Thursday, February 19, 2015

Taking Turns : A steelhead story from the past

When I was 14, my dad missed Thanksgiving because of work; most kids my age would've been disappointed, but as for me... I was jealous.  I was jealous, not because I hated my family, but because work took my dad up near Kamiah, Idaho, right next to the South Fork of the Clearwater River...Yeah, he got to go steelhead fishing on Thanksgiving day. Even at my young age, I would have rather been doing that than partaking in holiday traditions.

When he returned, he presented a crazy fish story. He said he hooked a monster steelhead and described the battle as epic!  He went on to say that he had little control over the fish and he guessed it was close to 40 inches; which made his trout net a joke. Eventually it broke him off. Eager for redemption, he did a little research and discovered that the prime time to fish the South Fork of the Clearwater was late winter. A few months later, we choose a weekend, loaded up our gear, picked up my best friend Camron and headed to the South Fork of the Clearwater.

We were complete steelhead rookies; I had landed one steelhead on my fly rod on the Little Salmon when I was 13, my dad had only caught a few on conventional gear and Camron had never even fished for steelhead. We had heard the fish on the Clearwater system were big, but all we had for rods were a couple of single handed 8 weights and one 6 weight. Also, as a backup, I brought my 6 1/2 foot bait-casting rod. We made it up to the South Fork and stopped in at Dales Cashway for some advice.

"Here are a few flies guys like to use for them around here," Eric said as he pulled a few egg patterns out of a bin.
Eric was the manager of Dales Cashway near Kooskia, Idaho. He was very friendly and eager to help us.
"We have a bait-casting rod as well. What should we use on it?" I asked.
"Bring it in, I'll rig it up for you." Eric said with a big smile.
I brought in my rod and Eric rigged it up, explaining how to fish a bobber and jig.

We left Dales Cashway with high hopes of catching a monster steelhead. We pulled up to what looked like a decent spot to fish and started fishing. We fished the spot for a while with our fly rods and eventually decided to move to a different spot. There was a fair amount of people on the river, so we struggled to find places to fish. The next place we fished, I tried the bobber and jig for a bit. It didn't produce anything for us either. Before we knew it, the first day was over and we headed back to our motel.

The next morning we awoke to snow. It had snowed a couple inches overnight and it was still snowing. Staying in the motel until it stopped snowing sounded temping, but we knew we wouldn't catch any steelhead that way. We headed out to the river and began fishing. We waded into the water as large chunks of ice and slush drifted past us. These chunks made fishing very difficult; you had to time your cast perfectly or else you would snag the ice and often break your fly off on the sharp chunks. After awhile, I became very frustrated and suggested we move on.
"We should move. I can't fish with all these fricken Titanic sinking FRICKEN ice burgs!" I said in pure frustration.
My dad and Camron laughed. We decided to move on. It had stopped snowing, but the iceburgs continued well into the afternoon. We tried another spot with no luck as well. Were we doing the right thing? Were there even fish in here? Despite people around, we had yet to witness a steelhead landed.

We drove back downriver and slowed near a promising looking spot. Our truck came to a screeching halt.
"That guy's got one on!" Camron yelled.
Below us, on the other side of the river, a man was battling a fish. His buddy was ready with the net. We all stared intently waiting to see what was on the other end of the line. The fight carried on, and after several minutes, they netted a steelhead.
"Wow! That thing's big!" I said in excitement.
"I think that's where we should fish. And look, he's using a bobber and jig, Ryan." said my dad.
We had about an hour of daylight left, so we hurried down there and began casting. Camron and I took turns casting the bobber and jig, while my dad stuck with the fly rod. We hammered the water with new optimism. It's amazing what seeing an actual steelhead will do to you. We casted until it was so dark we couldn't see our bobber anymore. Despite not catching any that evening and not seeing another one landed, we knew the next day was going to be different.

