Friday, March 13, 2015

The Perfect Steelhead Trip - WARNING: long story with lots of pictures of big fish!

I was still surprised that it was actually happening when I started loading all my gear in Rick's Suburban early one morning. I'd been so busy lately that it seemed like a Clearwater River steelhead fishing trip would never happen. But here it was, 6 am on a Thursday, and a few days ahead of us to fish. The biggest surprise of all though was my best friend, and long time Clearwater steelhead junky, Camron, was also joining us. He and I hadn't fished up there together in 5 or so years. Whether we caught a bunch of fish or not, I was just happy the 3 of us were getting to fish together.

We picked up Camron and loaded his gear into the suburban.
"Wow. All this junk for a few fish." I said, as we crammed stuff into the last remaining void spaces of the full-sized Suburban.
"I guess we'll be using the side mirrors." Camron said, chuckling.

We all loaded up and made our way up to the Clearwater River. On the way, Camron and I tied up several double corky and yarn rigs for drifting on the bottom. Although we planned to do a lot of fly fishing, this was how we learned to fish on the river and it was very effective. Rick had never caught steelhead before and I wanted him to see lots of success.

As we neared the river, it was time to make a decision where we would fish. We had heard that most of the fish, and therefore the people, were higher upriver. Camron and I had a favorite spot lower in the river we thought we'd try first. We dropped down onto the river, checked into our campsite, threw our tents up and loaded back into the vehicle to start fishing. We headed downriver, and low and behold, no one was in our spot.
"Sweet!" Camron said, as we pulled up and started rigging. "There's almost always people here!"
"Everyone is upriver. I bet there's still a few fish in here. We know right where they lay." I replied, with confidence.
We made our way into the spot and Camron started casting. I hadn't even finished feeding the fly line through my line guides before I heard two glorious words.
"FISH ON!" Camron said, with a big smile.
"Already?! What was that, your 4th cast?" I asked.
Rick was quite surprised too as he grabbed the net. Camron's fish gave him a good fight before shaking free of the hook. After I finished rigging my fly rod, I went above Camron and Rick and began casting. I couldn't see them because of a large rock, but in a couple minutes, I heard some sounds and commotion. I reeled in and walked around the rock to see what they were doing. Camron made a lunge with the net and captured Rick's steelhead.
"Another one?!" I said as I walked over to them. "This is awesome! I still can't believe there's no one in sight!"
Rick posed with his first B-run steelhead.

We released the fish and I went back upstream to fish. It wasn't long before I heard more commotion below me and heard Camron say 'fish on'. I came back over to net his fish.

Shortly after releasing his fish, Rick hooked up again.
"You know Rick," I said, as I grabbed the net. "Most people spend hours and hours fishing for these things before they catch their first one. You're going to get spoiled. Don't expect it to be this good the rest of our trip. But this is pretty awesome." We landed Rick's fish and took a picture.

I continued to fish above Camron and Rick with no success as they put on a clinic. It was early afternoon and they had each landed a few a piece. I was trying different water than they were and it wasn't paying off. I was fishing water that I'd caught fish in before, but it seemed the fish were all stacked into the small area that they were fishing. I came back down and made a few casts into the eddie and watched my indicator. It slowly dipped under in the soft, bubbly water. I set the hook and felt the weight of a fish.
"WOOOOO! I got one on." About as soon as I said that, the fish shook my hook and left me, once again, fish-less.

Before I could even re-cast, Camron had another one on.
"Fish on." Rick said quietly, right below me.
"You both have fish?!"
I grabbed the net and prepared for a crazy double. Camron and Rick both played their fish for some time before Rick's released itself. I netted Camron's fish and he posed for a picture. 

A little while later, Rick hooked into a monster. The fish played around in the hole for a little while before it decided to head back to the ocean. It took off downstream and through the rapids. We both ran after it. From my experience, if a fish leaves the hole, it's either really big or foul hooked. This one was just really big. We finally netted the fish over 100 yards from where Rick hooked it.

