Five Days


Day 4: The platform at the bow of the boat has become a dance floor and my casts are honed and polished, perhaps like a baseball pitcher in mid-game stride: dialed in and dealing.

Near highest tide, late morning, a trio of fish round the point, cruising a now familiar avenue that routes them up onto the flats for finicky, frenetic lunchtime eating. They are shouldery permit, double digit fish with the black sickles of their tails sometimes shivering above the water’s surface as they come up into the shallow water and gain full show over white coral sands. The cast lands squarely ahead of their path and a hushed “Sweet!” from captain Oliver. The crab flutters down to rest before a short, slow strip to imitate fleeing prey. The fish swim unbothered onwards and a second strike to the trio is met again with no interest. Day four plays out with Oliver’s gentle admonition, “It’s crunch time, mon.” Let’s get a fish. Later that night Oliver would replay the scenario to his brother: spot-on casts to refractory fish. And I would joke “the best we can do is make the best cast to them because they probably won’t eat it anyhow.”


In my mind, I script out the proud honor of five days in southern Belize and no fish to show for it. The first day jitters, out-of-practice fish spotting, leading to a shot at an unseen fish, guided only by Oliver’s “Eleven o’clock sixty feet. Just cast!” followed by “Perfect! Streep, streep” and ending with a tail, grab and a tippet breaking like thread – some unseen knick in the line ended the game on day one before it was even started. Later there would be the follows and Oliver’s reassuring “Sweet, mon! This is it! Streep…. he’s on it…” only to turn away uninterested, or spooked- jumbo fish grubbing headlong into turtle grass, tails glistening in the sun, that spook at the flash of line in air, or the sweep of arm as a long backcast loads up for a precision delivery to the boil of a fish long gone.


Dinners pass with small time chit chat and feeble attempts at comparing life in this small town with life in my own small town. The fishing is measured up against winter steelhead fly fishing where success is celebrated one hard-earned fish at a time and fishless days are part of the deal. Despite the lack of fish, adverse weather, and a string of frustrations, we can’t wait to get up and do it all over again. Tempering the challenge is a succession of fresh grilled snook, fried conch, plantains and shrimp filling our bellies at night while cool melon and salsa infused burritos beckon afternoon naps. But we press on through the days, each day bringing up a fish-friendly high tide late morning followed by intense afternoon winds that demand everything from simply staying afoot on the bow of the boat to unloading long shots headfirst into the wind at fish quickly seen in the trough of the wind-driven waves ripping across the flats.


This is all-consuming fishing. Fish seem to appear when thoughts drift to what might be happening back home, or whether my handkerchief is adequately covering the back of my neck in the hot afternoon sun. And, so the hours pass intently staring across the coral flats, studying textures, guessing depths, discerning shapes and sometimes catching the fleeting glimpse of permit only after it is too late and the boat it too close for a decent shot. There is no time for replaying the past or scripting the future. Everything is happening right now and the applicable universe encompasses a radius of approximately 100 feet off the front half of the boat. Add a little wind and everything moves and enchants, like the call of siren diverting us from the empty gaze we strive for. You either see it or you don’t. There is no time for study here.


Early afternoon day 2: A robust permit pushing 20 pounds works diligently around a large head of coral, it’s shuddering tail visible from far off – one of the few times to get set up, size up and contemplate the cast. Better yet, it works a small area around the coral and there’s even a moment to breathe as Oliver poles the boat into casting range.

“Sweet mon!” The cast lands to the side with a small “plop,” catching the fish’s attention immediately, as the crab lands on bottom the fish tips down and inhales the crab fly. I pull the line taught to drive the hook home just as the fish turns and heads around the backside of the coral, breaking the line like a spider web. Game over.


Day 3 dawns to thunderstorms and heavy rain and we head out under dark skies and flat, glassy waters as the rain tails off to the east. Under the slate grey skies, underwater visibility is tough and we look far across the flats hoping for tails to give away the presence of fish. Finally, by early afternoon, the clouds give way to the great aquarium that sunshine and windless conditions allow for. Fish are now easily spooked as we can see them at great distances underwater, but so, too can they see us – a few follows and many more spooked. The fishless trip begins to script itself out after day 3. How would I pitch this to friends? I knew I had the fortitude to laugh about it and not be deterred, but would they understand? Would they really get that this was only partly about catching fish? Would they understand the presence, focus and tenacity this requires? Worse yet, would they understand this really is how some people choose to unwind and relax? I begin to second guess the whole thing as the boat glides over a pair of fish happily grazing over knee-deep flats, me missing them entirely in my moment of day dreaming delerium. It’s uncanny how these fish can appear when you’re momentarily somewhere else.


