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...