It had turned into quite the afternoon of steelhead fishing. The pressure was off of me now. My job was done. We had found fish and starting catching them. Rick had even caught several. So I didn't care that I hadn't landed one. I was just happy that we were catching fish.

We finished the day with Rick and Camron each landing 4.

Before light the next morning, we were already parked at the spot we fished the afternoon before. As it got light, we spotted a group of turkeys in a field near the vehicle. Being the turkey hunter that I am and being gifted with the ability to speak 'turkey' without a call, I went in pursuit to see if I could get one to gobble.
I spotted them a couple hundred yards away near the tree line and walked down the road to get closer. I could see one of them puffed up and strutting, but so far, none of them had responded to my calls. I started calling more aggressively and noticed the birds bunch up and start making their way towards me. Interesting, I thought to myself. I wonder if they are going to come over here. I continued to call and the birds kept coming toward me. They were now within shotgun range (40 yards) and I had yet to make one gobble. I could see now that it was a group of jakes, or yearling males.

I continued to talk to them, and now they were starting to get fired up and were talking back. They were within 15 yards of me now and didn't seem to think I was anything different than just another turkey. They started gobbling at me and I gobbled back at them. This only made them even more fired up and we just kept gobbling back and forth at each other.

I continued to talk to the turkeys and took a couple videos while doing so. If I didn't catch a fish all day, I would still be happy. This was cool! I started walking back to where we were fishing and the birds started following me! I got down to the river and told Camron and Rick what had happened.
"Yeah we know. We heard it all. Just sounded like a whole bunch of turkeys going crazy up there." Camron said, as he fished.
I decided I wasn't going to mess around this morning and grabbed my baitcaster, starting to drift small corky's and yarn on the bottom. It wasn't long before I hooked up. I landed 2 fish out of the hole by 11am and we decided to move upriver to a spot I had fished with success a couple of years ago.

We didn't make it upriver very far before we were quickly missing the serenity we had experienced in the lower river. There were people everywhere! We got up to a spot I wanted to fish and sure enough, no one was in it. Score! We parked and were casting in no time. 

After trying the far bank for a while, I made a cast about half way out into the river and the indicator disappeared into the water. I set the hook and felt a steelhead.
"Fish on." I said, with a smiling face.

A few minutes later, we had a nice 31 inch fish in the net.
"He took the crystal meth." I said, as I pulled the fly out of his mouth.


Camron hopped into the spot I had been fishing and began casting the spey rod. It didn't take long before Camron hooked into a fish.

"FISH ON! He took it way over there near those rocks." Camron said, as the fish pulled more line out.
"Good job dude. First B-run on a fly rod right?" I asked, as I grabbed the net.
Camron played the fish for quite some time before it was tired and I slipped it into the net.

Rick casted for a little while from the "magic rock" and it wasn't long before he hooked into a fish. The battle was short lived as the fish shook the hook on the first big run.
I stood on a rock just slightly upstream and began making both short casts and long. The depth was relatively consistent from bank to bank and we'd seen fish porpoise throughout. A half hour later, I hooked into another fish. This one was strong. It fought me for awhile before deciding to leave the run. Camron and I followed it downriver to the next pool where we had an audience of 6 or 7 anglers. After a long battle, we finally slipped the big fish into the net.

We walked back up to the run after releasing the 34 inch wild fish. I made a few more casts and hooked into another one. This was just my day! We fished all afternoon before leaving to find a spot better for all of us to fish on Saturday. This run had been very good for fly fishing. But Rick had not casted a spey or switch rod and didn't want him to learn on the big slippery rocks we were standing on. I ended up landing 6 fish that day and Camron landed 1.

The spot we decided to fish on Saturday was a big, deep hole that had a tall rock cliff plunging into the water. We estimated that this hole is close to 20 feet deep, making it a great place to hold lots of resting fish. Camron and I had done well here in the past, drifting on the bottom. Saturday morning was very cold and frosty, but within the first half hour, Camron hooked into a fish. 

