Jay’s Guide to Sea Run Cutthroat Fly Materials, August 26, 2010

Straight from the fly Bench:

Sea Run Cutthroat flies – favorite fly sizes, hooks, wing materials, body materials, fly colors, and hackles…….

Yes, it’s the season between spring salmon season and fall salmon season, unless you are fishing rivers like the Rogue where the Chinook are streaming in each and every day.  I call these the Blueback days, the sea run cutthroat season.  Difficult to save up enough days to fly fish for sea run cutthroat knowing that salmon numbers are building by the day, but these feisty fish are so spectacular that they are difficult to resist.

Here are a few musings about fly tying supplies & materials most useful for tying sea run cutthroat flies; all are available from the Caddis fly Angling Shop:


Best fly sizes for Oregon Sea-run cutthroat fishing. These fish are often in the 12” – 14” range, though they will exceed 20”.  I have not caught sea-runs over 17” but know they do exist.  Even heard reports of 5-7 Lb. Sea Run Cutthroat, including one trapped in the fish ladder at Winchester Dam in the North Umpqua decades ago,  a five pounder caught at the confluence of the North and South Umpqua in the 1970s, and several five-plus pound cutthroat seen in Upper Elk River, observed by fish-counting biologists.

Expect sea run cutthroat to be at the smaller end of the fish-size spectrum though.  These fish will take flies in the #4 to #12 range, with #6 and #8 being probably the most effective, perhaps because these are the sizes that are fished most often.  A 12’ sea run cutthroat will take a smack at a 6” Kwikfish, and that takes some serious attitude.  I urge anglers to NOT use #4 flies and to avoid certain #6 hooks, like the TMC 700, even though the TMC 700 is at the top of the heap in terms of my favorite salmon – steelhead wet fly hooks.

Think Sea run cutthroat eat this October caddis fly?

Why avoid large hooks?  Simple. The fish are small, the hooks are large, their “take” is usually voracious, and the hooking mortality can be awful.  So stick to #6 or smaller hooks, stay away from a hook like the TMC 700 or an Eagle Claw 1197.  Funny thing, the Eagle Claw 1197B was my hook of choice, hook of necessity and favorite hook, all at the same time, tying and fishing sea run cutthroat flies during he 1970s and 80s.  Those were the days when a lot of Blueback came home with us, involuntarily, in wicker or canvass creels, destined for the barbecue.  Our attitudes are different these days, and we send the fish back into the depths to continue their migration whenever possible.

Here is what the fly bench looks like when i am preparing to shoot videos for Chris at the Caddis Fly.

For my sea run cutthroat fly hooks, I prefer a TMC 3761, 5263 or a Daiichi D1760, D1720, and D1560.  These are good sharp hooks, have low barbs that are easily pressed down, and heavy enough to swim the fly well.

Day in, day out, I would reach for a size #8 to fish for Harvest trout.  The #6 will occasionally bring more fish to the fly, but the #8 will earn more eatage and less fly nipping.  It is important to keep some #10s in one’s fly box, because sometimes all but these smaller flies will trigger a flashy false raise followed by outright rejection and disdain.  These false strikes are fun and exhilarating but do not result in hookage and tugage.

Video production debris:  sample flies, notes, cheap video camera, all on the table in the back room near the microwave.

Fly color. If you look closely at Les Johnson’s fine book (Fly fishing for Sea Run Cutthroat) you will see a lot of yellows.  Oranges and reds are also front-runners in the color palate.  Pink, if I remember correctly, is  essentially a no-show.

Pink and yellow: nice colors for Sea Run Cutthroat flies.

Amazing.    Pink is a very dependable color for Oregon sea run cutthroat flies.  A second level of color choices includes black, olive, and purple.  The bottom layer of color choices would be brown, and chartreuse.  Unfortunately, Harvest Trout do not read my articles, routinely ignore my advice and develop their own set of color choices.  I tend to fish dim light conditions with brighter colors, and go to more subtle colors in mid-day.  I might choose a size #6 at dawn and go to an #8 or #10 in the middle of the day.  Much of my fly inspiration is based on stomach content analysis that proved Sea run Cutthroat prefer Rooster Tail Spinners over live crawdads, sculpins worms, or juvenile Chinook. Really.

Wing materials. Here is a list of materials I use when I tie wings on Sea-run cutthroat flies:  Arctic fox tail, Bucktail, white deer belly hair, dark deer hair, Squirrel tail, Pheasant Tail fibers, Elk hair, Hareline Pseudo Hair, and Hareline Baitfish Emulator.

