Winter’s Grace by the Numbers

How might I count the days?

.

By the sounds of rain

On a field at night?

.

Or should I tally mornings

Of fickle, teasing light,

On the edges of storms?

.

Could it be the screeching egret,

High overhead in dark skies,

Framing chilling air into promises

Of frosty tinkerings.

.

How might I add these days?

Where a single leaf,

Bright star fluttering,

Shuffles to rest,

To dream in the soft cradle of spring.

Just Great Days on the River

Late February, like it always seems to do, ushers in the bitter cold of arctic winter with snow all over. I don’t really recall wrestling with any “decision” this go ’round – I had a gathering to attend and the river happened to be on the way, along with snow, more winter, and the barest hint of spring given away by longer days and the buds of streamside willows. Dropping down into the valley, the horizon is sprawled with black clouds, streaking virga, and the intimate play of morning light across everything: somehow, the nastiest of the weather is not here, only suggested in the vistas of snowclad lowlands and restless looking skies.

The only decision is where. And I replay the fantasy of the long, slow bottom half of the Anderson run where the conditions seem set up for surface feeding fish, easy wading and the good promise of solitude. If not this fantasy then the riffle at the bottom is ever dependable. This is the piece of water that might take me five years to catch a fish in the way that I dream about on long, rainy coast-bound nights. I can always catch fish here, but there’s something about the “situation” that you find yourself catching fish in that makes it somehow intensely, cerebrally satisfying.

Let me jump to the punch line: it was on the minute I approached the water. But wait – even this takes some understanding. You see, these fish don’t give themselves away so easily. Oh sure, you’ll see a fish rise here, maybe there. But just stop. Stop, breathe, listen, look. Then it comes alive. The fish sip in emerging baetis or some other small, olive mayfly with gentle, purposeful, ultra-efficient movements. The biggest fish give themselves away with the flick of a very large tail barely slicing through the surface. Some fish work the edge of the moving water where the flow is easy. More fish delicately nose through the calf-deep shallows of the margins picking off bugs that wash into this forgotten realm. A few caddis take flight, the water is colored pewter with the black clouds painting an electric energy across everything. The fish, the bugs all seem to agree. There is a loud, urgent and anxious rhythm established when the bugs are emerging heavily, the fish are feeding and the weather is vibrating.

So it’s dream fishing – knee deep water, big, spooky trout, but not overly selective. Colorful, rotund rainbows that pull line from reels and make you want to talk in whispers like they might hear your cries of delight. One after the other. Later on, in early afternoon, the caddis emergence kicks in following a brief snow squall. A bald eagle watches from the top of a snag across the river – wondering who this curious critter is, on knees, hunched over in inches of water, casting to snouts and tails with intense abandon. Swaths of sun, rainbow, silver and gold color the scene. The baetis alternate with the caddis and at one point I just step back and watch the parade of bugs littering the water, floating silently down. Tails, snouts, splashes all add to the ongoing rhythm, uninterrupted by a flash of lightning and thunderclap.

I can’t say the “bar has been set” or “this is as good as it gets,” rather, this is the culmination of five years of work, patience and observation. I’ll be back soon, to find myself in an entirely new situation and reveling in the simple fact that it is bound to be different. It’s why I fish – if it were the same every time… well, that would be a different story, I suppose.

rain, sun, rain

Started out early in the rain, then things briefly cleared to warm sun in the early afternoon, then a walloping downpour came through late afternoon.  It came slowly over the western edge of the valley looking like a giant wave.  Only one small steelhead to hand, but a slow and steady stream of mystery grabs to keep it interesting.  I was “asleep at the reel” for the best grab of the day.  Some late salmon showing in the runs.  Water was the color of very light tea and all of the traditional runs were very fishable at 1,900cfs.  No wind ever really appeared until the very end as the downpour commenced; making for a simple, quiet outing along the river now completely bathed in fall.  If nothing else, everything just seems quiet now and it’s easy to loose track of time altogether while working through the water.  I fished the new (to me) spey rod that Jonas from Norway sent me and it took me awhile to get in the groove, but once I did, I settled into an easy rhythm with it.  The pace of the day was easy, and the schedule was just right, getting me home in time for an early dinner.  Despite the lack of fish, it’s days like these that make me want to go back again and again.