Day 5 comes around as routine and rehearsed. I’ve gotten a sense of the flats, how the fish are moving across them, where they come from, and where to focus my gaze. We quickly bounce between a half dozen flats seemingly empty of fish, but early on a tide that will come mid-afternoon now. By late morning, a well rehearsed routine between guide and angler, spotting and casting has shown a dime-sized crab fly to five uninterested permit. Oh sure, maybe there was a brief moment of interest, but at this point, it was all meaningless: nothing to the boat. Oliver reminds me half serious “It’s the eleventh hour, mon,” and, after a long pause, “no pressure though.”

At 11:30 we round the point to begin the pole down a long narrow and now familiar windward flat. The afternoon breeze is beginning its routine and within an hour the ante will kick up several notches as wind, sun angle and footing will combine mental challenge with physical rigor for a final, demanding afternoon. As we round the point the tails are there. A group of small permit feeds aggressively up the flat, heading towards the boat. They move quickly and there will be time for only one cast before they see the boat and bolt. The crab lands short but online and the fish approach rapidly. Whether they see the boat first or the crab will be a toss-up. I crouch low on the bow as I slowly strip the fly. I see one of the fish pounce ahead, tip, tail and grab the crab. FISH ON!


Five days and one hard-earned fish.



A touch of winter

I realized this afternoon the contrasts that fly fishing for steelhead can present. One moment is the easy sound of water slipping through partially sunken willow stems. The water curls though a mass of green wands just now beginning to show a hint of early spring. Here the water is soft and lulling in its demeanor. Down the way, a cluster of deeper shoots gently waves in the air. The afternoon wind is just now sending greetings upriver and the ripples in the flatwater of the pool below suggest that this quiet time will soon pass as I hunker down into my jacket, pull up my collar and snug up my waders. Contemplation time is over and the work begins. Across the slicks and boils of the run, a few blue wing olives struggle on the surface, harbingers of mid-day’s arrival and perhaps the time when the river comes to life.

The fly comes tight on the swing… dropping into the slicks on the far side to swim across green water speckled with small boulders faintly visible in the green water. And the grab is deliberate and solid with the fish whisking away into the backing as I grab what seems like my first breath. The immense splash and tail well above where my line arcs out and across the stream indicates a fish gone berserk. It turns back down throwing a god awful loop of slack line on the water and is seemingly gone on that one turn. But I manage to come tight again as the fish wallows across the surface far across and down. Once again, the fish turns down and my finger touches the taut backing, now like a bandsaw. Finally, the fish comes in. With racing heartbeat I remember the quiet moments of just a few minutes ago, now like another place and time. Looking around as the fish darts off, the willow stems shudder and vibrate in the currents now. Everything seems to move here.

Note the submerged willow stems.

Dear Elinor

Dear Elinor

Dreams of you. For years I’ve gazed at your sweeping curves and how you hold the light. For years, I’ve dreamed that we might someday meet up and I might know you close up and intimate. I dreamed it might be like the first time again. Sometimes I would imagine that we were together in a past life, the way you seemed to be at once familiar, but distant. To look at you from afar, was to stare across worlds of being, moments of presence that would send a shiver up my spine. But you were never easy… living on the other side of the trees. Oh sure, I tried a couple of times to come find you. Each time, though, I was denied, left to wallow in a wall of poison oak that denied me access to the waters of my desire. Oh, I know you’ve entertained many. And they come from far away to sit in your bosom but they move on, leaving you alone, empty. Oh, to find the path to your heart.

The obvious. The walk to your home should have been obvious years ago. And, this time, I immediately knew where to go.

When we met.  The fog was lingering low and thick along your length that morning. Step closer and there you were stretched before my eyes. Your are more lovely up close than I dreamed. Sparkling emerald eyes – your long, slick lines slide easily into the broken waters where fresh steelhead might lie. Lined with rubble from a nearby creek, you give home to a thousand lies. And, you call me in, beckoning me to immerse myself in your soul. Each cast-swing-step and we mumble sweet nothings to one another, and occasionally a long “mmmmmmm” is whispered. It is only with my undivided attention that you give up your secrets. Here and there, the life you hold in your heart comes to me, shining bright in the muted light of a fog-bound sun. I might count them one-by-one, or just call this morning with you one long fluid motion of your presence.  We hold one another, dance, and whisper the sweet nothings that I’ve dreamed of for years. As we go, you are better with each step. Finally, I muster the courage to leave you when the first hints of an early afternoon breeze ripple your calm waters. We turn our back, knowing full well that we will meet again soon enough.

Winter Day on the Queets


This is a sketch of a day spent on the Queets River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. It was a day of catching and releasing wild steelhead and sea run bull trout. Everything was cold and still here, and at the end of the road, it seemed as though I was the only one around. This is a place a long way from anywhere, but somehow in the midst of the soul of something bigger than me. Ironically, the day seemed to be almost a mix of unplaced anxiety over this sudden solitude and awestruck fascination with a place I have wanted to visit for so long. Here I found that the thin line between unplaced fear and ecstatic exuberence runs through the trees, along the river and up the hill.


