At the end of the line is a place that hangs on to the edge of the continent before it falls off into the storm lashed Bering Sea. Here the frontier still cuts a hard line between the ramshackle outpost’s that dot the tundra and the endless wilderness beyond. In the far north, on the top of the world, is a place little known and long forgotten.
So far the 2019 season has been a mark above what was ultimately a lack luster 2018 winter steelhead season. The Eel River saw some absolutely amazing fishing in the week following the new year. It seemed like everyone who was willing to put in their time was rewarded with either an opportunity or an encounter with the ever elusive ghost of the coast; winter steelhead.
I often think of the Smith and Eel rivers as the yin and yang of a common steelhead universe. For everything that the one river is, the other is not. For the Smith, a slew of marginal storms and minimal rises did not pack enough of a punch to see many fish make an appearance. Things seemed a little off kilter until this past week. While not being wide open, a fresh pulse of fish made an appearance and for those willing to grind it out and put in the long hours and endure some punishing weather, there were moments amongst the ancient cobble and towering old growth that made it all worth it. The Smith constitutes one of the most challenging and demanding steelhead rivers on the North Coast, for any fisherman. If you have the temerity to exclusively swing flies to the fish that haunt the big brawny runs of the Smith then you have your work cut out for you. But in the end to make the connection with one of these fish is something special. One fish can be all the redemption needed to justify the countless days that came before. A little faith and determination can take you a long way.
Currently we have the time to take pause and reflect on the beginnings of what has already proven to be an exceptional season of swinging flies to these amazing wild fish on the Redwood Coast. All rivers are on a hard rise, the largest of the season by a long shot and one that we desperately needed after a series of weak storms and mediocre rises. The smaller systems of the North Coast have needed a biblical rain event for some time, with good holding water silting in and runs disappearing, hopefully this gully washer will send enough water down river to scour out runs and redefine channels. Once everything is on the drop and turning from slate to green it should be game on for some incredible fishing on the coast. In the meantime it’s time to get busy behind the vice and whip out some swimmy bugs.
With an already stellar season in the making the stage has been set for a February that could be legendary. I’ve already had more encounters with these elusive animals in the past few weeks of fishing than in all of 2018. With this giant spike in flows we should see a huge pulse of fresh sea run fish making an appearance in a river near you. It’s time to get out there and swing em up. I’ll see you on the water.
To tell the story of River X we have to go back to the end of the 2017 season. I was on the last flight out of our bay along with Rus and one other guide and was offered the front seat next to our pilot, Sam. The day was perfect for flying; blue skies with intermittent clouds, an unlimited ceiling and crisp hard sunlight that always seems to be a hallmark of fall in Alaska.
Sam Egli pinned his 206 on the beach and got her off the ground in what seemed like a matter of seconds. We were on our way back to civilization. As we gained in elevation we were treated to a full panoramic view of the harsh country we had just called home for the last two months. The glacial mountains, slumbering volcano, the endless rivers, the rugged coastline of the northern Pacific all stretched out before us in an unending array of wilderness. Finally we crossed over a set of saw toothed peaks that gave way to a narrow valley. I saw the river below for the first time. Craning my neck to see where it went out towards the gleaming Pacific, I saw a river that seemed larger than the ones we normally fished and was instantly intrigued. I had a million questions, but they would all have to wait a year before any could be answered.
When you think about what it would be like to fish a river that no one has ever fished before it’s hard to imagine reaching a higher benchmark as an angler. Isn’t that where we end up in our minds when we find ourselves on our home waters? What would we give to go back in time to be able to have that water to ourselves. To see it for the first time. To see it the way it once was. And just like everything else in the world of fishing it’s fleeting. You can only fish new water once, but for those few who are compelled by that old fashioned sense of adventure and exploration, is there anything that compares to it? To see the perfect run and know that no one else has ever put a fly through it. To walk along a gravel bank and know that your bootprints are the first. This was the great allure of River X. The only problem was how we were going to convince others that it would all somehow be worth it.
It wasn’t until the last week of clients during our 2018 season that the stars aligned and a group of old friends from back east said what the hell, rolling the dice on fishing a river none of us as guides knew anything about. Rus gave me the green light to take them out, and I finally was going to be able to answer a few of those questions that had been haunting me since I had laid eyes on River X nearly a year ago.
The day broke grey and was calm and still. A few glaucous-winged gulls lazily watched as we made our way across the tidal flat to catch a ride. We loaded up and took off over the Pacific, one man riding up front, the rest of us crammed into the back of the helicopter. Metallica played through our headphones as we left the known universe of our bay and the bay beyond it and entered the uncharted wilds of remote Alaska. We were finally on our way.
There are a few notable things to consider when making an exploratory trip in remote Alaska. The first of which is if something goes wrong while you’re on the ground you’re pretty much totally screwed. No one’s going to come to your rescue, there’s no cavalry. The second thing is unlike the other rivers we frequent on a regular basis every season there are no provisions on this river. If you have to stay the night for some reason, you’re going to do so without food or shelter. The helicopter was our only life line to the outside world.
Once we were on the ground there was something immediately obvious that made River X stand apart from any other drainage I had ever seen on this side of the coastal range, it was deep. Most of the rivers we fish are not. At least not like this. The channel cut hard against bedrock where scree strewn cliff sides dropped down right into the water. This reminded me of the rivers of the west coast, where hard corners feed into deep buckets. The river valley narrowed down towards the mouth, and unlike a typical estuary that fans out and shallows into braids this mouth is hemmed in by high-sided canyon walls. It terminates in dramatic fashion at a bottleneck we took to calling Heaven’s Gate. There was another specific quality that set this river apart when compared to other drainages on this rugged coast, its color. The water was a radiant glacial turquoise that almost glows like a jewel. This heavy stain after nearly three weeks of no rain was noteworthy. Finally, an ominous sign; the absence of bear traffic on the gravel bar we had landed on did not exactly instill a sense of confidence in me as a guide. Where there are lots of fish, you should see lots of bears. We bid farewell to our pilot, geared up, and headed up river.
We set a hard pace as we made our way from one tail-out to the next in search of the first good run. Time was against us. It had taken more time to get here than a normal heli-fly out and we wanted to see as much as we could with the little time we had. The heavy glacial stain meant that sight fishing was out. We needed to fish water blind and hope that we would find holding fish sooner or later. The first few runs left us empty handed and we were all quickly realizing another unique characteristic of River X; it was pushy. Even after a rainless September the lower runs of this river were cranking, and they were big and deep. I knew what was needed, or at least I knew how I would fish a river like this; with a spey rod and a sinking tip. And while this realization was more of a revelation because I had always secretly hoped that that’s what I would find if and when I ever got to see this river from the bank, it wasn’t going to do us a damn bit of good for the time being. We needed to push on. We needed to find a hole where we would have a shot at holding fish.
As we forged ahead I was amazed at the canyon land that came right to the water’s edge. This was a stark departure from the shallow snaky rivers I had become accustomed to on the Peninsula. It reminded me of places I’d seen in Colorado or Utah. Steep arroyos filled with dry brush, the country looked better suited to house mountain lions rather than grizzly bears. We baked under a relentless sun, and pondered at water that still had not offered up one of its secrets.
