Water temp: 2.5C @ 2,480cfs
It dawned on me on the way home that the obsession with steelhead fly fishing is driven, in part, by the threat of missed opportunities. Each season, each storm, each day creates a set of conditions that becomes a must-participate scenario in my mind. Today was no different… I probably should have stuck with popular christmas tradition and visited friends, family and enjoyed the gala day of the season. But the scenario was set: a week of wet weather looming, meaning that I faced a now-or-never proposition. Further, the light rain forecast for today might bump up the water temperatures a bit, thereby reinvigorating the fish; or perhaps the barometer would throw the fish off balance and send them into new lies where they would forcefully hammer any intruders swimming into their new winter home. Plus, there was the larger scenario of record low flows presenting a near once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a part of this – to be able to one day say “yeah, I was there…” Finally, the simple lure of fishing a big, empty river at the extreme end of the temperature scale could not be dismissed.
All viable opportunities not to be missed.
So… I do a pass through the boulder house run where the depth and substrate make for an enthralling aquascape of dark boulders painting shadows in the clear water. Nothing doing, not even a grab. On to the main act. Ferry across to the far side and repeat last week’s perfectly choreographed session with hard-bodied wild steelhead. Here the broken skies begin to close in and the gray mist of light rain can be seen coming up the valley. The water temperature hasn’t budged, the air temps still hover near freezing and the threat of snow seems very real now. But there’s nothing like wading into the top of a long run set up perfectly for swinging long casts through water that moves with purpose around each and every boulder along the way. It’s the view of all those slicks painted across the water’s surface from bank-to-bank, the kind of water where you swim flies through each swing, and every moment is as real as the next. Standing at the top this place is a sight to behold. This is water so good that it is 250 meters of hope flirting with absolute promise.
An hour into it, the cast-swing-step falls into the rhythm of a winter river. The fly glides though a world of dark waters,hinting at light and shadow. Every nook and cranny of this place holds a secret of silvery ghost fish. Everything seems to move in one long fluid motion. It might be tempting to call this the “trance swing,” something akin to a runner’s high were everything just becomes effortless and present. But there’s more, it’s a very real connection to a cold, dark world unseen by most, with the angler teetering on the edge of fantastical, fish filled worlds, habitually refusing the harsh notion there might be nothing at all down there. All this tethered to the end of a long line dangling some god-awful concoction of fur and feathers. This is presence, meditation and thrill all wrapped into one package, tempered by ice cold river, and fed by the movements of water that will not wait.
Time is different now. Three hours passes and 250 meters of water has been covered as best as possible without even a grab. Regardless, the entire experience – fish or none – becomes embedded in the simple, quiet pace that settles in.
One more stop: Slate Creek and the promise of biting half-pounders if nothing else. A quick pass through the top yields nothing – not even a grab. Wow! What a difference a little weather, a degree colder, cloud cover, barometer … what is it? The lower half fishes silently until a soft, kissing grab yields a briefly hooked half pounder near the bottom. Ice rings portions of the river’s edge – a reminder that, indeed, things have gotten colder since my last 3.5C outing here. I go for broke and tie on the largest, darkest intruder I have to swim down deep – if this thing gets touched, it will be for real. Down through the run again and 2/3 of the way through the intruder swims trough the slicked water and there it is: the slow tug from down deep – leaving me with goose bumps and no more.