A Steelhead To Never Forget
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A Steelhead To Never Forget

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Macks Canyon is literally at the end of the road. It is also the place where I typically started my steelhead seasons on The Deschutes. The road to the campground was a tire eater consisting of dust and the sharpest basalt known. After a certain trip that included two flats and the sun pummeling me with its typical early fall, 100° death rays, from that trip on I always brought two spare tires. Unfortunately for my tires and my pickup, Macks always seemed to have several steelhead lurking around in September that would eat my Purple Peril. If not for this, there would have been no sensible reason for braving the road and the herds of rattlesnakes that guarded the riverbanks.

September had always been a “me” month. The throngs of tourists that fueled the local guide machine in Bend had subsided after Labor Day. Guiding for trout was effectively over. There were still a few weeks until I would be in my boat, grumpy and groggy, drifting through the pre-dawn curtain of blue-black. My dread of having to race to a run that might have a steelhead sleeping in it wasn’t my idea of fun, but even back then there were more fishermen than spots. I had a love-hate relationship with the river that time of year. But if it wasn’t for those frosty mornings spent with some chubby, cigar-chomping doctors and lawyers, I wouldn’t have been able to pay rent through the winter.

The old railroad grade

But for now, I had three weeks of my own time. So I did what any respectable fly fishing guide would do, I went fishing. The plan was simple. I would load my Winstons and the Ross reels that rested in their reel seats first, for obvious reasons. Then I would throw the rest of my fishing and camping gear in and sneak out of town. Voilà! This year the plan was no different. I had loaded almost everything in about two minutes except my sleeping pad when my buddy Brian showed up.

Fly Fishing, Not Guiding

I was crashing and cussing around my garage, digging through the unorganized piles of the gear I had used all summer when I heard his rig pull into the driveway. Just as I pulled my pad from under a pile consisting of boat straps and a Coleman stove I heard him ask; “Where you going?” I turned around with an exquisitely fake, yet convincing smile prepared for my trip to be spoiled.

Brian was, and still is, one of my best friends. Unlike most of my friends, he was a weekend warrior fly fisherman. When we would fish for trout together, he would fish (with my rod and reel, of course) and I would guide. This was not how I wanted to spend my time when I wasn’t guiding but he was enthusiastic and listened. I would coach his casting and tie on the right bug for him as he listened intently to my advice. On our last outing together he asked me about steelhead fishing as he tried to master casting a #20 Adams on my little 4wt. I knew our fishing relationship was going to go to the next level as I heard the snap of the 6x tippet signal the loss of yet another fly.

When I told him my plan to spend the next five days at Macks his eyes lit up as the wheels in his head started working. I knew he had to work so I hadn’t even considered that he could horn in on my trip as I slammed my canopy door closed. Then he said; “You know I can meet you down there in a couple of days. I can bring ice and beer.” Whammo! I was now trapped.

For a moment I am sure the disappointment washed across my face like some sort of red tide oozing into a bay to poison everything in its path. But he was a great friend, one who I could actually count on. Besides after three days in the heat, some fresh ice and beer would be nice to have. So we agreed that he would show up on Tuesday, mid-morning.

Three Days Of Steelhead Fishing Alone – Sort Of

It was a Saturday when I got to the campground. Expecting camps everywhere, I was surprised when all I saw was one travel trailer and two jet boat trailers as I rounded the last corner into Macks Canyon. Even with my air conditioning conking out halfway down the road as I putted along in an acrid cloud of dust behind two trucks hauling drift boats to Beaver Tail, I suddenly felt very lucky. When I saw that my favorite camp spot was open my foot instinctually got heavy and my truck started jumping all over the place. Laughing out loud, I gained control of my body and slowly eased down the hill towards where I would spend the next few nights.

My rods were strung up about three seconds after I got my tent set up, why I am not sure. It was three o’clock and the sun was still on the water so I wouldn’t even head down river to fish for at least an hour. My excitement had gotten the best of me. After rethreading the fly line on one of my rods since I had missed a guide in my rush, I sat in a shady spot and fondled my fly boxes for an hour. The crickets buzzed in the heat while I arranged the Streetwalkers, Green Butt Skunks and my other traditional steelhead flies by size and success. This took an hour and two beers to finish to my complete satisfaction. With nothing else to do, I pulled on my guard socks and wading boots and headed down the trackless railroad grade towards my first spot.

Truth be told, there is nothing lazier than a fly fishing guide fishing on his own time. This means that I seldom hiked over a couple of miles when I was on this part of The Deschutes. Often I would only fish the two closest runs downstream of the campground over and over to avoid having to walk more than fish. It made sense to me then and still does to this day. I can guarantee that there has never been a steelhead caught on a hiking trail.