Finally, after wading across a few more huge tail-outs and passing under the shadow of a monolithic rock face that could only be given the name Gibraltar, we found it. Once we passed Gibraltar the landscape splayed open in dramatic fashion, giving us a view that made us stop for a moment and take in the splendor and scale of the valley before us. In the far distance a waterfall dropped down into the valley below, disappearing into a thick viridian wall of shrubs and stubby Alder’s. We found ourselves surrounded on all sides by an endless kaleidoscope of mountains leading to untold side channels and high glacial lakes. It was a bear who tipped us off. We spotted him, the first one we had seen all day, up river, peering intently into the water before him. He’s fishing. We all knew it and when we got close to where he had been we knew we had finally made the discovery that had dominated our minds for the past week. Before us were a series of deep pools that were interrupted by long gentle riffle’s. The main stem of the river seemed to vanish beyond this point, with shallow braids dumping into each pool. The boys went to work, and soon each had hooked into a dolly varden in the shallow riffle. I walked up, got to where the bear had been, and yelled for Al to come up to me.
It didn’t take long, maybe two casts. You could see their shapes through the milky stain, appearing and disappearing like specters as they darted up from the depths of the pool, swiping violently at the pink and white Dolly Llama. Finally Al set hard to one and after a good fight we pulled our first Silver out of River X. We called the others over, and for the next few moments we lived what most fisherman will only ever dream of. We had a run full of beautiful sea run fish all to ourselves on a river with no name in a place that is as wild and beautiful today as it has always been. It was all worth it now, in the shadow of the steep canyon wall opposite us, to have come so far and risked so much for just a few moments of pure fly fishing zen. We caught so many we lost count, time getting away from us, before we knew it we had to go.
We lifted off the gravel bar and shot the narrows of Heaven’s Gate. I caught a few fleeting glances of some of the lowest runs on the river as we banked hard from one side of the canyon to the next. They looked amazing, and I was already thinking about what I would do differently if I ever had another shot at this river. It was an epic ending to an epic day. We felt like conquering heroes, like we had all just been a part of something that would endure in our memories from this day until the last.
Ultimately the journey to River X was a success, but it still remains a mystery in many ways. We only scratched the surface of that fishery with the limited time and gear that we had at our disposal. My one big remaining question is what exactly makes up the run of this truly singular watershed on a coastline that is mostly comprised of smaller, shallower drainages. We expected to find dolly varden and silvers, and so we did, but are there other salmon species that choose to enter this deeper, more glaciated river? It is not out of the realm of possibility that River X has a run of fish that are uncommon in nearby systems. It offers habitat that other rivers lack in this region, namely an abundance of deep channelized runs in its lower stretches. Would this become a beacon for species like King Salmon, or even Steelhead? The range of possibilities are endless. As an angler I immediately saw the potential for spey applications on this river, and that excites me, because there are very few rivers in the region that fit that shoe. Yet this river almost demands it with water that is both big and deep. It is enough of a mystery to keep me awake at night, remembering those azure runs glimmering under the autumn sun, dreaming of what remains hidden below. For more information on fishing on the remote Alaska Peninsula visit https://epicanglingadventure.com/
It's always a nice adjustment after spending the summer in Alaska to return home to Northern California and to the numerous steelhead rivers that make this such an exciting place to live as an angler. For me, nothing compares to swinging one of my favorite runs close to home in hopes of getting that big handshake, and the river I find myself on more often than not during the fall is the Trinity. I cut my teeth learning the hard lessons of steelhead fishing on this river, and I always feel a certain nostalgia when I walk into a spot or step into a run that has become like an old friend.
This fall has seen a return of exceptionally low water for all of our rivers and the Trinity is looking a lot like I remember it from a few years ago during the drought years. With that in mind, I tied up a few bugs for swinging the Trinity when it's low and clear. Hope you enjoy!
This fall has certainly been a dramatic departure from the past few. The lack of rain has put a halt to what had been an eagerly anticipated time of year for swinging flies to salty Kings during the two previous fall seasons. There have been a few reports of good King fishing in tidewater on both the Smith and Eel, but everything above tidewater has remained closed due to low flow restrictions.
Fortunately, it looks like the spell will soon be broken by mid next week. A series of wet weather systems looks primed to deliver some much needed precipitation on California. Hopefully it’ll be enough to send enough water down river, lifting the closures, and kick starting our season here on the North Coast. Stay tuned….
The time has come again to ship off to the far north for another guide season with Epic Angling & Adventure. This year I made sure to twist up a few different fly patterns in anticipation of the wide array of fishing venues and species that we target during our time on the remote Alaska Peninsula.
My guide season in Alaska is split between two different locations on the Peninsula. Each offers a unique set of conditions and fish species that require a diverse array of flies, tackle, and techniques. Basically, it's fly fishing heaven. The two camps could not be more disparate from one another. The first venue is a medium sized tributary to a much larger river that drains into Bristol Bay. The second camp sits above a tidally influenced flat that branches out into a wide floodplain on the Pacific coast. The first camp offers mouse eating trout and seabright dolly varden, also partial to the mouse. The second camp is a salmon superhighway, the main event taking place in late summer when droves of silvers (coho) start to show up en masse.
The first item on the menu for the beginning of our season are the leopard spotted rainbows that have made Alaska synonymous with mousing.
The trout eat mice patterns with wild abandon. They are so eager that it's common for them to miss it completely and cartwheel out of the run in a spectacle that is hard to imagine until you've seen it with your own eyes. They are not alone in their proclivity towards the mouse. Arctic Grayling take it just as surely, although here a smaller pattern is necessary for them to get the hook. Even the Chum Salmon take it on occasion.
When the dolly's show up the rainbows become more scarce. These fish seem to be more aggressive than the rainbows and come into the river in anticipation of the spawning salmon. They're egg eaters, making anything pink a go to fly of choice, but they still seem to key in on surface flies and the mouse can have its day in court when these fish are on the bite.
The second camp begins where the first camp leaves off. We leave the Tundra for beach front property on the remote Northern Pacific. Runs of chrome chum salmon are the first item on the menu. The difference now is we're fishing on the coast, and on a calm enough day we actually fish from the beach in the salt. Seafood patterns are the staple. Pink or chartreuse? You choose.
Coming from a background of fishing the coast locally in Northern California I found this venue immediately familiar. The fish are still clad in their ocean armour. The takes are savage, and the runs can make you fearful of how well that arbor knot is tied to your reel. They like bright flies with larger profiles that mimic their seafood diet of squid, shrimp, and baitfish. If you were to have one pattern here it would be a Comet. This old school steelhead/salmon pattern first tied in my own backyard of Humboldt County was the definitive pattern for all three salmon species that we target; chums, pinks, and finally silvers.
There's going to be a day in September when the silvers show up in huge numbers. At first it's a trickle. The clients pick up one or two randomly while targeting pinks or chums. Then it becomes more common to spot them in the upper stretches of the river, with their blue green backs shimmering like a beacon to announce as if by declaration that a new fish has arrived. Finally, the tides and weather decide to cooperate for one day that will be the best day of fishing for the entire season. Anything pink will do, but the real show is getting them to chase and eat a large surface fly.
I'm already looking forward to the day in early fall when I've gotten my clients on a handful of nice silvers, casually wade out to them in the run, reach into my fly box, pull one of these out and say slyly, "Now do you really want to have fun?"
For more information about fishing with Epic click on the link https://epicanglingadventure.com/
Fishing and guiding in this remote section of Alaska is an incredible adventure and privilege. I can't wait for it to all begin again. It's almost time!
