Ride with Clyde VI

Adventures in Porn Camp

CLYDE WAS RIGHT where Viking had left him the night before, backed into a salmonberry thicket, booze and beer resting on his hood, a lone fly box open to the morning dew. I remembered then, vaguely, showing off some new patterns by headlamp after our arrival the night before. If the fly box was mine, the half-full IPA next to it must be mine, too. I looked over my shoulder before finishing it, then remembered that we were in steelhead camp, so who the fuck cares what I have for breakfast.

The four of us came stocked with two rafts, two trucks to tow them, sixteen rods, two cases of beer, two and half bottles of scotch, elk steaks, duck sausage, a flat of Costco muffins, and Clyde. Before us stretched an expanse of time without commitments, our days propelled by a shared compulsion to spend as many hours waist-deep in steelhead water as possible. Here it was, dawn on day one, the campfire still smoldering, and I was only a few alders away from twenty-five hundred cfs of emerald green perfection. Giddy doesn't describe it.

Though we'd all fished this river before, this camp was new to us. Bomber had found it during a scouting mission in the weeks before our arrival, and he had called to say it might just be the perfect spot for a prolonged exploration into the heart of the Steelheader's Dream. Like all good angling camps, it was miles up a rutty gravel road and at least an hour from the nearest police station, perched along a time-tested piece of steelhead water. Bomber dubbed it "Porn Camp" after the stack of girlie mags he discovered beside the fire ring. I took issue with the name, given the camp's current occupancy, but nonetheless the name was sticking.

"Gentlemen," I yelled to the tents still zipped closed. "I just landed my second fish." It was a lie of course, but that rouse is the fastest way I've found to raise hungover steelheaders.

THE BEST PART OF RIDING in Clyde is riding in Clyde. Viking was driving and I was digging through the glove box. Part of me expected to find an eightball of coke hidden there since the early eighties. At least a copy of Fear and Loathing. Instead I found a bling necklace and the very mask worn by the gimp in Pulp Fiction. I didn't dare touch the latter, at least not then, but the former went around my neck. If I'd had a pistol, I might have shot it out the window.

"Clyde is mysterious," Viking said.

"He's been places and seen things," Bomber called from the backseat.

I wondered how many pairs of panties had been left on that backseat over the decades.

His ride is smooth as silk: We all braced for a series of approaching potholes, but Clyde glided across without a flicker. When we careened around a mountain corner, I was reminded of an eighteen-foot Boston Whaler banking around a jetty.

"Clyde smells like everything and nothing all at once."

"What are you talking about? He smells like Pall Malls and gun solvent."

WE ENDED OUR DAY at a run that Bomber had dubbed "Honey Buckets."

Even with four guys, it offered enough water for us to spread out and stretch our Skagits.

The run is built of ledge rock in a river that is generally cobbles and boulders, and it screams fish. At various intervals, your line stalls in the lee behind one ledge, then it goes broadside a few feet before another ledge, and you get that feeling that a grab is imminent. Every moment hums with anticipation. Regardless, come dusk, Perky and I were still fishless. We strolled down to Viking and Bomber as they finished the tailout.

"Why do steelhead grab flies?" I asked.

"Don't ask the big questions," Perky said, turning to me. "Not on the river."

Perky is our resident guru. Every steelheading camp has one. "Remember that girl we saw running along the lower river road," he asked,

"In the red tank top and orange shorts?"

"Of course," I said. "She made me forget I was fishing. You're not supposed to see women wearing things like that in places like these."

Perky raised a finger toward the heavens. "Flat's why steelhead grab flies."

As I was deciphering the logic of that gem, Viking got lit up. I was watching his rod when it happened. One minute it's straight, then it's doubled, then a toilet is flushing in mid-river. The fish was o" just as fast as it was on. Our only grab of the day.

As we made our way back to camp, headlamps on, I saw a full beer sitting there, right-side-up, in the middle of the forest. I checked for boobie-traps, and upon finding none, ventured closer. It was a 16-ounce Rainier and it was perched on a small rock.

God is great.

But as I reached for it, I saw a 2/0 Winter's Hope beside it. And I realized: this isn't some forgotten beer. It's a marker or a totem—or a sacrifice to the fishing gods.

I backed away without disturbing it.

Steelheading juju is a force the best minds of our generation have yet to unravel, and I for one will not invite the vengeance of gods I don't understand.

"HEY GUYS, OVER HERE! QUICK!"

We were partway through a bottle of Aberlour and the duck sausage was minutes from being done. Nonetheless, Perky, Bomber, and I hurried through the darkness toward the sound of Viking's voice. "Quick!"