Try a few of the videos I shot with Chris Daughters recently.


White Deer Belly Hair.  Yum.

My favorite winging material includes white Arctic Fox tail; white Bucktail; white deer belly hair; and Mirage Flashabou in a variety of color phases emphasizing pearl. Hummm.  White seems to be my color of choice.  I also tie sea-run flies with natural deer hair, the center section of Bucktail (dark hair), squirrel, pheasant tail fibers (remember the Dr. Spratley), Peacock herl, and Hareline Baitfish Emulator or Pseudohair.

Arctic Fox tail hair:  totally dependable stuff.  Avoid Arctic Fox body hair, too wimpy and scraggly for my likes.

Sadly, with any natural wing material, all packages of hair are not created alike.  There can be a vast difference in the length, texture, hollowness, stiffness, and so forth, of Bucktails.  Some Bucktail hair is easy to stack, but some is impossible.  Hair from the base of the Bucktail is more hollow and will flare more than hair near the tip of the tail.  White deer belly hair is not as diverse as Bucktail, but again, some stacks and ties better than others.  The most consistent wing materials tend to be the deer and elk hides, squirrel tails, and Arctic Fox tails.  These are pretty solid and do not offer nearly as many surprises as Bucktail can.

Body materials. Here is a list of my favorite body materials:  dubbing mixtures, especially Hareline Trilobal and rabbit mixed with Ice dub; Uni Yarn; chenille; and Lagartun Mini Flat Braid.  Floss also works, although my preference is to Uni Yarn over floss because of its slight fuzziness right off the spool and the way it lays down so neatly.

Body rib. No question about this material: small Lagartun or Uni oval silver tinsel.  I do not use plastic Mylar tinsel because it is relatively fragile and gets chewed up pretty easily.

Hackle. Oh boy.  Here is a subject for hours of discussion.  The availability of quality hackle feathers for tying wet flies in the size #6 – #12 range varies considerably moth by month, year by year.  A saddle patch you might be able to get this year, right now, might not be available, at any price, next year.  Your selection next year might be better or it might be more limited.

Strung brown rooster saddle hackle feathers. Great stuff for sea run cutthroat flies.

The most consistently available hackle product I have used over the years include strung rooster schlappen and strung rooster saddle hackles.  These have been around forever and will probably still be here when you and I are long gone.  The only drawback I see to these strung rooster feathers is the need to sort out the junk and select feathers for size.  But the effort is worth it as opposed to using inappropriate hackles.   I definitely prefer to purchase my strung rooster saddles by at least the ounce, and more often by the pound or half pound, because it gives me the best selection of feather qualities, sizes and such forth.  Natural brown, black, hot pink, hot orange, shrimp pink, red, :  these are all useful for tying Chinook Boss and comet style flies also. and yellow are great colors

American Saddle Clump hackle feathers are available in a ton of colors perfect for Sea Run Cutthroat fly patterns, steelhead flies, and Chinook Comets.

A product that is available now and that may or may not be available a year from now is called “American Saddle Clump.”  These are curiously similar to the old Whiting Bugger Packs.  Available in a wide array of colors, these feathers have long tapered narrow tips that are great for dry flies, decent web that makes them very good for tying buggers – and most importantly – a short, wide webby base of the feather stem.

What do I look for in hackles for Sea-run flies? For bushy, bold profile flies, I like to have a feather with fairly full, substantial hackle barbules and a fair amount of web, maybe a lot of web.  The reason I want these hackle feather properties is that I believe that it lets my flies flow and pulse in the water.

On the other hand, some of my Sea-run cutthroat flies are fairly slim and feature much smaller, sparser hackle collars.  This is because, in my creative imagination, there are days and fish that will respond better to a more subtle, smaller, and sparser fly than to a bug bush fly.  Right or wrong, take a re-read Les Johnson’s wonderful book – How to fish for Sea Run Cutthroat trout (1970, Frank Amato Publications), look at the fly photographs, and note how fine and sparse most of the hackles were on his favorite flies.  Interesting perspective.

Badger hackle. Now there is a feather I wish we could get more consistently these days.  The Spruce Fly and many other traditional Sea-run cutthroat flies depend on Badger neck feathers.  Try to get some these days.  Good luck.  A close approximation of Badger hackles can be found in the natural grizzly variant saddle hackles, strung.  These are offered in packages and can be purchased by the ounce or pound also.  The strung material contains a lot of throw-away feathers, but there are a fair number (I call this an acceptable junk to treasure ratio) of really good saddle feathers and many give the impression of a mottled Badger feather.