Another season draws to a close on the North Coast. Every winter has its highs and lows, and this one was no different.
The flat grey mantle of sky hung over the rolling bald hills of the coast like a slab of cold concrete. A steady wind blew off of the sea and the weather had begun to blow in from the south. An omen of heavy rains to come, but for the beginning and into the middle of the day the rains abated and spared the three fisherman who had driven through the first hours of morning to be on the water in the still dim and dreary light of late winter.
In the first run of the day all three stood idly on the bank rigging up their rods and rubbing the sleep from their eyes when a fresh steelhead suddenly erupted from a greasy tailout below. Nothing raises the heart like the sight of a fish in winter, for these animals are often like ghosts in the rivers and streams they return to in fewer and fewer numbers every year. Yet the countless fishless days spent in pursuit of such an elusive and ghostly creature only seem to add to the allure and adoration nearly all steelhead anglers ascribe to this sea run trout in one way or another. They are perhaps the most venerated of all freshwater sport fish and the last potent symbol of what remains of the wild in the ever shrinking wilderness of the western United States.
So now when the lucky angler out of the trio was given the water where the fish had risen all was nerves and jitters as he stripped the head out from his guides and peeled running line from his reel. It is hard to make a good cast when you know that up river other fishermen, good ones at that, watch with the curious mixture of contempt and hope an angler feels who has ceded fishy water to another. If the fish is to come to the fly it will be within the first three casts. This is what all of them spoke silently to themselves and telepathically to one another as the first cast arcs out over the deep green pool and lands a hands length away from the branches of willow that guard the far bank.
There is no anticipation as great as the anticipation felt by the angler in this moment, as the fly digs into the pool slowly tracking across the run. In his mind the angler can see his fly descending, swimming close to where the fish is holding. He imagines their eyes meeting, that of the fly and the fish, and in that imperceptible moment it happens. The steelhead remembers something as ancient as fossils buried for millenia under the riverbed, deciding in that instant to utterly destroy the fly. The angler imagines the quick hard jerks of line as the fish eats the fly, the violent shockwaves of the rod bucking as the fish tries to shake it off but can't, and finally the chaos of its first run. But this does not happen, and after three casts and not even a whisper of a fish the angler works his way through the rest of the tailout with the usual sense of stoic defeat that has been hanging over his head for nearly three months and running.
This winter steelhead season started on the heels of what had been an exciting fall season for salmon. A wet November saw hopes rise that we would see a continuing trend of rainy weather to mirror the previous two winters and give us a bang to start things off, but this did not come to fruition as many of us had hoped. December saw nearly no rain, making it feel as if we were left holding our breath for the true start of winter steelheading to begin. We continued to hold our breath through January, still waiting for the first powerful winter storms to come crashing into the coast. We had some rain during this month, enough to bring our rivers up and give the feeling winter had finally decided to show up, but this was short lived as an unusually warm high pressure system parked itself over the coast and stayed put. For nearly three weeks no rain fell and we had days so warm that temperatures rivaled highs only seen in summer. A bitter and ominous reminder of the drought years from a few seasons ago. Finally the spell was broken in the waning days of February with the first truly cold nights of winter, and then the rains came. A miracle March has us nearly caught up with annual rainfall averages and has kept those of us hoping for one last shot at a winter fish inside tying flies. So it goes. With the end of each season another begins.
Three months is a long time to go without a fish, even for the most dedicated of steelheaders. At some point desperation sets in, followed by a unique despair. A mild form of melancholia lay hidden within the anglers heart, as stoic and reticent as they may be, that lingering feeling lives there as surely as a seed lives in the soil before it becomes a plant. They may become monastic in their fishing, allowing for the sport to become more than just a means to an end. You might hear them say things like "Any day on the water is a good day." or "It's not called catching, it's called fishing." But in the end they prey for a fish, because in the end it all whittles down to the deep play of being rewarded in the knowledge that you have outwitted something wild and ultimately unknowable, and what makes for a more perfect symbol of either of those two things than a wild dime bright winter steelhead?
The storm that had been threatening since morning finally breaks over the fog lorn hills of the coastal range and spills down into the river valley in sheets of wind and rain. The sky darkens and although the river is low and clear all three fishermen know that if this torrent keeps up it'll turn to coffee within hours. There might be three hours left of good light to fish by, and it is now when all feel the most confident in their pursuit. The Pacific is just a mile or so distant, and the sky shows a gull or a cormorant just as readily and it shows a merganser or a coot. It is the one day in the countless days of fishing that seem to be oddly devoid of other fishermen. Only bootprints occupy the low gravel banks of the river and not a single boat is seen all day. When the first fish comes to the fly it is in a place all of them expected a fish to be. A deep corner hole where the water is still heavy over the pool and opaque and green. All is silent now as the fish, a hen, is brought to hand and the three anglers stoop low on bent knees to admire her. She is still clad in fresh silver and her face shows the brilliant subtlety of something wholly wild. A fine fish.
It has come down to the final run. One last chance before there is too little light to tie knots and hunger and cold get the better of them all. The storm only seems to intensify with every passing moment, and as the unlucky fisherman who has been so thoroughly skunked looks back over his shoulder before he begins to swing through this final run ( a perfect shallow riffle of a run with nice sized cobble and a well defined seam) he watches a hill become totally enveloped in low heavy clouds and vanish before him. The first cast goes all the way across the river, abandoning good fishing doctrine and throwing caution to the wind. She eats it on the hang down, as they so often do. A series of slow tugs turns into a small hen when on the hook set the unmistakable weight of a fish is felt on the end of the line. She fights well, and in the last moments of the day comes to hand as the sky blurs with the surrounding hills and stands of naked alder and finally the day is over and with it the season seems all but gone too.
King Salmon Alaska may as well be the end of the world for anyone looking to travel beyond this desolate outpost. To the south lies the long arm of the Alaska Peninsula. Hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean to the east and Bristol Bay to the west, it is one of the last great American frontiers. The Pacific coast side is particularly remote, even by Alaskan standards. The land is dotted with active volcanoes and an unbroken chain of formidable snow capped peaks, with every mountain draining into a succession of valleys where unnamed creeks merge into unnamed rivers.
On a cloudy afternoon we get the call from the hanger that the control tower has approved our flight plan out of King Salmon. Rus issues his edict. We leave tonight. Chris and I do a once over in the room we have taken in town to make sure we haven't left anything important behind and double check our gear bags before we race back to Egli Air Haul for our flight into the bush. Sam Egli is there prepping his plane, a navy grey Cessna U206. I imagine Sam is the last of his kind. The old breed of no nonsense bush pilots who would fly you through hell without breaking a sweat. He packs the back of his plane full to the brim, even managing to shove in Rus' acoustic guitar. Then it's our turn to cram into the cabin. We throttle down the runway, Sam opens her up and we lift off over King Salmon, bank hard over the giant Naknek RIver, and fly south towards the unknown.
In a haze we unload the plane. Only a few hours of daylight remain as we scramble across the barren tidal flat keeping our eyes peeled for bear. Their paw prints traverse the soft pea sized gravel in every direction, interrupted by the intermittent tracks of fox and sea birds. The surf hums in the distance and the air is thick with the brined smell of the sea. It feels good to see the Pacific again.
