Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Migration Begins

I thought this summer would never come to pass. My first hint of its demise transpired one crisp August morning on the banks of the Henry’s Fork. While patiently waiting for death to reveal itself, a perceptible change in the air that wasn’t there previously suddenly gathered my attention. Although subtle, it was noteworthy. Back home falls first shades of crimson now randomly litter the valleys surround parched hillsides. As September approaches there is evidence of a change, but falls reluctance to emerge from summers grip yields a growing concern.

In anticipation of seasonal change we to alter our fishing habits spurred by the return of an anadramous fish whose journey near its end. Analogous to the timing of such natural phenomenon a small group of anglers appear in dawns gathering light at a near-by park. For several decades this congregations has assembled in anticipation. Approaching the water the parks resident waterfowl vocally voice their displeasure in their arrival. They gather at a safer distance to watch. Soon the still airs silence is broken with the resonance of their long rods as theses casters repeatedly work to hone their skills, their rods and techniques evidence of a time long past.

Greg Smith, who first introduced me to steelhead fishing with a fly emphatically stated while sipping a few cold ones, “When I get before the almighty the first question I’m asking the man is; why steelhead?” That was twenty one years ago. Collin Schadrech that same year said I’d never be the same after visiting the rivers of British Columbia that fateful fall. He was right. Since then, I’ve spent countless hours at day break in preparation of these mysterious travelers, an obsession that I now share with a growing passionate few.

Last evening at dinner with several staff members these fish worked their way into our conversation. At this late juncture in the year, that’s not unusual. Matt, who’s always wound tight, was seeking affirmation regarding his decision to get married. Coincidentally his matrimonial status would interfere with a trip to the Salmon scheduled for later in the season. Knowing his wife to be, obviously his better half, it took another couple of beers to convince him that he should stay the course. The fact that one would contemplate such is testimony to the addictiveness of fly fishing for steelhead. He wasn’t the first to surrender all aspects of reason to these fish, nor will he be the last.

As days pass and summers persistent heat reluctantly surrenders the frequency of such exchanges grows. My first of many phone calls from my extended family in British Columbia came around the same time as our sessions at the park began. It was one of many. Reports from various locations across the northwest precipitate many a conversation. For the past decade, with global implications affecting the world’s fragile ecosystems, these conversations carry considerable concern for on these waters there are consistently fewer fish. Yet, for those who pursue these fish, it’s not about numbers. If you can’t be content with a chance encounter, you should stick to other more predictable species.

After a concluding a recent early morning sessions in the park, and my last late night tying session I’ll soon be headed north. It’s what I live for and have since my first steelhead. Should I catch a fish or two, I’d consider myself fortunate after experiencing many a wet cold day on the water with nothing to show. But it’s that which often times seems unobtainable that I like the most about this game and most when it comes to fishing with a fly. It’s true also of the Henry’s Fork where lost opportunities create fanatical followers. Steelheaders are much the same. What other species of fish wills the angler to endure such challenges with hope as their only lure dangling form the end of ones line. In my experience, none.

Friday, August 03, 2007

A Perfect Day

At 6:00am the air felt cooler than it had been the previous four mornings. Dew on the seasons dying grasses and the adjoining waters dense layer of fog visually confirmed what my body sensed. I was up early, this being my last day. The sun had yet to crest the eastern horizon. I quickly made coffee and took in little sustenance before heading out. The previous morning’s fish were up by the time I and my companions arrived. I wanted to be there prior to the rivers residents taking notice of the dying mayflies that would soon be floating overhead.

For the past several days fishing had been good precipitated by summer’s heat reluctantly yielding to cooler temperatures. A much needed reprieve for this and other western rivers that have suffered through another season of minimal rainfall and record breaking heat. The previous evening the heavens released a brief washing of refreshing rain. Something I hadn’t seen or felt since early June. The storms electrical intensity had my rod arching in my hand. The first subtle shock got my attention. The second sent the it off into the nearby sagebrush. As the air crackled I was wondering if I’d used up another of those nine lives. For a moment it wasn’t funny.

It was a short drive to the river from camp. Exiting my vehicle morning’s cool air was still damp from the previous evening’s storm. Overhead not a cloud littered the vast blue sky. For now I was the only person present. Other than a few vacationers, that’s how it’s been every day. Casually I began the ritual of suiting up while sipping the last of my caffeinated dregs. Before finishing, several of my friends casually began to arrive. Milling around in various states of consciousness, depending on how many beers one had had the evening before, the sound of a hastened vehicle disrupted any semblance of calm. A level of anxiety followed its arrival. Noticing our presence its occupants quickly exited their oversized truck and began to dress. It was obvious they intended to beat us to the punch. Already dressed, I casually made my way to the water, noticing the Texas license plates as I passed. My departure didn’t go unnoticed.