He landed that fish, and several minutes later, Camron hooked into another. This one immediately left the depths of the big hole and headed downstream. We were both running in 6 inches of water with football sized rocks to trip us up. We must have been some sight to see running down the river. I, with a big net, and Camron trying not to get spooled on his reel. The current was quite fast and we could barely keep up with the fish. I suspected the fish was foul hooked by the way it just took off. We finally got down to another hole where we were able to land the behemoth. The fish had not been foul hooked surprisingly and it's massive size was all we needed to explain why it did what it did.

We released the 36 inch fish, and made sure we apologized to it for making it run downriver and have to run back up the rapids. We walked back up to the cliff hole and continued fishing. We fished the rest of the morning with a couple more hook ups, but no more landed. We decided to move upriver and check to see if anyone was in the "Pretzel Hole". 

Of course, no one was in the Pretzel Hole. This was really turning into the perfect trip. Things had gone our way since we had gotten on the river. The "Pretzel Hole" was a small, deep hole that was usually good for a few fish. However, it was so deep it was hard to fly fish. I let Rick and Camron work that spot with the corky and yarn. It wasn't long before Camron had one on. The fish totally dominated him. Camron had no control at all on this fish and it went where it pleased. The fish decided to head downriver into a large boulder garden. The fish tried to wrap him around every one of those big rocks until it finally succeeded in breaking him off. We were pretty disappointed, because we never got to see the fish. There are 40 inch fish caught in this river every week and you never know when you'll get one.

We were walking back upstream and a splash caught our attention. We looked out in the river just in time to see the tail of a steelhead disappear back into the water. The fish had porpoised in a spot that looked perfect for fly fishing. I grabbed my 7 wt switch rod and began to work the area. I couldn't see very far into the water, but in a short while, I had a good idea of the topography of the bottom. I saw another one porpoise in the same area as before and made a cast to it. My indicator drifted along and took a plunge. I set the hook hard and felt the weight of a hefty fish. As the fish battled, it made it's way upstream to the hole where Camron and Rick were fishing. I looked up just in time to see Rick set the hook on a fish.
"Double!" I shouted.
Of course, Rick's fish made it's way downstream, while mine went up. This could get interesting, I thought. The two fish seemed like they wanted to battle each other, and Rick and I were like dog owners trying to hold back our fiery pets with fly rods and lines as leashes. Like stern pet owners and well disciplined pets, both fish were conquered and placed into the same net.

Rick and I grabbed our fish and took a classic double picture. We both released our fish and continued fishing.

I continued to pound the lower end while Camron and Rick fished the upper hole the rest of the day. Everyone hooked and landed some fish in this spot. Our landing stats for the day were: Camron 5, and both Rick and myself, 3. 

Sunday was our day to leave. However, we had a couple hours in the morning to fish to before heading home. Before light, we were in the "Pretzel Hole". It was very cold and frosty and our line guides were freezing up. I would only get a dozen casts in before my fly line was locked up in the guides. Despite the difficult conditions, my indicator went down and I set the hook. The cold didn't seem to bother the fish I hooked. It was very active and fighting quite hard. Normally I'm pretty excited when I hook a fish, but all I could think of was how much I was dreading sticking my hands in the water.
"Hey Cam, do you want to pose with this one?" I said as he scooped up the fish.
"Nope, he's all yours."
I grabbed the fish and took a picture. The water felt like death on my hands after releasing the fish and I decided that was a great place to stop. It had been an absolutely phenomenal trip. We had all caught lots of fish and on the drive home, we all added up our numbers: 43 hooked and 24 landed. Now that's a great trip!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Speckle Belly Goose Hunt

I'd waited for this day for a couple months. Jim Bottorff, of Bottorff Guide Service, had been sending me pictures of stacks of speckle belly geese from last year. Jim had promised me a spot on a special spring goose hunt in Eastern Oregon. Jim guides waterfowl and fly fishing in Oregon and certainly knows his stuff when it comes to both. It was no wonder I barely slept the night before our hunt. At 3 AM, I sprang out of bed in anticipation of a great hunt.
Greater White-Fronted geese, or "specs" as most call them, are a species of goose marked by dark bands across their bellies. They also have orange feet and a pale, pinkish bill. They travel through in late winter on their way back North to their breeding grounds. For some reason, they tend to only travel the Idaho, Oregon border, so most people in Idaho don't see much of them. Snow geese also travel with them and can be seen in massive numbers this time of year as well. Jim concentrates on the specs because they tend to be a little easier to hunt. Add a generous limit of 10 geese per person and you can see why he's booked solid for this special season.