The next morning was bitter cold. So cold in fact, the river was full of ice burgs again. It was cloudy, but not snowing. We hiked into the fishing hole where we finished the night before and began casting. Once again, the ice burgs made for difficult fishing. Despite our struggles, Camron and I kept taking turns. He'd cast the bobber for half an hour, while I took the fly rod and fished the run down below, then we would switch. Our "friends" across the river had not hooked any either and were showing signs of boredom. Several would reel in and stand by the fire and talk for bit before picking up the rod and giving it a go again. The morning wore on and the ice burgs began to thin as the air warmed to the low 40's. The clouds slowly began to dissipate and we wondered if we might see the sun today. My dad, who had been fishing downriver, came up to eat lunch with us. He hadn't hooked or seen a fish either.
We had almost finished our lunch, when the sun finally broke through and shone it's marvelous warmth on us.
"Maybe the sun will make fishing better?" Camron said optimistically.
"Everything I've always heard is that the nastier the weather, the better the steelhead fishing." I replied with a frown on my face.
"Well, we won't catch any sitting here!" My dad chimed in.
I decided to go fish the run down below with my dad and leave Camron with the bait caster.

I hadn't made many casts when I heard someone yell in Camron's direction. I looked up to see Camron waving. Does he have one on? I quickly reeled in my fly line, set my rod on a willow and started running up to the hole. I made it up to Camron, whose rod was bent and his bobber was nowhere to be seen.
"Dude, I think I've got one." He said, partially unsure.
"Are you sure its not a snag?" I said, giving Camron a doubtful look.
"No, it's moving. Just not moving very much."
"What? Let me feel."
"No, I don't want to lose him!"
"Just let me feel the rod and then I'll hand it back."
Camron slowly passed the rod over, making sure not to lose any tension on the line. I felt the bend of the rod and tried to decyfer if there was indeed a fish on the other end, and not just the bottom. Feels like bottom to me. I almost said those words, when I felt the rod slowly flex and the "snag" came to life.
"Dude, it's a fish!"
I passed the rod back over to Camron and ran to get the net. I was so excited I didn't stop to realize we wouldn't actually need the net for quite some time. Camron's fish woke up and began to peel line off the reel. The "dinky" bass rod was doubled over and the reel was making noises I'd never heard before.
(This photo was taken a few years later, but it accurately describes the moment.)
"Dude, I hope your stuff holds up to this fish." Camron said, as the fish continued to run.
The fish ran 50 yards upstream and then stopped. It was all Camron could do to gain line on the fish. Slowly, Camron brought the fish closer, only for it to take all the line back out he had just gained. Camron could hardly move the heavy fish, going wherever it pleased. Ten minutes passed and it seemed the moving snag had hardly expended any energy. Camron began pumping the rod and slowly gaining line on the fish.
"I'm getting somewhere now!" Camron said as the fish got closer. "Look! I can see the bobber!"
The orange bobber neared the surface. Just when it looked like the bobber would break the surface, the fish made a screaming run. The reel began to screech as the undersized drag was tested. This time, the fish decided to run dowstream towards a riffle. The fish continued to pull line as it neared the faster water. Just when I thought we might have to chase the fish, it stopped. Camron managed to bring the fish back into the pool and close to netting range. My dad had made it up to us by now and was also very eager to see the fish Camron had hooked. The bobber had now broken the surface and it looked like we might get a glimpse of the fish.
"There he is! Holy Crap, he's big!" I said, as the fish darted back into the depths.
Like kids on Christmas, Camron and I both looked at each other with wide, excited eyes. We then looked at the net I was holding and laughed. This fish was so big it didn't look like we could get it in the net. We would have to make it work, it was all we had.
Once again, the fish came close to shore. This time it showed signs of tiring. I made an unsuccessful thrust at the massive fish, making Camron nervous. The fish came close again and I made a lunge with the net. The massive fish thrashed as I attempted to lift it out of the water. The last third of the steelhead hung out of the net.
"Wooooo! Look at that thing!" Camron laughed in pure joy.
"Dude, he's huge!" I shook my head in disbelief.