Sam helps us unload the last of our gear and quickly fires up his plane to beat the tide. The three of us watch as he disappears into the developing fog, the drone of his engine fading until gone. Once again we are alone and surrounded by wilderness.
It isn't until the next day that I really see the place that will be my home for the next two months. Our camp seems enormous. Sitting atop a nice flat above a steep wooded hill with a small creek running down one side and groves of stunted alder encroaching in every direction. Head high stands of cow parsnip and Alaskan fireweed overtake the maze of footpaths that meander through the camp. It is late July, and the fireweed blooms in clusters of fuschia giving the entire place a tropical air. Chris points out the individual campsites by name. Now mearley paved flats, they are soon to be the future home of steel framed tents that will house our guests and fellow crew members. There is HQ, Zen Den, Meadow View, Pilots Tent, Buena Vista, and the Boar's Nest, to name a few. The cherry on the cake is the observation post. A promontory notch of paved sand at the front end of camp. From here you have an unbridled view of the full tidal flat; the bay and open ocean beyond and the high ridges and mountains of the Aleutian range colliding into one another. A Volcanic plug named Harley Hill looms over the back of the flat. It's sides cleaved away over the centuries leaving pillars of exposed rock that fall dramatically into the impenetrable woods that crawl up it's flanks. In every direction there are bears. They patrol the beaches and high sedge grasses that grow up to the tide line. Sows nurse rambunctious cubs. Lone males keep their distance. Dark clouds of salmon come in with every high tide. It is a paradise.
Within the next few days the rest of our crew is flown in. I meet Chris Carr, the cook. Wyatt, one of the guides for the season. Steve, a returning guide from last season who is our setup guy, and Jack, the camp helper. We all quickly find ourselves hard at work to turn what was wilderness into something resembling an army barracks. Tents pop up like sprouting flowers in a meadow. We put rafts together, dig trenches, install water lines and even fashion a shower with a hot water heater. Life is good. Finally, with the majority of the bigger to do's checked off the list Rus sends us into the backcountry to scout, and more importantly, to fish.
One evening Rus and I take a raft to the mouth of the estuary to have a look around. Rus is curious to see the lower river and skillfully pilots the boat up a shallow arm of the tidal flat. A high sandbank covered in dune grass is all that lies between us and the northern Pacific. We spook a sow with cubs, they run in bewilderment as we draw nearer. One of the cubs turns and stands on its hind legs for a last glimpse before disappearing behind a ridge. Later, I realize we are probably the first humans this animal has ever seen. The mouth of the river, really no more than a creek, dumps into the flat in a shallow braided section but carves out a deep enough channel for Rus to thread the needle and take us into the lowest section of the river.
Suddenly, on either side of the boat the gem blue water of the creek turns black. Untold numbers of salmon run past the boat in an unbroken chain of glimmering white bellies and shadowed backs as we slowly motor further upriver. Most of them are pinks (Humpy) but every once in awhile a massive chum will shoot past the boat followed by a corresponding yelp from Rus or myself. In disbelief I say aloud:
There must be hundreds of them
The first guests arrive and we fall into the weekly rhythm of guiding, eating, sleeping and repeating steps one through three. The weather turns south for days on end as low pressure systems churning over the volatile northern seas come crashing into the coast. We endure days of rain and fog for what seems like an eternity, then the weather breaks giving rise to serene days of warm sun and calm winds. The ocean is lulled to sleep while offshore thousands upon thousands of salmon stage to begin their final migration. Chum salmon and pink salmon enter the tidal flat in droves. Up in the valley Dolly Varden begin to show their spawning colors as they prepare for the ultimate feast. We all wait in anticipation for the first runs of silvers.
A rare day of exceptionally calm seas presents the opportunity to target salmon in the surf. Something few anglers will experience anywhere; the chance to sight cast to rolling sea run fish in the salt.
Sometime in late August the first run of silver salmon (Coho) begin to make their way into the tidal flat. At first there are only a handful mixed in with the swarms of pink and chum salmon that continue to pour in from the sea, but as the nights grow longer and the hills fade from a lush green to a rusty brown they soon replace the chum in number. Like apparitions they suddenly appear in the lower stretches of our river. Their backs glow a blue green in the emerald pools and deeper troughs where they hold beyond the schools of dark pinks.
There are days of fishing into the fall that defy any and all expectation, leaving guests and guides alike spellbound and without words. Outgoing tides that teem with hundreds if not thousands of big brawny silver fish erupt into a frenzy as the sound of pounding surf fills the crisp sunlit air of Alaska's autumn. The white dome of the volcano gleams in the distance with a fresh coat of snow from the night before as gulls litter the sky in silent observance as fish after fish after fish is taken on the fly.
Nothing lasts for long in the far north. Our window of perfect fall weather was cut short when another nasty low pressure system reared its ugly head promising to put an abrupt end to our final few days of fishing. We sent our last group out early and braced for the oncoming storm.
Soon it was time for us to go. We dismantled our camp, returning our small foothold in this rugged country back to the wild. Every night the bears wandered closer to camp, as if they knew we would soon be gone and were eager to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. Finally, on a cold and windy day, with the adjacent ridges and volcano showing brilliantly in the background, we boarded Sams 206 and lifted off the beach. Back to King Salmon, and the rest of the world that lay in waiting below.
For more information about Epic Angling and Adventure go here.
Days growing short. The sun tracks a low angle as it cuts across the sky, no longer able to crest the tall trees on the far side of the river. The first frost of the year comes, but the days can still be comfortably warm. Storms that have traveled across the Pacific line up in columns like amassing armies making ready to lay siege to the coast. Mushrooms erupt in dark thickets of pine duff beneath dripping conifer deep in shadowed woods, and silver sea runs return home to their coastal rivers after a life in the salt.
With their black tar mouths and large cobalt eyes, the cosmic braille of their heavily freckled back like some coded language of the ancient world, King Salmon have earned their title well.
Fall rains can open the door to some of the best spey fishing for salmon on the Pacific Coast. We lucked out again this season on the North Coast with another healthy dose of wet weather leading to fishing that was at times hard to fathom. Early morning ecstasies and last light hopes answered with the unforgettable grab of a King.
Heavy tips. Heavy rods. Heavy fish. The game is its own. Swinging flies for Kings is not the same as swinging flies for steelhead. They hold in different water. They eat differently. They even fight differently. More than any other species of Pacific Salmon, Kings seem to be the most selective about when and what they will eat. I saw this first hand in Alaska. There were days when you simply could not get them to come to your fly. Above all, fishing for Kings is a hunt.
It's dark still as you wind up the hill in the predawn of late fall. The Coastal Redwoods diminish as you gain in elevation, giving way to the mixed woods of birch, oak, madrone and manzanita. The leaves have started to turn color as you ascend the last ridge and drop down the other side. You get the first glimpse of the river far below you. The Trinity cuts through the valley, black and mysterious in the dim light. Steelhead have come back home, and your heart leaps at the thought of bringing one to hand. Standing there, perched above the river off the road with the sun still buried behind the mountains, you feel that you are truly home.
You fish the river, enjoying the slow and measured pace of swinging your fly through a familiar run. The trees tower overhead, filtering the crisp fall light as it cuts through the timber and finds the river, dappled and golden. Leaves fall quietly on the water through the warm October air while you work your way down to the best part of the run, the bucket. You should be focused now but your mind wanders away from you, back to the Peninsula, to the desolation of tundra and the sweet smell of Labrador tea.
