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The Old Trail

The trail never gets easier, only more familiar.  I anticipate the meadows with calm pleasure and the cliffs with fear and dread.  I keep trekking it season after season with my fly rod in my hand.  The end of the trail is always welcome and the resultant fishing is always beyond my expectation.  I remember when I first found it.  I was glancing over a map of the no-road access areas of not-very-popular river with direct access to saltwater.  The map was well worn (I had fished the river dozens of times) and I was surprised when my eye caught the long sweeping run of the river.  Why hadn’t I seen it before?  It was a long hike in with no trail, but I made it a point to check it out and I have been returning for several decades.  I am not the only one who knows these waters, but we are all of the same fishing mind-set.  If another angler hikes in when I am fishing, I always welcome him/her to follow me through.  And to a person, they have always reciprocated when I am not the first to swing a fly through the run.  I don’t know any of the other fishers I’ve met here outside of sharing this run with them, but we have a strong friendship bond and share fly patterns and other “secret runs” with each other as easily as the run we are fishing.  Anyone willing to get off of the road and drip a little sweat to find a new, fun place to wet a fly is a person to welcome and treat with respect.  I rarely run into anyone here, but when I do, it is OK.  I have found other drifts I often fish, but this is the one I return to cast after cast.

The fish are not resident but anadromous, returning to their natal tributaries far upstream from here.  I want only, to interrupt their long journey for a few minutes of jumping, running and exercise.  Just enough to get them stoked for what’s ahead. The run is near perfect.  Picture a crescent moon.  The inside of it is baseball to basketball sized rocks covering a bar that extends out into the river run with larger boulders scattered across the river from about midstream to the far side (the river represented by the bright portion of the moon).  Step in at the top.  Cast and swing a fly through to the bottom.  One step at a time.  No need to rush through.  It is a good one to three hour drift.  It is the just-right place to be at dawn when the sun comes up over the snow covered mountains beyond the opposite shore of the run.  Just when it peeks over the mountains and the shadows are still long, a skated fly looks so proud dancing its way across the riffles.  Its wake reflects the sun’s rays in a shotgun blast behind it in a million directions.  The only better sight for me is a repeat action at sundown.

Occasionally, this scene is pleasantly interrupted by a bulge in the water surface just behind the fly.  Don’t react too quickly, I tell myself!  The fly disappears and the line comes taut to my reel that is screaming for help a few seconds later.  Adrenalin-induced excitement follows to the final release, then I watch the sea-run rainbow swim strongly back into the currents.  The take happens rarely, but each one is like the first time all over again.

After the sun inches higher overhead, it is time to swing a sunk fly, fished more to the fish’s level; make it easy for the pull.  It may work or not.  In a way it is just as visual as a waking fly, just not as obvious.  The experienced caster is watching the line as far out and as close to the fly as is possible, looking for the almost invisible indication that a fish has stopped the fly’s downstream swing:  That fraction of second where the current has lodged the fly in the corner of a steelhead’s jaw and has anchored the line.   The line drift is interrupted just before anything is felt.  A strike now almost surely results in a head shake and, if lucky, a leaping fish with your fly attached. It is the full process of steelheading that makes it the obsession it is.  It doesn’t start or stop with the hook-up or the release.  It starts with the approach to the run, the anticipation of a trip; fishing a waking fly late in the late afternoon just to see its wake in the golden reflection of the sun setting on the hills guarding the opposite shore; the feeling of your way into the current for your first cast of the day even when it is still too dark to see the bottom.  It is a comfortable place to stand while wading over impossibly slick boulders.  Look up and downstream.  Take in all you see.  Look closely along the opposite shore.  There’s a mink peeking in and out of the shoreline rocks, scrambling along oblivious of your presence.  There is a small splash next to the river’s edge.  A water ouzel dips and dips and disappears below the surface.

The first time I witnessed this avian activity  I was completely perplexed.  I never knew of such a bird or its habit of finding its food underwater.  I have loved them ever since.  I never tire of watching them.  I used to never see or observe anything past the point of my line entering the water’s surface.  I learned this lesson from a non-fisher (he was a non-fisher then, but not now).  He is my brother.  He is a talented still photographer and an accomplished film maker and videographer.  We were shooting a film and he amazed me with the visual account of our outings.  When I reviewed the film, I saw so much going on around me.  I never experienced anything near what he saw through his camera lens.  This happened more that 4 decades ago.  I now catch myself occasionally falling into old habits and I remember my bro’s lesson.  My experience is always enhanced by knowing and remembering how to look around.  He gave my fishing a new depth and meaning.  I love my brother and this is only one of the reasons.  This is just one part of the steelheading process.

You know, I catch way more steelhead at my tying vise than I ever will at the river.  All of the flies I tie have caught a fish (in my mind) just prior to being released from the jaws of my vise; unlike in real life where most of my flies are released just prior to fastening themselves to the jaw of a steelhead.  I don’t claim to be a good steelheader, I just enjoy the hell out of it.  I don’t ever remember leaving this run angry or even disappointed; only looking forward to my return.  When I go through a really good looking run; if no one is behind me, I will fish through it again.  I know several fishers who would never do this.  They are more the in-and-out types who can’t wait to get to the next run.  I understand this; just don’t fish this way.  My slow-moving Oklahoma ways of my childhood serve me well working my way through a run.  I’ve often hooked fish on my second go-through.  If someone comes up behind me while doing this, I’ll let them fish through ahead of me and wish them well.

I never meet anyone at the end of the trail who doesn’t understand all of this.  That is one reason I never mind sharing the run with any angler who arrives while I am there.  Some days when all is lined up perfectly, I’ll nap on the gravel bar after enjoying a stream-chilled beer during a mid-day break and repeat the morning’s drift later in the day to watch the sunset riffles in the wake of a skated fly.  I don’t really look forward to climbing the “cliffs” at dark, but I know it well enough to step carefully to the top.

I never know when my final trip will come to pass, so I try to experience each trip as if it is.  I am never disappointed.

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