TRUE BE­LIEV­ERS

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS -

A pair of friends em­bark on an am­bi­tious mis­sion to raise a steel­head on a dry fly in win­ter. A hope­less propo­si­tion? They’ll soon find out. By JOHN LARISON

AAny last hope we had of catch­ing a sum­mer steel­head on a dry fly that cold morn­ing late in the year evap­o­rated when we en­coun­tered two fish­er­men on their way down­stream. Bomber, my long­time fish­ing part­ner, and I had driven through the predawn, thrown on packs and hiked through for­est and canyon to reach this sec­tion of the river, a place where fish tended to con­gre­gate and we rarely en­coun­tered other an­glers. When we saw the two bearded men with long rods ahead of us, we swore in uni­son.

Bomber knew the guys. He had worked at a fish­ing shop for sev­eral years and knew just about any­one we ever met on the lo­cal rivers. Bomber traded around a can of Copen­hagen, and we lis­tened to the story they told of their morn­ing. They had fished the very wa­ter we hoped to; they had fished it care­fully and with fresh bait; they be­lieved the steel­head had con­tin­ued their mi­gra­tion up­river.

Bomber and I watched the men con­tinue their hike out. I asked him, “Do you be­lieve they caught noth­ing?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Those two brag loudly when they catch fish.” We stood there in si­lence, our breath show­ing in the cold air. We were both weigh­ing the op­tions: hike out and drive some­where else, or fish the wa­ter on the hope we’d get lucky. We were there to ac­com­plish what most of our friends con­sid­ered im­pos­si­ble: raise a steel­head to a dry fly late in the year when the wa­ter tem­per­a­tures were in the 30s. Sum­mer steel­head are known for tak­ing dry flies in warm wa­ter, es­pe­cially when driz­zle is fall­ing from a dark sky. Rais­ing a steel­head in win­ter was, in the minds of ev­ery­one we knew, a hope­less propo­si­tion.

Bomber ad­mit­ted, “I guess I have my heart set on get­ting skunked here on these beau­ti­ful pools.”

I fol­lowed Bomber to the base of a big cliff, where the river tum­bled through a rapid and made a sharp turn. The roar was

enough that we had to shout. On our side of the wa­ter was a cob­bled beach, and midriver, be­low the rapid, were sev­eral large boul­ders, a cou­ple of which pro­truded from the sur­face. Bomber won the rock-pa­per-scis­sors and waded in to his knees. I walked up­stream to fish the pool above. Our reels sounded as we pulled off line and be­gan cast­ing.

For the next cou­ple of hours, we worked our way down­stream, leapfrog­ging each other, pool by pool. We were sure to fo­cus our casts on the most likely wa­ter, es­pe­cially those slicks be­low rapids. Steel­head, which are jour­ney­ing from the ocean to­ward the head­wa­ters where they will spawn, tend to rest for long pe­ri­ods of time be­low heavy rapids like these.

The go­ing was quick. When you cast a dry fly for steel­head, you take big steps be­tween casts. Rather than try­ing to per­suade a par­tic­u­lar fish to eat, you are hunt­ing for the rare crea­ture fiery enough to ex­plode on a cylin­der of trimmed deer hair about the size of a Toot­sie Roll. Fly color doesn’t re­ally mat­ter. It’s all about the ac­tion. As the fly skates over the sur­face, you flick the rod tip, caus­ing the fly to jerk and wob­ble.

Bomber and I had a se­cret ad­di­tion to our tech­nique, not one we in­vented but one we had learned from old-timers with decades’ more ex­pe­ri­ence. Men with gray beards had told us to rif­fle-hitch our flies from the throat — es­sen­tially putting a square knot in the leader, loop­ing it over the deer hair it­self and pulling the knot tight. The re­sult was ugly as sin, but when jerked in the right rhythm, the fly ac­tu­ally darted from side to side in the sur­face film, cre­at­ing the kind of ac­tion that would tempt any fish, from large­mouth bass to snook. When we asked these same old-timers if they ever tried dry flies when snow was on the ground, they laughed. “Hope­less,” one of them said.

By lunch, pre­dictably, we hadn’t found a will­ing steel­head. We had cov­ered the best pools. Ac­com­plished an­glers us­ing tech­niques known to pro­duce in cold weather had fared no bet­ter. It was time to come to our senses and leave the canyon. We could warm up with burg­ers and col­lege foot­ball at our fa­vorite bar on the way home. We had tried and failed in this beau­ti­ful place, which meant we had achieved our ex­pec­ta­tions. Yet Bomber said, “I know it’s hope­less, but I want to fish that first pool again.”

“The one a half-mile back up­stream?”

“I know. It doesn’t make sense. I’ll meet you at the truck if you want.”

I had fished with Bomber long enough to trust his in­tu­itions. We re­turned to that first pool, and this time I took a seat to watch Bomber work through the wa­ter. He sur­prised me. In­stead of fish­ing from the cob­bled shore as he had be­fore, he waded di­rectly through the wa­ter I ex­pected him to fish. The river rose to the top of his waders. He kept his el­bows high, then set his rod on one of those mid­stream boul­ders pro­trud­ing from the sur­face. With a jump and a hoist, he was kneel­ing on dry land, midriver. I saw what had caught his eye: a slick of wa­ter on the far side of the river.

I made some snarky com­ment about the far side al­ways be­ing bet­ter in the small minds of steel­head an­glers. Bomber stripped out line. He called over this shoul­der, “I bet no­body ever casts to this wa­ter.” I couldn’t miss the note of boy­ish hope in his voice.

One thing about steel­head late in the year is they tend to be so­cial. If you find one steel­head, you have usu­ally found sev­eral. Like­wise, late in the sea­son, whole miles of good wa­ter can be empty of fish only to find the mother lode in one tail-out or de­cliv­ity. I knew Bomber was cast­ing to this slick of wa­ter on the far-fetched chance that the steel­head hadn’t moved up­river, as the other an­glers be­lieved, but in­stead had se­lected this one seem­ingly ran­dom place to con­gre­gate.

I’ll ad­mit, in that mo­ment, I was not a be­liever. I was so sure of our skunk­ing, I had al­ready cut my fly from my leader and bro­ken down my rod.

As Bomber’s first cast landed, I saw a swirl of sil­ver un­der­neath the fly. He kept work­ing his fly through the sur­face, and the steel­head re­turned. It broke the sur­face, a thick tail throw­ing a wall of wa­ter, but missed the fly. Bomber knew what he was do­ing; he hadn’t set the hook, and his fly was still work­ing. This time an­other fish, a larger one with more color, took the fly in what steel­head­ers call an “al­li­ga­tor grab.” A long snout emerges in the air and chomps down on the fly.

The fish shot through the air and landed on its side, shat­ter­ing the sur­face. As it charged up­stream and near my perch on the bank, I saw two other fish fol­low­ing it.

It took a few min­utes to get con­trol over that first steel­head. Bomber leaned into his rod and brought the crea­ture near, and I tailed it. He pulled the fly from its lip, and we turned it back to the river. The air be­tween us quiv­ered with elec­tric­ity. “Your turn,” he gasped through an ear-to-ear grin.

As my fly landed, I had ev­ery hope that a steel­head would rise.

A light chop and a boul­der­strewn bot­tom are the per­fect con­di­tions for work­ing a dry fly.

Fish­ing in win­ter some­times re­quires an ex­tra hand.

The re­ward for cold hands is a beau­ti­ful steel­head. (Right) Twohanded rods al­low an­glers to cover more wa­ter when cast­ing.

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