When I first spoke to Rus on the phone he was blunt.
So you wanna be a guide in Alaska huh?
That's how it began. I wouldn't meet the man who would become my boss until several months down the road. As I stepped off of a helicopter in the middle of f*cking nowhere, the thought going through my head, what have I got myself into this time, I finally meet the big man in the flesh and shake his hand. The helicopter winds up, lifts off and disappears into the vast open country of South-Western Alaska. Now it's just me and these two strange dudes surrounded by a sea of wilderness. The next several days are pure grunt work. Putting up tents, digging holes in frozen ground and getting a crash course in Alaska bush etiquette while trying to acclimate to twenty hours of sunlight. It's exhausting and thrilling all at once.
Then we go fishing. Rus takes me and Chris (Tahoe) across the open expanse of tundra that separates our camp from the creek we will guide on. It's a march over the spongy uneven terrain to get to the water. I've never seen anything quite like it before. The ground looks like coral. It's covered in succulents and mosses with occasional flushes of flowers. Monks Hood, Chocolate lilies and Labrador tea. The latter is an evergreen shrub that grows everywhere on the open tundra. It resembles rosemary, and its scent is intoxicating. Stunted spruce try to make a stand but look conspicuously alone in the vast desolation that seems to stretch on for untold miles in every direction. We come to the river at a place where it makes a wide sweeping bend. It's small water by Alaskan standards, but anywhere else and you would call it a medium sized river. We walk upstream, with Rus pointing out important landmarks and describing the different sections, or beats of the creek.
There are well worn game trails that traverse the ground we cover. We follow them up river for what seems like miles, finally dropping down through thick stands of willow and alder to the creek. We fish, and the fishing is out of this world. Chris and I, both having never fished the water before know that we should try various methods to see what works. But we don't do that. We tie on mice, and don't take them off.
We fish down river, covering miles of water as we go. Leapfrogging one another on a day that is the perfect combination of pleasant warm weather with slightly overcast skies. Every inch of water that seems like it could hold a fish does. It is fantastic. The trout are so eager to eat the mouse that they miss it on the first, second and sometimes third attempt. We stop for lunch on a bank with head high grass and Chris spots a Grizzly traversing a ridge opposite us. The animal stands as high as a horse with 10 times the mass. I cannot believe its size. It makes the hill look small. We fish until late afternoon before heading back across the open tundra towards camp, the aromatic scent of Labrador tea swirling around our heads like smoke from a campfire. Later, I realize that it was probably the best day of fishing I've had in my life.
Once we start receiving clients the weeks all seem to blur together. Different species of fish make an appearance with every new week. Rainbows give way to Dolly Varden. Chum Salmon give way to Chinook. The bears come for the salmon and with each passing day encounters become more and more commonplace. By the fourth week the days are already noticeably shorter compared to when I first arrived. The three of us fish one more time together. We shoot down to the mouth of our creek in the sled, Chris at the tiller, the sun harsh and brilliant as evening sets in over Bristol Bay far to the west. To the east dark clouds mount an assault on Katmai and the snow peaked volcanic range that towers over the landscape disappears under a veil of thunderheads.
The next day we say farewell to our last group and begin to break down camp. I lift off from the gravel bar in the late afternoon and wave down to the two minute figures who stand below, waving back up at the bird as it banks hard over the camp that I called home for the last month. Back to King Salmon; to running water, cable tv, beer on tap, and doorways. The first half of the program is over, but the real show is yet to begin.
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Wet weather has returned to the North-Coast with the first big system making landfall today. Looks to be a decent storm with enough juice to give all of our local rivers a much needed push. The coast is in play. All rivers subject to low flow closures will have enough of a rise to open. Time to retire the Scandi's and file away your box of skaters and hair-wings. It's time to break out the T-14 and twist up some scary bugs.
I cut my teeth fishing on the Trinity River when I first moved to Humboldt County. It's where I learned how to read steelhead water, cast a spey rod, and swing a fly. Now, when I fish on the Trinity it feels like meeting with an old friend. It, along with the Klamath River, is one of the last strongholds for summer run steelhead in Northern California. While there are numerous methods and techniques used to target Trinity River steelhead, it is hard to imagine one more pleasurable than a well swung traditional gliding across a picture perfect run.
It's hard to say what time it is, but easy to say it is late. You can forget about getting a good nights sleep. Knees curled up in the back seat of the jeep, the stale odor of dog vomit and forgotten fast food perforate the air inside the cab. Not even the whisky can save you. Outside the wind builds to a gail. It howls out of the northwest, belligerent and cold. It shakes the cab with violent gusts; whips the dirt into a frenzy out over the distant playa, and seems to feed off of the enormous ancient lake below. Pyramid Lake spreads out like a dark serpent writhing in the midnight wind; it's strangeness only upstaged by the creatures that call it home.
Texas, 1868. We see a woman dressed in faded linens heading towards a doorway through a darkened room. She opens the door and goes through. We go with her as she steps out into the open expanse of the American West. Before her is a great unknowable wilderness. A figure mounted on horseback approaches.
December 26, 2015. Dusk. Somewhere on the Smith River. It grows darker by the minute at the end of a hard day of fishing. It is your maiden day back on the water after the river has made its first significant rise of the winter season and is dropping into perfect shape. You blow a cast. The head wraps around the tip of the rod and fixes itself stubbornly in a tangled mess. Defeated you wade back unto the shore, set the rod down carefully and go about unwrapping the jumbled nest of line and leader. A procession of cars go by on the road across the river and you feel embarrassed to be fucking around with your tackle instead of fishing.
You consider buttoning up the rod and calling it, but reconsider, and resolve to step back into the tail-out determined to make one more decent cast before heading up to camp. The ritual commences. The pull of the river at your knees. The deafening thrum of the rapid below. You pay line out. Focus on your hands. Hold two 5 count loops. Snap T. Wait for it. Pull with your bottom hand. It feels right, and you manage to make one last good cast as the day hurries to its end. The line swings into the soft inside edge. Cars pass on the highway, their lights strobing through the guard rail. You watch as two small eddies circle each other in the slack water hemmed in by the ribbon of line fluttering down stream from where you stand. They cartwheel around each other, draw closer, accelerate, merge into one and disappear. Some strange electricity stirs. The universe condenses, wobbles, and yawns.
The grab is sudden and violent. It wrenches the rod downward and bucks with such force that it becomes immediately clear that this is an especially large fish. You let out a savage, incoherent yell for your friend who has been fishing above you. You try desperately to hold the fish in the tail out, but it is futile. He points his head downstream into the maul of the rapid and leaves the pool. A truck stops along the road and a man jumps from his pickup to watch the ensuing struggle. Your friend is beside you now as you look hopelessly down river. Death water below, line peeling out from the reel, nearly dark. You don't think it's possible to follow him, but just as all hope fades your buddy rallies and says quietly.....
........We can do this.
What ensues is nothing short of death defying. Clasping to willows with one hand, rod bent on the fish of a life time in the other. Clamoring up boulders. Yelling and cussing. Surely the rod will break, surely the fish will get off. Finally a clearing and a platform to stand on to regain control, assess the situation, but it is too late. The fish makes one more run, the drag whines for mercy, and just like that the fish is off. You reel in. The fly remains tied to the leader and for that small victory you are thankful. There is nothing left of the day.
