Archive for the ‘Steelhead’ Category

Last week I fished the “Town Run” of the mainstem Willamette river in Eugene-Springfield several times.  The herd has been thinnned by now and fish are harder to come by but there were no skunkings.  This is the story of the last of those trips.

Friday morning, I awoke with a bit of congestion in my upper chest. I knew the crud was coming on fast but I supressed my cough, hitched up the boat and met my clients for a day of urban flyfishing fun. I knew it would be hard work. Almost all of the fish seemed to have moved into one spot at the end of our run and the put in was a circus . . . there were at least four other boats. ugh.

I backrowed hard, all day, because missing those upper spots meant we had to spend more time in areas that were productive earlier in the season but hadn’t been so lately. Besides that, I knew of another guide trip that would be focusing on the area in which the fish were kegged up and I didn’t want to follow too closely behind that hoover. We were plucked at twice early in the float.  Could have been steelhead.  The clients said they were.  That early action was followed by a loooooooooooooooong lull.

Finally, we were in the spot were the fishing has been most productive. We swung across the tailout and one of the clients’ flies was eaten. He reefed back hard (NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and the fish was off but it also grabbed the next fly to swing into its lair and the fight was on. This fish broke off and it was my fault. I felt terrible. It was the first time on a guide trip that I can place the loss of a fish squarely on myself and I didn’t like it at all. Thankfully, my client was more circumspect. We continued to work the tailout without any more grabs until I was too exhausted to row any more and I asked if the guys minded if we took a break to “rest the fish?”

“and rest the rower?”
“Yes. To rest the rower.”

We headed over to the bank and anchored up, stretching our legs, drinking from our canteens and swapping stories of our lives and times, fishing and families. Finally, I thought I was well enough rested to give it another go. We worked tenaciously in the tailout to no effect. After twenty or so minutes I couldn’t hold it much longer. “Last pass guys.”

“That’s okay Karl, maybe today just isn’t our day . . . . FISH ON!”

This one was hooked solidly and wasn’t going anywhere.  A bacon-saving redemptive last pass fish! Steelheading takes determination to be sure. I backed away from the swift tailout, dropped anchor and Mike worked:

Willamette Mainstem (Town Run) Steelheading

Willamette Mainstem (Town Run) Steelheading

Willamette Mainstem (Town Run) Steelhead

None of these photos show scale but I’d estimate the hen at a solid six pounds. I asked Mike if he wanted a grip and grin shot and he said “no” and before I could say much else he had twisted the hook free and released the fish. Fred’s eyes were as wide as saucers and I was a bit surprised myself. Mike, from Nevada had only fished steelhead in BC where everything is catch and release and it never crossed his mind to keep it. As for me and Fred, the idea of releasing a hatchery fish rarely crosses our minds. But hey, it was his fish after all and so his call.

As soon as Mike and Fred and I shook hands and they were on their way I realized …. My head was light, I felt faint and fatigued, my muscles ached and bones hurt, my skin was hot but my body chilled, I swooned with any exertion. Somehow, I hadn’t realized any of this as I worked to get these dudes into fish and in the end, despite the adversity, I did. That’s why my friends call me the Mule and why One Mule Team Guide Service is one of the hardest working outfits out there.

No matter what, I will work hard for you and you will catch fish!


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I decided to test my prediction from my last post and today, I guided another father-son trip on the town run of the Willamette. This time both guys were flyfishers and we used flies exclusively. We put in early and began swinging our flies through likely runs. A fish rolled in a tailout and I thought to myself, ” I spot ’em, I got ’em . . . ” Well, the fish grabbed twice without getting stuck but the third time, she wasn’t so lucky:

Town Run Steelhead

Town Run Steelhead

Casey caught this fish forty minutes into his steelheading career. It took me months. We got grabbed four more times but none of them resulted in a solid hook-up. Still, a fish in the boat on a flyfishing only trip, you’re winning.

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It certainly isn’t in a National Forest. Age old firs and bulbous ancient cedars don’t line the banks. But this float through the second most populous urban area in Oregon is not without its charms: principally, Summer Steelhead and lot of them. Sunday, I guided Dan and his father Dean on the mainstem of the Willamette. We launched in Springfield, floated through the netherworld of Glennwood and into Eugene. Dan is strictly a fly angler, his father a gear guy but I have ways to make the two diverse fishing styles play nice.

The first thing we did was drag flies without effect through the upper section of the float. I decided to switch Dean over to a gear set up, a fixed float with a jig. I showed him the ropes, to keep the bobber upright and to extend his drift by freespooling. He had the touch and within 20 minutes Dean had his first hook-up. The fish fought strangely and stayed near the boat:


The fish leapt near the bow and broke Dean off. But he had the hot hand at least as far as hook-ups went and hooked four steelhead within a couple hours. Unfortunately, he had one of those runs where despite hooking lots of fish perhaps the hook-ups weren’t all that solid and the all sea-run trout escaped.

