End-Times Steelhead. Group therapy on the Oregon Coast.
by John Larison
None of us guessed what was coming. Within hours of our leaving the river, the county would close all boat ramps and Oregon’s governor would implement stay-at-home guidelines. We were fishing on the last days of winter steelhead season 2020 and we didn’t even know it.
Though something was clearly amiss from the start. We reached the river on a weekend in March—steelhead primetime—to find only one trailered rig parked at a boat ramp where last season I’d counted thirty. My initial elation at learning we’d have the water to ourselves morphed into queasy unease. Were we brilliant or stupid for fishing while a virus was jumping continents?
This was still early in what had just been termed a “pandemic,” when it was still possible to think of the virus as a China and Italy problem; some vague threat that America’s industrial medical complex would surely squash in short order, long before it could reach this fringe of steelhead country. And anyway, brilliant or stupid, we were already wadered up.
I swung down from the truck to hear coastal currents surging over flowstone. The air was misty, the tops of the ancient fir trees lost in clouds. I flipped up my hood and drew a long, settling breath. “Here they come,” my old friend Perky said. I turned toward the sound of a driftboat rattling against its trailer and saw a Tundra emerge from the fog. Bomber and Viking, five minutes early as always. The band was back together.
Routine, ritual—the annual trip. It’s easier to sneak away from home for a few selfish days on the water if you call it an annual trip and put it on the calendar a full season in advance. We call ours “Winter Camp,” and we’ve been at it each year since 2007. Those first camps were held on the Olympic Peninsula; later we followed the fish to southern Oregon. One memorable season it was that famed ’74 Mercury, Clyde himself, who delivered us up a rutted road and deep into an emerald canyon where we proceeded to spend three days getting blanked, but oh so happily.
These days, “camp” has become a beach house. We’ve traded bonfires for a woodstove, mud puddles for carpet, and twenty-five-cent ramen for inch-thick steaks. No longer do we sleep in our waders half-in/half-out of a tent, but gray-hairs or not, we do still pass out in mid-sentence just hours before first light. And then as now, the last man standing has an obligation to cork the scotch.
Four men and one driftboat. Today’s math didn’t add up. So, in the empty parking lot, Perky inflated his Watermaster while I helped the other two load the tackle bags and rods in the hard-boat. At last we pushed off, Bomber at the oars, Viking and me upfront, and as we rocked through the first rapid, nobody said a word. Downstream, we could see empty run after empty run.
I broke the silence. “Where is everybody?” Viking capped his can of Grizzly tobacco, adjusted the load in his lip, and answered, “Precisely where they belong.”
Within the first hour of Winter Camp 2020, I knew that this year was going to be a fishy one. Bomber was standing elbow deep in heavy current. Viking was firing lasers to a far-side slot. And downstream, barely visible, Perky was working short casts through some heady pocket-water, his inflatable high-centered on a midstream rock. Most years we spend the first hour of the trip together, sitting in the boat or standing on the shore, rigging up and laughing—relishing the giddiness that overtakes old friends when they know they have three full days ahead with no charge but chrome. Yet something about 2020 was already different.
I wanted to hook a steelhead so badly it hurt, an aching soreness somewhere between my stomach and heart. In that sense, I felt twenty-five-years-old again, and true to my youthful self, I decided the best water had to be farther way, someplace nearly impossible to access, some hidden seam that even the guides hadn’t yet figured out. To catch a fish, I would have to cover water, break a sweat, try harder than everyone else. Naturally, I set off downstream through a salmonberry thicket and promptly got stuck among thorns.
When I eventually broke free, I dropped down to the river and waded to Perky’s Watermaster. “Mind if I take your boat?” I called over the roar of the river.
He turned and looked at me for a long moment. “Indeed I do.”
By then I was already floating away. I smiled. “Don’t worry, Bomber will pick you up.”
“My flies are in there,” Perky shouted.
It was too late; the Watermaster and I were already accelerating through the rapid. I floated around the next corner and saw a bald eagle swoop from a spruce. In my fishy twenties, I was obsessed with luck, with charms, with good and bad omens, and back then, I considered a bald eagle to be the best kind of juju. I pulled Perky’s boat to shore, but not to the slow-side cobbles as a more sensible steelheader would. Instead, I dragged the boat up the fast side, tied it off on an alder, and began working the water within a rod-length of the bank. A small tributary poured in here; the spot matched my notions of what a secret, fishy bucket should look like.
Once I had thirty feet of line out, the swing became ultra-juicy, like my fly was swimming through gravy. On the surface, little pyramids of nervous water stood and danced. To my right, the tributary was splashing over rocks and around my ankles. I just knew this was the place a big male steelhead would hold and wait for the freshet that would allow him access to the ladies of his natal creek. I let my swings dangle downstream longer than normal. Here, I knew a grab was inevitable.
By this point in my steelheading life I should know better. But honestly, I was stunned at the end of the run to be reeling up without a fish. At that moment, the boys were floating by, Perky in the front. He showed me his longest finger and said, “Nice boat.”
That night, we backed the trailer into the driveway, shed our waders, and climbed up the stairs of the borrowed beach house. I started the grill before stepping inside. We’d fished
well into the darkness, and now we were rabid for meat, and I was the guy on dinner.
As the grill warmed, I looked out to sea, into the night-time wind. There, barely visible, were the white shapes of waves. I thought I smelled rain. If the river rose overnight, new steelhead would swarm upstream and be waiting for us in every alluring pool. Tomorrow, I realized, could be the best fishing of our lives. About then, the sliding-glass door opened behind me, and Bomber offered a tumbler of something brown.