In the trees, there is no luxury of imagining summer,

As I follow a thin faint line, draped over stick and stone.

Tracing a path of hope across these shadowy woods,

I now know each breath, short and seen,

Each thought, passing and glancing,

While nighttime fidgets and snarls wherever I lean.


When the way out is momentarily forgotten,

Where the single frail thread is hidden under moss and bough,

A chill courses through my spine, rippling across my brow.


Along the river, to my utter surprise,

Wrapped in high haze were grand winter skies!

Cast in a muted sun, hung low over high tree

This theater of emptiness sees night briefly flee.


Now, surely, a desperate reprieve from winter’s meddles,

To wash away that shuddering thought:

That out here, daylight is a cruel trick,

Luring me into its seasonal plot!


Oh, forget the water sounds,

Wind through trees, silent soaring birds.

Forget these tones of wild place!

For they were swallowed, broadside and whole

By a darkness lingering at every space.



When the River Went Away – Take III: A Gothic Halloween

A half open window

Buffeted by wind

Creeping through doors and cracks

Of a hollow house standing tall

In golden seas:

.       Hosts of October’s departure.


Wind shuffling papers off a dusty table

Scattering and sliding along dark wooden floors.


On the table, the long swoop of her fingers

Catches the last, late sun:

.      Bony knuckles in pale skin.


Little games the wind plays:

.     A back door slams shut,

.      Sneaking open again.


Her eyes, silent and empty:

.    A blank stare across fields of time

.     Become rusted playgrounds.

At just the right angle:

.     Sparkling. Just then.


She’s sat here for a hundred years:

.     Maybe longer,

Beside this window to the wind.


Messages, there are none

Until a warm gust,

Catching her grey hair,


Sprawled fingers curl then loosen


Warm tidings rippling through the grass

Knocking on a window

Where she’s waited for so long.


On a gust, the door flies open

Like a deep breath through the rooms

And for just a moment

The faintest, sweetest smell,

Like wispy memories of life,

She thinks.


Now the sudden hush of stillness.


All so warm and easy

This tall house, leaning on years

Fingers grasping for the last of the light.


And the warm, sweet smell of her passing still lingers here

As October’s stories scatter across dark skies and warm winds.

The 26-year fish (and counting)

I’ve spent 26 years yearning to catch a fish on the surface on the long, slick tail of North-South run at low flow. I don’t know why I’ve never really tried. Many a night was spent dreaming about the lay of the water here – how it eases out of the bucket and across a field of cobblestones and small boulders. At low flows, three distinct boulders give away their presence with trailing slicks. Viewed at the right angle in mid-day, the water might seem too shallow. At sunset, from the hard bank on river right, it looks like a private steelhead garden: just deep enough to hide a few secrets but shallow enough to chug a skating fly over the heads of aggressive steelhead. Anyhow, that’s what I’ve spent years fantasizing about. Why I have never put in more skating time in the lower half of that run, where swinging sunk flies rarely pays off, is beyond me. Tonite it all came together. The skating window in mid-September seems to be on the order of 20 minutes. The sun is well over the hill and “true sunset” where the sun is dipping over some ocean horizon out west is most likely at hand. The light casts a golden hue across the surface of the water. This seems to be the 20 minutes when day turns to evening – it’s the start of something and it really doesn’t announce it’s coming. Somewhere along the way, stare at the water’s surface and it glows golden – it’s that simple.

Work down through the run skating and chugging a god-awful concoction of deer hide, elk and foam. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. Again and again, the little vee wake and splashes give away the fly’s presence on the long cast two thirds of the way across. This is not sleepy time work since the fly must be kept alive at all times. This is the most engaging fishing of all. The dressed hook is connected by a thin line 80 feet long to me via rod and reel. It’s my job to impart some sense of life to this thing – is it the skittering, fearful critter? Might it be a wondering, exploring, curious creature of both land and river? Pick a mood and stick with it.

The take is violent and will replay in slow motion in my memory for days. The large fish seems to curl around the fly, half out of the water, sending a splash sounding like a piglet falling into the water. The hook sets, the fish goes airborne and the line goes limp with a charge towards me. Dancing backwards along the cobble-strewn bank, the light comes tight and the reel churns out line with a clicker now whining with high speed discharge of line in a hurry. Hold tight for another several seconds before the line goes limp and the fish comes unbuttoned.

This fish was 26-years in the making. Let’s hope the next one comes a little sooner.

Water temperature: 18.2 C

Discharge: 650 cfs

Note that McMillan’s data suggest that optimal skating temps are in the neighborhood of 8C to 15C with his observations declining at 18 – so many skating days lie ahead!!!!!