The glare of the sun came off of the water just as I stepped into the river. The hopes of steelhead fishermen are fed by the shadows from the canyon walls that were starting to stretch across the river. Somewhere in the run, there had to be a fish that could start looking up without burning its retinas, one that would be bitter and pissed off enough to eat my fly. With that thought fading as the warm wind blew up the canyon into my face, I stripped about thirty feet of the floating line I was using off of my reel and made my first cast of the trip.

My skunk swam a lot that evening as I somewhat impatiently worked my way down the run. If I was the guy swinging the fly, I would let my fly swing across a spot twice and then step down three steps. If I was guiding, I would tell the angler to swing the spot three times and step down two steps. This was because I was impatient and I could get my mends right usually on the first swing. Besides, most of the grabs I have ever had or have seen, happened on the first cast after stepping down.

Halfway through the spot, while I was staring at a pair of Golden Eagles that were soaring above the shadows in the last rays of the sun, I remembered that Brian was coming down. There was the indescribably fresh smell of the river all around me as I moved down through the waist deep water. Each cast and mend came instinctually as my eyes and mind continued to wander. A mink splashed into the water just below me as it worked its way through the rocks on the edge of steelhead hole looking for dinner.

The experience, as much as the fishing, is what swinging flies for steelhead is all about. This is true because often times there is a lot more “experience” than hooked and landed fish. Some might say this is trite, typical guide-speak, but it is the truth for those that chase this elusive, anadromous fish. Fly fishing for steelhead is a lot like hitting a baseball. If you are successful a third of the time you go steelhead fishing then you are an all-star.

Hopefully, Brian would enjoy his experience on the river. This thought came as the darkness fell around me without so much as a nibble from a confused Redside. Later, as I trudged home in my sloshing wading boots hoping not to step in the fangs of a waiting rattlesnake I looked at the stars that formed the Big Dipper. For a moment it felt as if it was trying to take a scoop of water from the river that I could hear rushing by in the darkness. Silly, patently romantic thoughts make me laugh at myself and this was one of them. I am sure the echoes of my laughter are still bouncing around the canyon today.

My life of blissful solitude went on for the next two days. I would get up before sunrise and make my coffee while I put my waders on. By the time I had wadered up the coffee would almost be done. I would pour the coffee from the old blue enamel coffee pot into the matching cup with some cream. This all occurred with one eye on the trail to make sure no one was going to beat me down river.

On the first morning, a couple of older guys tried to sneak by but their bobbing headlamps told me that they were coming. As they walked into the faint glow of my lantern on the sagebrush I said; “How about some coffee?” The guy in the lead instantly veered into my camp. Needless to say, after a cup of coffee and a granola bar or two we were fast friends. I would spend the next two mornings walking through the darkness with the two old friends from Portland as they told old stories from their school days. It was a pleasant way to start the mornings and since they were pretty good fly fishermen, we fished well together.

The fishing was, well steelhead fishing. I caught two fish in the days before Brian was supposed to arrive. Both were tiny little slivers of what steelhead are supposed to be. The first one grabbed my fly so hard it almost took the rod out of my hand. I hooked him on the first morning. Since the two men were first, they got to pick where they wanted to start in the run and I would go above them. They picked the smooth, even flowing part of the run that was easier wading and had the look of a steelhead hole. I worked my way to the bouldery spot above the men as they made fun of how each other were casting. This is my favorite spot in the whole run and is where I hooked most of the fish I had caught out of this spot. In the end, I got to swing the water I had wanted to fish from the beginning. Two swings later, before I could get bored, the steelhead ate my Stop Light.

There was only about 30’ of line out of my rod when he took. The sleep was still in my eyes and I had reached up to dig the sand out when he hit. A solid jerk startled me as he headed towards the middle of the river. Strangely, there was no line coming off of my reel. Then the fish jumped. I saw why my fly line sat coiled on my spool. To say the steelhead wasn’t big is an understatement, but it was still a steelhead so I cherished the moment.

Habitually I looked at my watch and tried to find a landmark on the shore to mark the spot where I was standing when I got the fish. The guys below me heard the splash and were reeling up. By the time I told them to not worry about it, the fish was at my thighs. I held my rod up raising the fish’s head just barely out of the water as I reached for the pliers on my wading belt. In seconds he was gone like a rocket, a small, wild piece of The Deschutes zooming back to some rock thousands of steelhead over the eons had probably had rested behind. The rest of my morning was spent watching the sun work its way down the canyon wall as I made small talk with the two guys from Portland as I drank coffee from my thermos.

