The Virtue of Hard Water

by Mark Bachmann


The last fading warmth of the sun illuminated the top third of the shear face of the towering basalt cliff on the opposite shore. This same gigantic stone bulwark would keep the Deschutes in the shade until noon tomorrow morning. Now the shade from the lower canyon wall to the east made me rush through the dry grass to the smooth ledge studded tailout above camp. I had left Brad and Al in the camp riffle water where they had been moving Steelhead all afternoon. They didn't need my help or criticism.
My side of the river broke along a brush covered bank so steep that the rail road was literally over head. Part way down the run a huge red alder leaned out over the water, its lower limbs nearly touching the surface. I had rowed by this place dozens of times and it was always deserted. It looked like great holding water, but formidable to fish with a fly. My confidence had never equaled my curiosity...until this afternoon.
I stopped just down stream of the alder and surveyed the river from a high vantage point on an old deer trail twenty feet above the water. I decided that the water above the alder looked too tough for the time I had left before dark. I would start just below the tree. Then there was a huge splash as a Steelhead rolled upstream of the alder. A fish you have located is always the best option.
A short hike and climb down the steep grade brought me to the waters edge twenty feet upstream of the fish. A narrow submerged ledge gave me footing three feet off the bank. I stripped ten feet of bright floating fly line from the reel, checked the leader and the hook point on my size four Street Walker. Everything was in perfect order. A brisk roll cast shot the fly forty five degrees down stream across the current. The line and leader landed straight. The fly came under tension as it entered the water. I let the fly lead the rod tip. The fly swung with a very light touch and gentle action. It had moved two feet when there was a very positive pull that increased until it was moving line from the reel. I raised my hand and let the middle of the rod absorb the shock and drive the hook deep into solid bone. The silver fish writhed to the surface and exerted his power against the screaming drag until he had reached mid-river in front of me. The fight was ferocious but over quickly and the bright ten pound hatchery buck was tailed, revived and released. The barbless hook had been stuck through the edge of the upper pallet, like a nail in a hard wood plank, the point protruding from above the middle of the maxillary. I re-surveyed the water in front of me. I had been so focused on the placement of that fish and the strike had come so quickly I hadn't taken the time to read the water. The surface of the water was greasy slick but moving at a good speed clear across the river. In places the underwater ledges broke the surface with flat seamy boils. The nearest ledge was sixty feet in front of me above the alder. The stream side brush nearly touched my back and was higher than my head. Leaning out from my purchase on the narrow ledge I could expect no more than five feet of clearance for a back loop to form my roll cast.
Darkness was fast approaching and didn't give me much time to deliberate. I started with the same cast that took the fish. Then lengthened the line one three foot pull for the next cast. The fly slid down current as it was hanging under the alder below me. The strike came as I was lengthening the line for the forth cast. The fish took just as I was starting to lift the line for my upstream haul. It took the fly as it turned down stream and jerked the rod tip a foot under water as it erupted through surface. The shock was too much for the ten pound tippet and the Street Walker probably decorated that eight pounder's jaw for most of the evening. The encounter left me in the vacuum that follows a peak surge of adrenaline.
The whole tippet was gone. The leader had parted at the blood knot. I fumbled for my tippet dispenser and unrolled two feet of hard Maxima, figuring that a short stiff tippet would turn over better in the failing light. The fish had taken my last Street Walker and I replaced it with a size two low water Undertaker. The sleek dark pattern had proven itself many times in the fading light. The same water was covered in the same manner as before but, as I extended the cast to longer range I found out that I had to make repeated small upstream mends to maintain the proper fly speed as it came across on a slow arc. The next strike came fifteen feet straight out beyond the alder. It was a gentle pluck and still pumped up from the encounter with the fish that took my fly, I over-reacted and the hook instantly came free.
Four casts later and the fly was nearly to the ledge. The line tightened gently and I dropped the rod tip. There was a perceptible pause and the line came tight with a thud. A beautiful six pound wild hen was beached after a long intense battle that I thought would leave all other residents of the area in total shock. The twilight lingered. I could see Brad standing on the low grassy point above camp. His left handed stroke barely discernible at the distance.
"Should I go and bring him here to join the fun", I wondered? He was too far away for the light remaining", I reasoned. A Night Hawk zig zagged across the river between us. " No, I would keep this little Steelhead Eden for myself tonight and bring him here in the morning."
The soft evening air was laden with the pungent sweet aroma of the sage covered desert. Again I surveyed my private piscatorial oasis.
Intermittent turbulence betrayed a possible jog in the side of the ledge facing me; a perfect cove for a Steelhead to shelter in. It was a long cast from my position and was situated almost straight across from me with no chance to swing the fly through it. I would have to cast to the top of the cove and then make a long reach mend to hold the fly in the sweet spot for as long as possible. It took several frustrating tries, but finally the fly settled into a seam of calm water between two sets of turbulence. The strike was vicious and a big Steelhead boiled the surface as he took the fly heading down stream.
The fight was long and dogged with the twelve pound buck coming to my hand in the dark.
Brad flipped the switch on the self starting lantern as I approached the cook tent.
Al peered over his finely sculptured meerschaum pipe and purred, " How'd you do, boss?" I beamed from ear to ear, "boys, have I got a place to show you in the morning."

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