Neck feathers versus saddle feathers. Here is a great subject for debate.  I thin the answer is  — it depends.  I love nice wide webby neck hackles.  I love nice wide webby saddle hackles.  Each of the above, of course, needs to be properly proportioned or in some cases, over sized for the hook.

Huh? My subtle size, slim body flies are rigged with smaller sparser hackles than the big bushy flies I tie as exciter patterns.  The key idea here is to scour your local fly shops for both saddle and neck hackles, and don’t forget the Schlappen feathers too.  Schlappen tends to have the slimmest center feather quills, which is nice for winding the hackle onto the hook.  Both saddle and neck hackle feathers can have perfect fiber length and web – but then be a mess to tie with because they have big thick center quills.  All you can do is buy the dang feathers and try tying with them.

The best test of a hackle is how it winds onto the hook.  Remember, too, that feathers taken from different parts of the cape or saddle patch will be different, so each cape or saddle patch will probably have sweet areas with the best hackles for certain size flies.

Hope this helps.


Nicholas’ Salmon fisher’s Journal: August 22, 2010

Jay Nicholas’ Salmon Fisher’s Journal, August 23, 2010

Siletz Sea Run Skunk, Washington Sea run cutthroat are in….

Yes I’m talking about the elusive sea run cutthroat, the smaller anadromous cousin of the mighty steelhead.  I love these fish.

Can’t help myself here, I feel compelled  to review a few of the factoids about the life history of sea run cutthroat, Oncorhynchus clarki clarki, here in Oregon.

These fish are found in virtually all, yes all – Oregon coastal rivers, and are in most if not all of the Columbia River tributaries at least upstream to Bonneville dam.  Formerly, and maybe even now, they were distributed as far upstream as about Hood River.  That’s what Oregon fish experts think, and what the Native fish Status report by Oregon says.  The matter of an anadromous fish of 12-14 “ making the migration from Hood River to the ocean and back seems a tiny bit intriguing.  Maybe they did, they could have, but maybe these migratory cutthroat simply migrated into the mainstem Columbia to chow down on juvenile salmon and steelhead before returning to the Hood.  Maybe they hung out in the Columbia /estuary rather than going out into the ocean.  I bet there was a lot of food for a piscivorous fish when the Columbia was wild.

Difficult to say for sure, and mostly an academic matter now, because there are about none of the feisty “sea run” cutthroat above Bonneville these days.

I should mention that recent research on sea run cutthroat in Lower Columbia River tributaries has found that some of the migratory fish have stayed in the Columbia estuary, or mostly in the near shore areas of the Columbia river plume, but that some have been tracked thirty or so miles offshore, so they sure as shootin’ are what I would call a “sea run” fish.

Back to sea run cutthroat life history in Oregon. Two to three years, usually, in freshwater before they “smolt” and migrate to ocean or estuary.  At this age they can be anywhere from 8”-12” long.  Interestingly, an Oregon researcher, three or four decades ago, recommended that the minimum size limit on coastal rivers should be 10” in order to adequately protect pre-smolt cutthroat from harvest.  The recommendation was not adopted.

So, juvenile sea run cutthroat spend 2-3 years in freshwater, migrate to the ocean/estuary, and then return after roughly three months.  This makes the migratory timing and duration of salty residence very similar to the half-pounder steelhead native to the Rogue and Klamath rivers in southern Oregon – Northern California.  Big difference is that virtually none of the half pounder steelhead are sexually mature after their first seaward migration, but virtually all of the sea run cutthroat will spawn on their first return from the salt.  This is true for Oregon, however as one looks north to Alaska, one finds that many sea run cutthroat may not be sexually mature on their first return to freshwater.

How big are sea run cutthroat? First migration blueback (they have beautiful blue backs just like fresh run steelhead when they first return to freshwater) are often in the 10”-12” size bracket.  if you catch a 14” sea run cutthroat here in Oregon it is probably 1) on its second migration back to the river or 2) an individual fish that stayed in the river until it was 11” long before it smolted.

If you encounter a sea run cutthroat in Oregon that is 16”, 17”, or more, you almost certainly have a fish that is on its 3rd, 4th, or even 5th migration back to freshwater.  es, I have heard the stories of 20” + sea run cutthroat here in Oregon.  They are true.  Trusted friends who dive our coastal rivers every year see a few of these fish , but the monster sea runs steadfastly elude my best efforts to catch them.

Question.  What is the most dependable way to catch sea run cutthroat in Oregon?