Steelhead evening

Somewhere between afternoon and dark, the light casts a golden glow across the slick water. Try not to hurry and the 15 minutes of sweet light and sudden stillness will etch into memory as an eternal evening. Is this the moment when the river holds its breath? Or is this a long exhale into night?


Skate a fly across the surface.. right there in the slick water behind the submerged bedrock. Once, twice, then the quick, long flash of a swiping steelhead. It won’t even touch the fly or break the water, and now I’m hunched over wondering if it ever really happened. Keep at it and another fish farther down slices through the surface, its silver side casting a glow in the evening light. For real. But, somehow, it all seems like a fantasy in the eternal place between light and dark…




After raising two nice fish at Little Argentina last night but missing hook sets, I decided to up the ante with surface attraction and pure buggy ugliness. Mission accomplished at sunset on upper North-South. There seems to be a 30-minute window right now when larger steelhead are prone to crushing things skittering across the surface. More precisely: the sound of a small toilet flushing fast. Two fish landed with a hot, bright chromer taken on the long, slick tail of North-South. Any steelhead taken on top is an extra-special fish. As the line spilled into the backing, all I could do was lean back, look up and laugh. One fish on top is worth ten swinging underneath.


The Steelhead Shakes – Five Months Later

The first fish, always exciting, extra-special and often unexpected, can always be enamored with “hard-earned”, “worked-for”, “overdue”, or some such portrayal of time and effort. When it’s the first fish of the season, it’s like reconnecting with a long gone friend in the way familiar and new can intertwine. When it’s on one of those I’ll-drive-over-and-just-check-things-out kind of evenings it suddenly fits perfectly into some grand script only vaguely remembered. When it bests my record for earliest adult steelhead caught in this river, it stands worthy of note if only because time itself demands some recognition of movement.

A pulse of water over the last few days measurably cooled off a river that wilts in the oppressive heat of late summer. I decided to swing a floating line and a classic low-water spey modeled after the Lady Caroline changed up with pheasant rump wing and hackle in a more orange shade. One of those setups that feels classy anyd cool – the way steelhead are meant to be fished for.

I love the low swept wing and short body of a more classic low-water style spey fly. This is tied with pheasant rump for the wing and hackle and my always trusty alpaca wool for body. Sleek – just like the fish it was built to catch.

The first fish barely gave me enough time to get back into the casting groove and settle into the rhythm of the river. The hard tugging boil, a clicking reel and for a moment there’s a bit of disbelief this is all really happening. I get it in quickly, grab a quick photo and wonder what’s next. I fish down past the bucket, into water I rarely connect in, despite it’s fishy appeal. I’ve stood here easily a hundred times and the line is always the same – one more step and swing and I’m outta here. That’s when it all happens again, the soild tug, boil and a broad flash of silver across the surface before it all goes slack. Whoa.
Always save the top of upper N-S for when the light is just right. Don’t fish it too early, the water is too skinny to chance spooking fish. Do one pass through and make it count. Halfway through, the fish is into the backing before the next breath. Lift into it and it turns upstream, lunging heavy and surely through the fast water – the sound of line peeling through the water. Working it over to the shallows and the fish comes unbuttoned – simple as that.

First steelhead of the season – all before I could even catch my breath and settle into the river’s rhythm.

That’s when the much sought after steelhead shakes start to creep in. It’s hard to maintain composure and calm in these situations – like 32 ounces of espresso delivered directly into a nervous system now on edge. But that would be the last grab of the evening. A first night out, a familiar place and a fish that will be remembered for the rest of the year.

Uppermost N-S. Stood here a hundred times at least and it’s always a treat.

Quick River note: Reconciling Summer and Fall

August 12 and the first fall steelhead are showing at customary places in the valley. I’ve been intermittently snorkeling a couple of reaches: watching the spring run Chinook move up as the flows dropped in early July. I saw my first steelhead in late July – two adults skirting around me in the faster water. Today a pair sat on a tailout in the broad heat of the day – I could have duped one of them with a skating fly at dark if I had brought a rod and waited it out – but no regrets – plenty of time. Otherwise, a couple of fish were spotted in the faster water where spotting was difficult. Typical smaller adults, but the harbinger of the upcoming fall. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for a cool down for a couple of days to bring on more comfortable water temperatures. August 19 is my magic day when a weak front passed over, cooling things down and unleashing a wave of biting fish. Thus, we sit one week away from the potential kickoff of fall steelhead season. Maybe sooner, maybe later. Much summer still looms. Will do another snorkel pass next week and see how things are progressing….

Of note was the fact that the fish were holding in faster water – not surprising, but I didn’t see fish in the belly of the runs where I’ve come accustomed to focusing effort. These high lies probably reflect water temperature and need for cover and my own desire to fish the “easier” water in the bucket of the run.