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Monday, February 13, 2017

North Lands Roadtrip : BC Steelhead Pt. 2




Not many people are going to live out of a tent for a month looking for a trout. Maybe a few hardy souls out there consumed with the passion for a true giant, but not many. A trout in a gentleman's sport fish that sips delicate dries and gets stalked during pleasant summer weather. A Steelhead is a maniacs sport fish that crushes things that wander into its marauding path as it moves through a drizzly costal jungle. Some of the thickest country this side of Alaska: Bears, moose, and the Sasquatch could be yards away and you would never notice. Knowing that bites most days will be infrequent it is passion alone holding you up through this imposing environment with only the hint of the possibility of the grab, the possibility of a monster Steelhead lurking that keeps you rooted in a run. He's living in there, somewhere, I know it. Just need to swing one right onto his nose and . .. . . WHUMP*

Living out of the truck over a long guide summer shapes you into being the perfect drop-in exportable angler. Tackle bags, rods, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, tent, cooking gear all become fixtures of the daily routine . It is definitely in all ways training for Canada. When people ask me what I do instead of saying "I'm a fishing guide" I should say "I train to catch Steelhead". The vision of Steel starts honing you from the first dry fly cast of cold springtime. The equipment needs and circadian rhythms all get finely synced to the ebb and flow of rivers. Once you are here, it's like a latent part of you was there all along waiting for you to come and see in again for yourself.. . . .

Swing. . .. Swing. . . . Swing. . . .

There is an erie feeling that occurs after all of the planning and day-dreaming is done and you feel the first icy cold step into the run. Everything up to now has lead to setting foot back into this memory, one that somehow drifted in and caught purchase deeper than most others can ever manage. And now here you are, standing in that memory.


Swing. . . . Swing . . . . Swing . . . .

































The present narrative blends with legendary trips of the past making facts begin to distort. Our middle week was slowed by yet another 48 hr downpour that bumped the area rivers into chocolate milk stage. Always part of the gamble when spending a month in the bush leaving yourself to the mercy of the weather god. Damm you Poseidon! We tried changing rivers to dodge the bump to no avail, the big rivers and the massive ones all swollen from inches of cold fall rain. As with most things when we started trying too hard things began going downhill quickly. Broken rod, lost shooting head, punctured waders and of all things a beer shortage made for a low week of morale. We made the most of it and hunkered down to do some serious partying. We are here to stay Fish, better get used to us even if you won't bite! While the fishing slowed the cards heated up as hand after hand was played into the night. The Boxer rumbled ominously. Rain licked the tent and the Steelhead moved in right under our noses. With nothing to do but wait and tie flies we started to get creative.

After a few days in camp, and especially during the slump, we found ourselves spinning bugs up by the bushel full, odder and more exotic variations being concocted every night. It has to be the fly, right? A dozen got tied a night all hoping to be the one that would crack the code the following morning. Blue? Mauve? More Rubber Legs? Amherst feather? Peacock? Jungle Cock? More. .. .




































Close observation caused by drizzly desperation and weeks living in the wild suggested the omens were improving: I am no mystic but I definitely believe in fish-magic.  The Powereagles came back and the ravens left. Afternoons became less windy. Casting got tighter. Rumors of fish being plucked downstream came our way. Finally it broke. After a long stretch of slow action the river lowered just enough and the steel started clicking again. *tug,  tug   *TUG. .. . . . A big hen came to hand at lunch high up in the canyon where we had never pinned a fish before. Omens. Gorgeous. Silver, chromed-out fish head-shaking and refusing to give up. A fresh-fresh-fresh one from the salt. Hmmmmm, maybe a few more of these have moved in too. Gotta go fishing to know.

As so often happens the final days of the trip fell in the "Epic" category for steelhead fishing, everyone getting multiple tugs and some truly stunning fish being landed. It isn't all about the fish after all, the adventure and camaraderie with the boys is what makes this trip happen, but ya sure like to go out with a bang. Lifting a big Steelhead out of the water is a pause in time, the normal flow of experience getting stopped dead in its tracks when you finally get a hand on one. The Tail. The Eye. That power that calms for just a moment, the icy resolve leading it upriver idling in your hands. Magic.

All the planning and day-dreaming will start soon enough as we all already know we will be heading to the Steelhead Holy Land again next year. Once we are there the whole routine will be as natural as flicking dry flies to cut banks. Latent memories revived with that first swing in costal BC.