I met Jim at 4 AM and we headed off to meet up with a few more guys that would be joining us for this "preliminary" season hunt. We met up with Jim's son, Bryce, as well as Blake Brown and his son Hunter. Blake owns a waterfowl call company called Browns Waterfowl calls. A couple of his buddies would also be joining us. We followed Blake to a field he'd scouted the day before. We all helped gather brush from the edge of a small creek. We would need this brush to help conceal our blinds in the field.

We threw all the brush into the back of a couple trucks and drove the rest of the way to where we would set up. I helped brush up the blinds while Jim and Blake set up a small spread of spec decoys.

You could hardly tell there were 8 blinds along the ditch when we finished. Concealment is imperative in waterfowl hunting and I think we had that taken care of. Seven AM came quickly and we all hopped into the blinds and eagerly awaited the first flight.

It wasn't long before we heard the first group of specs coming our direction. Like a high pitched Canadian goose going through puberty, the speckle belly goose has a distinct voice. I was practically trembling with excitement as the first group began to circle. Through the mesh in the blind I could see them working our decoys. Another group showed up and began to circle as well.

Those geese eventually left, but in the distance we could hear more coming. LOTS more. The first big group showed up and began circling. Then some more, and more, and more! As they got lower and lower it looked like we might get a shot. Several small groups had landed in our field just out of range. A big group of snow geese showed up and joined the couple hundred specs that were circling our field. I was so excited I was shaking in my blind. I wondered if the many eyes circling the field would spot my uncontrolled movement. Most of the birds were now landing in our field. More geese showed up and joined the group in the field. Through the mesh and brush I could see the snow geese, who stuck out like a sore thumb in the bare dirt field. By now there had to be a few hundred birds in our field and more were working. It was quite noisy with so many birds on the ground and in the air. We knew it was only a matter of time before a group came over us.
I eyed a low group of 15 or so birds that looked like they might be the catalyst to mayhem. From the right side, I could see them swing around and close in on gun range. Jim and Blake let out a few clucks to help guide the birds our way. The birds responded and flew right towards us and into range.
"Let's get 'em!" I heard from the far end of the line.
We all flipped open our blinds and began shooting.
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! Shots rang out and birds fell. 
We dropped several birds and the whole field erupted. All the geese that were in the field flew off. We quickly jumped out and retrieved our birds before the next ones came. 

I set one of the birds next to my blind to admire. Seeing orange feet on a goose was foreign. I barely got a chance to look at the bird before the next group approached. We all covered up in our blinds just in time to see a group lock their wings and decend upon us. They made a few passes before making a fatally wide swing. 
A few birds fell and Hunter ran out to grab them. 

We all quickly covered up, because another group was coming. 

A group of 10 or so birds circled a couple of times before giving us a great shot. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Several more birds fell. This was turning into a fantastic hunt. Hunter once again ran out to grab some birds.

It was crazy to see birds so attracted to a plain, dirt field. The farmer had just seeded the field and it made me feel even better inside knowing I was helping a farmer from almost sure destruction from so many hungry birds. 
A couple more groups of birds gave us shooting opportunities and before long we had a decent pile of geese.

By 10:30 AM, everything had slowed down and we decided to pack up. It had been a wonderful hunt and even though we didn't kill 80 geese, it had been fun. This was just the beginning of the season and more birds would be coming as the season progressed.
Hunter held up a couple fist-fulls of geese for a happy hero shot. For a great waterfowl hunt or fly fishing trip, definitely give Jim Bottorff a call!