First stop was seafood dinner and pie bar in Seattle before an alpine start the next morning.
It rained most of that first day, but we snuck in a rainforest hike then rinsed flies and ourselves on a favorite road-side run en route to the cabin.
The local livestock were also out rinsing themselves.
Before getting into the meat of this thing, I’ll say my experience with steelhead in these coastal rivers is pretty hypothetical. I’ve waded in a lot of runs that looked like they’d hold steelhead, and made a lot of casts that looked like they’d catch steelhead, but alas. I tell myself there’s a certain freedom in it. I tend to explore more, do more hiking, more climbing under and over deadfall and thorns in search of better looking water. The idea is that eventually I’ll find Shangri-La (w/ steelhead in the tailout). When planning this trip, there were moments of worry for me as I tried to come up with an idea of how to help all my out-of-state friends enjoy their time when I really don’t know much myself. On top of that, Bear’s and my brother’s girlfriends are new to the family. I wasn’t exactly sure how they’d handle long days of being cold and wet while being dragged to one more run that supposedly might finally produce this fish everyone was so excited about. I was concerned that that’s the sort of thing that ends relationships. But then I thought, if going to such great, uncomfortable lengths in hopes of momentarily contacting something wild is a deal breaker, wouldn’t it be best to know that right up front? So, telling myself I was doing everyone a favor, I planned to do what I’d do if no one else was around, drive to the end of a two-track, to a gate, a washed out bridge, or an impassable deadfall, park in the mud and hike from there.
The first morning we were greeted with sunny skies that would graciously last most of the rest of the trip.
At the first run Travis waded deep and Bear started with some casting practice for Lady Bear.
Spey dog Maya looking on.
We followed elk trails through the alders, confident that the herds knew the forest better than we did.
Just before breaking out onto the bank that overlooked this run, we flushed a covey of ruffed grouse that exploded through the alders and crashed noisily into the top of a nearby pine. It seemed like good luck.
YP helping Lady Bear with the finer points.
After another mile hike upriver through blackberry and matchstick deadfall we came to a mediocre looking run headed up by whitewater. The sun was getting low and we had a hike back so we decided it would be our last of the day. The ladies fished and I wandered upstream to the head of the run, staring blankly at the water. The sun was filtering through the trees on the bank behind me, lighting the water at odd intervals that made the standing waves blink from flat gray to bright blue and back again as they rolled in and out of the light. I traced the waves upstream until I found myself looking at a small piece of rippling water off to the side of the heavy current. Upstream, the river fanned out into a wide riffle that eventually broke in two across a gravel bar, the main channel roaring down through the standing waves, while the little side channel wrapped quietly around and trickled off a gravel ledge and into this patch of soft water, creating a sharp seam against the fast water on the outside. Without thinking too much about it, I walked back down and swiped Bear’s rod from where he was sitting back smoking and watching the ladies fish. His rod is an older Echo model that has all sorts of steelhead juju worn into the cork from coastal California, up through Oregon, and back home in Michigan.
Vintage Bear (w/ said spray pole)
I returned to the soft pocket and tried three different ways to get a swing through the conflicting currents. The third try was pile a bunch of line, let it sink, then throw a downstream mend to get everything moving. As the line began to straighten out I felt life touch it briefly in an unmistakable tap-yank that turned the whole world dark except for that one patch of soft water. The fly swung on without contact, and then I picked it up and did the same thing again. The second swing passed without a touch, but then on a whim I began to strip the fly in through the pocket. On the third strip the line ripped tight as if the fish had swiped and rolled on it hard. There was a stalemated moment of mutual surprise, then a hard head shake, and a big roll and tail slap on the surface that showed me the bright chrome flanks of a big steelhead. The fish dashed toward the heavy current, ripping the end of the skagit head from my hand. As it came tight to the reel I screamed “Yes!” and then half beat later, “No!” as the fly came zinging back at me. I stumbled in the current, fairly palpitating from the sudden flush of adrenaline. Victory in our time!
“So they are real,” Bear said.
I floated on the hike back through the forest. Besides the fish, it was good to see that Lady Bear seemed to only get more excited as the day went on. You could see the whole day playing back on her face, hiking through the maze-like groves of alder, the sun slipping out from behind a cloud and lighting up a dozen shades of green on the bank across the river, learning how to fish a run and not just cast into it. It was clear that like Bear and I, and YP and Travis and all the other degens I pass my years with, she felt the value of all of those things in a way that goes beyond words. It manifests itself in a quiet happiness, a type of full-body smile that is unmistakable.
That evening we went and caught a mess of redtails from the surf, buoyed by an encounter with an animal, and full of hope for two more days of fishing.
Early the next morning, my brother, his girlfriend, YP, and I started up a washed out road for new reaches of the river.
It’s amazing how quickly the forest can reclaim a road that was closed just a few years ago.
