December on the Eel

Here,

Moored

By the soft calling turns

Of a river now purposed by rain,

We can linger in that patient lapse

Between the miseries of drought

And the sudden electricity of flood.

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The Copenhagen-spitting sages of Weymouth,

And the oared helmsmen at High Rock,

Hiding in their closet cigarettes,

Share chit chat smiles of angst

In the nervous dawn light

While the Chinook-crazed bankies

Debate spoon and roe.

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And a distant figure

Heaves arcing bright lines

Through shadowy secret boils

And long greasy slicks

In a solitary reverie

Of far-fetched feathered hopes.

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This is far removed

From the life-gone-easy days of,

say, June,

The routines of August,

Or the Sunday light

After a passing April rain

Reminded us all things

Eventually come back to this time.

Re-Discovering winter

In the old days, I imagined fish and moving water all silver and loud. Now, things are maybe more rehearsed, but the fish and water seem to be much softer than before. Now I imagine them in the silky green water, connected to a damp landscape cradling rivers. These fish would crawl into the forest if the rain kept up just a wee bit longer, and in the early morning mist they could be found in the trickling little holes that dot the mossy floodplain forest.intruder

In the broad, cobbled waters they become part of a enthralling choreography of movement, shadow and soft sounds. Stare long enough, and the sound goes away and there is just the movement of shadows. Now there is only slightly more unknown than known in this water. Just enough to let me crawl back into the water if the rain would let up for just a wee bit.

Late January Water Patterns

Usually, it never starts with a dream

The dream meticulously sculpted into an expectation

So perfect that the cries of ecstasy roar along the river

Erasing any hope of stillness that might have been there

Had nothing ever been imagined in the first place.

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Hmmmph

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Usually it never starts with that first sight

That look into perfection that never was dreamt any better

Better than last time, but only to be washed away

With enthusiasm misplaced and gone awry

In manic flailings trying to capture it all in one fell swoop.

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Ohhhhh

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Sometimes, admittedly, it might start with a splash of apathy

Because it has to be done and here we are

And along the way it becomes the next dream

And the perfection reveals itself in little debates

Comparing this to that and wondering if this is even better.

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Oooooohhhhh

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Always, though, a script unfolds, eluding time’s wicked arrow

Bathed in a moment eluding any grasp of perfection

Surrounded by silent calls and responses each asking nothing

Together, creating the pulsing song of a mid-winter river.

The Bell Tolls September

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I hadn’t contemplated the distinction between habit, ritual and obsession until now. A stubborn low pressure system parked off the west coast at the end of August sends waves of warm, humid air across the coast, raises goosebumps among the tuna fishermen, but plunges the interior into an unsettled, wavering weather pattern that will surely confuse any fresh steelhead enough to ignore any of my offerings. Afternoon winds wander through the gorge without purpose, and continue to swirl about at sunset somehow dispelling that all-too-short witching hour moment before it all fades into inky blackness amongst frog choirs lathered in waves of crickets and sprinkled with the sounds of splashing fish.

It didn’t happen last night or tonight.

Leave the coast with a stoic confidence that it’s all an easy game of fetch and return home with the resolve that tomorrow will be different.

Habit? Ritual? Obsession?

Before the Fish

In early August, the slight wrinkle on his brow,

Pushes sweat into long dusty piles,

Rows of summer’s habits.

Like the year before last

and the year before that.

His is the furled brow of finally remembering.

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While her eyes, sometime gone askance,

Sagging with days gone long and

Now stale afternoon romance,

Still sparkle,

Like the playground at recess,

When the laughter carries

To those still inside.

Her glance is long and turning,

Letting go of a breath.

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In a matter of weeks,

fixed on bright sky,

That precious harbinger of hope,

And the only window left,

They will cue up old records,

rehearse the dances,

Recall the words,

And sit, waiting.

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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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…