28 April 2018

It Takes Three To Land A Steelhead

Back in 1998, I went on a fishing/camping trip with my father, my husband, three other family members, three guides and a baggage barge guy who set up camp every night. We were on the Deschutes, in Oregon - a beautiful river that flows north from Bend to the Columbia. We traveled downstream in boats, but stopped to fish; fishing is only allowed from the bank.

I'd been skeptical about spending four days on the water, and three nights in tents, but it turned out to be the perfect vacation - there were no decisions to be made except whether to change your underwear. And that was a serious consideration, because it was cold enough that your wet boot laces were iced up every morning.

At one point, we had a hella exciting run with a fish, which my father wrote up for some fishing oriented magazine - but they never published it. Because he was writing for publication, he left out a key detail: at some point we scrabbled into the boat and chased that fish downstream.

A couple of weeks ago, he mailed me a copy of what he'd written, followed by the photos. Since it never did get published, I'm sharing it now.

Here's what he wrote, nearly twenty years ago.

While steelhead fishing on the great Deschutes River in Oregon this past October, my daughter, Maggie, and I had a singular experience with a beautiful, wild, male steelhead. Maggie was fishing upstream of me with Dan Bastian of Rising Trout Guides and Outfitters in Bend, Oregon. We were near Kaskela, about 18 miles downriver from Warm Springs, at the foot of the Mutton Mountains. She was working a brown stonefly nymph with a trailing small green rock worm, tied by Bill Sheppard, who was also guiding with Dan on the trip. The green rock worm was tied on a #2457 Tiemco hook, size 12, with a rainbow crystal bead behind the eye, a light green vinyl body and a grey ostrich herl behind the bead.

Maggie was having some success with the nymphing rig and Dan took the rod to demonstrate how she could cover more water by making longer casts and mending the line. On his second cast there was a terrific slashing strike; immediately, the fish made a heroic, acrobatic leap. Dan clearly saw the green rock worm in the mouth of a beautiful, very colorful, steelhead.

The fish hit the water and took off downstream like an express train. I heard the commotion behind me and looked back to see Maggie and Dan in the river. I heard Dan ask Maggie "are you ready?" and saw him hand her the charged rod. The rod, a four-piece six-weight Sage with a #2 Ross Gunnerson reel, was pointing straight downstream. The reel sang as I watched the line and backing disappearing after the steelhead.

I headed upstream for the camera and as I pulled abreast of Maggie I shouted "raise your rod tip!" She tried but could not. I dropped my rod, vest and wading staff and joined her in the river. Try as she might, Maggie could not lift the rod; she calmly turned to me and said "Pop, the line is all gone." She showed me the reel; the backing was down to the spindle. I took the rod and ran.

I was struck by the fact that the hook, the leader, the line and the backing all held; there was a straight pull between me and the fish. I stumbled downstream and finally began to gain backing. I was able to get out of the river and make better progress on dry land.

At one point, as I ran on, the fish slipped into an eddy downstream and seemed to stop. In a blink the rod shot straight up, the backing twisted around the rod near the tip top and the rod came apart at the top section. In a word - a "mess." Trying to stay calm, I untangled the backing and reassembled the rod; I took up the strain and felt that the fish was still on. Off I went.

As I rounded a bend in the river, Maggie, Dan and his McKenzie River boat caught up to me and the fish moved into a wide, shallow area of calm water. Both the fish and I were out of gas.

Dan got out of the boat, Maggie got the camera and together we landed, photographed and released a very beautiful, wild Deschutes River steelhead.

On examination, we found that the green rock worm was impaled in the pectoral fin of the fish, the tippet on the rock worm was broken and the stonefly nymph was in the fish's tail. We surmised that when the steelhead first jumped, it hit the leader with its tail and broke off the rock worm, only to hook itself on the stonefly nymph. The fish's hectic, powerful rush downriver was explained by it being foul-hooked in the tail. We carefully removed the hooks, rested the steelhead and sent him on his way. We all agreed that it was fortunate that the gear held and we were able to free the fish of the hooks and line.

I hope that this fish will reproduce and put his determination and indomitable will into future generations so that the Deschutes River will continue to be an exciting, as well as beautiful, place to fish in the years ahead.

Thanks, Pop.