FLOOD, FIRE AND CHROME
HUNTING STEELHEAD WITH NEW FRIENDS ON ANCIENT RIVERS
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.
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,”
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.
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.
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.”
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.