Swinging the Runs for Wallowa Steelies

Published in the East Oregonian, February 15th, 2020.

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The majority of my winter trips to the Wallowa River are characterized by slippery travel across Toll Gate under an active snow or ice storm. The five-foot walls of packed snow confining the highway are intimidating, yet comforting in the fact that I might simply bounce off the wall rather than ditch my rig in the creek draining the Elgin side of the mountain. Needless to say, as I stepped out of my rig at Minam State Park one glorious March morning, the bluebird sky offered immediate victory. The day was shaping up beautifully; my confidence high.

Flow conditions were about perfect. I typically fish steelhead on the descending limb of the hydrograph after a slug of water has coaxed fish to move upriver. I got a few nods from folks headed for the State Park honey hole as I donned my waders and strung up my fly rod. I am stubborn, like most fly fisherman, identifying almost exclusively as a swinger. By that, I mean I “swing” flies. It’s an artform that, when executed properly, is reason enough to fish. Steelhead be damned.

Once fully rigged up, I strolled down to the nearby run that was entirely vacant, save for the peculiar little American dipper that bobbed along the rocks at water’s edge. Across the run was a series of boulders that had dislodged from the railroad grade where the river pushed along the toe. The depth was right and I expected steelhead were holding in the current breaks behind the boulders.

Wading out to about mid-thigh depth, I rolled a short cast to the far side, threw an upstream mend, and waited as the line swept down and sank a few feet. I could envision my purple, egg-sucking leech wafting temptingly in the current. The cast resulted in a beautiful presentation and clean drift, but no grab. Typical.

Repeating the cast, I methodically worked downstream to cover the entire run. And to my surprise, half way through the run, a solid thump transferred through the line. Steelhead typically hook themselves when smashing a fly on the swing. Without a hookup, I moved on, dismissing the whack as a resident rainbow or bull trout not large or serious enough to bury the hook in the corner of their jaw.

Crossing over to the tracks, I headed toward the confluence with the Grande Ronde. The sun-warmed canyon hit a balmy 50 degrees. Fat, steely mule deer fed on greening grasses across the open south- and western-facing slopes. Steller’s jays and magpies screeched and flittered, among other songbirds, fleeing from the “swishing” of my waders.

Trumbo - Swinging the Wallowa (1)

The railroad winding through the canyon cuts through a variety of large rock outcrops that typically hide critters on their shaded side. Passing through the cold shadows of a towering pillar, the hair on the back of my neck bristled. Instinct suggested a lurking cat, yet I’ve never laid eyes on a cunning cougar along that stretch of track.

The river was superb, boasting a vibrant emerald tint through the deeper pools and runs. Shockingly, I was one of very few to venture down the track this day. Just as surprising, my casting was on fire. Everything played out spectacularly, save for the conspicuous lack of steelhead.

Over the course of about five hours I fished a number of runs, each promising enough to stimulate overwhelming anticipation. Butterflies danced in my gut with every swing, yet ended uneventfully, stripping the leech back in, taking a couple steps downstream and repeating the gig. The motions and results were always the same while my expectations remained of something different. The very definition of insanity.

Upon my logical brain regaining control, I turned upstream for the truck. Along the way, I came across a gentleman with a bobber and jig working a tight, deep cut at the base of a rock outcrop. He had a steelhead on a stringer and was fighting another. Admittedly, I was jealous, but simply admired his catch and moved along, not to spoil his revelry or sully my pride. I shot him a nod which provoked a satisfied smirk.

Not quite ready to quit, I waded into the run where I began the day and worked it just as I had that morning. The only difference this time was the steelhead that nearly ripped the rod from my weary hands on the fourth swing. My mind had already drifted to hot coffee and kicking my feet up when the characteristic tight-line slam of an eight-pound freight train trouncing my little leech jarred my brain into utter panic.

Trumbo - Swinging the Wallowa (2)

Hanging on and feathering the spool, I was prepared for a long and strategic run, but something was amiss. Realizing the horror that my line had wrapped under a boulder distinguished that I was about to lose my only steelhead of the season.

Dashing into the current up to my waist, the rush of the river eroded the rock from beneath my feet. Being swept downstream and dancing to stay upright, I somehow freed the line. The fish responded immediately, turning tail and heading for the 150-yard-long riffle below the run. With few options, I gripped the reel tightly, stuck the butt of the rod into my hip and began backing toward the shore. If my aggressive effort didn’t break the fish from my eight-pound fluorocarbon tippet, the long riffle certainly would.

Surprise, relief and excruciating optimism collided as the rod rebounded, the fish turning upstream. Reeling wildly to keep the pressure on was all I could do. Tense moments of give and take finally ended as a massive tail sliced the water surface in the shallows downstream. The fish was spent.

Gliding the steelhead into my feet, I noticed the adipose fin was clipped. I beached her immediately, gazing graciously upon the brilliant, rosy stripe spanning the length of a healthy, speckled hen measuring somewhere around 26 inches. She was outright magnificent. And destined for my dining room table. I’ve never felt more accomplished or blessed upon landing any other steelhead in my fly-fishing career.

Trumbo - Swinging the Wallowa (3)

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