Celebrating Emerald Water

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything fish related – anything at all, for that matter. To that end, I thought I would get down in the weeds with steelhead.

As usual, a difficult decision hung over a potential outing for Sunday:

Option 1: Travel inland where big rainbows would likely be surface feeding on emerging baetis on the wide waters during the early afternoon. The weather forecast supported this option with warm cloudy skies and a chance of rain with calm winds. More forecasted rain would have been nice for the baetis, but, still, the prospects looked good. I had done this trip last month and was satisfied all around with the day. It’s just an ideal fix, a little taste of summer in the middle of winter. What could be better than the chance at a 20″ rainbow on a small dry fly? well….

Option 2: Travel south to a certain secret Lost Coast river in hopes of connecting with a wild steelhead on a deeply swung fly. Despite most other rivers being unfishably high, the gage showed this river at ideal levels. I was a little skeptical of the gage – we had just come off a significant peak flow two weeks ago, so the gage might be off. Yet, looking back, the tell-tale signs of a gage re-adjustment were showing on the graphs – so I had most every reason to believe the displayed flows were accurate – save for all the surrounding rivers being too high. It would be a bit of a gamble. And if it was right on, wouldn’t half the county be there fishing?

These decisions are not made lightly. Every possible aspect is weighed and revisited while trying to fall asleep with still no plan.

I arrived at option #2 early the next morning. The rain forecast for inland had been trimmed back more – pulling it a tad farther away from ideal than I wanted. Plus, it was really mild overnight – perfect for coastal rivers and their fish. Off we go with spey rod in hand…

Describing the “perfect” water color for coastal stream steelhead fishing is a fun intellectual exercise, but, in reality, it either is “sweet”, “not quite”, or “blown.” The first look at the river usually produces one of these responses. A blown river is pretty straightforward – keep driving, find something else to do, or go home. Not quite water is usually a recipe for a fruitless day. It’s the type of water that doesn’t call to you. You have to go to it. Sweet water is rarely debated. It is mysteriously green – just clear enough to reveal a glimpse at a secret underwater world, but dark enough to be mysterious and engaging. Green water draws you to it. You can’t just pass by it. When you walk up to it, the water beckons closer inspection. Lighter-colored rocks are visible in the deeper runs, maybe. It’s the color of water that seems to match the body of a steelhead perfectly. The bottom is full of ghostly shadows, movements and colors. The thing with perfect water is that it gets even better after a day or two. What’s perfect one day is even better the next and so forth until one day it’s suddenly too clear – just like that – or the rain kicks up again and the whole process starts over again.

The other challenge is trying to find the water that is optimally fishable with heavy sinktips and weighted flies. These are usually the broader runs and slots. I don’t want to rule out the narrower chutes and deeper pools, and many more accomplished folks will fish these as easily as any other water. But, for me, finding that wider water, where the bottom wells up in gentle slicks along the surface and maybe fans out a bit before reaching the next riffle is the ideal. Take this water and litter the bottom with larger cobbles and smaller boulders, with stripes of sandy gravel between, and an afternoon could be spent probing it’s depths. For me the challenge is finding the right pace of fishing through the run before I get bored of it, but being able to cover it entirely. I could exhaust myself refining each swing so that a new piece of bottom is covered before I even take a step. If I fish through too fast, I don’t cover the water. If I fish too slow, I get antsy and lose my focus in critical water. Therein lies part of the challenge: with water this good, it ALL looks critical. So the fishing becomes a waltz between intuition, persistence, and being able to just move on. When in new water, there is the temptation to fish too fast through great water thinking that even better water lies around the next bend, which may or may not be true. Then there is the dilemma of the surfacing fish in difficult water. The splashy chromer in that fast, deep trough may draw more time and energy than would otherwise be alloted to such marginally fishable water. Here, fishable being a deep, slow swing. Not that it can’t be done….

Finally it all comes together in a piece of water that just seems designed for a marriage between steelhead and fly. The notion that better water lies around the next bend is still there, but this is the type of water that seems to evoke some forgotten memory of being taught what “perfect” water is. The swing is perfect, the water itself seems somehow apart from the rest of the river. This little piece has been set aside to a place where time gets thrown out, intuition and persistence merge and the game is on.

Fresh winter steelhead don’t always attack with ferocious abandon – that say a late winter/early spring runback might do, or a warm water fall fish. It’s that stop in the middle of a swing covering nearly the same water for the third time. This aint no rock. Rather, it’s all about that first lift of the rod into a blur of deeply pulsing rod, knuckle-busting reel, and a split-second mental hesitation – is this for real? It can happen that fast, and when the fish holds; the water, the river, the landscape suddenly opens up. For me, it then becomes not finding some philosophical essence to the moment, rather, it’s all about adrenaline. It’s the stuff that leaves us shaking. After releasing such a fish, we might find ourselves walking a bit taller, speaking a bit more confidently and just feeling all around satisfied about everything. It’s the stuff that will carry with us for a day or two, maybe a week? Then, that critical urge will rise up again. And a decision will be at hand.

Even from far away, the calling of sweet water can usually be felt. With this view, there was no question.
We can debate perfection, but that's just it - even perfect water can get better.
Wild winter steelhead on a swinging fly.
Mirror to another dimension