Bring me back.















































Thursday, January 26, 2017

Let It Snow : Montana Winter


Let It Snow, Let It Snow. 2017 has started out as a throwback to what winters of old in Montana were known for. Below-freezing temperatures and tons of snow in the mountains and valleys is more in keeping with what winter is supposed to be than the warm, dry winters of the last three years. I wish the best for all my sedan-driving friends and remember why 4x4 is such a nice insurance policy when the passes get a foot of snow and the plow is miles away. Shovels, towropes, and chains permanently live in the truck this time of year rounding out the winter kit that we hope we won't have to use. No promises its only the end of January after all. ..

Winter life around town consists of mellow mornings stoking the fire, coffee n' eggs, and tying flies well into the afternoon. For us full-time fishing guides winter is proper down time, a laid back pace of life that starts late with the sun on the coldest of days. Whatever strikes the fancy to fill the time; Read a years worth of books in three months; Get out hunting powder as often as possible; Or tie a summers worth of hoppers. Fishing guides and wildland firefighters share this same seasonality of life with long stretches of off-time to get out of town or hunker down and hibernate for a few months every year.  In the summer months following the sun means getting up with first cockcrow around 430am so in keeping with this heliophilic lifestyle it just makes sense to get the late start during the cold months. One of these years I will get my sh*t together and spend February on a remote island chasing schools of bones'. Until then I will wander the woods on foot and on ski waiting for the sunshine to bring the Cutthroats back to the surface. Cross-country and downhill skiing keeps the cardio working and gives firsthand experience of exactly how much snow is living in the hills. This year there is a lot. I mean quite a frickin' lot. Don't get yourself off the packed trail or you will be post-holing for a long while.



Add to this, of course, a few "guide meetings" down at the brewery for scheduling the upcoming years worth of days spent on the river. "Bring your calendars, boys, we gotta talk". Cabin fever is no match for delicious RedDread and some nachos with the guide crew on a music-filled Thursday night. We start booking our calendars as soon as the holiday frenzy calms and folks start daydreaming right along with us about June dryflies and miles of beautiful Montana riffles. This year is already shaping up to be a record-breaker for guide days and so far we have the snowfall to make it downright epic. I'm no prognosticator but fishermens hunches have to count for something.

For those interested current snowpack can be found below:

Montana Snowtel Map Jan 26






Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fish of a thousand Casts

     They call them the fish of a thousand casts.  I found this to be very true this winter. The fish that I am talking about is none other than the elusive steelhead.  More precisely the steelhead  that returns to the upper waters of the Snake, Clearwater, and Salmon rivers of Idaho.

     Steelhead have fascinated me since my father introduced them to me as a young boy growing up in western Washington.  I can remember days on the Snoqualmie river chasing rainbow and cutthroat trout on the Snoqualmie river with my father and two little brothers. On one of our outings I remember seeing this exceptionally large "trout" cruising near the shore at the mouth of Tokul Creek near the famous Snoqualmie Falls.  Excitedly I pointed the fish out to my father.  "That's the biggest fish I've ever seen dad!"  That my son is the king of all trout, a steelhead.  "Well lets catch him" I said and promptly cast my Colorado spinner and worm right in front of his nose.  Of course the fish went swimming off deeper into the river and out of view as soon as my lure hit the water.  Dad just chuckled.  It'll take at least a "thousand casts" to catch that fish son!  I was hooked right then and there.  I had to catch one.  I just had to.  And so a life long obsession and quest began!  To know and catch such an impressive fish.



  Snoqualmie Falls Upstream of the Mouth of Tokul Creek


     Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) belong to the family Salmonidae which includes all salmon, trout, and chars. Steelhead are similar to some Pacific salmon in their life cycle and ecological requirements. They are born in fresh water streams, where they spend their first 1-3 years of life. They then emigrate to the ocean where most of their growth occurs. After spending between one to four growing seasons in the ocean, steelhead return to their native fresh water stream to spawn. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead do not necessarily die after spawning and are able to spawn more than once.

    Dad is a died in the wool bait fisherman and so he would take me to the base of Snoqualmie Falls or near the mouth of Tokul Creek on the Snoqualmie river and we would "plunk"for steelhead.  This was his favorite and I would soon learn the only way he knew how or wanted to catch them.  Essentially you take a glob of cured roe a large spin and glow and several ounces of weight and chuck it as far out into some slow moving still water and let the spin and glow and bait work in the  current while anchored securely to the bottom.  Put a rod holder in the ground, attach a cute little jingle bell to the rod tip and wait for a fish to swim up and take the bait.

