We left the Willamette valley on Friday afternoon after an uncountable number of phone calls were placed, primarily dealing with the acquisition of dry wood, brats and PBR. We made the 205-I5 junction north of Vancouver in under 2 hours, the steelhead gods clearly on our side. And when we finally got through Aberdeen and made the turn north on 101 the rain stopped and we thought the unbelievable may be true, that we could put up the tents without them becoming just another sponge for March rains on the olympic peninsula. When we arrived in camp, it was moonlit and the fourth of our party already had the living area tarp up and secured. It was at this point that I realized things were going too well, and I mentally prepared for three days of three good rods on the water with no chrome to show for it. Steve, the fourth member in question, sombered out of the truck after four hours of front seat sleep and gave us the run down. The river had been dropping into shape since he arrived on Wednesday, was clearing up and looked good. He fished the big water for a day and a half and put one full day in on some smaller, clearer water about twenty minutes north, and did it all without even a grab.
The next morning camp water was on my immediate agenda. We fished it hard all morning, talked to a couple boats that had caught fish and then moved upriver for the afternoon. We saw one big trout and one possible steelhead but touched nothing. Sunday started out the same, more camp water in the morning and then we headed to a smaller river for the afternoon fish. Here we found some good, relatively untouched water but it was crystal clear and I was only packing the big gaudy shit, so it felt wrong and the steelhead confirmed.
Back in camp Sunday night we were down to three, the five days of grablessness finally finishing off Steve. We were supposed to leave at 2 Monday, but in camp on Sunday night we decided to leave that decision up in the air. We abandoned the camp water Monday morning and got on a new program, which was flies in the water all day, only in the prime shit, even if it means going through it two or three times. We had found two superb pieces of water in the previous days and stuck with them. Starting off one run in the morning and moving to the next around noon. When we got to the car for the move, the decision was made to send our obligations to hell and fish until dark. This paid off. When we got to the second piece of water it was a little after noon. By 1:30 it was too late to go back on our decision to stay. Right at this moment John had a momentary hook-up and our decision to stay was confirmed. We each worked throught the run once more and felt nothing.
We left to breakdown camp and had about 2 hours to fish. We all agreed on one piece of water, not where John felt the fish but a bigger, even juicier run. I went through the gut first and by the time I got to the end I was sure that we were going home fishless. I barely had the mental energy to reel up and wade to shore, I was defeated. I had a sit on the bank and watched Nate and John fish for a bit and realized that I was fulfilling my prophecy of fishlessness.
The top of the run is narrow, with only about ten feet of soft inside seam that is fishable. I was looking at it with distaste, but knew fishing there gave me a hell of a lot better chance at a hook-up then sitting on the gravel. I started fishing it with little motivation, but quickly fell into a rhythm. I kept glancing at the far side, there was a sharp seam and a couple good sweepers and logjams within a few feet of the seam. It was going to be really ugly to fish it, make a 60-70 foot cast, heave a mend to put the head on the far side of the main current and feed a shitload of line. As luck would have it, I had popped a guide off of my 13' 7/8 St. Criox avid the day before, leaving my whooping stick out of commision. Nate had brought a backup though, a 9149 Burkheimer, by far the biggest rod I have fished with, but a perfect rod to have in hand when attempting to fish previously described seam. So I heaved that shit over there and made a big mend, the feeding line was ripped out by the main current but I was still able to get about 4 seconds of good broadside "swing" at the very end of it all. On my fourth or fifth cast working the seam the last 20 feet of shooting line that I was feeding had a loop knotted into it. I always stop the swing and pull the knot out, but for some reason this time I didn't, I said "fuck it", and watched the loop rip through the guides and out the end of the rod. The loop got about ten feet out of the rod and stopped as there was no more line to feed. The line came tight and I felt it, a soft tug. I thought, no fucking way, then dropped the rod and turned it slightly towards the bank, and the fish was there. We never actually got this fish in hand, but we all got a good look at it and it's big floppy adipose before the hook popped out next to the bank. I took my seat on the bank and let it all sink in, somewhere in the background I heard John say "Well, what should we do?", without hesitation Nate answered "Keep fishing." About twenty minutes later I was awaken from my daze by a hoot downstream. I looked downstream, John's rod was corked and right then I saw a silver bullet launch out of the water. Another nice native, this one landed, a buck of around 10 pounds that took in the soft stuff on the inside in about 3 feet of water. Nate hauled ass back upstream and continued to fish. John and I were sitting behind him on the bank letting the memories of those fish sear deeply into our minds. We were both watching Nate's rod when it bounced two or three times after coming tight to the swing. He swept the rod toward the bank and nothing was there. After running the fly through a couple times, I yelled over the water "Nate, did you check the hook?", as the fly he was fishing had a little sz 6 trailing egg hook. When he got the fly in his hand I watched his head drop and knew the hook had fouled around the front of the fly. A tragedy indeed. He fished out the next twenty minutes and ended up empty handed.
On the walk back to the car John said something to the effect of "Yeah, man, but you touched a fish. I was just as happy getting that grab earlier as I was to catch that fish!" Nate responds "Easy for you to say." I think that this exchange sums up steelheading well. You have to be happy about touching a fish, but at the same time, when you put in nearly 30 hours of fishing in three days, don't touch a fish until the end and that fish doesn't stick because of a fouled hook, it rocks you to your steelheading core. There is no avoiding it.