You face your friend, who soldiered on with you, putting himself into water that no sane person would go near. All in the vain hope to see this creature. To hold it for a moment. To know it. Silence and disbelief give way to laughter and cheers. What sport. What insanity. What a fish. You both feel your way back through the dark wood-lined hill into the open meadow where you have made camp. It is time for whiskey, supper and revelry. You chop firewood with a new ax. Its blade sharp as a razors edge. The adrenaline still courses through your blood as you both relive the battle. It is night. December 26, 2015.
1.4 billion light years from Earth two black holes consume each other. The event generates enough energy to send ripples through time and space. The waves stretch on for an eternity. Oceans become mountains. Kingdoms rise and fall. On December 26th 2015 the singularity finally reaches Earth.
February 27th, 2017. Somewhere on the Redwood Coast. Midday. It is an act of faith to continue further ahead from this point. The remnants of an old logging road disappear into the thicket of redwood, fir, and hemlock that populate the steep hillside descending before you. You wager that something will materialize in the dense woods to show you the way, and soon enough you hear the familiar sound of trickling water. A small rivulet gives way to a creek. It cascades in steps down the hill; a beautiful oasis of fern and downed timber carved into the lush rainforest. Little by little you see hints of a translucent glow through the stands of timber. You are getting closer. You reach the bottom. Pushing branches of willow aside, you emerge from the dark woods and step out onto the open expanse of gravel bar. The moss that grows on the stones seems ancient. No one comes here.
You fish the run thoroughly without a touch. It has been this way. So much good water, and no fish to show for it. Sometimes it seems like steelheading becomes an exercise in the abstract. That you are purely casting and not fishing. At other times you feel as if you are some sort of 21st century buffalo hunter. Searching for the last remnants of a once abundant species.
You rest the water. Smoking a cigarette under a canopy of dripping alders you notice the deep crescent scar you wear on your left hand. You think of the night it was put there. The moment your hand wavered ever so slightly to bring that ax blade across the gap of your thumb and forefinger. You think of the fish you had fought merely minutes beforehand. You think of the man who got out of his truck up on the highway to watch you. Did he see it down there? Did he see it flash a streak of silver from the road as it bucked on the line? He must have.
Reno Nevada, March 6th. Evening. Aaron's making fried chicken with mushroom risotto while his daughter Marlow and I play a game where we sculpt objects out of clay and have to guess what they are. It's been a crazy weekend. So much snow has fallen in the Sierras that they've closed the I-80. I'm marooned, and all I can think about is getting back to the coast for the last winter steelheading of the season. My phone lights up from a text and Marlow sees the face of an old cowboy wearing an eyepatch come onto the screen.
That old man on your phone.
You don't know who this man is?
I hold the phone up so she can get a better look but she shakes her head no defiantly. Her father steps over to see and laughs as he looks at the glowing screen.
That's John Wayne baby.
Another round of heavy precipitation has dampened all fishing prospects here on California's Northcoast once again. Every river from Sonoma to Del Norte is set for a series of roller coaster dips and rises. The Klamath looks to be primed for the most dramatic surge, flirting with 300,000 CFS.
Nothing for it except to break out the vice and whip up the next round of flies in anticipation of green water in the days and weeks ahead. I've been revisiting John Shewey's Classic Steelhead Flies between fits of rain to re immerse myself in the old patterns and history of the sport.
Finally, I always find myself returning to Davie McPhail for fly tying inspiration. With his soft spoken lilting Scottish accent, the man is the Bob Ross of fly tying. Enjoy.
Reposted from: http://www.fullingmill.co.uk/
Two short videos featuring Roderick Haig Brown on his home river.
Reposted from https://www.youtube.com/user/Oysterboiler/featured.
Reposted from https://www.youtube.com/user/Oysterboiler/featured.
From the dark highway you can make them out far off on the lip of the horizon. Strange orbs of light oscillating on a seemingly endless expanse of empty space. They cast a phosphorus glow beneath them and upon the water that engulfs them, like some vision of small cities scattered over a dark prairie.
They are crab boats, and it is winter, and on a lightless highway you drive the familiar route in the early morning hours you have driven so many countless times before. The boats out at sea have become a reassuring and welcome sight, their appearance a harbinger for a time you have waited patiently for and now that time has come again. Over the years you have come to find a solidarity with the nameless folks who stand aboard those distant ships, for they brave the bitter cold and violent seas of winter in search of something that lies unseen, and you, on your way north, are in search of the same. You manage one last look out to where a line of them appear and disappear in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, and wonder if any of the men on those sparkling islands of light look back towards the land and see you. A dull blip of light snaking along the winding road that hugs the sea as you make the pilgrimage north to fish for steelhead.
As winter steelhead anglers most of us come to understand certain truths that transcend our individual means and methods of targeting these fish. Namely that catching one is really fucking hard. Especially for those of us that at some point choose to live the more monastic life of a fly fisherman, and further so for that band of individuals who decide for one reason or another that they will solely swing flies when targeting this one unique species. I never grew up with these fish or these rivers, so for me they will always hold some exoticness; a singular otherness that I feel deserves extraordinary means when seeking them out. That is how I came to cast my allegiance to swing flies for these fish without exception, but I have always found it odd and intriguing how many of the people I've met through this pursuit come to a similar decision. Even more perplexing is how that other bastion of steelhead anglers, who hold the same fish in their hands when they are lucky enough to meet one, can think only that it will make for a triumphant photograph to display their prowess as a hunter and nothing more. Perhaps this goes to the heart of that unbridgeable gap between fellow fishermen who meet on the banks of anadromous waters? For what is to some a creature of mythical reverence is to others just a fish, like any other, and while they are the hunters of those fish, often by any means necessary, we have become something else in our pursuit, something apart.
Winter steelheading can bring revelries that are hard to explain or imagine to outsiders. We must seem like a bunch of half possessed nut jobs when we gush and exclaim the intimacies of a grab, or the way a fish peeled line, often devolving into some strange protolanguage of dramatized whines when we describe the sound our reel made. A series of:
Or, Whub Whub Whub REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
And I was like: WHOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
...........Or something like that. But isn't it that way, after all? At times there's that strange electricity right before it happens, and the sureness of the moment when it does. The flush of fear when a big fish takes and turns and you know you've really done it this time, that perhaps you hadn't bargained for all of what is to follow? The way the butt of your rod seems to hum in your hand as that heavy tackle cuts deep and you know that big leggy fly on the other end of your line is down there in dark water glowing like a lantern. You silently chant to yourself; Right now. Right now. Right there. Eat it. Eat it. Eat the fly. A strange voodoo that always seems afoot on the one in a thousand days when you luck upon not just a single fish but many, and suddenly catching a winter steelhead on a swung fly becomes like any other fishing for the briefest of moments in time. You hook one and bring it to hand clean and fair on a fly you tied the night prior while thinking of the very water you now find yourself on knowing that what you had imagined was made possible through sheer attrition and dedication alone. The quiet pride and self assuredness you find in the waining minutes and hours that follow a good fight and release. The light and air of the place. The stillness. The clarity that overcomes your doubting self when after all of those hours spent searching and swinging and going for broke you are ultimately rewarded in that infinitesimal moment when the line wrenches tight as a fish comes from some unseen place and utterly destroys your fly. It is enough of a thing to change a person, to convert them in their beliefs. And if you could live for a thousand years you would never let those far away memories of when that fish finally grabbed be diminished, because it was as if you had discovered the last bit of magic left in a world deplete of wonder.
