For the last 7 years the river has been out of shape through December and into January.
The fish are there, but fishing for them is typically impossible with high flows and muddy water.
I’d been keeping an eye on the conditions since October and was well aware that there was a really good possibility of a fishable river over the holidays.
When my initial plans for Christmas fell through, I knew exactly what plan B was going to be.
It’s a long drive and the first half is the worse, boring I5 valley driving. The second half is scenic though, so the trick has been to get the first 3 hours out of the way during the hours of darkness. It’s too early for cell phone road yak so instead, it’s loud music and plenty of caffein!
The weather forecast was a tricky one. There was rain forecast on the coast but it would be dry and cold on the more arid, upper most stretches of the river. The forecast for the middle river was for snow showers, which was where I was headed.
There were a few wet flakes falling when I stepped into my first and favorite run on the river, “Doug’s Shangri-La”.
Midway through, it was a wet, white, sloppy mess.
Shangri-La is about as reliable of a steelhead producer as there is, but not this time. It could have been the higher water, it could have been the freezing temperatures, it could have been because “that’s why we call it fishing”.
I did a little exploring on the way back to the truck and stumbled on another little run. Actually, it started as 1 little run, but then it dropped into a middle run that was sweet, and then an even sweeter run below that.
Best of all, I nailed an awesome little half pounder at the top end.
And another at the tail.
It was getting dark and I’d already decided where I’d be fishing first light, so off to get the truck I went. A little 4×4 action and voila, a campsite on the river.
This was the first night with the Mr.Buddy Heater and it only took a matter of minutes after peeling off my waders and crawling into my bag to really appreciate it. I spent the night watching Lani Waller’s new DVD and slept to the sound of light rain & really wet snow against the camper shell, and of course, the sound of my favorite river, just a few feet away.
When I awoke in the morning, well past first light, I realized that I could drop the tailgate and make coffee while still in bed. After sipping a few cups while watching the river, I finally crawled out of the bag, slipped on my waders, and made the long trek to the first run (about 50 feet away). While still working line out, maybe on the 3rd cast, my fly got nailed by another scrappy little half pounder!
At the extreme tail-out of the second run in the series, you know the cast, where your fairly certain your fly is past the lip of the pool, but it’s swinging so well you can’t help but fish it out, then you even go so far as to take one more baby step down to squeeze out just one more, anyway, my fly gets hammered and an adult goes cart wheeling up river, and drops the fly!
I got one more half pounder in the last pool of the series and went back to the truck for some hot oameal.
Then it was off to the next spot, a “possible” run I’d seen from the road many times but never actually fished.
It was a bit of a treacherous hike, and to be honest, the run wasn’t even all that sweet when I got to it. There was a nasty back eddy that screwed everything up, but some how or another I hooked up with what might have been the first adult. When the river’s adult steelhead only average 20″ and the half pounders can reach 18″ it can be tough to tell which is which.
No matter, the fish actually grabbed the fly as I was retrieving line for the next cast. He didn’t put up much of a struggle either, but I thought the photos turned out kind of cool.
After taking some “I love my Toyota” pictures I spent the rest of the day fishing a couple other runs on my way into town where I’d be ordering a pizza and grabbing a motel for the night. I didn’t get any more grabs that day but the water was in great shape and I was looking forward to checking out a new section of river I’d planned to fish in the morning.
The next morning, after a hot biscuits and gravy breakfast, I headed out of town back up river to check out one of the more famous bars on the river that I’d heard a lot about but never fished myself. I’d be passing the water I’d fished the previous 2 days on the way and as I was approaching the pull off for Shangri-La I was reminded that I hadn’t found a fish there 2 nights ago and thought to myself, what’s the chances of that run being fishless 2 times in a row. Well, after hiking into it and fishing it through, very thoroughly, once with the fly that no steelhead in this river can resist, and a second pass with the fly that no steelhead in this river can ignore, I’d say the odds were better than I’d hoped.
So back to the truck and on to the next spot.
It turned out the spot I’d been anxious to check out was a nasty hike/climb in that I’ll probably think twice about next time. I probably covered a mile of river around the bar and found that the majority of it, at least at this higher level, was more summer/fall riffle type water that didn’t seem very promising for this time of year when these summer fish are holding up and not really moving through the system. I did spot a potentially good looking piece of water on the opposite bank though that paid off a couple hours later from the other side with 2 more half pounders.