Answer: 1) find a deep hole in any Oregon coastal river a little distance above the head of tidewater; 2) make sure the hole is somewhat secluded location: 3) wait for night fall; 4) build a bonfire; 5) ensure that adequate supplies of beer, chips, hot dogs, and all the trimmings are at hand; 6) plunk out a gob of worms, crawdad tails, shrimp, or bullhead meat on a hook; 7) sit back on the beach, have a nice social time with friends, and reel in the cutthroat like crazy.

Think I‘m kidding? Not hardly.  This method was described to me as the traditional sea run fishing tactic practiced in the 1920s, a dairy farmer confided his secret methods in the 1960s, and in 2008, a young guy working a coffee kiosk in Monmouth bragged that this was the only way to really catch sea runs, having just returned from a successful fishing adventure on a certain nearby river.

Common, how about a fishing report?

Fished Siletz tidewater on Sunday. Sunny.  Last half of the incoming and early to mid outgoing tide.  Fished above and below Strom Park.  Great water.  Plenty of shady sea run habitat.  Most excellent fishing technique was applied.  Two fish scientist fly fishers giving our best.  Skunked.  wait, there were two cutthroat that could, possibly, if I really wanted, be classified as sea runs.  It would be a stretch.  Each fish was about 12”.  Maybe they had already been in for a month and slimmed down.  More likely, they were resident cutthroat.  Just tellin’ it like it probably is.

There were fresh sea runs in the area where we fly fished. The fish finder marked a fair number of fish in the deeper holes.  Were they sea run cutthroat, Chinook, or summer steelhead?  Don’t know.  They had to be fish though, right?  A fish finder never misleads.  Ha ha.

One fellow fishing a Ford Fender with worms caught a big blueback, and we found a fresh gut pile at the boat ramp.  So they were there.  Maybe if it had been cloudy with a little drizzle.  Maybe if we had fished first light.  Maybe.

Meanwhile, a fine day on the river with Kipper snacks, a beer, and good friend.

Ready to go again, yes sir.

Washington?  Almost forgot to tell ya.  A friend had great success on a Washing river last weekend.  Really got ’em to go on slim, yarn body flies.  Wish I had been there with him.


Nicholas’ Salmon Fisher’s Journal: Sea Run Cutthroat are in, Chinook Grabby on Small Flies – – –

Nicholas’ Salmon Fisher’s Journal

August 7, 2010.

Sea Run cutthroat are in; thirty-plus fish day; King salmon grabby on small flies.

That is how the headlines read.

Wow. Every word is true.

But – – – – – –

Sometimes the truth has little twists and turns that could be sorted out, if one wished to sort them out.

On the other hand, maybe the nuances of the truth should be left to lay, because that’s how legends are made, or so it seems.

August 7, 2010 was indeed a legendary fishing day.  A legendary day fly fishing for sea run cutthroat in oregon.  A legendary day fly fishing for chinook salmon in oregon. Please allow me to set the record straight, by filling in the details behind the headlines.

Steve and I were going fly fishing for sea run cutthroat. We decided to sleep in (Steve) and do some work on the computer (Jay).  I was to meet Steve at his home at 7 AM.  at 6:45, I’m about to ump in the truck and the hone rings.  “Take your time,” Steve tells me.  OK, this gives me another half hour to multi-task.

We head for the coast. It’s been waaaaay to long since we have been fishing together and especially fly fishing for sea run cutthroat.  Usually I anchor in the rock hole on the South Santiam and make Steve fish there for 6 hours straight.  .  We blather.  Mostly I blather.   I relate many stories about my expeditions chasing sea run cutthroat, the elusive blue back, the harvest trout.

By the way, please excuse my inconsistency in capitalization of all these fish names.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I do not capitalize common fish names.  I suppose as a fish scientist I should be consistent and proper.  My friend Rob constantly chides me, rightly so, but what the heck.  Time is short, my mind wanders.  I am inwardly conflicted about whether or not these fish names should be capitalized, so I wander around doing this and that, not worrying about it.  Rob will edit our books and get it straight when the time is right.

So we’re driving to our sea run cutthroat fly fishing destination, and after every story I tell, Steve says: “really”?  As if I was making it up.  Sometimes he asks if the storied fishing trip occurred during the most recent two decades.  I act appropriately offended, laugh, and tell another story.  So what if I exaggerate.  So what if the story relates to a fishing trip in 1967.  Who cares, really?

