Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN LARISON

Win­ter means cold, mov­ing wa­ter and steel­head for the faith­ful of the Pa­cific North­west, who pur­sue their fish with grace and tena­cious sin­gle-mind­ed­ness. By JOHN LARISON

We’d driven through the night only to find 31 trail­ers al­ready in queue at the boat launch, red tail­lights bent by the rain slid­ing down our wind­shield. Wel­come to a Thurs­day morn­ing on Washington’s Olympic Penin­sula in the peak of win­ter steel­head sea­son.

We stepped onto the muddy road and flipped up the hoods of our wad­ing jack­ets. One of us said what we were all think­ing: “Our flies don’t stand a chance be­hind all th­ese boats.”

I was there with three guys I barely knew, but af­ter this trip we would fish to­gether al­most ex­clu­sively. They didn’t yet have their nick­names, but they would earn them soon enough. It was “Bomber” — 6-foot-3, red hair, a rod builder and Spey guide al­ways with a half-can of Griz­zly Long Cut in his lip — who turned to me and said, “I know a place. Think the four of the us can carry your boat?” Bomber led us bounc­ing down an over­grown log­ging road that ter­mi­nated where an old clearcut met an­cient for­est. We could hear the river but not yet see it. Be­fore us tow­ered trees wider than my drift boat, quilts of green moss and yel­low lichen climb­ing the trunks. At their feet grew neck-high ferns and thick­ets of vine maple. We were sev­eral miles be­low the crowded ramp now, and just above some of the best fly wa­ter on the Hoh River. All we had to do was drag my 500-pound boat through this for­est and lower it into an eddy of churn­ing wa­ter.

The Psychology of Chrome

Deep inside most Spey-cast­ing steel­head­ers is a masochist or a re­cov­er­ing Catholic. The first finds twisted plea­sure in the sleep­less nights, blis­tered heels and shock­ing credit-card state­ments that precede fly-caught steel­head. The sec­ond be­lieves that he was born guilty and that only faith­ful strug­gle can earn him mo­ments of tran­scen­dence.

Bomber is the re­cov­er­ing Catholic. “Vik­ing” — duly named be­cause of his ratty blond beard and thick legs, which seem made for run­ning up rocky shores with spear in hand — is the masochist.

I like to think I’m a lit­tle of both, in the right pro­por­tions, of course.

But “Perky,” the el­der of our group of an­gling broth­ers, is ut­terly sin­gu­lar. He ab­hors pain and doesn’t be­lieve in tran­scen­dence. Once a drum­mer in a well-re­garded punk band, he is now a sci­en­tist with a fed­eral agency. His moniker is en­tirely ironic un­til his back­ing knot bangs through the guides. When I ask him why he fishes for steel­head, he an­swers the ques­tion with a ques­tion: “Why not fish for steel­head?”

Be­cause there are fish in the world that are eas­ier to catch, is usu­ally my an­swer. His: “Well, go fish for them, then.”

I’m 6 feet yet still the small­est of the group, which is a good thing: When it came time to drag the boat, they did the heavy lift­ing. I wrapped a rope around a thou­sand-year-old tree, and to­gether we low­ered the craft into the slate-gray wa­ter be­low.

A new dawn was upon us.

Swing Time

The boat bucked through the first rapid, and I dug the oars and backed hard to­ward shore; the cur­rent fer­ried us to the gravel, and the an­chor smacked rock. We had the long pool en­tirely to our­selves, the ridges over­head lost in mist. A bald ea­gle watched from a pre­his­toric spruce on the far bank. The air smelled of rotting salmon, the last ev­i­dence of au­tumn.

On this day there was no rit­u­al­is­tic de­fer­ment: You take this spot. No, you go ahead. In­stead Vik­ing leapt from the boat and grabbed his rod from the gun­wale. He looked us over, blue eyes from a fight-scarred face. Vik­ing played hockey in col­lege, and he re­tains the chipped-tooth con­fi­dence of a right wing. “I’ll fish here. You guys go down­stream.” We didn’t ar­gue.

We broke the pool into even chunks, each of us wad­ing out as we stripped line from our reels. The river pressed tight against our legs, lap­ping sev­eral inches higher on the up­stream side. I took the tail end of the run, and when I looked up­stream I saw three Spey rods flex in uni­son: green line un­furl­ing in the rain­for­est air.