But Dan was like Alcatraz. While Dean had been drifting jigs, we were also swinging Dan’s flies and in a tailout near the end of the float after attaining some garbage collecting Kharma a steelhead hit Dan’s MOAL leech with a thud. This time there was no escape:

Town Run Summer Steelhead

It was a good few hours of steelhead fishing, we had hooked five “fish of a thousand casts” in just a couple hours. The town run has good amounts of steelhead and water and should continue to fish well.

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Tuesday, I lay in my sickbed contemplating the waning days of winter steelhead season.  My body ached, even my eyeballs hurt and my throat was raw.  I defintely would be too sick for an office job but too sick to fish?  Hell, it’s a sore throat not a death rattle and even then . . . .

I threw the gear together and decided to explore a nearby small stream reputed to have a late native run that I’ve never fished.  I was reminded there is nothing like the excitement of fishing new water, especially if you connect with a steelhead.  Parking along the limited access points, I worked my way downriver until I reached private property and headed back upriver. Bushwhacking past the car I found a really good looking spot and run my fies though 10 or so times.  Nothing.  I pitched a spinner.  First cast, fish on . . . .

Oregon Small Stream Winter Steelhead Buck

It was a smallish winter steelhead buck of about 5 pounds and he didn’t put up the best fight. Once landed I saw why:

Wounded Oregon Small Stream Winter Steelhead Buck

I handled him carefully, gripping his tail wrist. Never removing him from the water I twisted the hook free. He darted off. I’ve caught one other steelhead with almost this exact wound on the same part of the fish and Chris Daughters just caught a trout with a similar injury. I wonder what could cause that? Another cause of wonder, I didn’t see any signs of spawning. No redds at all. Maybe they spawn further upstream. I only explored a couple miles of nine or so miles that are public and open to steelheading. Less mysterious was how silty this little stream is. The deforested mountain slopes pump sediment into the stream that isn’t any good for the fish, burying their spawing beds.

It seemed like it could be an epic day what with the early fish and all but I didn’t find any other steelhead and bushwhacking along this small water’s banks I had a thought, “Oh crap, Jaden’s practice.” It’s a minor miracle that I even remembered while steelheading, I raced home and got him there.

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Warning: This post contains a fairly graphic image.

This isn’t the post I wanted to write about this trip. I wanted to write a love song about a remote backcountry stream somewhere between northern California and southern British Columbia, a place that has never been logged, where the runs of salmon and steelhead of decades and centuries past sway in the old growth sitka Spruce and douglas Fir and the younger alder and maples that stand along the stream banks. This place has strong runs of coho and chinook and steelhead. I make several pilgrimages a year there, where I always feel my spirits restored, my hopes renewed and my commitment to conservation of indigenous, self-sustaining coldwater fish populations reinvigorated. I feel good there.

I hiked in, greeted by the smell of death and stumbled on the poacher’s camp. A dead cow elk lay near an abondoned tent, debris and a igloo-esge wigwam constructed of douglas Fir boughs. The meat had been stripped of the side of the elk and much (to my untrained eye) had been wasted:

Poached Cow Elk

Near the corpse lay a calling card that completed the scene and gave a glimpse into the poacher’s mind. Not ashamed, he was genuinely proud . . .

Poacher's Calling Card

There were also signs of “fishing.” Abandoned bags of cured roe . . . my mind spun with the possibilities, poached hen salmon eggs used to poach steelhead in a pernicous cycle of waste and abuse. Somehow, the world felt cheaper and crueler, like the when unattainable girl you idolized from afar as a youth threw herself at some dumb jock who dumped her immediately and bragged to everybody who’d listen, relaying the story of conquest, sneering, laughing and coarse. Disgraceful. I strung up my rods.

