Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Winter Steelheading in Oregon

                                                     Ox Bow Park on Christmas eve.

The lushness of the western Oregon forests never fails to impress me.  It is a landscape colored in deep greens and blues, a topography of flowing water and dripping dark forests, the fecundity of the terroir is palpable.   I have images of thick green ferns under snow, moss covered firs and cedars and a river of fog flowing along the Sandy River on Christmas eve at dusk.  This is country where fishing for steelhead is still possible; not perhaps as it once was, but still possible. Though the native sea run rainbows have been pressured and have been nearly driven to extinction, thanks to significant conservation efforts there are fishable populations of hatchery fish and growing numbers of wild fish.  Steelhead migrate upriver at dusk, at night and at dawn they typically hold in deeper runs and pools.  A good rain or upstream melt will color the water and deepen the shallower rapids and will bring the fish up. They know this without knowing. They will hold downstream of their home tributaries, below the gravel bars at the mouth, in deeper water, waiting for the water to rise.

Winter steelhead fishing is cold hard work.  Wading deep into the icy flow, cold hands and cold damp feet, negotiating slippery rocky stream beds, iced guides and casting over and over again to cover the water,  concentrating on every cast and  focusing intently on every drift, watching and hoping for a sign of a take.  In winter the flies must get down into the run and inevitably hang up on grasses and waterlogged limbs invisible from the surface. You find the right depth by fishing deep enough to snag the bottom (and perhaps to loose a beautiful fly) and then try to back off a bit. 

Before this trip I (re)established my presence on the Spey pages forum.  I'd joined this internet discussion before leaving for Scotland in 2008 but did not, I do not believe, post any message.  This time I asked for advice in a thread I titled Christmas Steelhead in Oregon.  I asked what rivers to fish near Portland, what flies to tie, and any other advice.  The response from that community was extraordinarily generous.  I was told that the Sandy River and the Clackamas are very close to Portland and should fish well at that time, that the Trask, Wilson and Kilchis are coastal rivers that flow into Tillamook bay and will also hold late December winter run fish. I had generous invitations to fish the Deschutes near Maupin and the Rogue in southern Oregon.   Those rivers were much farther from Portland than we were able to justify traveling when there was so much unexplored (by us) fishing so close.

Local knowledge is precious. Ultimately, that's what people pay for when they hire a guide. Aside from the obligatory ghillie that assisted me on the Tweed in Scotland, I've never hired a guide.  Not for climbing in the Alps, not for fishing nor for hunting. I was advised by more than one correspondent on the Spey pages to "shell out", to hire a guide. It was not bad advice though for me it negates a significant part of the point of the endeavor; to figure it out. It may seem to be a petty point of pride to have never hired a guide, but I am a hopeless autodidact.

December 26th:  Garrett, Sarah and I fished the Sandy River at Ox Bow park. I had scouted it out on Christmas eve with Jasper and had some sense of the river there.   I was fishing, as I rarely do, my Scott 14' 9 weight ARC Spey rod. I was casting a Loop long-belly line (the only one I own) with a 14' fast sinking tip and three feet of 14 lb. flurocarbon tippet and with various flies attached. I am a passable, though never great, fly caster.  Spey casting is newer for me and although I believe I was fishing the water well, it was not particularly pretty.  I was having trouble turning over the sink tip and I shortend it up about 18" that night, the change made a significant difference in my casting the next day.  Garrett was fishing his new Beulah 10' 6" 7/8 switch rod with Elixir line and a 10' RIO sinking leader.  Sarah was fishing her traditional Temple Fork 9' 8 weight with split shot, and a Thingamabob strike indicator.