Having had four good days behind me, I wanted to enjoy some solitude for as long as possible. It was a short walk to the river from where we parked. By now each of us had our spots where previous days challenges had gone unfinished. Yesterday, I missed a very nice fish after a long patient effort. It took my Honey Ant as aggressively as it had the numerous naturals that drifted overhead. Setting the hook, only the slightest tensions was felt before the fly came free. I had hopes of having another opportunity this day.

Crossing the first of three channels, all was quiet. I cautiously made my way to the small island where I would sit in anticipation. Matted grasses showed where we’d patiently hunkered down previously. For now I was alone. Across the way a mature Bald Eagle leveraged its body into the nook of a dead tree as an irate Osprey assaulted it from above. It was obvious that neither was happy. After a while the Osprey succumbed to the futile situation. Noticing a return to calm a sibling joined the mature raptor. If this day should fail to unfold as the others, the view was worth the effort.

Before me lay a vista of ancient glass, the rivers current barely evident as it flowed around me. A random Callibaetis spinner lay dying on the water and slowly drifted by. Not enough yet to stir the rivers larger rainbows into taking notice, but it was still early. As the air warmed clouds of Caddisflies and swarming Trico’s gathered. The past mornings spinnerfalls had been excellent, extended by a calm that’s a rarity in this basin. For the past four mornings before the last dying mayfly floated by, we were treated to a shower of Honey Ants. This delicacy is cherished by angler and trout alike. My friends, having never fished this river before, were treated to something that I’ve rarely encountered here in thirty odd years of fishing these waters.

My buddies from Texas eventually emerged from the parking area again disrupting my mornings calm. Like buffalo they waded into the river oblivious to anything. Where they stood and flogged the water a number of nice fish had dimpled the waters surface the previous day. Such would not be the case today, at least anytime soon. Before long several other anglers came lumbering up from the parking lot, my friends interspersed among them. It looks like our visit to the local fly shops the previous day had tipped our hand. Where over the past days we seen virtually no one else, today there were ambling bodies surrounding us. I hunkered down.

It took sometime before the first nose rose to take morning’s first offerings. Typical of the sequence, it was a smaller fish and not what I was looking for. It soon was joined by several others. I tried to hold off the anxiety of last mornings as time passed and none of the larger fish who’d agonizingly inspected my imitations over the previous days appeared. Halfway through the morning a cool gust dispersed the mating insects. As time passed the wind increased, the gathering spinners scattered and never found the water.

Eventually I found a nice fish up at the tail of the island. I put one of my friends on the steady feeder since he’d yet to land a nice fish. Jon and some of my old high school friends traveled from Ohio to fish these famous waters with me. Given how challenging these waters are, we were fortunate to have the tides turn during our brief stay. We both had a date with a fish this morning. He eventually got his. I on the other hand was less fortunate. Three hours had passed with me hunkered among the islands tall grasses quietly watching. For the first time since arriving my reel would not disturb the stillness. If you fish here, you get accustom to such days.

Eventually I left my perch. I didn’t wander far. I noticed after a while that Jon had also moved on. I passed several other wandering anglers looking for the ants they’d been promised to find here: “you should have been here yesterday”. Reality was setting in. I smiled at the ambling scene before me feeling fortunate knowing that our stay could have been filled with fruitless wanderings.

As I headed back my gaze took in the beauty of the area. Views that for the past thirty some years I’ve never tired of. Now only a handful of anglers worked the waters to splashy risers. Little did they know they were fishing to Whitey’s. The more experienced anglers sat and waited or cautiously made their way through the tall grasses that bordered this river in hopes of finding a rising trout feeding on the meager remnants from the mornings affairs. If you fish here, such is the game.

I relived much of the past days fortunes as I stowed my gear away for the last time. An old Neil Young album played in the background. It was an album that was cut when I first starting making the long trek to these hallowed waters. It brought back many fond memories. Morning’s cool breeze rustled the needles of the towering Lodge Poles that shaded my exit. After enduring a summer of intense heat the cool breeze was welcomed even though it stifled the days fishing. At the Park entrance a Red Tail hovered motionless several feet over its prey to my left, its tail and wings illuminated by afternoons intense sun. In an instant it pounced, simply retracting it wings. Proudly it inspected the kill. His success evidence of valuable lessons honed over the years. If one is to have much success on these waters, similar lessons and skills must be learned.

I half expected the day to end as it did. To have had a fifth incredible day would have been a lot to ask from a river that is reluctant to give up its bounty. The Iroquois say that when you see birds of prey you are doing what you like. Often I take this to heart. There are few things in life I prefer more than being on a river. Just to be in a place where trout live, is reward enough. To catch a fish, a bonus.


I wasn’t in the act when this notion came to be. No need to get personal just thought that fact was worth mentioning in. This piece was prompted following an evening jab session at the shop enjoying a few cold ones and of course discussing a favorite topic, fly fishing. Once the topic was breeched, we enjoyed some good laughs over various commodes we’ve encountered during our fishing excursions around the world.