The majority of the day had been spent hiking and scouting so as the sun began to get low I headed towards my favorite upper river run. It was a 30+ minute drive and the light was fading fast but I’d fished the run enough in past years to have a pretty good idea where the fish were most likely to lie so I’d be able to make the most out of the limited time, which I did. I’ll admit that it was a little further across than I’d remembered, but once I’d worked out the maximum amount of line I could handle, and then a little more on the next cast, right on the very edge of the sweet spot, my fly was yanked by a 23 incher! Which, on this river, is exactly what I’d been after.
The light was about gone by the time I eased him into the shallows, and when I reached down to pose him for a picture I about fell over backwards. I’d seen them there before, in the same run in fact, but I was still shocked, the most disgusting, foul creature in the river, attached to the side of the fish… an 18″ long lamprey!
That night was a cold one, but the Mr. Buddy Heater did its job, though some sort of fan to circulate the 95 degree air of the upper half of the camper shell with the 30 degree lower half would probably be good idea next time.
And I’m not sure what I was thinking leaving my rod on the roof rack over night, especially after it had just been submerged when landing the last fish.
But it gave me a good excuse to fire up the trucks heater in the morning and take my time putting down a hot cup of coffee while waiting for it to thaw.
With the 4th or 5th hot cup of coffee snugly clipped to my waders I eventually made it out of the truck and down through the stream-side alders to the run. The rod & reel had thawed nicely in the cab of the truck, but with outside temperature still in the high 20′s it was only a cast or two before it began building back up in the guides. Though it was absolutely freezing out side, the late morning’s sun had already cleared the hills and it was surprisingly pleasant. I started high in the run, half stepping my way through the cold water. The guides were icing up, but it was manageable. That is until I got the yank!
At first it was fine as the fish threw herself across the surface trying to shake the fly. I couldn’t believe how active these late summer fish could be, this far up river, and in water temperatures dropping below the 40 degree mark. I’d forgotten all about the ice for a few minutes, up until I’d made it back to shore with the fish on the short-line.
Apparently she wasn’t done yet and made one last drive for freedom, bee-lining for the opposite shore. Typically, no problem. But this time the sink-tip loop was locked solid, encased in ice, inside the guides. I’d already began planning photo opportunities up to that point, so it served me right.
Back out I went, slipping and stumbling into the flow… with jello-like movements, from the tip of the soft 13 ft spey rod, right down to my toes, I made every bit of effort to cushion that light tippet. I’d pretty much accepted that she was a goner, but it wasn’t going to be for lack of effort on my side. Carefully working into the middle of the river, with fast water now over my wading belt, she finally slowed down, made that “alright, fine, just get it over with quickly” turn, and obediently followed me back in. Woo Hoo!
When retelling the story later that day to Brandon he replied, “Why didn’t you just put the rod down into the water to knock the ice off”, my response, “well, uh… yeah, I suppose that would have worked too”.
Adult Steelhead in this river are on the extreme side of small, but it has nothing to do with their age. Their small size is a product of the extra time of their life spent feeding in the river, opposed to feeding heavily in the salt. It’s ocean feeding that makes them big. Unlike most steelhead strains, the majority of these guys have already migrated up the river at least once before in their past in what is known as a half-pounder run. And with all that time on the move, dodging blue herons, ospreys, otters, sea lions, gill nets, bait, gear, flies, and everything else that swims, crawls, and dives, it’s amazing that any of them ever make it home to spawn, and the few that do are bound to have some battle scars. This tough little gal looks like she’d survived a pretty bad blow some time ago in her youth. What an amazing, awesome creature.
After a “hand-warming” coffee break I spent the next hour methodically working through the remainder of the run, all the way down into the tail-out. I’d had a “maybe” bump up in the middle of the run so I decided to make another pass with another fly. Half way through and I was hooked up again!
After the release I stepped back up river 10 feet and picked back up, slightly above where I’d left off. When I got to the spot, I felt another bump, but no weight. I shortened up the line and made another pass through, nothing. I then changed flies again and made yet another pass, and got bumped again. This time I changed back to the original and made an effort to work it a little deeper and we were back on!
Three fish in three hours. It could have been different, but it could not have been any better. It was Christmas morning, and time to put the rod back in the tube.