Steelhead or I should say catching a steelhead, makes everything bad in the world go away for most fly fishermen. I have seen adult men and women almost reduced to tears, swearing they will never go fishing again after standing for three days in 40° water without a tug. Then, usually on the fabled “last cast” or close to it, he or she will hook a fish. The angler might not even land the steelhead but the second there is even just a light peck, most anglers’ batteries of hope are instantly recharged. Hope fosters the belief that the next fish is just one cast away as a unicorn grazes on the bank under a rainbow.

An Empty Steelhead Bucket

My steelhead bucket of hope had been dry for years. That is why after I caught the little fish I found a soft, snake-free plot of grass to recline on. There would be several more days to beat the tar out of myself casting, so there was no rush on my part to get back into the game. So I spent the rest of the morning pondering life from my back. The sound of the river sloshing by was only interrupted by two life-long friends critique each other’s fishing techniques.

That first little buck was caught on Sunday morning. After the sweaty hike back to camp that morning with the fellas I was more than ready to get out of my waders. I would spend the day listening to a football game through the static on my portable radio between naps and dips in the river to cool off before I headed out again that afternoon. Life on the river was my idea of Utopian bliss. The only incursion from reality was the bland newscaster reading the woes of the world during two minutes of halftime. This was my cue to go jump in the river.

It was hotter than usual that day, even for The Deschutes Canyon. The heat was so will-sapping that I even toyed for a while with the idea of not taking the hike downriver that evening to fish. My camp chair was sitting in about a foot of water in the river in a shady spot with my butt firmly entrenched in it when my new fishing partners showed up. They were ready to head down for the evening and after them giving me the old guy speech about life being only so long, I succumbed to peer pressure.

We went to a different run that evening, one that was a little past where we had fished that morning. They didn’t tell me where we were going until I started to make the turn off of the main trail towards my lovely, close to camp hole. For a second I thought I would just fish go down and fish with the ouzels that were surely picking October Caddis off of the rocks. Then they started poking me with their matching Sage rod until I agreed to join them. Our happy little trio walked for fifteen more minutes laughing as we tried to outdo each other’s colorful description of how hot it was that afternoon. Of course, the one that won the contest is too vulgar to write here but I am sure you get the gist.

That evening they each landed a fish and both fell in. Neither had cleats in their wading boots, which is an automatic invitation to take a swim on The Deschutes. But there was no gear lost or near drownings and steelhead were caught. Both men were ridiculously cheerful as they argued about who had landed the bigger fish as we walked back to camp in the dark. Several times they urged me to settle the matter but it was more fun to listen to them banter then it would have been to settle it.

I walked on silently listening to the two men. The conversation ebbed and flowed from who had gotten wetter when they fell into how their grandkids were doing in school. A soft breeze had eased its way up the canyon from the Columbia and was rustling the leaves on the Sage Brush singing subtle harmonies with the voices of the men. The sound of our wet boots on the gravel counted out the rhythm for the conversation like some six-legged metronome. Silence finally fell over us when they had solved most of the world’s problems. The quiet was only broken once by an owl who chastised us for disturbing his evening hunt. His ardent “hoos” echoed eerily from a hidden perch in the rimrock above us as we made our way to the evening cocktail.

The next day was more of the same, except no fish were caught and the guys from Portland left that afternoon. I was a tad melancholy as I watched the brown cloud of dust settle after their trailer disappeared over the hill. That evening as I hiked down the river I missed the two old guys and the relentless cheerfulness that accompanied them. Seemingly it felt as if it took twice as long to get to the closest run without them. That evening I worked quietly through the hole with one small take that could have been a trout. Later in camp, as I drank a lukewarm beer, I thought to myself that it was good that Brian was coming tomorrow with some ice. Life on the river is always good, it is the one constant in life.

September 11

The alarm clock went off, pounding through my head. I thought; “To hell with it, I am going to sleep in.” Five minutes later I was almost asleep when a caravan of jet boats and camper trailers started bouncing down the road into the campground. It was bad enough that the trains ran up and down the tracks on the opposite side of the river all night long. The light from the locomotives piercing the wall of my tent like a laser soon to be followed by the horn sounding by some sadistic engineer for no reason. Now the sound of gravel grinding under a minimum of 36 tires creeping down the road 100’ from my tent left me staring up at the blue ceiling of my tent.

Rolling out of my sleeping bag and into my waders is literally how my day started. My old school breathable waders with patches lining the interior like gray polka dots were my pride and joy. They slept next to me in the tent or under my feet when the weather was cold. So when I say I rolled into them, it means I did just that.