The first run started with casting practice for my brother and his girlfriend, since neither of them had ever spey casted before. After two flies were lost into the ether, I took the hook off a fly I never fish, and tied that on, not caring if it was lost. I took the hook off to protect the backs of everyone’s heads, but as I did it I imagined I was asking for a fish to grab the hookless fly. Two casts later, that’s exactly what happened just after my brother mended a very nice cast.
“I think a fish just grabbed the fly,” he said. I’d seen the line pluck tight but pretended I hadn’t. “I don’t know, could’ve been a rock,” I said though I knew it wasn’t. We fished through again with a hook but did not have another encounter, and then moved downriver. Before we left the run completely YP went back to the top. Shortly afterwards, her small yell of "Got One!" sent me running back up the bank.
A rocket ship of a chrome hen tore all over the river, jumping and making a big mess of everything. YP leaned back and tried to palm the reel to slow the fish as it took off on a real barn burner, looking like it was heading down through the next riffle and maybe all the way back out to the surf. Then her line popped and went slack, and we all howled like a pack of coyotes. Two fish in two days! I had to explain to my brother who is used to Michigan steelheading what the encounters really meant, that we’d spent two prior winters without a sniff of a fish.
From there the rest of the day passed in a sort of afterglow, despite the weather flailing at us wildly with rain, hail, sideways rain, some more hail, and then finally just plain drenching rain that made it seem like the whole world would never be dry again. YP gave my brother’s girlfriend a supplemental course in spey casting after insisting women were better teachers than men. I agreed, and watched the two of them stand in sideways rain, practicing proper anchor placement. After that, I gave my brother the thumbs up on his new lady. For what my opinion is worth. I just figure the ability to stand in sideways rain learning something practically pointless and completely foreign to you with a smile on your face says a lot about a person.
The sun came back out toward evening and dried us off nicely on the hike out.
The last night we got a little sideways around the fire, as one does.
The last day we made a long drive to a new section of river I’d never seen before. The first run was gorgeous but produced nothing which was still the expectation despite recent events.
It ended up being the nicest day of the trip. Grouse were drumming in the woods, and the sun was warm enough to drop a couple layers around lunch.
Evening seeped in as it always does, and people began heading off for home or back to the airport. At the end it was just Bear and Lady Bear, YP and I. We fished a long, bouldery run and then hiked downstream for one more, moving slowly, picking through the trees and stopping to look at this or that, trying to slow everything down and not talk about how another trip was about over. We were still headed away from the truck and that was enough to be savored. We split up, and YP and I dropped down the bank to a smallish run she’d spied from upstream. Walking up to it, I admitted it was a beautiful one to end on. Blue-green current split against a group of three giant boulders mid-river and then spilled down into the short run which collected into a perfectly bouldery tailout underneath a leaning cedar tree. It had to be fished from the middle of the river, from the shallow gravel at the base of the big boulders. YP started down first, making short, easy casts that landed her fly against the bank.
She was fishing the same fly she’d been using the whole trip, a saddle hackle-tailed marabou spey tied by -G-. It is a beautiful fly, one that twitches and flows in soft current with the sort of umami that makes it an instant favorite. She calls it Peach Belly because of the bump of peach ice dub beneath the hackle. I was upstream, fishing the head of the little run, when I heard “Got One!” from below me. I looked but thought maybe I’d imagined it, since she had her rod down and was stripping line. Later I learned the fish had grabbed the fly and then swam right at her.
“Got One!” Just then, a clean, silver fish, white and gunmetal from a distance, jumped between the boulders just feet from her. It hung in midair, twisting like it was swimming up into the sky. Then it smacked back down and tore off around the back side of the boulder. In a move that looked practiced, it wrapped the line around the boulder and then jumped again, tumbling end over end and landing back in the run. I ran downstream to help, yelling at her to lift the rod. She held the rod high, and luckily the line slipped over the top of the boulder. Then there was a moment of panic as everything went slack and she stripped line again to catch up. As soon as she came tight to the fish, it took off through the tailout and into the fast water beyond it. Again, her line flew back out the rod as the fish came tight against the reel, making the old CLA buzz. She held the rod high and ran crashing through the water trying to get around the three boulders and out into the main river where she could follow the fish downstream in knee deep water. She made it, and the fish was still on tight. It surged and spun in a small pocket downstream but the chaos had been reduced to the controlled tug of war that normally ends in favor of the fisherman. I began to look for a place to tail the fish, but we were mid-river with hard current all around us. The closest place was the start of a gravel bar just downriver. I began coaching YP to lay the rod down to guide the fish toward the softer water. She regained all the running line, and the bright hen was bulldogging but clearly beaten. It was as good as landed. Then one headshaking half-jump sent the fly twirling up in the air back toward us. We both stood in quiet shock looking at the place the fish had been.
“Dangit” YP said finally, her line trailing in the current. She reeled in and hung the fly from her rod. Then she looked at me with a big smile. “Peach belly does it again!” she said, holding up a hand for a high five.
I'm going to quit letting her fish all the good water ahead of me.
They don't wanna have to die