pool with a very fast deep slot at the head.
There were several steelhead holding under some long, trailing
vine maple branches on the opposite side of the fast water.
They were effectively screened from any possible presentation
of the fly. After a dozen
casts, my fly hung in one of the branches and was broken off.
I gave up on those fish and worked my way down the pool in
search of others.
after cast, the fly was thrown to the opposite bank, the line mended
upstream with enough slack to drift with the speed of the current and,
as the line tightened at the end of the swing,
it was mended toward
the near bank. The fly
would then change direction and speed up slightly as it swam through
the calm water directly below me.
I had carefully covered about 50 yards of premium-looking water
and was beginning to think that my first fish was all this day had to
offer. My mind started to
drift away from fishing to business, to family, to...there was a long
wrenching pull as a heavy fish turned and caught the fly just as it
changed direction into the slack water.
I had been casting mechanically with the line pinched tightly
to the cork of my rod handle. Ten
feet of line left the reel with enough force to turn my skin red-hot.
The fish was as surprised as me.
The reaction was instantaneous and brutal as 12 to 14 pounds of
bright steelhead erupted through the surface in a great cart-wheeling
and again the big steelhead came out of the water and tore the placid
surface apart in towering plumes of spray.
It raced downstream with incredible speed against the tightly
set drag and bent the heavy rod to the handle.
I placed the short extension butt against my belly and slid my
hand onto the bare blank for more leverage.
The hook keeper dug into my ring finger, and the spinning
handle barked my knuckles as I tried to palm the reel.
The bright red 50-yard mark on my backing shot through the
guides and hung suspended over the water in front of me.
The fish stopped briefly at the tail of the pool and then
turned and bolted back toward me.
I cranked the reel frantically to take in the slack, but was
barely able to regain line fast enough to maintain tension.
The fish stalled an sulked half a line length below me.
I put more pressure on the line, daring not to let the fish
rest and regain the energy it had just lost.
Suddenly there were flashes and boils as the fish reacted to
the increased pressure, rolling end over end beneath the surface.
It shook its head violently.
There was a grating sensation as the fly tore from the flesh.
The line went slack. The
surface of the pool was quiet again.
The falling mist absorbed the music of the river.
All was calm. I
stood in the margin of the pool, its clear water flowing around my
knees, surrounded by the deep greens and autumn yellows and gray mist.
My bright yellow fly line hung slack and trailed in the gentle
flow. I stood motionless
as a heron, but inside my body was electric, my mind racing trying to
comprehend such violence in such a serene setting.
I reeled in the line, checked the leader and fly and waded to
the river divided into three channels around two islands.
At the head of the far channel was a holding spot next to some
overhanging salmonberry bushes and alder trees.
It was a small pool, no more than 20 feet wide and 40 feet
long. On the fourth cast
there was a gentle take, again just after the fly had changed
direction. I waited until
I felt the full weight of the fish, swung the rod downstream and drove
the hook home. An average
size red-colored male steelhead rolled and flopped on the surface a
couple of times before it tore out of the tiny pool downstream into
the rapids. The rapids
were steep and narrow with tightly spaced tall-standing waves.
They ended in a very deep round pool with a truck-size,
pillar-shaped boulder protruding from the center.
The pool was in the elbow of a right-angle bend.
The island I was standing on was thickly covered with head-high
willow, and a huge log jam filled the downstream end.
The fish went through the entire length of the rapid end over
end. It happened so
quickly that I was left
standing on one end of the island while the fish was already to the
other. My fly line and
backing were strung through the willows and disappeared around the log
jam. I slipped repeatedly
on the huge slick boulders and fought my way through the willows,
tripping twice on my wading staff.
I slung it over my shoulder, trying to get things in control.
fish was still taking line somewhere around the bend.
I stopped crashing through the brush momentarily and hauled
back on the rod, straining the leader almost to the breaking point.
The fish stopped; I was able to reel my way down to it.