We go fishing. We hook 4 honest-to-goodness Sea Run Cutthroat.  See what I mean about capitalization?  Three of the 4 fish are larger than usual.  One is an honest 17”, measured against a tape on the boat.  We have a great time and drive home in the afternoon sun.  It has been a great day fly fishing for sea run cutthroat, because any day when you find a Blueback or two that is willing to rush your fly is a great day.

I go home and email Chris Daughters a photo of the 17″ Sea Run Cutthroat with a caption that reads, “Sea runs are in.”

It is about 5 PM.

Jackson, want to go up to Foster? Sure dada.  Will we get root beer floats?  Nah, I say, a big smile on my face.

We stop for a to-go burrito, a kid’s quesadilla, and it is on the road for the South Santiam.  Think about it.  Head west in the morning.  Fly fish for sea runs.  Catch a few.  Catch one big Blueback, fresh from the sea.  Then load up your son and your pram and head east.  Life is good.

Jackson and I arrive and get the Pram in the water by 7 PM.  We have seats in the Pram now.  Joe Koffler has leaned out the interior for me, just as I requested.  No fish box – don’t keep fish any more.  Cut off the slide for the fish box – one less fly line hang-up gizmo.  grind off the anchor bracket I never use in the center of the transom.  Weld up the various holes I have drilled in the transom over the years.  Cut off one rope seat.  This leaves one bench with a rope seat and one bench that I will equip with foam so that one or two passengers will have a comfortable place to sit.  I can row from either seat position.  Strengthen one of my Dirks anchor cleats so that it doesn’t bend over when the rope catches while the anchor is descending at mach three.

Jackson sees a fish rise, and he tells me we are going to catch a lot of fish tonight.  I say, maybe yea, maybe no.  He wants to know why.  I am distracted and give several conflicting answers, each is greeted with another question and each question answered with internally contradictory rationale.  He laughs at me and we row the pram out from the boat ramp to anchor.

Jackson is dragging his fly and has a fish on before I get the anchor set.  An hour and a half on the water allows us to hook and release over thirty fish.  The vast majority are hatchery Chinook juveniles that never migrated out of the river when they were released in the spring.  These little Chinook are all fin clipped (adipose fin), are starting to turn yellowish, indicating that they are approaching sexual maturity.  We catch two wild cutthroat and two wild steelhead juveniles, plus a few residual hatchery steelhead that, like the hatchery Chinook, never went to sea like they were supposed to.

Last time Jackson and I fished here a Hare’s ear soft hackle (#14) was the hot fly.  Tonight it is a #16 Renegade.  What a great fly.  The fish are wanting the fly on top, with a dead drift, as often as they want it skittering on the surface or raising to the surface from a wet swing.

Jackson casts and catches fish. He hands me the rod to cast.  I pass the rod to him, sometimes he passes a fish to me.  He constantly jibes me about whether or not fish feel pain and don’t I feel bad torturing the fish.  I finally ask him to not spoil it for me, after going through the science and the genetic fact that we men are hunters, and the respect-for-our-prey rationale.  He sees all the loopholes in my defensive answers and enjoys needling me.

There are twenty or so guys fishing for steelhead at the hatchery deadline, a hundred yards upstream.  We hear lots of cussing, and they are foul hooking a lot of fish.  One fly fisher wades into the water at the deadline on the south side of the river.  He hooks a fish and looses it.

Jackson and I talk about cussing and bad angling ethics and hatchery and wild fish, and how can I tell that they are foul hooking fish, and why it is bad to try to foul hook fish, and why would anyone try to foul hook fish.  All of my wisdom is impaired by the fact that I am having fun concentrating on the fishing.  Jackson is messing with the oars, trying to see if he can scare the fish off, paying only a little attention to our conversation.

Shall we go now, I ask at 8:15.  Let’s make a few more casts, my son says.  He really is having a good time, and I smile.

We pull out after dark, Jackson winches the Pram on the trailer, we call Lisa to let her know when we will be home, and we are ready to hit the road.

Chris Daughters and I have a quick email exchange before I pull out of the parking lot at Foster.

My email to Chris reads like this: “30+ fish up at Foster with Jackson.”

I talked to Chris the next day. He told me how he related my amazing day fly fishing for Sea Run Cutthroat to a mutual friend.  Chris said he knows how rare it is to hook close to three-dozen Blueback in a day.

I laughed. I cried.  Yes the Sea Runs were in.  Yes I caught some.  Yes one was 17”.

But – – – the 30+ fish part of the story was about trout-size hatchery fish up at Foster, not sea runs.  Chris was laughing too, by this time, and we talked about how missing a word or two in a conversation or an email can really change the message.