My own cast landed di­rectly across the cur­rent from my po­si­tion, and I dropped the rod tip to the wa­ter to bet­ter feel the fly’s progress. Be­fore me was a de­pres­sion in the sub­strate, ap­par­ent only be­cause of a slight slow­ing in the oth­er­wise walk­ing-speed cur­rent. It seemed the per­fect place for a steel­head to rest af­ter nav­i­gat­ing the heavy wa­ter down­stream.

Swing­ing flies in win­ter is a game of feel. The thick fly line and sink­ing-tip bow in the cur­rent, and all that ten­sion comes to rest in your rod hand. When you first learn to swing flies for steel­head, any cast feels as fishy as an­other. But over the sea­sons you come to realize that steel­head grab your fly when you feel a cer­tain amount of ten­sion in the swing. Ex­pe­ri­enced an­glers learn to match the an­gle and dis­tance of their cast to the unique char­ac­ter of each pool to cre­ate a swing with the right dy­namic.

Bomber calls it gravy. As in, a good swing should feel as if your fly is swim­ming through gravy.

The Hoh is one of those rivers with pools so long a guy can spend four to six hours straight in a steady state of gravy swing. For hours and then days on end you live in the time­less be­lief that a grab is im­mi­nent.

To Build a Fire

Ten hours later, we were still fish­less. We rolled into our camp at the end of a rut­ted, flooded road in to­tal dark­ness. It was rain­ing,

but it is al­ways rain­ing in win­ter steel­head coun­try. You tend to no­tice the rain only when it turns to sleet.

I went to work at once build­ing us a fire.

Perky passed around a bot­tle of Ard­beg scotch, then cans of In­dia pale ale. Bomber set up a stove on the tail­gate. We were still in our waders. In win­ter steel­head coun­try you take off your waders only when it comes time to crawl into a sleep­ing bag. The air is its own river.

“You’re build­ing that fire wrong,” Vik­ing said to me.

Perky and Bomber ceased their con­ver­sa­tion. They turned to look.

I’m not the type to take any­thing per­son­ally on a fish­ing trip. As a guide I learned early to bend around clients and their in­sults as the river bends around a boul­der — it’s a sur­vival skill. But I wasn’t guid­ing on this trip. I looked up from the fire to Vik­ing’s crooked nose.

See, I was born and raised in win­ter steel­head coun­try, and it was my old man who taught me to make fires of wet wood; he never taught me to ride a bike. Who was this Mid­west­ern trans­plant to say my fa­ther had taught me wrong?

“You’re not giv­ing it room to breathe,”

Vik­ing said.

I stood from my ef­forts, and Perky put a beer in my hand. I cracked it and sat in a lawn chair and said, “Well, show me how it’s done then, boss.”

In my head, I thought: I will never fish with this guy again.

10,000 Casts

We’d all met through Bomber, who worked off and on at our lo­cal fly shop. Bomber was the only guy be­hind the counter who didn’t brag about all the steel­head he’d landed over the week­end, which made me be­lieve he was ac­tu­ally catch­ing fish. When he in­vited me to ex­plore a lit­tle wilder­ness creek with him, I did what I never do and said yes.

That’s one thing all four of us had in com­mon, we later came to realize. Be­fore meet­ing Bomber, each of us fished alone.

Now Bomber gave me a warm bun with a steam­ing duck sausage he’d ground and packed him­self from the au­tumn’s birds. On top, caramelized onions glis­tened in the fire­light. “You guys de­serve bet­ter,” he said. “Th­ese turned out a lit­tle dry.”

Perky said, “If so, they’re the only thing dry in the whole val­ley.”

When we gob­bled down the duck, each of us rose and found a new beer. No one had slept in 40 hours, and yet, I no­ticed, none of us was rush­ing to erect a tent. The sub­ject was, nat­u­rally enough, win­ter steel­head.

I was say­ing, now with a de­tectable beer lisp, that win­ters, as we call them, are the steel­header’s steel­head. Perky in­sisted that I ex­plain my­self.