What happened next is pretty fuzzy. But I do remember the burgers. Eight- to ten-ounces of elk per man, each patty mixed with bleu cheese and topped with arugula. The buns were buttered and toasted crispy, the bottom half sponging up meat-juice. By then, rain was hitting the windows, my sides hurt from laughing, and I couldn’t remember if this scotch was number three or four. Someone offered the toast, “To solipsism, among friends.”
I awoke not far away, on the floor. My head hurt and my mouth still tasted of moldy cheese. Someone was stepping over me. I thought, time to brush my teeth and go to bed. “Come on,” Viking said, lifting his waders from the hook near the woodstove. “We’re getting an early start.”
By lunch we were still fishless, and still hell-bent on changing that. I was waist-deep and steering a long line across rippled blue-green currents when I heard an engine on the hillside across the river.
An old skid road runs there, though the roadbed is covered in moss and saplings and, in autumn, butter-colored chanterelles. Yet, impossibly, the engine I heard belonged to a full-size RV. It came blasting its way through leaning limbs, bouncing hard over clusters of fern. I couldn’t make out the driver, but mud was splattered across the RV’s flank and a side window was broken. This skid road goes nowhere; it dead-ends against a steep hillside. For a vehicle that size, this would be a one-way trip.
Bomber’s success rekindled our enthusiasm. His fish hadn’t been large, but it was bright. The sea-lice behind its fins still had their tails, which meant the hen had probably left
saltwater about the time we were launching the boat. Naturally, we fished until we needed headlamps, and by then we still had an hour’s row to the ramp.
My feet were wet and frozen and had been for ten hours. My fingers were prunes from tending to the wet line. My elbow hurt from throwing two thousand, cack-handed single-speys. And yet, if I could’ve seen the run we were at that moment rowing through, I would’ve asked that we stop and fish it.
After all-you-can-eat venison tacos and a few hours of dreamless sleep, we got an even earlier start the next morning, hoping to beat Old Salt and his client du jour to the best water. The extra effort proved unnecessary. At dawn, we found that we were the only human beings left on the river. No joes in their Subarus, no guides racing downstream to the next, best pool. It was everything we had always hoped for, and yet this river devoid of bipeds left each of us feeling a little anxious.
By now, our phones had told us that from coast-to-coast people were getting sick and dying. Body bags were being loaded into semi-trucks in New York. National borders were closing, and rumor had it that state borders were next. A hundred-dollar bill couldn’t buy a roll of toilet paper. Fuck toilet paper; I was worried for my friends and family who work in ambulances and ERs.
AT THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Obviously, undeniably, irrefutably—it was time to go home, circle the wagons, help those in need however we could. But then again… we were alone in heaven, and our rods were already rigged.
This time, as we floated by, the bald eagle maintained his perch, head swiveling to watch us pass. The bird seemed to be smirking. “Take a guess, what’s he thinking?” Bomber asked. After a contemplative silence, Viking answered: “So long, bitches.”
There was a lot we might have discussed as we drifted in that boat—for instance, our chances of survival. Yet, the only topic that came up was steelhead. Where they might be holding, which of our flies they might be persuaded to eat, how fast their populations would recover once people went extinct.
Viking scored his fish in the first run he tried. I wasn’t there to witness it, but I was regaled with the details. His fly smacked the water under an alder tree, and the steelhead took almost at once—a mint-bright buck pushing nine pounds. Like most bucks that size, this one didn’t jump. After a long run, the fish stopped to recover behind a midstream rock. Viking moved downstream to regain his line, and when he was even with the steelhead, he tightened the drag. The ensuing tug-of-war was violent, but decisive.
Which left me—literally—the only guy on the river still fishless. I’d like to say I didn’t mind, that at the end of the world I was content to simply be near good friends. But that’s not me. Today’s fish will always be the most important fish of my life. Especially when today’s fish might be my last.
I took the Watermaster as I had on the first day, though this time Perky was all too happy to trade his wet ride for my dry seat in the driftboat. He took pity on me and offered the luckiest fly from his box. I pushed directly for that small run where we’d seen Old Salt earlier. I backed into shore, secured the boat, and teetered out onto a ledge that breaks the heavy current.
A seam forms from that ledge, deep water downstream, and in the river’s middle, boulders roil the surface. Nothing about the run looks like classic steelhead water—it’s too fast, too deep, and there’s no shoreline for stepping downstream. Yet when my first cast came into swing—the fly swimming among those submerged midstream boulders—I got that tight feeling in my throat. This is it, any second now, hold on.
Of course, I’d been living with those words in my ear for days, so I had lost all faith in them. I was here doing my best. Because in the end, that’s all a steelheader can do.
When I was one or two pulls from my maximum cast, the current bent my swing into a smooth C-shape and Perky’s fly continued its hunt among the midstream boulders. There came a slight hesitation, which I assumed was the fly nicking a rock. Then the fly stopped, and the curved line began to dig against the flow.
Honestly, I knew it was a rock, but I let the tension build anyway. Somehow, alone at the end of the world, I had managed to snag Perky’s lucky fly out in deep water. I raised the rod and only then did the rock pull back. A dazzle of silver broke through the surface, once, twice, three times. The line hissed as it cut the water, and a fourth and fifth jump occurred almost at my feet. I shouted like an eight-year-old, and the fish bolted toward the far shore, her back partly out of the water; incredibly, she threw a v-wake the whole way. Jump six happened under the alders of the far bank, and that’s when the line went slack. I had lost her, one of the best fish of my life. But no, there she was again! Headshakes under green water.
The hen slid into the shallows twice before I managed to secure a grip on her tail. I unpinned the fly and cradled her for a long time as her gills worked and her strength returned. It was just us. After she finally kicked free, I looked up to see the only witness to this magic was a bald eagle. He was sitting his perch, going nowhere.