     So with the enthusiasm and expectation of youth I had at it!  Did I say that you have to wait for a fish to take the bait?  Ya!! and wait and wait and wait.!!  What about the thousand casts?!  I quickly surmised that at this rate it may take a lifetime to catch a steelhead. Dad would get out some thick book and read until he fell asleep with the book laid across his chest.  What did he think a 12 year old boy was going to do just sit their and wait for a damned fish to swim up and magically appear.  Of course my patience did not last long and I eventually ambled off to find more riveting entertainment. This went on for weeks and weeks with nothing to show for our efforts except some new tome that dad would read.  I began to wonder if the fish I saw was a ghost.  Until one day while turning over rocks looking for periwinkles I heard the ringing of that cute little bell!

     Dad was up and setting the hook as if he had never even closed his eyes.  I remember vividly the rod bent in half and the drag on his ancient Mitchel spinning reel screaming as the fish peeled off the line.   Could it be? Had dad actually hooked a steelhead? I will be honest in the weeks leading up to dad's strike I had my doubts about my fathers method so I had taken it upon myself to observe and learn how other steelhead fisherman went after these sea going trout and found that there were as many ways to fish for them as there were fisherman. Most of us learn from our fathers, grandfathers etc.  how to fish and hunt.  So my dad was just doing what he was taught as a young boy growing up in Oregon and fishing with his grandfather on the banks of the Columbia river. What I found on the banks of the Snoqualmie river were anglers with bait casting rods casting corky's and yarn.  Float fisherman with outsized bobbers floating roe and sand shrimp through likely holes.  Spoon fisherman making incredibly long casts across the river and the rare fly fisherman with a strike indicator and pegged eggs.

     I will never know if my father had hooked a steelhead that day because as soon as I got to him and his bent rod the line went slack.  Oh well he exclaimed!!  Must have been a whopper!  I noticed that nothing remained of his setup likely due to the lack of good knots.  I had noticed that the only thing my dad changed about his rig in weeks was the bait, so the line had probably been compromised and broke as soon as it came tight.  A good lesson I learned early on...Check your knots and tackle regularly as it could mean the difference in landing a fish and just getting hooked up!  I was going to have to do this on my own.  I love my dad but what I wanted was to be active.  I mean to actively participate in angling.  I wanted to outwit this fish and I meant to do it!









    




A blast from the past.  A very young me with some early success with a few steelhead and salmon!



The next thirty years of my life I  pursued my passion for steelhead through all facets of angling trying all kinds of tackle and methods to catch steelhead. I have fished for them from Alaska to Oregon and even have been to the Holy land of British Columbia with varying degrees of success.  I even got good at it, wink, wink!  Most of my early success can be attributed to catching them by pulling plugs behind a jet boat or drift boat.  Then as I became a fly-fishing purist my success ratio plummeted but my satisfaction and lust for steel heightened to a fever pitch. .



Montana Creek in the Matsu Valley Alaska


My young son Bridger with a couple of steelhead for the smoker. 




Recently I became fascinated with a pure style of fishing for steelhead using a Spey rod and catching them on the swing.





     Spey casting originated in the heart of Scotland in the mid-1800s. The name comes from the River Spey in Scotland, which is where the cast originated, presumably at Gordon Castle Estate and Wester Elchies beat. Therefore, the Spey cast was developed so one could successfully cast on a large river such as the Spey. When Spey casting was introduced, 22-foot rods were used. These rods were made of greenheart, a heavy wood imported from British Guyana. Today, rods are only 12 to 15 feet in length, usually made of fiberglass or graphite and can toss a line up to 80 feet.



Early Spey success  The Olympic Peninsula Washington




     I took Spey casting more seriously this year as I listened to my fellow Marauders taunt me with stories of bright fish caught on the swing.  In past years I would start with my Spey rod in hand but quickly becoming inpatient I would switch to my tried and true methods and get the results I needed to get my fix!

   Knowing that to catch a fish on the swing is a very deliberate act requiring unwavering focus and dedication I set out this fall and winter with one goal in mind.  To swing for steel and only swing. I wanted to catch them consistently on the swing. So I would spend this fall  focused on one pursuit, swinging for steel.  All my time and energy were focused on this pursuit, waterfowl and elk hunting took a back seat. My family wondered if they still had a provider.  I became driven, focused, obsessed.  Time spent on the tying bench were spent cranking out patterns that I was sure would entice a heavy shouldered leviathan from the river.