It’s a po­si­tion I’ve long held. See, in creeks and rivers from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia all the way north to the Aleu­tian Is­lands and east along Rus­sia’s Kam­chatka Penin­sula, rain­bow trout go to the ocean and re­turn su­per­charged as steel­head. Those rivers that are es­pe­cially long, or that have wa­ter­falls only nav­i­ga­ble to fish in low-wa­ter con­di­tions, har­bor pop­u­la­tions of sum­mer steel­head. Th­ese fish re­turn dur­ing the com­fort­able months of May through Oc­to­ber, per­fect for the fair-weather an­gler. The fa­mous fish­eries — the Kis­piox, the Dean, the Deschutes — are sum­mer fish­eries. When steel­head are around, you might catch a fish ev­ery thou­sand casts, as the old adage goes.

Win­ter steel­head, on the other hand, re­turn to fresh wa­ter from Novem­ber through April, when the rivers are murky and cold. Th­ese fish don’t travel as far, so they tend to stay in the river for shorter in­ter­vals. A sum­mer steel­head will spend up to 10 months in fresh wa­ter be­fore spawn­ing, but a win­ter steel­head may only spend 10 hours in fresh wa­ter. Yet win­ter steel­head tend to be much larger than their sum­mer brethren — 12 pounds in­stead of 8, with the big­gest males more than 35 pounds. That’s a lot of chrome to go charg­ing across a hun­dred yards of river cur­rent.

Around our fire, I ar­gued that win­ter steel­head are to sum­mer steel­head as sum­mer steel­head are to trout. Only the truly ob­sessed steel­header pur­sues win­ters with the fly. The wa­ter con­di­tions and gen­eral scarcity of the fish means you’re likely to go 10,000 casts be­tween hookups, maybe more.

I re­mem­ber Vik­ing break­ing the si­lence by say­ing, “Maybe you go 10,000 casts.”

I looked at Bomber, who sat re­clined in his chair. My eyes were ask­ing, Why do you fish with this guy?

Lines of Grace

Around noon the next day, still fish­less, I took a break from the frigid wa­ter and climbed the high bank, mostly to en­sure that new blood ar­rived to my numb toes. I came to a meadow of an­kle-deep grass sur­rounded by alder. I smelled the elk be­fore I saw them, a musky aroma that is part wet duff and part crowded sub­way car. A bull lifted his head and stared at me, his eyes an easy 7 feet off the ground. Rain dripped from the brow tines of his black antlers. Rather than run from me, the bull went back to eat­ing, con­tent in his size ad­van­tage.

I re­treated and took a seat on a rock and ate a Clif Bar while watch­ing the guys fish the pool be­low.

Spey cast­ing of­fers the ob­ser­vant a win­dow upon a man’s char­ac­ter. The im­pa­tient machismo will over­power his cast, caus­ing the line to wob­ble and fall short. On the next go-around, he’ll dou­ble the power, only to watch the line go half as far. I watched Vik­ing,

ex­pect­ing to see just this mis­take, but in­stead I saw a smooth stroke and a long line.

I’m not a golfer, but I sus­pect that Spey cast­ing has more in com­mon with a good golf swing than it does with cast­ing typ­i­cal fly rods. You’re try­ing to flex a stiff wand and main­tain that flex through a 270-de­gree turn that takes place in three di­men­sions. It’s all a lit­tle too much for the hu­man brain.

Doc­tors tend to come at cast­ing from a the­ory per­spec­tive; they study the me­chan­ics of a great cast and then strug­gle to make their arms ac­cu­rately repli­cate those mo­tions. Self-made busi­ness­men say to hell with the­ory and go at cast­ing in their own wonky way; they ar­dently ig­nore any advice their guide might of­fer. Even­tu­ally both stum­ble upon some­thing that works, and they com­fort­ably cast to 60 or even 80 feet.

As I watched th­ese three cast­ers be­low, I re­al­ized they were all bet­ter than I was. But Perky was in a league of his own. He seemed to be mak­ing no ef­fort at all, and yet his fly was sail­ing 120 feet and land­ing in swing. Here was a man who knew some­thing about grace.

The Weight of Lit­er­a­ture

Later we would do the math: We had crossed 28 rivers with win­ter steel­head in our all­night drive to reach the Hoh. We hadn’t come this far be­cause the Hoh has more fish. De­spite its prox­im­ity to Olympic Na­tional Park, it suf­fers from ex­ces­sive tribal net­ting and, un­til re­cently, reg­u­la­tions that al­lowed the har­vest of wild steel­head by sport an­glers. To say the run is de­pressed is an un­der­state­ment. Ex­perts be­lieve the Hoh once har­bored 130,000 win­ter steel­head each year; now it is lucky to see 4,000.