Standing atop a high rock of ancient stone a lone figure is seen peering into green water made brilliant by the dampening winter sky. He is quiet and still for a long time as he stands there motionless with a rod in hand that is cartoonish in length. Adorning the straps of his waders are strange fluorescent things that flutter in the breeze and seem to come alive only to become inert and still again. He does not notice you, or if so does nothing to acknowledge your presence. He is focused solely on the water that thrums before him, searching for something unknowable. You watch him from your vantage point on the opposite side of the river, all the while wondering how it is he came to be there in that spot. Becoming envious for it is the better place to fish, you suddenly realize that the figure has vanished from his lookout and is gone.
You fish until all of the light has gone from the run and the canyon below now lies mostly in shadow. Although the day has been unseasonably warm you are sure that another bitterly cold night awaits you back at camp. You step out of the run, but not before climbing onto a high slab of boulder and turning to look over the water one last time. It is water you have fished many times before, countless times, but today is different. Today it has offered two fish. One brought to hand, another lost at your feet. How uncanny and mysterious these winter fish are. Materializing like apparitions from their shadowed keeps, the water glowing as if lit from within. The sheer jubilation of it still radiates fresh through your memory. You silently tell yourself to remember this feeling, to hold onto it and guard it, for they do not come easy or often and there is no substitute for it. You think of the fish you brought to hand. A hen. Not a single mark on her body. Amazing for a fish that has swam through the water between this place and the sea. A gauntlet of class 5 rapids and bolder strewn runs. Yet she is perfect. Still chrome bright, her pectoral fins translucent. Her sides shimmering like mercury. Perhaps she has spent two or three years out at sea, and you wonder, as you have always wondered when you get the opportunity to bring one of these creatures to hand, about the gulf of time and space that laid between you both until this day. The enormity of it. The strange nuances and disparate events occurring simultaneously, and how none of them could have transpired in any other way for either of you to have met. It sounds like I'm talking about falling in love. Perhaps it is so.
You make it back to camp just as the last light of day seeps out of the sky. A fire is started and food is made and you relive the revelries of the day with friends as the frost from your breath becomes thick as smoke. And you do smoke, and share some whisky. The stars come out and you wonder if you can find Andromeda out there amidst the glistening firmament. You fall asleep thinking of the fish that grabbed and bucked off the line. What was it? Was it another hen or a buck maybe? How many more were in the run...Tomorrow you will rise and go searching for the next one.
Sometimes it can feel like the entire year revolves around this moment. When the nights overcome the days in length, and the heavy rains come, and with them the first big runs of winter steelhead enter their natal rivers and streams. The wait is over at long last.
This is only the beginning. Currently every river up and down the coast is set to approach flood stage. Once they drop in it should be game on.
It had been a listless day. The kind that begins with great ambitions and is slowly whittled down to an afternoon malaise. A dusty old record of American folk music on the player. A kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. Chickens strutting aimlessly through the yard. The cold concrete floor of the garage where the fly tied up last night sits idle and lonely in the vice, patiently waiting for its day.
You check the graphs one more time to see what the rivers are doing. All are on the rise. You stare at radar images of the Pacific Ocean. The massive glob of green with yellows and reds at its center churning relentlessly to the south, bound north, lashing the coast with torrential rains and high wind and surf as it makes its way towards you. Another big storm is coming, and it brings a quiet smile as you sit in the afternoons silence of your living room.
But the day is not spent, not yet. Grab the coat, a plastic bag, a knife, and out the door. The heavy rains of fall have done more than open up all the rivers to an unprecedented fishing season on the coast. The woods are alive with fungi. You go to a familiar place. A hill just outside of town, mostly comprised of second and third growth conifers. Above are hemlocks, sitkas and the occasional young redwood mixed in with the ubiquitous grove of alder. Below there are sword ferns, polypody ferns, huckleberry and salmonberry. Making your way up the hill you start to see mushrooms. Slippery Jacks mostly, false chanterelles, russulas. You go deeper into the forest, heading for a ridge you know to be good. The sky becomes a deep navy grey, and the woods grow dark. You pass downed trees come alive with colonies of mycelium. Witches hat, corals, and the incendiary glow of witches butter. The trees click and moan as the front approaches, but you pay less attention now to the outside world as you near the good ground. Your eyes focus on the hillside before you, and at first all is colored dun and rust, the somber palette of the forest floor. Then you start to see them. Bright like gold in the ever darkening woods. Chanterelles. Lots and lots of chanterelles.
It started way back in October. An early fall storm had amassed off the coast and was projected to bring a deluge from the Olympic Peninsula to San Francisco. Enough to bring all rivers into play. To bring in the first throngs of fall run King Salmon. The scourge of the seemingly never ending drought which has plagued the entire west coast, always becoming the most acute in the fall, would be vanquished and out of mind for at least a week. A small window it seemed to do something that had before only existed as a hypothetical. To swing flies for kings. For fresh, dime bright, coastal leviathans. It was time to get busy behind the vice. Time to scrutinize old nail knots. Time to retie arbor and Albrights'. Time to reorganize sink tips and rig up the heavy stuff. These rituals had come early, but carried with them an added gravity. It was time to go fishing for kings.
The storm came and lashed the coast and made good on its promise to shit rain and turn all of the coastal rivers into brown torrents of water. It would be a long time before many would become fishable, but the Smith, as is true in winter, would be the first to come into play. The first day I saw it the river was still huge. I hardly recognized her. What is usually a beautiful bejeweled turquoise stain was a dirty grey slate. Neil met me around noon and we explored Mill Creek and he showed me where one of the largest known Coastal Redwoods live. We camped beside the river, next to the ashes of a dead woman who had loved the view from our camp site. Her family had come earlier in the day, and her widower shyly asked if it would be okay to scatter the ashes. We obliged, feeling awkward. How could you say no? We made a fire and got drunk on whiskey and laughed about our good fortune with the rains and talked about religion and women and the history of the world while we both stared into the diminishing fire.
Morning came. We both arose before the dawn and suited up in the grey half light. The first boats had already started to appear up river as we stepped into the run. The water had dropped a foot or more since last evening. It felt fishy as all hell. Soon a boat had a take down and were hot to a fish. And then another was on a fish. They're in. We fished out the early morning without any action. Neil left to grab something from the camp and I took off my MOW tip and dark fly and replaced them with a straight chunk of T-14 and a bright fly. There was an older man who had come down from the park and was watching the boats and I as we fished. I made a shit cast, stripped in, made an adjustment and sent one. The reel burped as the running line came taught and the head and tip and fly turned over past the seam and I pulled up hard and abrupt on the rod to let the whole lot of it sink, dig into the Smith, and swing. The grab came right where you'd expect. In the transition water. On the inside. A series of heavy thumps, the rod tip bucking violently with each tug. A Smith River king had just eaten my swung fly. My heart jumped. I looked at the man on the bank who was edging closer to me and making his camera ready.
Looks like I'll finally get to see a fish.
