Slow boats, picked pockets, and damaged goods
From B.C. I headed south via the Tsawwassen ferry station en route to Victoria. Final destination, Forks, WA. We wove through Gulf Islands such as Galiano, Mayne, and Pender. From there, I switched boats and crossed the Strait of Juan De Fuca—just in time to catch a bomber sunrise.
The Olympic range hung as a backdrop still capped in snow. It looked like temporally tamed havoc. At some point that snow would melt and run wild from the peaks to the ocean. This was the water I’d get to fish for big steelhead. Back in the U S of A, after a short drive I returned to vampire country. There were three major rivers surrounding our cabin rental. I would fish two of them over four days, and then head south for Oregon. After getting blanked in Squamish, I felt only cold resolve for what lay ahead—a winter steelhead jihad*.
(*ji·had - noun – 1. any vigorous, emotional crusade for an idea or principle.)
My first day I arrived at a run I had fished the year before. I swung it tight to the bank. Nothing. I headed back to the top and fished it again—farther out this time. Not a bump. As I approached the tail two anglers passed by me.
“Any luck?” one guy asked.
“Nada, you?” I asked.
“We hit a few nymphing from the boat earlier today, but nothing on the swing,” he said.
“Feel free to jump in at the top, I’ve just spent two and a half hours,” I said. “I pounded it… but it’s all yours.”
“OK, we’ll give you lots of room,” he said.
I continued to fish. The deep slow moving water turned right and got skinny. I rolled up my line and headed for the bank. As I walked back up on the rocks, I passed by one of the guys. He was throwing a two hander.
“You out?” he asked.
“Yep, good luck,” I called back.
At that moment the guys line went tight and he lifted his rod tip. It bounced with electricity.
“That’s a fish,” he confirmed. His reel hissed and the chrome steelhead bashed skyward and danced on its tail. Then it did two back flips. Then, it ran some more.
Pick pockets always suck. This one was more painful than usual. I had fished the same water with the same color bug about 7 minutes before. It was however a beautiful fish and just getting to see a steelhead put wind in my sails.
I’m an imperfect angler—and I’m not a purist. I’ll put time in swinging flies, but I’ll also dredge dirty with no shame. Two days later I was back in the same run. I swung T-14 again, and again, and again nothing. I switched up and dead drifted an egg pattern close in, closer than I could swing a leach. I methodically, and slowly worked my way down gravel bar, my feet not even in river.
When my line went tight I thought I was hooked on the rock bottom or a stick. When I felt the big head shake I knew that I was not. My set was solid and the fish took off. I never saw the fish though, it wasn’t doing the gymnastics I’d witnessed a few days before. This steelhead was all speed and power. It suddenly turned and came back at me, fast—I’ve seen this show before and it ends badly. I cranked the reel like a crazy man trying to catch up until I got tight on the fish.
Again, it bolted and this time I could see the large boulder he or she was aiming at. The fish charged into the middle of the river. My line fell slack in the water. I closed my eyes. I dropped my head. Crushed. Vexed. I never heard the telltale pop of my tippet. Once I inspected my hook I was given my answer.
The river still flowed and there was sunlight left in the day. I switched flies, tore out line, and cast again. At which point, my floating line unceremoniously broke in half and started floating down the river. I was so pissed I laughed. I marched out into the water, retrieved it and made my way back onto the gravel bar. I tied the two pieces of fly line together with simple overhand knots, stripped out more line, and casted again—determined.
Fishing gods be damned.
One day my buddy Mike, who met me midway through my walkabout, went out in a hard boat with a guide named Bob Ball. Bob knows the water well. We were on the river and it was still dark… and raining. Then the rain turned to hail. Then the hail turned into snow. The plan was to nymph from the boat and possibly swing a few runs if an opportunity presented itself.
We were able to hook a few fish and break two 8-weight rods. Mike summed up the trip pretty well: “Fishing is not about not catching fish,” he said. “That sport is called kayaking or canoeing.” Fair enough. Yet another well articulated thought from the depths of the river.