Chronicles of a Fiend
This year my brother fished with more passion and intensity that I had ever seen. We had been planning a winter steelhead trip for months, and January was the time. For me January usually means snowboarding. If there is good snow, I can't seem to think of anything else. But when the snow stops falling my mind drifts to the next best thing to a powder day,which is hooking and landing a winter steelhead. My brother, Eugene, lives in Southern Oregon and raves about the winter steelhead fishing in his area. He had been nagging me to come up for a mid-winter trip for years. Two years ago I went up in March and we tried to hike into the headwaters of the Chetco. It turned into a torrential down pour and after hiking all day up a steep muddy pass, we had to sleep in a puddle. It rained all night just about the hardest I had ever seen. We figured the river would be blown out, so we hiked back the next day. The thoughts of those "chrome torpeedos" lingered in my head, and I vowed to return. This trip was going to be Chetco round two.
Being older that me, my brother Eugene paved the way into a lot of sports for me; like skateboarding and snowboarding. However I started fly fishing first. When we were kids, he always gave me a hard time about trying to copy him on all the things he liked to do. So I found my own sport. I'm glad Eugene got into fly fishing, because now he is as big of a fiend as me. He has turned into my best fishing partner. Eugene is willing to go to extremes that not many normal people could handle. Every time we get together it is a fishing competition. For years he was the angler who figured, "If a fish wants to bit, he will bite". So he didn't put as much attention into his patterns, but he could sure pick out the good holding water. He would take his sweet time getting ready, waltz to the water, chuck a few casts when he was good and ready, and usually hooked the best fish of the day. He felt that fishing was a karma sport, and so he didn't get into the technical side of things. Eug figured that if he had been good about picking up trash, and respecting the environment, he would be rewarded with a fish. He kind of worked off the good guy principal. Eugene was more of the seeker. Out on the water searching more for things that you find inside your self, and expecting nothing more than to share some quality moments with the river. I on the other hand was the hunter. Catching a fish was why I was there, so by golly, that's what I was going to do. I used to fish with relentless determination untill it was time to go. Now I see the tables have turned. I spend most of the year guiding, and scouting water on my days off. I spend more time on the water than should be legal, and catch more than my fair share of fish. Eugene is now a wildlife biologist and spends just about as much time on the water, but doesn't get to fish half as much. So now on my days off, I just want to go chuck a few cast, take it easy, and enjoy the souroundings. Eugene on the other hand feels he needs to turbo fish to make up for all the days I spent fishing, while he had to work.
January is a bit early for winter steelhead on the Oregon cost. There had been a good rain about three week earlier and we heard there was a good pulse of fish that entered both the Smith and the Chetco. The plan was to stop and fish the forks of the Smith, then move on to the Chetco for a rematch. It had been nice and sunny for 3 weeks, but as luck would have it, the one week I have to fish, the weather turned foul. When we arrived at the Smith, it was just starting to become overcast and rain just enough that it made spotting fish difficult. It was a Saturday and the river was crowed. We fished hard all day. After fishing several spots on the middle fork, we hiked up the north fork. That didn't yield any fish, so we spent the night near the confluence, and worked the lower river all Sunday morning. We heard some reports that the gear chuckers were getting some fish down low, but we couldn't dredge up anything on flies. After pounding the river hard for the better part of the day, we decided to drive over to the Chetco. A quick stop at the tackle shop in Brookings, confirmed what we had heard. There had been a pulse of fish into the rivers with the rain a few weeks before, but the shop guys suspected the fish would be high up into the systems by now. When it comes to winter steelhead fishing, timing is everything-especially if you are trying to target them with flies.
By day three I was in severe pain. I dislocated a rib the week before while snowboarding. Stumbling around the river all day, and sleeping on the ground was starting to take it's toll. Our plan was to hike into the wilderness section of the Chetco, so we drove up the long muddy road to the trail head. It didn't look too bad when we fell asleep, but during the night I awoke to the sound of heavy rain. In the morning when I gained my wits again, it was raining so hard I thought we should be building an Ark instead of thinking about fishing. Eugene agreed so we retreated back to Brookings for some warm food and shelter. We rented a yurt for the night so we could dry our stuff out, and get a good nights sleep. I spent the day going to a chiropractor.
The next morning the clouds broke a bit, so we decided to make another assault on the wilderness. Following the muddy road up the river, we could see the river was pretty high. We considered turning back, but then figured what the hell, we had nothing better to do. The Chetco is one of the last coastal rivers that flows completely out of roadless, unlogged, wilderness. It gets blown out quick with the rain, but comes back down quick afterwards. The Chetco is home to some of the largest and most magestic wild steelhead in the Pacific ocean. A trip into the wilderness section in search of steelhead on the fly is like a quest for the holly grail of fly fishing. We knew the fish were in there, but where do you start. The water was high and very murky. We hiked all morning and fished all afternoon. The water looked fishy, but neither of us got so much as even a bite. Both of us remembered the beating Chetco pass handed down two years before, and we were determined to milk at least one fish from its fickle waters. On the last day there we spotted some very large fish sitting off of a shallow gravel bar. Eugene tempted fate with a sketchy wade out to the gravel bar. I stayed on the bank to spot for him. The fish saw him coming a mile away and managed to dodge every cast before disappearing into the glare. We left the Chetco Whooped.......AGAIN!
On the way home we stopped back at the middle fork of the Smith to probe some of the water we scoped a few days earlier. Our spirits were low, but when you fiend for steelhead so hard it is like a drug, you will stop at nothing. After 6 days with nothing to show but one tiny salmon smolt, we needed something, anything. It gets to the point where you are trying to rationalize it in your head-"This is stupid, I should be at home taking care of business, or spending time with my girlfriend. NO, nothing is more important than winter steelhead!"-you just keep going back and forth in your head. It really is like a drug. The thought of those silvery beast keeps your pressing on. Then finally in the 11th hour, it happened. Eugene and I did yet another sketchy, life threatening wade out to an island in the middle of a braided section. There we spotted two very nice, super bright chrome domes. I fished to them first, floofed the drift and lost my flies. Eugene fished to them, I fished to them, them Eugene again. Finally when we had all but given up, I made one last effort. I got just the right drift, and boom, my line stopped. I lifted up to feel the violent head shake and pulsating muscle burst of a super fresh wild winter run pacific steelhead. The fish bent a few times then headed for the ocean. My line screamed off my reel. Then POW! It came shooting out of the water like the recoil from a broken wench cable. My line wrapped around me and my weight smacked me in the forehead as my flies wrapped around my neck and caught in my fleece. It was a two minute emotional rollercoster that ended with a smack in the face. As pathetic as it was, that was enough. That momentary feel of that fish on the end of my line was enough to make the whole miserable week worth while. Yeah, spending quality time with my brother was cool, and yeah just being on such beautiful rivers surrounded by nature at it's finest is great, but winter steelhead haunt my very soul. I'm planning another trip for March!