We got to Ox Bow park, paid our five dollars, and started  fishing at about 9AM.  It was a late start, but we'd been delayed buying licenses at Walmart since no one there could recall their passwords for the online system.   There were plenty of other fishermen on the river already but we only saw one steelhead landed, at around noon.  It was plucked out of the head of a long run by a guy using a baitcasting setup. He and his two partners had the same rig: a  bobber, some weight and  and a yarn "sandworm" for a lure which they drifted down the run. The fish itself was a nice hatchery fish and provided clear evidence that fish were in the river. We fished with increased focus and intensity after seeing it caught.  The baitcasters kept fishing the same drifts at the head of the pool. I moved below them casting and stepping down the run swinging flies. I was hopeful on every swing but I had no hookup. We fished until around 1PM when my feet felt like they were about to fall off from the cold.  We warmed ourselves in the truck and ate some lunch. In the afternoon we fished another long run further upstream.   Garrett had a solid tug at the tail of a pool but the fish was not hooked.  I had none.

That evening I received a call from a friend of my sister's who guides for winter steelhead in the Portland area.  Aaron spends his summers guiding for salmon and steelhead in Yakutat, Alaska. Hobo Fishing is the name of his winter guiding service.  He asked what we were looking for and I told him that we were swing flies on Spey rods. He said that the Sandy might well be the best place around for that kind of fishing; but he also said he'd done well on Eagle Creek that day. If we wanted to catch a steelhead he advised us to head there the next morning.  Eagle creek was too small for Spey rods  but we had traditional fly rods with us as well.

December 27th:  Eagle Creek is a tributary of the Clackamas.  It is a smaller stream that flows through a dense forest of cedar and fir.  You can wade across the stream in many places, it is not Spey casting water.  With good prospects for fish (and based on Garrett and Sarah's enthusiasm) we headed there the next day.  There were heavy low clouds and fog and I anticipated rain all morning though it never did.

Fishing a small run upstream from the park I was startled when a steelhead darted out of the depths of the pool into the shallows near my feet when the movement of my cast spooked it.  Steelhead are so large they appear out of place in such small water.  Whenever I have seen them move like that I am astounded by their speed and how snakelike their movement is. They swim with their entire bodies not their tails.  Once, on the Trinity, I watched a steelhead  from above, looking down from a high embankment at the head of a pool.  It was late afternoon and he was preparing to negotiate a shallow rapid.  He moved back and forth across the base of the white water, dropping back into the green pool below then coming  up again and zipping back and forth and back and forth like the shuttle on a weaving machine.  To steelhead, with their speed and grace of movement, the scale of the river is far different from my own perception of it, stumbling a step at a time downstream on slick rocks.

Upstream, Garrett had hooked a good fish on a cream colored egg pattern drifted below a log and through the tail of a nice pool.  The fish exploded out of the water and took him downstream a hundred yards and halfway back up to the pool where he'd started before Garrett managed to bring it to hand.  Its missing adipose fin marked it a hatchery fish and we kept it.   Through no want of trying Sarah and I did not hook up.

In the late afternoon we drove down to a parking area just upstream from the confluence of  Eagle Creek and the Clakamas.  Garrett and I rigged our Spey gear and hiked down to the river with Eagle creek flowing toward the sea on our right. As we studied a large pool near the mouth Garrett commented that his fish, the fish he'd caught that morning, had rested in that pool.  He said that catching a steelhead in a pool was like having caught one out of every pool downstream in the river.  A thought connecting the fish to a thread of water all the way back to the sea and back in time to its birth.

We waded out a gravel bar to an island and fished a long run down the far side on the mainstem of the river.  The water ran fast and deep on the far side of the run against a sheer cliff.   A house was perched on the top of the cliff. It had large windows facing west overlooking the river.  Every time my cast failed to unroll out into the run I flinched at the thought of being watched from above. The fast sinking tip did turn over better missing a foot and a half of its original length. We walked across the island and fished the channel on the west side.  Deer sign was everywhere.  At dusk, standing cold and waist deep in a near perfect long deep run, a large fish porpoised twenty yards below my fly.  Adrenaline surged and I fished intensely until it was too dark to see. By now Garrett was back at the truck with Sarah. Walking out alone, I lost the trial and stumbled upstream through a marsh along the creek.
That night, Garrett expertly baked two thirds of his fish in copious amounts of  butter, lemon salt and pepper.  It fed nine people at a dinner party at my daughter's house. Two nights later it fed another two people, non-strict vegetarians who nevertheless would not eat the elk stew I'd prepared.