Imagine if I had emailed that we had caught close to thirty Chinook on flies (all true) that day?

These are the truths and half-truths that legends are made of.


A Salmon Dream: Just a Story, Nothing More…

I spent my youth learning to fish.  To be a great fisherman.

While other children played, I studied.  I practiced.

Casting.  Knots.  The proper techniques.  Tying flies.  Sharpening hooks.  All that stuff.

The other kids played and occupied themselves with kid things.   Laughing.  Playing games.  But I didn’t know how to do those things, so I practiced, I studied.

I caught little fish, ordinary fish, lots and lots of them.  And dreamed of the day that I would catch a great fish, a special fish.

Day after day, year after year.

And as I grew older, it seemed, I studied even more diligently, practiced  with even more determination.  And I caught more and more fish.  Bigger and bigger fish.  Special fish.  Prized fish.  Rainbow trout.  Chinook salmon.  Steelhead.

But no matter how many, or how big, or how prized, I was back at-it the next day.  And the next.  And I practiced and studied.  Studied and practiced.

It seems so long ago.  That time of practicing.  Of studying.  Of fishing.

I fell ill, I suppose.  Or lapsed into a fever.  Or some such state.

The fish were there, the afternoon this story began.  Big, hard, bight fish.  Summer steelhead with thick blue backs; shimmering, molten-silver sides; and the whitest bellies anyone could ever imagine.  The fish, and me.

There was also the crunch of granite sand under my boots.  And thundering rapids at the head of chest-deep, blue-green pools.  Steelhead water.  Bald eagles overhead.  Great old cedars rooted at river’s edge.  Green moss on streamside boulders.  Bear sign.  Otter.  Heron.  Clean air in my lungs.  Nature in balance.

The river, too, was full of life.  Little fish and big fish.  Olive, spotted backs.  Pink cheeks.  Orange splotches on parr-marked sides.  Dorsal fins raised in defiance.  Chasing.  Resting.  Leaping.  Nipping.

And bugs.  Astonishing, silly, fantastic bugs.  Bugs hiding under every rock, in every strand of river moss.  Mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis.  Armored, glossy backs.  Vibrant grays and browns.  Hints of crimson and yellow in chinks between armored segments.  Clinging to rotting sticks and leaves, swimming up to the surface.  Laying dormant in cocoons.  Crawling.  Creeping.  Hatching.  Mating.  Dying.

I was waist deep in the pool, left leg braced against a boulder at the edge of the swifter flow.  A perfect cast. Downstream into the sun, across the current, just short of the quiet water on the far side.  Ivory fly line arching through the air. The steelhead were calm.

Mend.  Swing. Follow with the rod. Mend. Swing.  Follow with the rod.

The fly was perfect. Black, with just a hint of fluorescent green at the butt.  No white.  No tinsel.  Sparse.  Big.  Sharp.   Swinging across the pool, four feet below the surface.

The big male intercepted the fly as it hung motionless at the end of the swing.  The hook pulled into the corner of his jaw as he turned back to his lie.

He circled back upstream when he felt the steel, throwing his head from side to side.  My heart was in my throat.  This was a great steelhead, I could see, the greatest steelhead ever.  Forty pounds.  Easily..  No.  Fifty.  Maybe more.  This was the fish I had waited my whole life for.

He was strong.  So was I.  He would not surrender.  Nor would I.

I stood there, in the river.  Patient.  He stayed in the depths.  Patient.

Hours later, the sun went down. Day passed into night.  We were alone, together.  Me and this great steelhead, this great fish.

The second day passed by as well, and the third and the fourth.  Him, in the depths of the pool.  Unyielding.  Me, at the river’s edge.  Unyielding.  Each in our own worlds, Connected, the fish and me, by a line.  Fine, fragile, supple – but tough as iron.  I could feel him breathe, under the water, unseen.  Connected by that line.  Muscles flowing along his side.  Heart beating.  Fins tilted down to keep his position in the depths.

He could feel me above him I suppose, connected by our line.  The flex of thighs as I shifted weight from one leg to the other.  A quiver of fatigue in my right forearm.  The raise and fall of my chest with each breath.  Blood pounding.

The days grew shorter, the night’s coolness took on a bitter edge.  Mushrooms sprouted under the forest canopy after a light rainfall.  Shimmering crimson and yellow leaves danced across the forest.  The mushrooms were beautiful, firm and perfect when they pushed out of the earth.  Over the next couple of weeks, though, they turned soft, spongy, and acquired a bad smell.  By the time snow began falling they were just little damp puddles of brown goo.  The forest smelled like Christmas trees.

