The Greatest Steelhead State that Never Was
STATE OF ARMS
AS WOULD ANY GUY SPAWNED FROM THE gravels of Oregon, I had deep reservations about driving the backroads of my home state in a rig blasphemed by California plates. It was a red Tacoma with a watertight canopy and a rod rack permanently bolted to its hood, an otherwise brilliant fishing truck, but in this case fatally compromised by that white rectangle and its frilly red cursive. See, on the steelhead streams of Oregon—especially those of southern Oregon—advertising your California-ness can be a bad idea.
What surfing taught me about flyfishing.
We’d just smashed into a Kangaroo with our camper and decided it was time for a drink. We were tired of driving anyway, and those damn kangaroos were just too hard to see in the dark. We saw a sign near the road, tacked to the side of a rickety shed: “Kalbarri Pub.”
When most of us hear the words “steelhead river,” we think “remote.” We imagine bright wild fish and hairy mofos wading waist-deep, bombing Intruders to the far shore. And maybe that’s why so many people cherish Oregon’s Sandy River: it offers the best of steelheading—only thirty minutes from one of the hippist cities in America, Portland.
On April 14, The Native Fish Society and the Pacific Rivers Council delivered a notice of intent to sue the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and NOAA on the grounds that they colluded to poach the Sandy River’s ESA-listed salmon and steelhead. The notice identifies two types of illegal harvest: 1) the death of native offspring due to the presence of hatchery salmonids on the spawning grounds and 2) the direct killing of wild salmon and steelhead for milt and eggs.
To understand John Gierach the writer, you need only look in his fly boxes, where you’ll find row upon row of meticulously tied flies sorted by purpose, size, and species. At first glance they’re the standard patterns we all carry, but start poking around and you’ll note an unexpected rib on the BWOs, an arced shank and a split tail on the flavs, bright yellow eyes with apprehensive black pupils on the sculpins. What at first seemed simple and unadorned and workmanlike upon closer inspection is as complex and graceful and singularly elegant as a Japanese painting.
Steelheading in Smithers was a little different fourteen years ago than it is today. For starters, there were very few spey rods. Also, a hotel in town was about $80—a week. But then, as now, as always, which river you fished was sometimes decided by the weather. We’d hauled a skiff all the way from Jackson—Morrison Simms, Trask, and myself—in order to meet Morrison’s dad, John, and his wife, Barbara. But after four days jetboating the Bulkley, heavy rains blew it out, causing us to head south to the clearer water of the Morice—the river John Fennelly, in his classic book, Steelhead Paradise, called “the closest approach to the dream river of a dedicated fly fisherman that I ever hope to see.” We left Trask inside the van while we enjoyed our best day of steelheading we’d had all week.