Dreams, Misery and Steelhead

Published in the Waitsburg Times March 21, 2020

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The unusually warm 34 degrees greeted us under bluebird skies as we turned up Highway 153 toward Twisp. My last trip up this highway was five years prior in 2015; the last steelhead season open to the public on the Methow River as fish returns to the Columbia Basin continued to drop precipitously.

Memories of that last trip flooded my mind as I rode shotgun with my buddy Chas Kyger, a fish biologist with Douglas County Public Utility District in Wenatchee. If ever a man was anointed with supernatural powers through a fly rod, it was him. He taught me the ways of swinging flies for steelhead, the Methow River my training grounds.

Swinging flies is one of fly-fishing’s most artistic acts employing “spey” casting techniques and heavy sinking lines. A streamer is cast on across currents where steelhead hold during the long winter days. Placing a mend in the line to encourage the fly and line to sink, the angler then holds the line tight and lets the river push through it, creating an arching belly in the line. The fly swings across the river, following the arched path as the current pushes the line downstream, traversing steelhead holding waters at their eye level. At the end of the swing, the fly swiftly rises directly downstream of the angler. If a fish doesn’t take the fly mid-swing, the rising fly almost always entices the strike from a fish willing to play ball.

Trumbo - Dreams Misery and Steelhead (2)

A particular day of my February 2015 trip dawned just as serene, identically emerging from weeks of single-digit temperatures and chill-to-the-bone wind shear. Our first stop of the day, I found myself casting across conflicted currents, the sun glinting at retina-burning intensity from the river surface. Chas offered a bit of guidance. “Send the fly across that run and swing through the downstream trough. At the belly of the swing, hang on.”

Chas’s words echoed in the back of my mind as I set up a swing on our first run of the day, five years hence. I have never been great at the technique. But swinging flies is like riding a bike in the sense that you never forget how it feels to do it properly. Pulling tight on the line as it bowed, sending the streamer into the heart of the run, the feeling of perfection flushed over me. My body erupted in goose bumps. “This is the cast.” I said to myself, as if somehow mentally or spiritually connected to the fish that lay 60 feet off shore. The swing was perfect.

My feet were nearly numb in the 33-degree water, but I scarcely noticed at that moment. Entranced in the artform as if painted on a winter canvas amid a naked granite-strewn canyon, the world faded into the background. I had nearly forgotten that I was fishing roadside among a few of Chas’s colleagues. I could have been deep in the heart of Kamchatka sharing a river bank with brown bears and felt no further separated from the world around me. It was just the river and I, and a few weary steelhead, soaking in the warmth of the golden sun to the soothing roar of the crystal-clear lifeblood of our planet and all that inhabit it. Precisely the moment when fate and timing collide with luck and instinct.

Serenity shattered among the riverside boulders as my 11-foot fly rod nearly left my hands at Mach speed. A sizeable fish swiped the fly and turned downstream, hooking itself deeply in the corner of the jaw. Frantically, I grappled the reel to retrieve the slack line and put the fish on the drag. With the butt of the rod buried into my hip, I read the fish’s movements, giving line when pressured, and taking quickly when relieved.

The hum of the drag and the feel of line gliding through the guides sends a chill down my spine simply recalling it, much less living it real-time. Witnessing the elegance of such a stunning critter utilizing its power and heft to stymy an opponent is an intense experience. Each terrifying downstream charge could be the last, leaving the steelhead triumphant. Yet, my handcrafted rod has landed dozens of salmon, steelhead and big Lahontan cutthroat over the years. Barring a faulty hookset, my connection with the rod leads me stealthily between aggression and compromise.

Trumbo - Dreams Misery and Steelhead (1)

Suddenly entering the scene, stage left, Chas extended a large landing net onto the submerged rocks before me. I carefully guided the fish toward shore, wincing with every barrel-roll as the fish fought feverishly to shake the fly. But alas, Chas lifted the net up around the fish, and I marveled at the 28-inch beauty that lay before me.

A wild hen, no doubt, brilliant with an olive dorsal, stark white underbelly, pepper-black speckles, and a rosy-pink lateral line. She was magnificent. A true phenomenon of nature’s grandeur.

The Methow fishery remains closed to the public; our opportunity to fish it being tied to our professions as biologists cooperating on a broodstock collection program with the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery. Assisting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, we quickly tagged the fish and moved her to a transport truck. She was destined to be spawned at the Winthrop hatchery and later released back into the river.

Landing a steelhead on the fly is a life-changing experience. It makes idiots and addicts of grounded folks, cultivating a sudden willingness to brave the most frigid, icy conditions and swollen rivers. The act itself, while an artform, is born of strict insanity. Cast, swing, move, repeat. No steelhead. Sometimes for days. Even weeks. No inkling of fish presence. No amount of technical savvy can change the outcome at times. Conducted in utter glacial misery. All while anticipating the unlikely bone-jarring grab of a weighty ocean-run missile that continually haunts our dreams, yet rarely our (my) flies. A single grab can carry an angler through a full season.

The sun glistened from the flanks of the hen as we lowered her into the hatchery truck. The high of having landed a steelhead on the swing was quickly replaced with despair. When would this happen again? It had already been five years since my last steelhead encounter. The Wallowa River in March lies ahead. The prospects are maddening.

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