In the four years I’ve been fly fishing I have primarily targeted trout. They’re a (fairly) soft entry into the sport, and fishing opportunities are available year round just minutes from my house. Not to say that I never get skunked – sometimes I can’t solve the puzzle as to what (or where or when) they’re eating – but as I’ve gotten to know my local rivers and improved my fly fishing technique I’ve become more reliably successful.
About two years ago, my good buddy Stew and I started swinging flies on spey rods for steelhead. We haven’t gone steelheading nearly as much as we trout fish (and me less than Stew), but we go when we can negotiate the time away from family and work. We’ve been on guided trips with Matt Ramsey on the Willamette and Dillon Renton on the North Umpqua which were invaluable. I learned a ton from them about reading water, spey casting and steelheading in general. Stew and I have gone after summer and winter steelhead in nearby watersheds since then, both drifting and wading. Stew has caught several, but prior to this last weekend the five steelhead I have had on my line have thrown the hook or broken me off after a short fight. It was always exhilarating, though, and I knew the score: steelhead are the ‘fish of the thousand casts,’ and if you spend the whole day fishing and you get a single grab, that’s a good day.
Which brings us to this last weekend. A couple of months ago, Stew and I had made plans to fish the North Umpqua, one of the best – if not the best – steelhead streams in Oregon. The North river is fly fishing only and has exceptional restrictions that protect the watershed so that it has remained a healthy environment for fish in a context of declining salmonid populations. The recent rain had made it higher than ideal, though, and it would take a while to drop into shape. We needed to look at other options. Stew is great at researching what’s available to us, and after he put a bunch of thought into it we settled on a few of the coastal Oregon streams which had also risen from the rain but tend to drop into shape quickly.
Neither of us had fished the streams we were heading for which made it an exploratory trip and cut down the odds even further of catching anything. That was OK because both of us have the fishing bug and would enjoy being on the water regardless of whether we caught fish. We talked about gear and flies early in the week, and I began tying a bunch of MOAL leech flies.
We hit the road yesterday at 5:30am. After Google maps misdirected us a little bit, we finally found our way to our first stream by 7:30am. This watershed has many rivers in close proximity and we had plans to hit at least three of them before the day was done. We fished a few runs in the first one, hit a second one (I fell in and a bit of water down my waders to keep me nice and moist for the rest of the day), dipped in a third, and finally made our way through forest service roads to our main destination.
We weren’t sure what we would find at this last river, but when we arrived both of us were stunned at its beauty and perfect shade of “steelhead green.” Even better: While we found fresh footprints, dropped hooks and fishing line around the banks of the runs, we were the only fishermen to be seen. With the nice weather we were both pleasantly surprised at this.
We began fishing the runs, leapfrogging each other when we finished each one. We were both challenged by getting deep enough when swinging through the pools. I had 10 feet of T-14 sink tip at the end of my skagit head, but it wasn’t quite enough. I had packed a RIO iFlight skagit head that had left in the car which was half floating and half intermediate. I planned to start with that the next day, but to get by I added a little pellet shot to my leader. It made it harder to cast and swing but I thought it was worth the sacrifice.
Regardless of the (arguable) improvement to my rig, I wasn’t getting any grabs and neither was Stew. We did catch a few coastal cutthroat in one run who were hungry enough to bite a leech imitation one third the size of their bodies, but they weren’t the kind of tug we were after. At about 5:30pm, after 10 hours of solid fishing and with darkness approaching, we both decided to fish one last run each and then pack it in for the day.
I walked downstream of Stew to the run I had fished once already when we first arrived at the river in the morning. I began wading through the center of the shallow riffle at the head of the run with my eyes on the pool about 40 feet downstream. This was my target. As I walked downstream I kept casting my black and purple MOAL leech to both sides of the river as it slowly deepened, getting out more line with each successive swing in preparation for the longer one I would make into the pool. I cast to my right into about two feet of riffled water with my 23′ skagit head just out of the last ferrule of my rod. My fly stopped dead about halfway through the swing and I felt the pull of the water on the bowing line. “Great,” I thought, “Snagged a rock.” I gave the rod a few tugs to free my fly. Still stuck. And then the “rock” rolled under the surface and line started peeling line off my reel. A big fish. I yelled upstream at Stew, “Steelhead!” and gesticulated wildly. He couldn’t hear me over the sound of the water but knew something was up by the crazy dance I was doing and hurried towards me.
My Reddington Dually 7-weight spey rod was bent in half as I tussled with the fish. I brought him close several times and each time he bolted for deeper water. I kept wondering if this would be the fish that I actually brought to hand after so many tries. After about 10 minutes he seemed tired enough that as I brought him close I reached for his tail with my left hand. Upon touching him, he bolted again, slapping his tail in the air as he did so and hitting the third section of my spey rod which I had let draw close to the water. Under so much tension, the impact of the big fish’s tail broke the section in two. He was still hooked, though, and I was determined to finally bring a steelhead to hand. After about 3 more minutes he tired and I drew him close. Stew was able to grab his tail and bring him to rest in shallow water.
He was a buck about 35″ long with brilliant red coloration on his cheeks and down his sides. We wondered how long he had been in the system to get so colored up. His tail was thick enough that I needed two hands to fully encircle it. After a few pictures, we let him go.
Adrenaline slowly fading, I was high. Yes, my rod was broken, but I didn’t care (Stew pointed out that if there was a way to break a rod, this was the way he would choose. I agreed.) We drove to our dumpy hotel that we would sleep in until early the next day when we would hit another river, hung up our waders, and passed out.
The next day was sunny and warm, and the river we went to was astonishingly beautiful. While not so good for fishing, the cloudless skies and warm weather let us shed our jackets and we enjoyed our hike upriver through old growth forest. There’s nothing quite like rounding a bend of an unfamiliar stream and taking in the features of a run for the first time. For me it represents possibility and the excitement that comes along with it.
After 4 hours we had to turn back. Family life was calling. We caught nothing on this river, but we both agreed that we would come back again to the Oregon coast watershed. What a beautiful treasure we have in this state!