I went back in the archives to drum up my first noteworthy recollection. If you ever fished Silver Creek back in the early 80’s you may remember the outdoor plumbing perched at the bend in the road just past Kilpatrick Bridge. Plywood painted mustard yellow made it hard to miss. This was before the Nature Conservancy put in their luxurious facility at the sign-in cabin.

I’d used this facility a number of times before the irony of it hit me. I remember the moment well. It was one of those very hot July days when nature called. Given there wasn’t anything higher than sage brush, the walk and use of this facility was your only option. It had been so windy that we’d finished fishing for the afternoon choosing to nap or tie some flies while we waited for the evening rise.

It was only a short jaunt to the facilities. Stepping inside most days in July the heat was immediately oppressive. This day it was particularly hot. I’ll leave the odor to your imagination. Looking around once seated for the first time I noticed the bullet holes that riddled the structure. They were accentuated by the sun rays as they penetrated each opening. For a moment my attention was diverted from the task at hand to my awkward position. I’m sitting in a rather vulnerable position at the end of a dry dust road in a sweat box full of bullet holes.

That was the last time I ever used those facilities. Even if the bullet holes had not been present, it wasn’t the most pleasant of circumstances. Talk about a sitting duck.

Steelhead camps predominantly are located in cold climates. Chasing these anadramous travelers has led me to some of the most beautiful places in the world. I recently traveled halfway around the globe to fish the west coast of Kamchatcka. I’d been to Russia previously so I had some gumption of what to expect upon my arrival in this remote camp. I was pleasantly surprised by the lengths our hosts had gone to make their outdoor plumbing accommodating. I still rate their showers as the best of all time….wood heated, incredibly revitalizing after a cold wet day. Wood to fuel the showers had to be flown in, as did everything else that was built here. I’ve yet to be in a more remote wilderness.

Situated some distance from our tents situated at the distal end of a long wooden walk were two outhouses. They blended in well with the rough landscape as did everything that had been built here. By the way it’s true what they say about Russian toilet paper. It takes a little getting use to. To our pleasant surprise our gracious hosts had gone to great lengths to make sure we were all comfortable, but none of us expected a porcelain throne lined with red velvet seat covers. Any short comings these facilities may have had, toilet paper excluded, were overlooked by all as a result of these luxurious accompaniments.

For some reason, steelead fishing latrines made the grade almost exclusively. These facilities are possibly more notable due to their artic quality that many of them posses. Can’t think of a more uncomfortable or shocking experience than a visit to one of many of these frigid boxes that acompany many of our north country’s steelhead rivers in late fall. They don’t exactly lend to jumping from the warm confines of a down relieve oneself when nature calls.

Without a doubt one of the greatest outhouses on the planet is an open door affair strategically located on the Bulkley River in British Columbia. Halfway through Driftwood Canyon is one of the most beautiful camps you’ll ever spend a night in. Part of Frontier Farwest’s steelheading opereation, Twin Camp is appropriately named for its twin shitters. The view from the seat of one is simply epic. I found myself more than once lingering before hitting the river. Before you lies the most scenic of river corridors laced with fir and birch resplendent in falls colors. If you’re fortunate, one of the canyons Balk Eagles will fly by before you depart. For those superstitious souls, always a good omen to start off your day.

To say a visit to this particular commode is a pleasant experience would not be far from the truth given the view. That which we experience on the Salmon River in Idaho provides yet another.

It’s not that the Forest or Park service hasn’t done a good job of building these facilities, typical of their efforts they’ve gone a little overboard. In a pinch there’s plenty of room for a cot with all that’s missing being the kitchen sink. They definitely have a zest of over engineering and design that’s true in the facilities that dot this beautiful river corridor.

Describing the effects of November’s frigid air upon some of your bodies more sensitive body parts first thing in the morning is not exactly the most enjoyable way to begin your day chasing steelhead. The updraft in these roomy facilities is enough to literally freeze one in place. I’m not kidding. Should a gust of wind pass overhead while you’re taking care of business the ensuing waft of frigid air can literally lift you off your seat. It’s always a kick watching the first timers return from this place knowing how chilling the experience can be. It doesn’t take them long to figure out a run to the North Fork is a far more prudent option given the opportunity. That said, we all know that when Nature calls, Nature calls.

We’re all familiar with the unmentionable ones. You’ve a lingering impression or sense of the ones I’m referring to. They are those where human repugnance is beyond comprehension. You don’t even need to open the door should the wind be blowing from the right direction. Should you, you’re faced with the most unpleasant of circumstances. I’ll refrain from such disgusting detail. If you fish, it’s more than likely you’ve been confronted by such repulsive road side or river corridor latrine. I’m sure the images I may have conjured up are sufficient enough to spare any further details.

Everyone who’s spent much time in the outdoors has had an experience with such places. I mentioned to several of the coffee crew about this Blog and the stories began. We shared in a good laugh or two. Given the number of us these days, we just can’t go out in the woods in most places without having an impact. Consequently were finding more and more of such facilities. Given the habits of most people, I’m glad they are there. However, I must say I still prefer a good old squat in the woods when Mother Nature calls. Ah!