The strategy was simple. Swing the swinging water, bobbercator the indiacator water and if the flies didn’t work, show ’em the spinner. I worked upstream fast as is my way without touching any fish and saw a flyfisher just ahead vacating a deep pool. Figuring he had thoroughly worked it with his flies I skipped mine, cast a spinner and retrieved slowly. A sea run cutty grabbed my lure but didn’t stick and I repeated the cast, retrieving even slower and a bucky buck, dual striped with a deep glowing red gill plate grabbed me and ran us up and down the pool before sucumbing. Of the fish I hooked or caught there is only this shot:

Bucky Wild Steelhead Buck

There were other hopeful signs. A log jam that started three years ago has continued to grow, accumulating habitat enhancing debris:

Natural Log Jam, Year 3

The stream was full of steelhead redds, I stopped counting at well over twenty in less than three miles:

Steelhead Redd

I moved a steelhead with a swung intruder and it took position behind the fly, grabbed and I set too soon. There was no connection. Then it happened in this pool:

Sage TCX

As my tandem offering drifted into the gut of the run my indicator plunged down and I was connected to the hottest steelhead I’ve ever hooked. The big buck went on a rampage, first running down toward the bouldery tailout I was able to turn him and he jumped in displeasure. He ran towards the top of the run, turned and reached full speed running downstream and again broke the surface with the most impressive leap I’ve ever personally witnessed from a hooked steelhead, easily four feet. He came upstream one last time and powered down toward the tailout again, I tried to stop him from reaching the rapids below . . . . I put on the brakes and held –but my but leader didn’t and it was over. No great loss. My only regret is that I had been unable to locate the tripod or you’d be watching video of this ass-kicking instead of reading about it.

I continued to work upstream not doing any more good with the flyrod. I pitched my spinner just below a rapid and as soon as it hit the water a chrome hen grabbed it, breaking the surface I saw her silvery head and flanks as she spit my spinner back at me in disgust. I fished the next run with the flyrod and caught a bright hen on a spinner. In this small water she also ran toward the downstream rapid and I knew I couldn’t stop her. I stopped fighting, opening my bale and she held in the tailout for several minutes under minimal tension. Lulled to sleep I moved her into deeper water and began the fight again, a quick tailing and she was off. A couple casts later, a buck who must have been courting her chased down my offering, took a swipe but wasn’t hooked.

Hiking out thorough the old growth in the moonless night, a small circle of light thrown by my headlamp, I wondered if the cougar and bear used the trail once darkness had fallen and I thought of the big steelhead trout in the small stream below and whether they too felt a tinge of fear at the wildness of it all.

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I should explain . . . I’ve been fishing more than usual. Because of Oregon’s dismal chinook returns this past fall, I took the salmon season off. Somehow, I fought off the salmon cravings though the tremors were hard to take. So, I’m resolved to steelhead as much as possible and more than is prudent this winter. Hey, a man can have worse vices . . . .

Matt and I set anchor in a good hole and started working it–Matt with my fly rod, which always brings him luck. He fished the soft water out in front of the boat that tailed out over a ledge that kept pulling his indicator under. I saw the indicator again plunge beneath the surface of the river and said, “ledge again, huh?”

“That’s a fish!” The chrome hen gave Matt about all he wanted on my 8 weight:

Lake Creek Winter Steelhead

Lake Creek Steelhead

As Matt bled the hen steelhead, a fish grabbed my spinner. I reared back to set the hook and instead ended up in a sword fight with the fly rod, lines tangled and the fish was gone. We moved a bit further down and as my spinner thumped in a tailout, I felt a fish attack my lure, the rod surged down twice and then inexplicably it was gone. Oh well.

We didn’t scrape any steelhead the rest of the day. We did see a old, spawned out coho, ravaged by fungus, sweep down a rapid with us and then stubbornly, beautifully turn around and nose toward the rapid again. I took meaning from that and if I was more eloquent, I’d explain.

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The phone rang Tuesday morning. It was Rick on the other end. “I’m at Fred Meyers right now buying my license. Let’s fish.”

“I can’t. I’m working. Besides I’m going Thursday.”

“Today is the day, I’m checking the graphs. It is going to be blown out Thursday.” I navigated to the graph and he was right. It was forecast to be blown out on Thursday.

It was with a heavy heart I said, “I can’t.” I hung up the phone, deliberated for a couple minutes, my entire though process consisted of me thinking, yes I can, and I will. I called back, “I’m in.”

We dropped his boat in the river and began fishing down.  Strangely, we didn’t hook any fish in the sweet spot.  We anchored up above some rapids and I cast my spinner towards the opposite bank and worked the tailout before the next rapid. “Fish on!” A feisty buck steelhead had crunched my spinner. I pool was full of bedrock shelves and ledges and during his repeated runs I kept my rod tip high to keep from breaking off:

Fighting a Lake Creek Steelhead

The buck tailwalked and thrashed impressively but was eventually exhausted:

Lake Creek Steelhead

Even though there was some condensation on the lens, I love this shot. Oregon in winter is a cool, liquid world and this photo seems to capture the essence of that. Mist shrouded hills cloaked with dripping douglas fir, a watery artery making it’s way through the Coast Range to the sea and a drenched angler holding a sea run rainbow trout. Condensation is the scene.

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