And that effigy was about all I could muster. The fish never moved. It sat in place in heavy water where it had eaten the fly and bucked and bucked and finally it was gone. I reeled in. There was the fly. It had just been in a salmons mouth and now I held it in my hand in disbelief. I looked at the hook incredulously and thought about a Thomas McGuane story about him burning a fly with a match. Neil came back and I told him my fish story. We fished there for the rest of the day. Kings would roll sporadically through out the day but neither of us touched one save for a Jack I caught soon after the first fish. The sawtoothed outline of the giant trees across the river from us veiled the sun and it seemed to be dark before we realized what time it was.
The focal point would continue to be the Smith for the next few weeks. What was at first an anomalous early fall rain event turned into a series of storms that constantly replenished the rivers. Since that first heavy rain during the middle of October no river subject to low flow closures has closed. Halloween came and went. The Cubs broke their curse at long last, and we fished for kings. Eventually there was a lull in the heavy weather. The Smith dropped down to 8ft and we turned our eyes to the smaller, more intimate setting of the short coastal rivers and streams that everyone whispers about but will never name.
We fished several of these rivers. Between California and Oregon there are so many that some endure in complete obscurity save for the few salty locals who have fished them their entire lives. There was a day Neil and I fished a small creek and it seemed as if we had the entirety of that water to ourselves. We waded from run to run, always hoping to startle a big king from its shadowed keep. Hoping to see one dart up a tail-out throwing spray off its back. It was Neil who caught not one or two but four big adults fishing these small systems. It became common to hear him yell out from above or below me, and I would look over once again to see his 7wt Dually doubled over to the cork. His click pawl reel pleading for mercy. The light tackle never faltered. Not a single one of the four fish that were hooked got off.
We fished on a day when a bad storm was making ready to sack the coast. You could see it sitting out there over the sea on the drive down to where we would fish this day. The horizon dark like a bruise. The parts of the sea being lit by sun appearing almost tropical in color by contrast. By the afternoon it was really starting to turn foul. The wind had begun to blow violently and the rain fell in white sheets. We suited up beside my pickup for one more go of it. There is a feeling amongst most fisherman that fishing through a storm can yield unbelievable results. I have experienced it several times. The ocean wasn't far from us and you could hear the surf crashing and I think we both thought silently to ourselves that if there ever was a time or a place to hook into a hot fish that this was it. Salmon were rolling in tide water. We were standing there in the abysmal weather making spey casts while waves moving up from the mouth surged past us and brought the downstream flow to an ebb.
We fished a run above. Small and choked up but deeper than you'd guess. Neil fished a chartreuse squid fly above me. The light was all but gone from the day and the storm seemed to be centered directly above us when Neil yelped and then yelled out. He had hooked a fish. A big fish. His rod had a bend in it that looked dire. His line was stretched taught directly out from him, not moving. You'd think he was snagged. Suddenly the fish made a burst upriver. A salmon jumped on the far bank. It jumped again. We hooted to each other. I squared away my rod on the bank and got ready for I don't know what. It felt like we were both holding our breath to see what would happen next. The big fish charged up to the very head of the run but wouldn't move beyond it. Slowly Neil turned it and we started side stepping our way down river. The water was dark and beginning to muddy up on the bank. The fish took its time, never making any fast or sudden runs. Neil could bring him half way in from the far bank to us but no further before the fish would lurch and turn and go right back to the deeper heavier water. We waded down and down with the fish. I made ready to tail it. Neil had fought him down the run for 60 yards or so. Both of us kept peeling glances over to look down river to where it braided and split around an island of shrubby willows. The end of the line. I kept on trying to get within reach of the fish, but it stayed out and away from the bank. Eventually I found myself waded half way out into the river hoping it would show itself. Looking for color. Meanwhile Neil is on the bank stooped over, knees bent and rod low and parallel to the beach. His rod looks like it could pop. He's clasping his click pawl for dear life. The fish and him are at a stand still and I can see he is getting exhausted. But it comes in more and more and finally I see an enormous bronze orb as it tires and turns on its side for the first time. It turns again. I come within a few feet of it before it dissolves back into the murk. Neil brings it in again. This is it. He brings the fish within reach and I plunge both hands in and grab it around its tail and as I do we both start laughing hysterically for the fish is truly huge. Much larger than either of us thought, and as I hold it in both of my hands and feel the mass of its body resting upon my arms I feel as if I am holding something as large as a child. We can't believe our eyes. It is unreal. We're both soaking wet, being pelted by rain in the crepuscule light of the late afternoon seeing something with our own eyes that is the embodiment of what it is to fish. To dream of fish, to always have hope for something that scarcely ever happens, seems impossible, unreachable. The big fish. The wild fish. The chrome fish. A king.
We kept ourselves in good fishing. The rains kept coming offering free refills. We ate wild mushrooms and casually swung flies for chrome bright kings fresh in from the salt. I paid some hard dues. Least of them being right there on so many good days of fishing and coming up empty. The hardest pill having a very nice camera stolen from under my nose while fishing. You fish through bad luck, knowing that all it takes is one solid grab to turn everything right side up. I'm still waiting for another. If I learned anything after a solid month of King Salmon fishing it would be this: they're not like steelhead. They are, however, a lot like our coastal cutthroat. If you can decipher good holding water for cutthroat in a small creek and project that knowledge onto some of the smaller coastal systems you might find yourself surprised. I never put a lot of effort into stripping the fly in after a swing when I'm steelhead fishing, at least not after the first initial strips. For kings it seemed entirely different. Similar to fishing for cutthroat I had a lot of short strikes and takes on the strip. I had a king take on a stripped fly (a huge intruder style fly) and then wake away from it on the bank. I think I had a heart arrhythmia shortly thereafter. Short strikes and shallow takes were incredibly common. Normally I'd tell myself it was a cutthroat or a half-pounder or a smolt. Usually that is the case, when you're steelhead fishing. But when Neil kept on getting little taps and then set on one and produced a nice 12-15 pound fish I started thinking about every little hiccup differently. There were a lot of those mysterious dead stops when I would be swinging my fly through the juiciest part of the run. It was always subtle but unmistakable. The dull weight of something on the other end of the line. So many times I would wait for the eat, and then nothing. We were able to isolate certain characteristics of runs where fish would seem to stack up and would focus our attention strictly on very specific features. The kings seemed to prefer the top or head of a run, unlike most winter run steelhead who in my experience prefer tail outs and the guts of a run. We found them in sandy holes, a feature I would pass over 9 times out of 10 if I were looking for steelhead. They always seemed to be tight to structure. They would gravitate towards downed branches and wood in the water. Sometimes it seemed like the damned fish were in the structure rather than next to it. Finally, they ate chartreuse. I don't think I'll ever use a different color when it comes to kings fresh in from the salt.
So far its been a remarkable season. As I write this rain is falling, rattling on the metal vent of the roof and bringing all the rivers up once again. The runs of salmon are curtailing now, making way for the first vanguard of winter steelhead. Stay tuned...
At the end of his fall guide season on the Klamath, Neil Montgrain brings this trophy specimen to hand. This coastal cutthroat fell prey to a swung intruder style sculpin pattern.
Meanwhile, the first big storm of the season is making ready to sack the Northcoast. These early fall storms are rare, and while most folks might dismay at such inclement weather, for those of us who love swinging flies for sea-runs a big storm like this is just shy of a miracle.
All of our coastal rivers are primed for their first big rises and drops. Stay tuned...things should get interesting throughout the next few weeks.
Summer runs holding in a cold water refuge waiting for cooler nights and the first fall rains. Look closely for the rarest of rare creatures, an albino summer steelhead.