The lights from the newly arrived vehicles glowed through the morning darkness as I lit my stove for the morning coffee. Coffee was a ritual that was never forgone in my camp. The fluorescent, brain-melting glow from the camp was soon accompanied by the throbbing on several generators firing up. “What a lovely way to start the day;” I grumbled out loud as I plopped down in my camp chair to stare at the light blue flame under my coffee pot.

The coffee boiled about the time the music started mixing with the repetitive thumps of the generators from the neighbors. I filled my thermos, grabbed my rod and half sprinted into the darkness towards the trail with my coffee cup in hand. I was a quarter of a mile away before the sounds of civilization faded into the soothing sounds of the river. Above me, fire orange fingers of wispy clouds began to appear from the east as the sun slowly made its way into the day. Stopping for a moment to take a sip of coffee, I realized how lucky I was to be where I was, doing what I was doing as the morning started to vaporized around me.

The next couple of hours were casting practice. There was not a steelhead, trout or sucker to be had. My Purple Peril would swim across the run to dangle helplessly below me for a couple of seconds. Then it was unceremoniously jerked out of the water and launched 80 feet into the ether to land with a tiny ripple on the water. One quick mend and 40 seconds later I would repeat the process. This went on for a few hours with only a couple of breaks to change my fly and have a shot of coffee.

My only company was the little mink from a few days before. He appeared on a small gray rock a few feet below me with his nose stuck up in the air. The little black dot quivered at the end of the narrow brown face for a few seconds and then the mink bolted into the grass. The next time I saw the small chocolate brown creature, he was standing on my pack eating one of my granola bars. Apparently, he had decided it was more fun to rifle through my gear then to dive for crawdads and bugs that morning.

After three and a half hours of fishing, the shade on my run from the canyon was all but gone. The tail-out of the run dropped into a frothy small rapid, this was the reason the fish were resting somewhere in front of me. But I was running out of run and shade to fish, my morning was about over without so much as a take. But that’s steelhead fishing and I knew it.

I figured that I had room for about three or four casts before my fly would be swinging through the water with too much speed to hold a fish. From behind me, I heard an inaudible yell and I turned to see Brian coming down the steep side of the old railroad grade. It was at the moment I noticed that he wasn’t wearing his customary grin or holding a rod that a wayward steelhead latched on to my fly.

I turned my head in time to see the last few inches of the fish’s tail disappear under the swirling surface of the tail-out and I could tell it was another not-so-big steelhead. The line began slowly rolling off of my reel as the fish tried to reach the whitewater a few feet below the spot where it had first jumped. A second after I had tightened the drag a quarter of a turn on my old Ross reel Brian was standing on the shore next to me. I put a little extra muscle into my rod as I turned towards him with the cheesiest of grins. My thoughts of hamming it up even more with the little fish were instantly gone when I saw Brian’s expressionless face and he said; “The World Trade Center has been attacked and both buildings collapsed.”

As usual, I had looked at my watch when I had hooked the fish. It was 8:29, almost two hours exactly after the first tower had fallen I would learn later. I remember asking him if he were joking. With his answer came the strangest sensation I think I have ever felt. There I was, standing in a river fighting a steelhead at the moment the world had become an entirely different place. It had been exactly three hours since I had made my first cast.

As I reeled the fish in Brian told me what he knew. He had been driving down when the first reports came across the radio about a jet crashing into the first tower. Radio is intermittent at its best in the canyon and he hadn’t been able to get a station until he was a few miles from Macks Canyon. That is when he had learned what had happened.

The feisty little steelhead jumped as he told me he almost turned around and headed back to Bend. He fell silent for a moment as we both tried to drag some reality into such a surreal day. I stepped down a few steps and moved my rod to the right, trying to land the fish without even thinking. She wasn’t ready yet, her head shaking as she peeled off a few feet of line in a last gasp attempt to free herself from my fly. The next thing I remember is reaching down and unhooking the 4 or 5-pound fish as she laid on her side in a couple inches of water on the sand. As I gave her a slight nudge back into the river I told Brian we should head home.

Almost 15 years later and several hundred steelhead more, that’s the steelhead that I can still see almost every scale of when I close my eyes. It is a constant reminder of everything that is good and bad in our world. It reminds me of how we came together as a country and as human beings. It is my fish to never forget.

Follow Sean Johnson:

Sean was raised in Northeastern Oregon in the Wallowa Valley. It was there that he learned to hunt and fly fish. After receiving his history degree from the University of Oregon, Sean guided fly fishermen from Alaska to Chile. There were a few interludes where he sailed as a crew member on a ship and even worked in the craft brewing industry. Eventually he found his love in writing about the outdoors. His articles and fiction stories have a unique style and voice that conveys his love for the natural world. Currently he is the main writer for Always A Good Day, freelances and is working on a book of fiction.