December 28th: Garrett and Sarah could not fish and I was not able to get away until mid-afternoon.   Though I needed more time on the water with Spey rod in hand, I had concocted a theory that needed testing. My theory was pieced together from bits and fragments of information, some freely given and and some leaked along the edges of stories told.  Though perhaps misguided and certainly idiosyncratic, I applied a kind of personal hermeneutics of piscatorial narrative; an attempt to read a truer underlying meaning.  My theory as premised on a casual comment "... eleven miles upstream ...".   A comment that the story teller later seemed to want to retract.  Really, I believe he thought better of giving more details thinking I'd get lost. Though he declined to say more when I asked, he generously offered to take me there himself.  I was  unable to go with him so I tried to piece it together for myself. Eleven miles measured on a map. But which fork? Topography provided a probable answer.  From fragments of a half told story I'd constructed in my own mind a kind of steelhead Eden. A small creek flowing through a narrow canyon strewn with house-sized boulders guarding pristine deep green pools, each pool holding wild steelhead.

It was a cockamamy idea I know, to give up a perfectly good afternoon of steelhead fishing to confirm or refute a shaky theory formed of whole cloth.  To indicate my state of mind I'll simply mention that I almost did not make the trek, not because the idea was so far fetched or because I doubted I could find this place, but because it was going to be just too easy, something like shooting fish in a barrel. In the end I just wanted to see this imagined place, and besides Penelope wanted to hike and Erdos needed to get out in the woods for a good long run before the two day drive home.

We drove up high, far above the stream and into the snow on the mountain above the canyon. The road was marked as dirt on the map but was a sheet of ice. We found what I thought must be the old forest road I was looking for, one of many, and I parked the truck.  It would be no more than two miles, steep downhill all the way.  The narrow spacing of the lines on the topo map made me wonder if we could even find our way into the bottom of the canyon.  Were upstream above a waterfall?  We headed downhill through old clear cuts covered in heavy in snow. There were bobcat, fox, deer and elk tracks. We crossed man tracks too, impressions of large boots in the snow that seemed to confirm that someone else knew what I suspected.  Not far down, the man tracks disappeared.  The abandoned logging roads connecting clearcuts that we'd followed ended at a wall of dense forest. We stepped into the trees, dropping down a steep ridge into the tangled bottom of the canyon.  The rushing water we so clearly heard below us on our way down through the ferns and towering firs turned out to be a tiny brook.  No more than a foot wide, it  flowed down to merge with the main creek below.  We were almost there, but descending further we became hopelessly brush bound in thick alders.  By now there was less than an hour til sunset, certainly no time to fish should we even get there and the hike back up was going to be hard.  Reluctantly, we turned and climbed out of that deep narrow canyon, back up to the truck parked on the icy road high above.  My theory remains unrefuted.

  *                   *                   *

Once correspondent on the Spey pages wrote: Catching a winter steelhead during any three-day window is a daunting challenge even for resident veterans.  Even though I did not land a steelhead or even hook one brielfy,  by my reckoning the trip was by no means unsuccessful.  I'll call it a good try for winter steelhead in northeastern Oregon.  I expect to build on the knowledge gained from these experiences fishing these waters many more times over the years.  Thanks go to Aaron and to too many of the members of the Spey pages to mention, all freely provided specific and useful information that made the trip a success.

1 comment:

  1. Just a correction..... the two "non-strict vegetarians" are in fact one PESCAtarian, and a vegetarian except on Thanksgiving.... sort of like bacon vegetarians. Good post though, I think you summed it up beautifully and I cannot wait to go back next year or sometime in the future.