River notes – November comes in on a storm

A certain tension, maybe, seems to develop as Fall progresses.  Teased on with a few light rains, the hills start to play the role with colorful trees and a few choice mushrooms showing.  But down below, the river still speaks summer with low, clear water.  I think that might have changed this weekend.  Maybe:

Follow him down the dirt road past the apple orchard, fruit still hanging fast, leaves half gone from the wind the night before the rain. Along the trail are the first shaggy manes pushing through the damp earth – good eating if they can be brought back home and cooked soon enough. Follow him to where the old road fades into a trail and winds through the blackberries. If you’re not careful to stick to the paths that the bears trampled down during the height of it all, you’ll find all that’s left are the leaves and arching canes full of thorns that have a knack for reaching out and grabbing passersby. Along the way you might see the tiny shriveled berries still there, like you could reach out and grab summer back again.

Past the berries, the silt on the high river bank is cool and damp; settled by the rain. The dust is all gone now. The old dried weeds through here are turning from golden yellow to light brown and slowly collapse under their own weight, aided on by a day’s worth of wind and rain, working their way closer to, and back into, the soil. Along the gravel bar, the cobbles and boulders are shiny new again.

The water’s edge has reclaimed some of this. The river rises slowly, over the course of a day. The last green grass stands knee deep in the water now, gently washed by the waves lapping up. And like the berries behind, the algae still clings to the rocks out further, but the currents slowly wear it away and carry it suspended through the run. The water is now the color of strong tea. In the pool below, waves of leaves and algae well up in the backwater and leaves collect here and there along the bottom, occasionally scooting along at their own pace. You can’t miss the bright maple leaves whisking by in the faster water. A small willow branch floats by, probably blown in on the wind.

It won’t get muddy until the next storms really let loose on wetter ground. The emerald green water of winter is still a ways off. Everything balances here now. Down here, summer passes by in the currents. Up there, summer works its way back into the soil. Out there, another storm is pushing winter in a tad bit closer.

Winter Cometh Soon and a Pause

The latest weather forecast paints a lengthy period of rain starting later this week suggesting rising rivers and a big step towards winter.  Granted, winter is still a ways off by the calendar.  We are likely on the cusp of the more classic fall – damp ground, the river valleys shrouded with smoke from woodstoves, a new round of fall colors, and a burst of mushrooms from the forest floor – rather than this faux summer we’ve been living through lately.

So far, looking back, the season started with a bang in August and then progressively got more difficult in terms of hooking fish – though, I must admit, some of the most satisfying days have been those with one or two good fish hooked.  And difficult is not the right word – intense, maybe?  If I had to talk about catching fish, it’s less of a number game and more of the cerebral quest of finding a piece of water, methodically working through it and being rewarded with one good fish. That seems to make the whole crazy thing worth it.  I won’t argue with the fast and furious early season evenings – those are special times.  But there is something to be said for the focused pace through a piece of water, getting the swing just right and, finally, on the 23rd cast, connecting with seven pounds of electrified wild steelhead and then finishing with nothing more than that.  Of course, a single seven pound steelhead probably qualifies as a good day in most people’s ledgers around here.  If it was all easy catching, that would soon get tiresome (I think), and if nothing were ever caught, then, well, that speaks for itself.  It’s about landing somewhere in the middle which is, in practice, rarely enough.

I think the satisfying thing about it all so far is that I’ve managed to fish the water I just needed to fish, covered the water I wanted to fish and found a few new spots along the way.  Best of all, the old water was revisited and fished in a new way this year.  I think if the rain happens just right and the rivers come up about a foot or so, it will all start over again.  Pause…

On the Coming of Storms

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. Continue reading “On the Coming of Storms”