And so it went, year after year. Me, at the river’s edge.  Him, in the deep.  Just me and the fish, the fish and me.

For awhile I had visions of people to keep me company.  Visions.  A young couple sitting by a stream in summer.  A boy learning to ride a bicycle.  A family barbecue on the Fourth of July.  People laughing.  Couples holding hands.  An old woman taking her grandson to breakfast.  A father too ill to talk to his son.

But no one else was really there, at the end of the world.  Just me and the fish – the fish and me.

Sometimes he would rise up and peer through the surface at me.  He seemed as strong as ever.  As beautiful as ever.  He would pause there, look at me for a while, and then glide back to his sanctuary.

At some point I began to think of this fish as my fish.  I knew he wasn’t really, fundamentally, my fish.  But I had worked so hard, for so long.  For my whole life.  And after all, I had been the one to hook him.  At first I felt awkward thinking of this great fish as mine, but soon became accustomed to the idea.  After awhile I forgot that it had ever been uncomfortable to think of him in such a way.

I thought about quitting.  Thought about going home.  But I couldn’t quit.  Not yet.  This fish was everything I had tried to achieve in my life.  My whole life.  So much diligence.  So much practice.  Uncountable hours of discipline.  While other children were playing.  So much put-off till a later day.  Such focus.  Such determination.

It would soon be over, I thought.  All my work, all my patience, all my persistence would pay-off.  Finally.  This is my great fish, I thought.  Greater than all the others.  After this fish, I will be able to rest.  I can go home.  I thought.

After this fish.  Just this one more fish, I thought.

There was a time when a great storm of demons gathered over my head.  The dark sky was so frightful.  The rising wind so fierce. I was full of fear, but I steeled myself, numbed my mind.  And held tight to my fish as the storm swept over me.

The cold struck my tears to ice, slashing my eyes ‘till I could barely see.  Wind bent me over the water, roaring in my ears ‘till I couldn’t hear.

I considered quitting the battle then, considered going home.  Home.  But I couldn’t see anyone waiting for me – I couldn’t hear anyone calling my name.  I had been there at the river’s edge for so long, fought so hard.  So I stayed.  And the demons set upon me.  Demons without faces, voices, feelings, fears.  Silent, unrelenting, demons.

The demons came as a shadow blacking out the sun.  They burrowed toward me under the ground, a bulge of earth marking their approach.  Long arms clutching at me, smothering, pushing sticky fingers into my stomach to rip out my guts.

I was terrified.

I imagined fighting back, but couldn’t move from where I stood.  Imagined slashing throats, severing heads, poking out eyes.  My lungs burst. My heart exploded through my chest.  But I stood fast.  Stood my ground.  Held on to my fish.

Once so full of life, the forest and the river grew oddly quiet, sapped of it’s vitality by our battle.   The circle of life fractured then, and there was only death to keep us company.  Big fish and little fish, heron, otter, eagle, and stonefly, like the mushrooms, were all little puddles of goo – and bad smells.

Then, one winter, the season’s stilled, and each day was cold, rainy and dreary.  And passage of the days ceased and there was only night, only a cool sliver of moon to keep us company.  Finally, even the river stilled, grew tepid and musty.

That’s when he came to me.  After I had endured so much – loss of companionship – terror and revulsion – the death of the forest – death of the seasons – death of day and night –death of the river itself.

He was bleeding – a little trickle from under his gill plate, running along his side, dissipating in a little pink cloud in the water.  He had probably been bleeding since the beginning.  Just a little.  For all that time.  Unseen.  Under the water.  Day after day, week after week, year after – year – a little pink cloud in the water with each beat of his heart.

He had been so strong, so full of life – in the beginning.  Not now.  A nearly empty vessel.  All his life leached out.  Fragile.

Exhausted beyond thought, still I stood there.

It ended very quickly, as it usually does.  I felt the fish rising up to the surface, as he had done so many times before.  But this time was different.  His breathing was shallow.  His fins trembled.  Instead of gliding purposefully to the surface, he drifted up as a dead leaf flutters from a branch to the water’s surface.  His eyes were vacant, gazing blankly at the sky.

I felt like I was going to throw-up.

Red stripe on his side, bare bone exposed on skull, flesh eroded from edge of fins, silver turned dull, gasping, gills flaring.  Powerless.  I tried to kneel, hoping to cradle him upright in the current, reach into his mouth – release him from my hook – let him go.