As I approached the clear pool, I could see only the fish’s
tail working as it tried to swim around the back side of the huge
boulder. I waded below it
and steered it back to my side of the river, where it fought long and
doggedly. Every time I
pressured the fish to within five feet of the gravel at my feet, it
would take 20 feet of line. For
five minutes we seesawed back and forth, the
fish constantly in view. Finally
exhausted, it was beached. The
eight-pound male was still fat and fresh, but early maturing with deep
crimson flanks and gill covers. The
fly was firmly embedded in its hooked lower jaw.
I removed the fly and eased the fish into the current.
It wrenched free of my grasp and steamed off into the deep
water in a final show of defiance.
I rested briefly on the island, watching a pine squirrel busily storing cones for the winter. Below the pool, patches of gravel had been swept clean by spawning Chinook salmon. A huge carcass lay half-in, half-out of the water, its mission accomplished.
downstream, I methodically worked the whole river for several hundred
yards without a touch. I
had hooked three steelhead in less than two hours of fishing.
There was consistency in the water type each fish had been
holding in. There had
also been distinct similarities in the way the fly had been working
when each strike came. These
were not the first steelhead I had taken with the greased line in my
almost 20 years of fly fishing for them, but one thing
was different. The
water was very cold. I
paused for a few minutes and read the water with my dial
thermometer-the temperature was
41 1/2 degrees. I had
never taken steelhead near the surface in water anywhere near that
cold. Nor had I imagined
it could be done. It was
My curiosity thoroughly aroused, I
fished down the river, searching for a patch of water with that
special kind of look, where the currents converged at just the right
speed over the right depth. It
took several minutes to find exactly the patch of water that I was
looking for. When I found
it, the fly line, not the surface of the water, brought it to my
attention. I had cast and
mended in my usual fashion to the opposite bank across what appeared
to be a stretch of water that was too fast and broken.
The line bent around out of the fast current and hung the fly
momentarily in an unnoticed calm spot in the very center of the river
before the faster current under my rod pulled the slack and the fly
changed direction. The
fly reached that magic speed as it coasted through the slick.
I knew the strike was coming before I ever felt the fish. There
was a solid thud as the fish took the fly very
steelhead was fresh from the ocean, bright.
I could see the flashes of its cold white belly as it turned
and twisted beneath the surface of the pure water.
It shattered the ceiling of its liquid world and revealed this
same belly to be round and firm, not slightly concave as the summer
fish. It was my first
winter steelhead of the season. It
was hard and mean with a body freshly tended by the seas.
Its lower fins were glassy with only the leading edges milky
white. The demarcation
line on this fish’s flank was straight and razor sharp.
Below it, the fish was silver and white; above it, silver and
gunmetal gray. The
struggle was hard and vicious but over quickly, and my backing never
left the reel. The fish
had probably been swimming continually upstream against the hard
current since she had left the sea four days ago.
A head-long race to the mountains had momentarily drained her
strength. It was now 150
miles from the salt. “Nickel
bright” is what the local folks call them.
A native wild fish, she weighed about six pounds.
Each fin was long and finely wrought with sharp delicate edges.
Each bone tapered gracefully as it arched across the
translucent membrane. Every
scale held a silver crescent made from the finest diamonds.
At the base of the tail, the rays fanned out in a starburst of
polished sterling. The
golden eye swiveled in its dark, gelatinous gunmetal socket.
The inside of the mouth was the starkest white--as though
carved from milk glass. The
teeth were tiny and curved back in flawless rows on its tongue and gum
line. She was perfectly
designed to efficiently run down and capture her prey in the open
ocean. She was still a
creature of the sea.
cradled her gently in the shallows and photographed this beautiful
metallic fish suspended in the clear cold water over the finely porous
basalt gravel. She
revived slowly. I held
her for 15 minutes until she fully recovered.
My bare hands numbed in the frigid water.