My dad took some photos of Camron and I with the fish. I had one thing on my mind though.
"Ok, my turn!" I said as I grabbed the rod and waded out to the magic spot where Camron had been standing. 
"Alright let's get another one." Camron said encouragingly.
 I began fishing the hole with intense focus. I just knew there was another fish in there for me. After 45 minutes, I began to lose a little optimism. Movement caught my eye and I looked downstream just in time to see the tail of large steelhead disappear back into the water.
"Did you see that Cam?! One porpoised down there."
"Oh really? Well get him! Oh, and can you scoot over a little bit? My feet are getting cold." 
Camron and I were both standing on a small, sand island that barely fit the two of us. Camron had always had cold feet when we fished. It didn't matter if it was summer or winter. 6 pairs of socks or 1, his feet were ALWAYS cold!
I watched my bobber intently as it rocked back and forth with the current, gently drifting down towards where I guessed there was a drop off. Suddenly, the entire bobber plunged downward, disappearing into the depths. I quickly lifted the rod and started backing up to keep tension on whatever was on the other end. A few steps back was all it took to come tight to a monster. I felt the fish begin to shake his head and make powerful kicks with his tail.
The excitement I felt at that moment is hard to describe. Maybe pure joy, or elated happiness comes close. There's a magical feeling when the mysterious object at the end of your line comes to life and begins to pull. I knew this was just the beginning of a long, enjoyable battle.

I played the fish for quite some time before we maneuvered him into the undersized net. We took a few pictures and measured the fish out at 35 inches. What a dandy. Before I could even slip the fish back into the water, Camron was already standing on the small sand island making his first cast.

I released the fish back into the water and watched it jet into the darkness. The sun was now shining away and it was probably in the mid 40's. Hardly steelhead weather, according to the so called "experts".

I waded back out to the tiny sand island just in time to watch Camron's bobber go under.
"FISH ON!" Camron said, with a huge smile.
"Another one?!" I replied in disbelief. "This is awesome!"

After another long battle, we landed another toad of a fish.

"Ok, my turn again!" I said as I grabbed the rod, unhooked the jig out of the fishes mouth and flung it out into the river.
I made a couple casts and realized my dad might want to catch one.
"Hey Dad, do you want to try for a little bit?"
"Nah, I'm just going to go back down below. You boys are having a blast. Holler if ya need me."

I continued to cast and watch "Bob", the name we gave the bobber. Very original, I know. In the mean time, a gentlemen across the river hooked into a fish and we all reeled in to get out of his way. We stood and watched until he had landed his fish before I threw back in. Several minutes later, Bob took a plunge. I set the hook and felt the power of another B-run steelhead.
The fish exploded to life and took off for an incredible run. My little bass reel was screaming as the fish made for the spawning grounds.
"Wow! This one is strong!" I said, as the fish made another run.
I regained much of my line only to lose it again. Several minutes later we netted the monster. She was a 37 inch wild hen.

After releasing the fish, I handed the rod back over to Camron. We both waded out to the island and Cam made a cast. We both watched Bob as he drifted effortlessly down the river. His peaceful float was halted when he was suddenly pulled under by a sea monster. Camron set the hook and his jaw dropped.
"FIRST. CAST. Holy crap." Camron said in amazement as the rod doubled over and line peeled off the reel.
"I can't believe this. This is so cool. First cast." I replied in disbelief. "I didn't even know steelhead fishing got this good."

I netted the fish after a long battle. My dad took a few photos. We released the fish and once again it was my turn.
Camron and I both landed another steelhead a piece before the day was over. Seven steelhead in one afternoon on one little bass rod. That poor rod and reel got a serious workout that day, and so did Camron and I. At dinner that night, I was still so excited I couldn't stop talking. I was high on steelhead fishing; a habit to this day that I have yet to kick. 