    I was on the Salmon river as soon as the season opened knowing that very few fish were yet that far up the river system.  Starting with warm temperatures and fighting glaring sunlight and sunburns to freezing rain and snow I stayed in the runs all season long.  Swing step swing step on and on it went and my cast improved as did my knowledge of the river and  fish while getting the feel for where the bucket is. That spot where you know the fish have to be.  I learned more about hydraulics and the subtle nature of the river more so than ever.  I went to the Main Salmon, the North Fork, Clearwater, Middle Fork.  Towns like Orifino where steelheading is a passion to Kamiah and little known bars way down the North Fork of the Salmon like the MTSaddle where I spoke with other addicts young and old who pursue this fish like some kind of Meth addict.  They understand my obsession, and we shared stories of success and mostly failure but still I would swing step swing step on and on and on.  Was that a take?  That was definatly a take!  Finally a strike only to feel the line slip loose.  Just what an addict needs a take yet not the high.

    As a wrestling coach and our season just one week from starting I asked fellow Marauder Chris Rockhold to share my last weekend on the main Salmon before I had to exchange my rod for a pair of wrestling shoes.  I had been on nine trips averaging 100 casts a day.  Chris had recently returned from the holy land up north in British Columbia and had tasted the sweet satisfaction many times already.  Seeing how bad I needed a fix he took me to some of his "spots" which I will keep sacred and secret.  This would be my TENTH trip this season.  The day was cold and the snow falling heavy.  Forecasts foretold of a heavy freeze coming the next day promising to lock the river in its grip for the rest of winter.  I had to get it done on this trip! 




     Our first run and ten steps in  I hooked up!  Tug Tug, line came pouring off the reel and I quickly was into my running line....then nothing.....Ugggg I fell to my back in the deep snow panting heavily.  The best hook up of the season and... blank!  Was I cursed?  Come on he said  lets go to another spot.  Chris is always so confident.  I have guided with him for many years now and his confidence and enthusiasm is contagious and always pays off for him.  Was this the last lesson I needed to learn?  Confidence??  Trust the bug finish the swing and let it swim he encouraged.  It'll come he coaxed me up gave me a beer and on we went to the next run. 

   The next run produced another tugging strike!!  Two serious eats in one day on the swing.  In one day!!!  My best of the season yet none to hand.  Hard to stay confident but Chris said one more run.  I knew this would be the last run of the season.  The snow was heavy on the road and we still had to negotiate the pass and dodge herds of elk to get home. 

We made our way to the next run.  Chris said he was going to take the first run we came to and that I should walk up river another 1/4 mile to the sweet spot and start and when he was finished stepping the first run he would come in behind me.  What a pal!

    The run was the best looking of the day.  The snow squall had stopped.  With fingers frozen I stepped in the river.  Step, step swing, step, step, swing.  I worked this final run with total focus.  I felt the nuances of the current.  I knew the slow sink tip that I changed to was the right choice.  The choice of fly my own, hand tied the night before. The knot double checked.  Hook laser sharp.  Drag set just so.  Everything felt perfect.  I could sense the bucket coming. If a fish was in it I would catch it!  I was startled to hear Chris behind me.  My focus so intent. "Sweet run isn't it"  I had five steps left in the run and I knew my fly was in the bucket as Chris stepped into the run 50 yards above me.  Two steps left and back over the hill I must go, let it swing tight to the bank......

    There is nothing like shooting a laser across the river and the feel of a tight line grab.  The Steelhead took my fly at the very end of the swing following it close to the bank and came immediately to the surface, strong, living, surging,  and hooked up tight.  My heart was pounding out of my chest.  Time slowed and my mind worked fast.  Back stepping to the bank for sure footing the fish ran up river towards Chris, then back down.  Once, twice he came close to the hand.  Chris reminded me that this might take awhile.  I prepared myself mentally for the inevitable.  But it did not happen with patience and care together we brought this fish to hand.  I took in the moment and looking at this fish realized that it had traveled thousands of miles,  survived predators and passed through eight dams so that I could meet him.  Ten Trips, 1000 miles and a thousand casts.  They truly live up to there reputation! 

     This spring I will reset the cast counter and look for the next one!  I need another fix!









Monday, December 26, 2016

Marauders Best 2016




Another year is in the books for us western Montana trout hounds. The snow is piling up outside the window and the bugs are piling up on the tying desk both in anticipation of the upcoming season on the water. As we hunker in for the dark part of the outdoor calendar and wait for open water on steelhead rivers we look back on a years worth of photos gleaned from the great wilds of Montana and surrounding. Friends, family, clients, all days on the water and in the woods blend together from one end of the rowing season to the other.

And while the verbal story takes some reflection to get it right the visual narrative needs no explanation. This one is just the pictures.

Enjoy