Finally, she surged into the current and hugged the bottom as
she sought the covering depth of midstream.
mist still fell. The sun
as low. The air
temperature was dropping. Evening
had come unnoticed during the heat of the battle.
A water ouzel lit on a moss-covered boulder under the drooping
hemlock branches on the opposite bank.
It stood teetering and cocked its head, surveying me with one
beady black eye. It dove
several times into a tiny pool and then fluttered off downstream
whence it came. I stood
in quiet contemplation, listening to the musical gurgle of the river.
I felt relaxed and alive, letting the magical essence of the
river penetrate my being and run through my soul.
I had come here only for entertainment, but had found so much
more. I had been offered
a window into the unknown. I
sat on a large wet boulder in the middle of the barren gravel bar and
stared at the place where the fish had taken the fly.
It was an obvious lie in the center of what appeared to be the
best migration route. It
was very small, just room enough for one fish.
How long had this fish rested there before I had come
downstream to meet it? What
was her pedigree-offspring of hatchery fish?
Or was hers a bloodline that ran untouched for a million
generations? There were
no answers. I only knew
that the river needed her as she needed the river-they were a part of
had she taken the fly? Nearly
everything that I had read told me that winter steelhead would never
rise to the surface to take a fly.
Many people feel that even summer steelhead don’t rise often
when the water temperature falls below 50 degrees.
Water temperatures in the low 40s are normally considered to
require sinking lines or even drift tackle.
I suddenly wondered if I had been missing out on some great
fishing for many years. I
looked at my watch. There
was enough time to fish one more piece of water before dark.
Below me the river ran through a short stretch of
boulder-filled rapids and then fanned out, forming a wide gentle
riffle. There would be
steelhead there. I had
caught many of them in the past using a sink tip line.
Would they rise to the surface if the fly was presented right?
hurriedly crossed the river and started casting at the head of the
riffle. It was a graceful
piece of water, nearly flat, with uniform flow from bank to bank.
It reached a depth of nearly six feet at center but the surface
was so smooth that it looked much shallower.
A few oil-drum-size boulders strategically placed in the flow
added to this illusion. Few
people fished this water. It
looked too shallow. Downstream,
I could see the bridge, ghostly in the mist.
Between myself and the bridge the river slowly turned lead
gray. I suddenly realized
that the mist was rising and the air had become cooler than the river.
The sky was clearing. It
would freeze tonight.
I cast quartering downstream, letting the river push on the belly of the line. This caused the fly to speed up slightly as it swept slowly an inch below the surface. I concentrated on duplicating the speed and travel of the fly the previous fish had taken. I found that if I presented the fly to exactly the right angle across the current, very little mending was necessary. With the bright-colored fly line, it was easy. The strike came almost immediately. I lowered my rod tip and allowed the fish to turn and hook himself. It was an eight-pound buck with silver sides and ruby gill plates. It, too, was a winter fish. It fought long and hard, was landed, admired and released.
I re-waded the river and reached my van just before dark. While storing my gear, I tried to analyze my afternoon. Never before had I been this successful on this difficult river with a floating line. I had hooked five steelhead in about three hours of fishing, a good day with any kind of gear--but with a floating line? It seemed impossible. Each fish had entered the river at a different time of the year, yet each had struck the same fly. A.H.E. Wood, in his book Greased Line Fishing for Salmon, had pointed out that it is the presentation rather than the fly pattern that matters most. I had read this book but had never fully understood. I thought back over the years to conversations with Bill McMillan and Bill Bakke and realized that they had been catching fish by this method 15 years ago.
Each fish had been a jewel unto itself. Each had taught me something and each had delightfully entertained me. Below the van the river slid noisily to the sea in the gathering darkness. Today she had coyly pulled back her veil and revealed a secret or two. She had flowed around me and washed a few of the anxieties of the civilized world from my mind. The river had been a jewel. The river is a jewel.
The Fly Fishing Shop, Welches, OR
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