At the end of day three, when we were still with­out a grab among the four of us, I asked Perky, “Why do I keep coming back here? We have bet­ter catch­ing at home in Ore­gon.”

His re­sponse: “Why ask why? Just fish.” I no­ticed that Perky hadn’t changed his fly in three days. The rest of us had gone through dozens while hunt­ing for the right pat­tern to trig­ger a grab. “You don’t like over­think­ing things, do you?”

“I think at work. If I wanted to think while fish­ing, I would cast tri­cos to brown trout.”

By now, Vik­ing had made him­self the of­fi­cial ten­der of the camp­fire, which left me with more time to kick back. But on this night, I was on din­ner. I parted the wood to ex­pose the coals, set a grate over the top and po­si­tioned mar­i­nated elk loins from an au­tumn bow hunt. They be­gan siz­zling at once. When I looked up, Vik­ing was watch­ing my work. As his mouth opened, I was sure he was about to com­ment on some de­fi­ciency in my grilling tech­nique. But in­stead he said, “I keep coming to the Hoh be­cause I’ve been read­ing about it since I was a kid.”

This struck me, in part be­cause I was sur­prised to learn that Vik­ing read.

Though I had grown up just over the ridge

from a world-class steel­head river and come face to face with my first ocean-charged fish at the age of 7, it was the lo­cal li­brary that made me a steel­header. There, in the far cor­ner of the build­ing, was a shelf de­voted to fly-fish­ing. All the major ti­tles were there, and I read each of them. But it was the books de­voted to steel­head that haunted my dreams. I read ev­ery­thing by Rod­er­ick Haig-brown, Steve Ray­mond, Trey Combs. When great an­glers wrote of win­ter steel­head, they al­ways re­turned to the Olympic Penin­sula and its gem, the Hoh.

Vik­ing fin­ished his beer and said, “When I was a kid in Min­nesota, I couldn’t wait to grow old on the West Coast and know steel­head like those guys. I just wanted to be an old-timer.”

It was a sen­ti­ment I knew in­ti­mately. When most twen­tysome­things were chas­ing par­ties or lofty ca­reers, I was seek­ing a men­tor­ship with any steel­header three times my age. My sin­gle am­bi­tion in life was to grow gray and fish-wise.

I was still look­ing at Vik­ing when he ges­tured to­ward the siz­zling meat. “You try­ing to burn them or what?”

Stand­off on the Hoh

On day four, still fish­less, we ditched the boat and the crowds and put on our packs and hiked up­river to a cer­tain wilder­ness pool known to col­lect steel­head. We busted through fir and cedar and a thicket of young alders be­fore emerg­ing upon a cob­bled beach. Bomber and I were lead­ing the way. Vik­ing was out of earshot.

“You ac­tu­ally like that guy, huh?”

“He’s rough around the edges,” Bomber said, “but solid as rock.”

We waited for Vik­ing and Perky to catch up. The wa­ter was smaller here, but fish were al­most cer­tainly hold­ing in the trough be­low the con­flu­ence, wait­ing for the trib­u­tary to rise with the next big storm. I wanted badly to be the lucky guy to make the first cast. Perky shed his pack, lay down on the cob­bles and put his hands be­hind his head. “You boys have fun. I’ve got some clouds to watch.”

I won the pa­per-rock-scis­sors tour­na­ment, and so the first casts would be mine. I walked to the wa­ter’s edge, stepped into po­si­tion and be­gan pulling line from the reel. I’ll admit that my heart was pound­ing. I was sure I was about to get grabbed.

Just as I threw the first cast, a man in blue­jeans stepped from the bushes. He took one look at me and threw his spoon over my fly line. My blood went hot, but I took a breath and re­minded my­self that no fish is worth an as­sault charge.

Then I heard Vik­ing march­ing up be­hind me, his Spey rod held in his fist like a spear. The in­ter­loper reeled in, and for a mo­ment his spoon dan­gled in midair.

Vik­ing’s voice boomed over the river. “You’ve got 5 miles be­tween here and the next an­gler. No way in hell are you cast­ing over my buddy’s line.” The man took off his hat.

Vik­ing out­stretched his arms to re­veal a shock­ing wing­span. “You want to do this?

