Reminiscing on Fall Steelhead
Somewhere in August a subtle change happens. One morning dawns cooler than the last. Maybe it lasts a day, maybe three, then the notion is lost in the incessant summer. Nothing of real importance happens now, except maybe noting a yellowing cottonwood leaf hanging from a branch. Finally, well into August, I realize there is no turning back now and the best time of year is at hand.
Over the hill and away from the coast, the relentless heat holds fast – lasting well into September and often October. I remember sunsets along the coast when far off webs of cirrus clouds would hold low on the horizon hinting at some far off storm and the reminder that winter is not far off. But these can be days of agony – days I spend with a sense that all of summer’s delights are now out of reach, even though I well know that many more weeks lie ahead. All the while, the fog-shrouded, chilly mornings I remember of seasons well underway seem impossible now. As the days go by, as summer hangs on, I wonder if they will ever come this year. Sometime, not long after, in a fit of desperation, the decision is made to make the annual pilgrimage over the hill, to return to the river. I do not have high hopes of hooking a steelhead, after all, summer is still holding fast. This is a journey to prove that something really is happening.
I find the same river reaches, baked under the long, dry heat of days that will not stop. I can’t help but recount my times there. Now, an old romance is rekindled, a long time friend is revisited. Memories are recounted. Restless anticipation haunts me while the coming storms knock on summer’s door far out at sea. As the years go by, the memories accumulate and the season becomes as much about reminiscing as it does about anticipation. The sense of place is unchanged. In some places along the river, the same rocks are still there. The big white boulder at the top of the North-South run tells me where to start as it has done from my first tries there. Ullathorne is the same as last year and the year before – split into two troughs by the boulders near the top. The Orleans run shifts a bit from every year, fishing slightly differently as a result. But the run is still the same place as it has been year after year.
Those first visits to the river are a deeply comforting mix of familiarity, companionship and solitude. I remember standing near that same boulder on North-South during a late September evening as the full moon rose into the valley and a bear decided to come down to visit – refusing to shy away from my admonitions. I decided to yield the water to him as the moon cast him dark, silent and very large among the streamside willows. Time was spent here with old friends and new friends. I remember the agony with which I once fished the Garden Run, all distraught over the unexpected leaving of a girlfriend I was head-over-heels in love with. That pain of young love lost lasted the entire season. Still too clearly I remember hoping my next cast and swing would free me of thoughts of her – a long Fall indeed.
Maybe, in September, if we are lucky, the first sprinkling of rain arrives – sometimes just a brief patter on the roof late at night, with all traces gone in the morning, save for the cool air. A sense of urgency begins to consume me.
The best part of the early season is knowing that the days will get better. The maple trees on the hills will be a little bit brighter than today. The afternoon will be a bit cooler than the last. If I’m not careful, I’ll miss out on something important. When did the leaves start to turn colors? A point is reached where I want to stay in each day, thinking that I haven’t quite gotten it yet. I want to hold it and know it before its moves past. But we have what we get and it’s always changing. The river, the steelhead – all just become excuses to be a part of it. I grasp all I can before it’s gone, knowing that it still won’t be enough.
OK, a quick pass through the Campbell Run just because it’s on the way to the right side of the Chimney Run. Really gotta hurry through it though, getting late. Gotta fish Chimney before it gets dark. Probably nothing here but gotta do a pass through. I’m here and it’s been in the shade most of the afternoon. I really need to fish back through the boulders on the far side again. Should really go back up and start over again at the top. That blue-eared pheasant hackle is folding over in the fast water, need to switch to a rump hackled fly. Still need to do some deep swings through the slow water at the bottom though. Gotta get down to Chimney…
I often remember the first fish, but the moments after that fill the shadows of an irretrievable summer. Oh sure there are memorable days throughout, but they happen in the middle of it all, are part of it all, and combine to create the memories of seasons past. Each good day is compared to past years as if they will never measure up until they, too, become the memories that define the place and the time. Memories of the good days have a wonderful way of shrinking away the slow times. Today, I had a half dozen or so good grabs with a good fish to hand spread out over many long hours. By next year, I will remember the steady action that occupied me all afternoon.
Meanwhile, winter’s shadows grow in the little hollows and, when I come across them, I wonder if they ever left. But summer still hangs on across the open fields of dry grass. The October mornings linger and evenings come earlier and longer. All of this becomes an overwhelming and intoxicating stew of anticipation of better days ahead and regret for the days already slipped past unnoticed. Perhaps a sense of regret comes along, knowing that days have gone by without even knowing what they were like, or what really happened that day. Will I remember the dried and toppling cornstalks on the walk into the Upper Garden Run? All I know is that I will remember this time, some little part of it that I don’t yet know.
At late morning the air is still and has gone from chill to cool. The fog is lightening up. The water through the lower Village Run is cold and looks almost black in this shaded bend. The flat water reflects the yellows and reds of the maples and willows. The alders are all done. My casts are straight and tight up against the bedrock and the mends are effortless. The run fishes deep and slower than those above. The pace suits the day. A maple leaf floats down from the overhanging trees lighting on the slick water as I feel the soft hang down deep. Pulling back breaks all of this apart. The fish instantly barrels downstream half airborne across the surface all silver and bright against the dark water. All of this in an instant before it’s gone. The ripples gradually fade and the maple leaf is far gone downstream.
There might be a point reached when I want to stop and stay there forever, but then the promise of coming days would be lost and something would be missed. By early November, summer fields are withered away and damp. Smoke hangs low in the valley. Pumpkin-colored maple leaves hang fast to their branches. The fish become active during the middle of the day and the difference between morning and afternoon becomes more of a formality dictated by clocks and work schedules. If I could find that one day, doubtful I would stay there, I’d want to go back, start again in August and catch up on the things I missed. I want something to hold on to desperately, but the days slip by.
The last day spent along the river often passes unceremoniously. By then, the leafless apple trees still sag under the weight of their fruit. My routine is well rehearsed, and I leave each time with the hope that I might get one more day, maybe a week. A big storm passes, littering the stream with waves of sticks and bright leaves. Within a few days, I find myself back on the water, hoping to find the little bits of summer still hidden away. And I will still wonder when it all really started and whether it will still get better. Did I miss it?
Not yet… swing it all the way up against the willows. Can’t be that deep there. Too fast out in the middle for them now. Maybe they’re following it all the way to shore. tick…tick… there it is. Crap. Stay on it. Try again, maybe he’ll come back. Wind’s picking up…
One night, leaving the river, the rain falls light and steady on a gentle south wind. The air is curiously fresh and warm – a Chinook rain is at hand – about to ease the salmon up the coastal streams. Soon the rivers will all be big and muddy, washing away the last bits of summer. The season is all gone now but it is still too early to tell.