Once Upon an October Day

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Once Upon an October Day

by Mark Bachmann  
First published in Trout Magazine, Autumn 1986


 A story about discovery.

The 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.

Moss-covered 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.

Each streambed boulder was greasy slick.  Of these there were many.  The river wound through terrain structured by the violence of volcanoes.  Untidy 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.

Wading 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?

There were no steelhead in sight.

 The 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 up*, 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.  

I 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.  

The 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.

The 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.

My 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.

The 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.

Cast 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 leap.

Again 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 bank. 

Downstream, 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.

The 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.

Wading 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 something new.  

  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 deliberately.

This 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.  

I 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.  

The 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 each other.  

Why 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?  

I 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.


* I have since quit smoking cigarettes and have not touched one since 01/08/98.  Back to place.

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