I’d love to do this.”

The guy made the smart de­ci­sion. I fished through the pool with­out a grab.

Camp­fire Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

That night, our last around the flames, I handed Vik­ing a beer. “You sure con­vinced that alder to burn hot,” I said.

He shrugged. “In Min­nesota, we got wet wood, too. Thanks for the beer.”

“Thanks for to­day.”

We shared a look and a nod.

Light­ning in Hand

We had one pool’s worth of time to fish on the fifth day be­fore pil­ing into my rig for the long haul home. We all had work the next day and fam­i­lies we hadn’t seen. I fol­lowed the guys through the wa­ter, only half-fish­ing. My mind was on the sorry state of the Hoh, when four de­cent an­glers could fish 45 hours with­out a strike.

I threw a cast like 10,000 oth­ers: fly land­ing quar­ter­ing down­stream, turn­ing broad­side, swim­ming to­ward shore. But this was the cast that got eaten.

The reel squeaked, and that was all. The fish was gone. It had nipped at the fly, cu­ri­ous but not ag­gres­sive. It wouldn’t re­turn.

When Vik­ing heard about the grab, he said, “The weather is turn­ing. The wa­ter is warmer. If we stay, I swear, we’re go­ing to catch fish.”

Bomber put a three-fin­ger pinch of Griz­zly into his lip. “You know I’m in. We can drive through the night and straight to work.” I looked at Perky. He said, “Go fish.” We drove to Forks, the lo­cal town, and used a pay phone to call our wives. Mine, home alone with the first of our three chil­dren, wasn’t pleased. When I promised I’d make it up to her, she laughed with no hu­mor in her voice. Even back then, she knew me too well.

On the drive back to the river, Perky said, “It’s a sci­en­tific fact that if your wife is pissed, you’re more likely to catch fish.”

“I’m sure to score, then,” Vik­ing said. “My ear is still ring­ing.”

The Flood

We picked a run we’d fished be­fore. Downed trees lined the beach on the left side — mas­sive firs, cedars and spruce un­der­cut by win­ter floods, not a one un­der 7 feet in width, root balls taller than apart­ment build­ings.

It was here that we made our stand as the sun fi­nally cleared the clouds. It hov­ered on the hori­zon, back­light­ing the rain that fell. We were close enough to the ocean to smell salt.

We fished through sun­set with­out a grab. Bomber and Perky gave up and took seats on a downed tree. Only Vik­ing and I con­tin­ued to be­lieve.

I re­mem­ber throw­ing a cast across the cur­rent. My shoul­ders were tired, and the line didn’t go where I wanted. Half­way through the swing I felt the fly tick bot­tom. I felt it tick bot­tom a sec­ond time and knew I would snag any mo­ment if I didn’t strip in.

Then came the snag, pres­sure build­ing in the bowed line — un­til that pres­sure flexed with the shakes of a fish’s head. I was on.

The buck wasn’t es­pe­cially big or hot, and I fought him soon enough to Bomber’s wait­ing arms. I pulled the fly from his jaw and turned his red cheek to­ward the sky, this fish that was smash­ing her­ring in ocean waters all sum­mer and now had swum home to spawn where his an­ces­tors did. His tail threw a splash as he re­turned to his river.

No time was wasted in con­grat­u­la­tion. Ev­ery­one waded back into po­si­tion ex­cept me. I sat upon the cob­bles and watched the clouds and thought about what home re­ally meant.

Vik­ing hooked up next. His fish was a mad­cap hen that leapt six times and burned into his back­ing and cartwheeled once more when she felt gravel un­der her fins. I tailed her just as the hook fell free. Nine pounds, with a net scar across her side.

She left Vik­ing and me alone, knee-deep in the Hoh, laugh­ing to­gether like 7-year-old boys not far from home.

“My sin­gle am­bi­tion in life was to grow gray and fish-wise.” John Larison

Scram­bling is part of the game; a good fish feels the net.

“Why not fish for steel­head?” Ca­ma­raderie, per­sis­tence and cold, murky waters de­fine the soggy land­scape steel­head­ers call home.

Spey cast­ing of­fers a win­dow upon the an­gler’s char­ac­ter.

Au­thor John Larison with a nice steel­head; Bomber (above left) and Vik­ing in uni­form; damp camp­sites are the norm.

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