We found him in a mossy depression beneath an ancient cedar. He was staring at a toilet seat that had been hung across some boards so as to o"er a firm and comfortable seat.

"Quick?" Perky asked. "Were you worried it would get away?"

"This camp is perfect!"

"Except we're not catching any fish."

CLYDE DRAWS ATTENTION everywhere he goes. While driving him in town after our steelhead camp, I had a college kid on the sidewalk start jumping up and down, pointing like a toddler who had just seen Caillou driving the ice cream truck. At a stoplight two blocks later, I had a silver-haired woman in a Prius turn to me and plug her nose. On the other end of town, a cop flipped a U-ie behind me and rushed up to check Clyde's plates.

Clyde on the river is no different. He's a dude magnet. One morning in camp, Clyde was running downstream to some choice water, and a silver GMC came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road.

Reader: Take note of this silver GMC.

Two grizzled faces peered out at us. We waved. they didn't. We assumed their hesitance had something to do with the gimp mask I was wearing.

We drove on, but not an hour later, another pick-up pulled near us.

It was a guide with a client. He'd seen us on the road and rushed his client off the water to give chase. "that's awesome," he said, pointing to Clyde. "That's so awesome."

We nodded. There wasn't much else to say. "Yeah."

"I just can't believe how awesome Clyde is." Minutes passed, and the conversation continued like this. The client rapped his fingers.

The guide licked his lips and whispered, "Can I drive him?"

ON OUR LAST EVENING in camp, I took a perch on a cliff top and watched Perky's long line unfurl, land, and come into swing. Not far away, Clyde was hiding in the brush. Part of me was hoping he wouldn't start and we'd have to spend another couple days waiting on some part that hasn't been manufactured since the Reagan administration.

Sure, we weren't catching fish, and for some anglers that might be a problem. But for us, not catching fish only makes our desire to stay stronger. Each of us suffers from a disease not yet in medical texts; its core symptom is going double-or-nothing in the face of certain defeat.

When Perky finished with the pool, the sun was long gone and our breath showed. He looked up at me. "What do you think?"

"You're the guru," I said.

He looked out over the water. "One more pass then."

"Why do we do this to ourselves?"

He scratched his stubble. "There's a Chinese proverb about two trees. One grows straight and tall, just as he's supposed to. He is cut down for timber in his prime. The other grows crooked and short. He lives a long life of his own choosing."

I considered this toke of wisdom. "Is that true?"

"I have no idea. I make this shit up."

IT DOESN'T MATTER how long a steelhead camp lasts, they all come to a cruel end just when you're finally starting to find your groove.

Ours broke up on a Monday. In all the hours we'd spent fishing, we'd only landed one fish between us, a featherweight buck. This fact didn't trouble us in the least, but we agreed that maybe for all this camp's features, it wasn't in the best of locations, fishing-wise. Next year, we'd try lower on the river or higher, or on another river entirely.

We set the last firewood ablaze and threw on the cardboard beer cases and paper napkins, and we stood around with the last of the scotch, saying goodbye to Porn Camp. As is my custom, I pulled a favorite fly from my box and left it pinned in a nearby tree.

BACK HOME, I hung up my waders and scrubbed out my coolers and put the trash out by the curb. Then I did what I despise most: checked my email. Nothing signals the end of steelheading camp like checking your email.

What I found surprised me.

There was a note from a man I respect, someone who has been steelheading longer than me and on many of the rivers I love most. It was long, was written late at night, and it had been sent to me, Bomber, and the editor of this magazine. Turns out, the man who wrote it was one of the two men in the silver pickup; they had gawked but not waved. He was also the man who had built the toilet ring.

The email's tone was half-friendly: "I've been coming to this camp for more than twenty years, and I sure hope you don't write an article pimping the last of the last of the last best place. That camp is where I go to live when I'm not at home, and when I'm not there my friend is, and that friend buried his beloved dog there, and…"

As we would come to learn, the dog's grave was marked with a Rainier and a Winter's Hope. We didn't learn who the girlie mags belonged to.

"This place is too special to be spoiled by a fishing essay."

I couldn't agree more. I'm a lover of steelhead and their rivers, and

I'm not interested in popularizing places, even if I do happen to popularize the glorious and low-impact dance-with-natural-forces that is swinging flies for steelhead.

What caught my attention about this email, and the emails that followed, wasn't the tone or the content. It was the realization that we'd clearly formed the wrong impression of Porn Camp. If it's where a long-time steelheader buried his dog, and another built a permanent toilet seat, then it's a place worthy of another try.

If I asked Perky, he'd probably say, "Sometimes it takes getting stung to realize you've stumbled upon honey."