Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Rivers of Change

I never seem to tire of a good sunrise or sunset, yet as I grow older the more I appreciate such displays from Mother Nature. I've been told it has to do with aging and the anxiety that arrives with the passing of time recognizing that one day you'll see no more.  These days as years pass days seem like hours, months melt to weeks and life's pace grows more frenetic as the years fade away.  With these realities comes the significance of the simpler things in life, like this morning sunrise, the quiet drift down a free flowing river, swinging flies on a fall day, and a recognition that you get to fish just for the mere pleasure of it all. 

I awoke on the first day of my annual steelhead pilgrimage while others slept or stumbled for coffee scrambling around barefoot trying to capture mornings array of good light. I have taken a hundred or so dramatic photos from walkabouts of early mornings and evenings in the past.  What captured my attention this particular moment was the silhouette of the abandon dory. Not that there aren't a few good photos out there with drift boats in low light, regrettably though you just don't see many of them in this part of the world anymore.

In the west dories are the preferred means of transportation when fly-fishing for trout on waters that accommodate them.  What’s a Salmon Fly hatch without a flotilla of drift boats floating downstream after them?  In the steelhead world where sleds are permitted drift boats have become somewhat of a rarity.   It's one of the reasons I choose to fish with Derek and Andrea of Frontier Farwest. Although they've incorporated a few jet boats since purchasing this lodge from Collin Schadrach, they still use Collin's old Clackas on many of their trips.  They aren't always an option, but when they are I'll take a quiet slow row down a river over the noise, smell and hectic pace motor boats lend to any steelhead day. 

When I first traveled to British Columbia to work for Collin in 1986 he was one of only a handful of steelhead lodge operators, but the only one using drift boats to guide his clients.  With only the rhythmic sound of the oars to alert others of our presence, we often surprised other unsuspecting guides as we'd slip down on them unexpectedly. Most often they would quickly gather their sports prematurely exiting the run and race to the next piece of water before we’d have a chance to get there. Often we’d slip in behind them, have a cup of coffee, some homemade cookies, before proceeding to finish what they failed to. We weren't always successful at picking their pockets, but conversely they weren't always successful in fishing their next piece of preferred water.  When we did scoop a steelhead or two from their vacated pockets there was a certain satisfaction that would accompany our successes and manner in which we chose to fish.

Much has changed since those early years in BC; there were far fewer guides compared to today leaving plenty of water to go around for all who shared in fishing for steelhead.  The few jet boats that were on the river weren't enough to disturb much, which was good considering most lacked ethics.  They're a little more considerate these days, but given that there numbers have grown considerably they have in many regards further eroded the steelheading experience.  What once was a fairly peaceful semblance of compatible flyfishers at times now resembles a frantic race from run to run. Those who prefer jet boats say they don't influence the behavior of a steelhead.  From my experience I question that. 

When I first began fly-fishing these waters it was before two handed rods were popular and all we ever needed were dry flies.  Today finding someone who steelhead fishes with a single handed rod is as rare as finding a steelheader who fly-fishes for these fish with waking flies let a lone just a floating line.   One of the reasons dry line steelheading on many rivers in this region and in the lower 48 is no longer very successful is the traffic has changed, fishing for these wandering fish becoming that much more challenging.  Those who fish tips don't notice the changes as much or realize that many of BC's rivers and others throughout the Northwest were known for their dry fly and dry line steelheading.  Today such is rarely a consideration.  If it is what was once common place is now simply an after thought. 

Although my numbers are not what they use to be, I find the challenges of steelhead fishing with a wet or dry fly even more rewarding than it was several decades ago.  Those I fish with who also remain steadfast in this stubborn endeavor having such an appreciation for a steelhead that will rise to a dry or greased line fly that they to remain stubborn in their dedication regardless of the conditions as well. As you get older and you've been at this game for a while, success and pleasure from fly-fishing comes in a variety of forms. If you’re fortunate you’ll realize it’s not about how many fish you catch, but the methods in your madness and that the most memorable are not always the fish that come to hand. I think that’s what fly-fishing is all about, what attracted me to it in the first place and what makes the rewards of steelheading with a floating line that much more enjoyable.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Last Grab

Collin Schadrach pulling into Frontier Farwest signaled the end of one part of my fall steelheading junket and the beginning of another.  My companions who I shared an incredible week of steelheading with had just departed for home the lodge transitioning methodically to quiet chaos in preparation for its new arrivals.  Before moving on to the Mother River rains on our final days returned memories of the two previous years floods, yet this breif freshet was not quite as bad.  We woke from camp that final morning deep in the secluded canyons to a rising river, colored, yet not in full spate.  As the day lingered the rivers steelhead green faded to brown; never a promising change when one hopes to have reasonable success swinging flies.