I tried to move, to kneel in the shallows, but I couldn’t – I was frozen where I had stood for so long.  My skin had grown leathery, my toenails had burrowed into the earth, and my hair had furled about me like the windblown crown of a tree.

Straining to meet my fish, I toppled into the stream and lay there in the mud at the river’s edge. He turned on his side and drifted up through the stagnant water into my arms.

As he came to the surface to rest on a sandbar alongside me I said – I’m sorry.

For a moment I thought he would speak, but he did not.

And so the struggle ended, for me and the fish.

The river began to flow again, as we joined at the river’s edge.  The sun began to shine.  The seasons resumed. Salmon returned to the river.  The circle of life was complete again.

Our bodies nourished the river, the forest, and the all of its creatures.  We sheltered young fish from floods in the winter.  Heron, kingfishers and frogs perched on us in the summer.

People, too, came to rest near where we lay at river’s edge.  Some came with questions, some just to tell their story.  For our part, we could only listen and wonder.  A man and a woman whispered joyously about the unborn son she carried. A young man making his way through life stood at the river’s edge, looking for his home.  He came and then all too soon was gone again.  Driving off in a red Mustang.  An old woman seemed afraid that she had lost her way, but soon forgot her fear, and stayed just to enjoy some wild flowers and watch her son paint.

One fish in the pool grew to be a big fish. A very great fish.  Sometimes he would raise up, close to the shore where we lay, finning in the current, peering through the surface at us.


When we are not fishing – – – July 2010

When we aren’t fishing; when we aren’t tying flies; or tidying our garage; or checking the loop-to-loop connections on our shooting head fly lines; when we aren’t lost in the blogosphere; messing with a crackberry; working at an actual job; checking the tides and long-term weather for our planned fishing trips in August, and September and October and November; when we aren’t making sure that the moths haven’t started eating our lifetime supply of hot orange saddle hackles – – – – –

Sometimes, we do other things. Maybe not often enough.  Probably not often enough.  But fishing and everything related fishing is so deeply embedded in our psyche, that all things fishing are with us most of the time.
Sometimes we take our family to Sweet Home, Oregon. A hedge of blackberry bushes separates  our camp area from property that was formerly a day-and-night bustling Weyco log and lumber handling area.  Railroad cars that once were filled with National Forest timber, headed for anywhere and everywhere, have sat, unmoving for decades.  The rate of tree-cutting was unsustainable, so the crash was inevitable, but it was devastating to rural communities like Sweet Home.  One of the men I fished side-by-sde with on the South Santiam in the 1960s, Bill, worked at the Mill in Lebanon.  Years later, I met one of his sons, working at the Lebanon McDonald’s.  No Mill Job for him.  Wonder what happened to their family.

Sometimes we see an absolutely fantastic Keith Urban concert, seated waaaaay in the back.  But Keith usually goes through the crowd, brave man, and does a guitar riff from a little stage back where the non-VIP concert-goers can see him up close.
We might wake in the night to see a big Ford pared about ten feet away, staring silently at us, and hope they engaged  the parking brake.
We realize that the recession is more real to some families than it is to others.  There had to be at least ten million bucks in new trucks, motor homes, campers and so on, just in the little lot behind Mcdonald’s last weekend.  I dove along Foster Lake and Green Peter one afternoon and was reminded that there are way more 100-thousand buck party boats than puny little Prams, Driftboats, or FlyFishing Sleds.  We just congregate in different places, so we rarely see each other.

Sometimes we’re up at 5, sipping coffee while our family sleeps in, listening to Brad Paisley sing —
“well I love her, but I love to fish”
Sometimes we lounge under a tarp, before marching off to wait in line to get seats 300 yards from the stage.
We are grateful for our SOTAR sleeping pad.

Sometimes we smile at 4 days of good honest dirt.
Sometimes, we marvel at how a Yeti cooler can keep ice — ice —  after needing to replenish the frozen water twice in our normal coolers.
We get home, drive down to Eugene to see Joe Koffler and stand in a fly fishing powerboat, for the very first time.  Still in the shop at Koffler’s.  The trailer is loaded on a flat-bed, ready for a trip to Portland to receive a dip in the galvanizing tank.  A week, maybe, and I’ll be on the water, trying to figure out where the “start” button is on the outboard.

Then it’s home to the work of drying tents, awnings, and re-sorting saddle patches.  Maybe I do need another dozen Kingfisher Blue Eurosaddles to palmer my Comets.
Salmon season is just around the corner, I think, and the weekend will involve some sea run cutthroat hunting.
If we come to our senses for a few days, we are grateful for non-fishing time with our family, people who love us no matter what.