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)

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.