The last fish I touched left me appropriately with another fleeting opportunity that was more mirage than reality. The grab came with half a belly of line out the end of the rod early into the head of a small piece of water.  It was soft, the steelhead briefly mouthing the fly, letting go before my fingers could pinch the cork.  After such an incredible week, the grab was almost an afterthought and interruption to an incredibly pleasant day.  Yet in that instance the days nonchalance surged into a tense awareness. I paused, gathered myself and presented the fly a second time. The pause and tension this time as the fish  lick the fly as it passed even less perceptible. It's tail broke the chopped surface as it rose to take the greased line fly;a cocky wave of gamesmanship,one that I didn't have the upper hand in. Before the third swing I slowly changed flies the game in full progression   Had I smoked I probably would have rolled one to rest the fish even longer.  Again I cast. Again the steelhead sniffed the offering, yet oh so softly the hook never finding its mark. That was it, game over. I hung my head, breathed a sigh knowing that given the days deteriorating conditions that would probably be it for the day.

For those who swing flies for these illusive travelers such moments are about perspective.  That's the beauty in steelheading; there's plenty of time to ponder the moment, the day, the sense of it all, these incredible fish and the rivers they call home.  For all the fish I brought to hand on this trip I'll remember this encounter with comparable appreciation knowing I could have just as easily gone without, my flies simply an illusion swinging unperturbed in the turbid water. Such has been the case many a days when fishing for these fish. It's what makes you appreciate such moments and the opportunity to wander the worlds rivers where steelhead live.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Steelhead on a Dry Fly

There are steelhead rivers that have a reputation for piscatorial wanderers
that "look up" and under the right conditions take a well skated dry fly. BC has a few of them and I've been fortunate to skate a fly or two on a number of its more hallowed waters.  My past two seasons hosting trips to BC weren't exactly conducive for fishing period let alone a waking fly.  Historic rains blew most of the regions rivers out, rearranged some, deluged fishing lodges, towns and airports. We were fortunate to at least be able to wet a line during those tough years.  Many were not so fortunate. For those who pursue these mysterious fish, such challenging conditions are not unusual.  They are part of the game. 

In BC, the Morice River is one of those waters that has a reputation for its surface oriented steelhead, yet I've never had the opportunity to skate a fly across it's broad reflective runs under conditions that were conducive to a dry fly.  This year was different.  Upon our arrival, we found a river system in stark contrast to the previous several years: warm water temps, low and clear as drinking water.  The Morice could't have been in better shape. 

If there was a day to have success skating dry flies this first day with its overcast skies and threat of rain couldn't be more ideal.   My fishing partner, however isn't as confident in the waking fly and quickly challenges my decision by sticking two fish early on light tip, yet sparse fly.  His reel screaming and acrobatic fish that cartwheeled out into the tranquil pool offered little consolation in my decisions as my riffle hitched flies skated ignored throughout the morning. As the day warms my fortunes change.  I don't see the first take mid-river currents yet the line briefly tightens when a steelhead  grabs the fly.  

The next encounter comes from the tail out of a deep placid run, the boil unmistakable, the sound of my old Hardy breaking the morning stillness evidence of the dry flies success. For the time being, my partners reels have gone quiet, as the bright hen breaks the early afternoon stillness. We connect for a moment before going our separate ways.  Several cast later a nice buck  cartwheels across the same tail out before coming unpinned.  A third steelhead brings my line under tension three more cast into the same run, yet  distracted I flail at the unexpected yank.  As I continued to enjoy success throughout the day my partner switches his methods, unfortunately for him all too late.  

This first day reminded me of those initial years fly-fishing for steelhead when all I ever hung in front of a steelheads face was a waking fly.   Times have changed, however.  Today there are a lot more guides and jet boats. Between the boats and the way today's fly casters fish for steelhead, most of the times we're waking on their heads.   That's OK.  I didn't get into fly-fishing because it was easy.  Same goes for chasing steelhead.  Today's dry line challenges have me looking for new water, exploring little nooks, crannies and unsuspecting pockets that are barely big enough to swing a well tied fly through.  That's all good since over a decade now of fishing this way it's become my game, regardless of the conditions. I may not always catch the most steelhead, but then again I might! The tip guys aren't too stoked when I do....

After fishing water the color and texture of carmel for the past two seasons in BC to see the tops of ones boots in three feet of water lent refreshing enthusiasm for a change. At my age under such favorable conditions it keeps me from stumbling as much.  That in and of itself can be rewarding. On top of the great river conditions this year: weather, scenery, then to sting a bunch of chromers on a waking fly left me with one of the more  memorable steelhead days I've enjoyed in some time.  I hope there are more days like this in store for me in the future.  Should there not be, I'm simply grateful for the ones I've already had.