The next morning, we fished for a couple hours before we had to head home. If I recall correctly, Camron hooked another fish that morning but lost it. It had been an amazing trip for us. One I will never forget. It has now become a tradition for us to fish steelhead on the South Fork every late winter. I have caught many more of those steelhead and have many more great stories, but none will quite top this one. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

You snooze, you lose

I arrived at the meeting place 10 minutes late. However, Erik Moncada was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he's running late? I thought as I wadered up. The sun was beginning to rise and I was looking forward to it's approaching warmth. These early morning fishing trips before work can be cold, but productive. With my waders on and rod rigged, I looked at my watch. It was now 20 minutes past our original meeting time. I wonder if he forgot? I sent a text message to Erik telling him I was here and that I was going to head down to the river. 

I made my way down to the water and began casting to the places I have caught steelhead in the weeks past. The river was noisy with the honks and quacks of too many fearless feathered fowl. Whenever I'm on the Boise River in the winter time, I dream of what it would be like to hunt such places. Let's see; I'd build a blind over there and set my decoys here. The ducks would try to land there. BOOM! BOOM! Two greenheads that backpedalled into the shallow gravel cove to my right, fell to my minds deadly shotgun. My blissful daydream was interrupted by the tone of a text message. I retrieved my phone and read Erik's message. 
"I completely forgot."
Of course you did. I'm not replying, you lazy bum. I'm fishing! I snubbed my cold nose and put my phone back into my pocket. My warm bed did sound nice...

I decided to head upstream and try a few places I had not fished yet this fall. I crossed a channel and began walking up a gravel bar when movement caught my eye in the bushes. A young antlered mule deer stood up several yards away. I quickly took out my camera to take a picture of it. The deer was frozen, convinced I couldn't see it if it didn't move. We had a stare-down for a while before I eventually won. 

I fished a bit upstream and decided, with my limited time, to focus my efforts where I knew there were likely steelhead. I headed back downstream as the sun started to shine. I was looking forward to some sunshine. As I came around the corner I made an awful discovery. Fog was rolling in, thick fog.

The fog quickly consumed the river and seemed to quiet everything, even the geese. The clock was ticking and I'd have to leave for work soon. I began casting with intensity. My flies slowly drifted through the calm tail-out of a deep run. Every other cast I felt the resistance of dead leaves and the soft bottom. I knew my flies were right where they needed to be. I took a few steps downstream and threw a short cast that would swing next to an undercut bank. With my sensitive Helios 2 rod, I swore I could feel if a fish even sniffed my fly. My line stopped and I gave a big strip. I felt resistance and lifted the rod. Time stalled for a second as the heavy object on the end of my line slowly shook its head and turned into a steelhead. Every steelhead angler knows the feeling. That magical moment when you set the hook and you feel that slow distinctive head shake that only a steelhead will give you.

The fish took off downstream and nearly disappeared into the dense fog as it thrashed on the surface. I made my way downstream to a more suitable landing spot. The fish ran back upstream and tried to tangle me in some willow roots. The fish had somehow managed to wrap itself up, and now had unusual leverage on me. I barely managed to keep the fish out of the roots as it tried with all it's might to wrap itself up some more. After several minutes, I managed to bring the fish close enough to net. I scooped her up in my small trout net and she hung over the edges. Sometimes, a small net is better than no net.

I stood there amazed that I had actually hooked and landed another Boise River steelhead. It was the end of January and they planted these fish in mid-November. The latest I had fished for them in the past was early December. It's pretty neat to be able to catch fish like this all winter long.

The fat hen measured out at 27 inches. Besides being very delicious smoked, I feel like I'm doing these fish a favor by keeping them. Boise River steelhead are resilient survivors but I know their lives are practically over when they enter this foreign river. I admired the beautiful colors on the fishes tail for a moment.  

I looked at my watch and realized if I was going to keep this fish, I better leave now. I didn't even have time to make another cast. If there were more fish in that spot, I'd have to get them another time. I grabbed my fish and gear as I headed back to my truck.

I couldn't wait to send Erik a picture of my fish. You snooze, you lose!