The AM radio crackled in from Boise as the steam from the coffee rose into the predawn hues of blues and grays that painted the inside of the cab of my old 56 Chevy pickup. River sounds were mixing with the wake-up calls from chukars, softly seeping through the gap in the side window that I had left for the steam to escape before it fogged my windows. There was no hurry to pull on the high-tech neoprene waders of the day and sprint through the clumps of cheatgrass frosted with the cold of October. This was the fall of 1984 and I had made it back home for one last steelhead that year. This the day after I started playing hooky….
There were fewer fishermen prowling the banks of the Grande Ronde than there was steelhead in the river in those days, which means there wasn’t a lot of fish. Often I would fish an entire day without seeing another fisherman. To be fair, I would often fish an entire day or several days without seeing a steelhead either. This was the time ten thousand casts of a fly per fish, not a thousand. This era of steelhead fishing is lost to most of us, young and old fly fishermen alike. It has been buried under the memories of record returns and multi-fish days that revisionists think have been the norm since Trey Combs was in diapers. Smiling photos of fishermen with their third chromer of the day from some Colombia River tributary now gush from the internet rewriting a part of a fishing history that has been forgotten.
I remember my father, the game officer, religiously reporting the numbers from the fish counters that roamed the river road when he arrived home in the evenings. Often I would walk out to his dirty white State Police truck and stand by his open window. As I stood in the driveway waiting I would watch the huge flights of ducks flying from the lake to the harvested barley fields in the valley to glean their weight in kernels that hadn’t made it into the trucks. Almost instantly we would share a quiet smile as I listened to him go off duty as he scribbled his days activities into a black, little leather notebook. I could speak only after Dad had keyed the mike and said the magic words; “10-2 off duty.”
He would ask me about football practice went as we crunched along the gravel into the house, knowing that this was more a concern of his than mine. I liked playing football but my team sucked and my love for fly fishing had surpassed my love for anything since I was around 10. So after a perfunctory answer about practice, I would move on to the important stuff. The numbers from the fish census people that day.
The only numbers that really mattered to my dad and me were the average number of hours fished per steelhead landed and the fishermen count. These two figures would either inspire or disappoint me. Anything under 12 hours per fish landed was stellar for 80’s, if I heard 8 or under I would start trying to figure out a way to skip school. Dad would even play it up a bit if they were good, knowing full well that he would be pressed into service to go fishing his next day off.
This was going to be a different year. My graduation from high school was leading to a freshman year at the University of Oregon that would take me away from the valley. There was going to be no early mornings parked next to my favorite run, only class and papers to be written in the gloom of the Willamette Valley. I was excited, sad, scared and you name it the morning my brother and I watched our tearful mother fade into the distance as we left. Most of all I was a little angry.
September had given me a going away present that year. My summer job had ended Labor Day weekend and I had three weeks of almost uninterrupted time on the river. My old truck was bouncing along the washboard road dodging the fleet of logging trucks that were taking their first loads back to mills almost every morning that month. September had always been hit or miss.
The first trip down I hooked a couple of fish skating dries in front of two very disinterested Mountain Sheep rams that were standing in a patch of red-leafed Sumac across from me. They hardly noticed the violent explosions of water as the 5 lbs wisps of silver launched into the silence of the morning canyon shadows. Even when the little steelhead landed with loud, echoing splashes the rams refused to acknowledge my success.
Fishing was the best I had ever seen those first two weeks of September. It was as if some great fishing power knew that my life was diverging from a child’s life on the river to that of a young man’s life at college. My torment was Faustian, plaguing me whether I was waist deep, mid-roll cast or lying in bed at night. The intense dread of leaving the river when it was fishing so well increased as every second drew me nearer towards the time that I had to leave for school. Sleep was impossible. All I could think of was steelhead, fly rods, and more steelhead. Oh, the problems of youth.
Then those two glorious weeks ended in a blink and my mother’s tears as my brother and I left the valley for Eugene. There was going to be 7 and one-half hours of driving time between me and the river. Reality bobbed down the Wallowa next to our car as we drove out of the valley, I was done swinging flies for the year.
Making It Back
Transitioning from a high school with 130 kids to classes that had 230 or more students was daunting. Sitting through the muggy Willamette fall listening to lectures about Keynesian economics and pyroclastic flows made me more and more homesick. Even when I went to my first football game all I could think about was the Grande Ronde as my gregarious group of dorm dwellers walked across the footbridge over the Willamette to the stadium. I was homesick, riversick; just plain steelhead sick. Misery sat next to me at the football game that day. Not even the bota bag full of cheap booze we snuck into Autzen could ease my longing. The Hood River vodka would end up making it even worse because the next day I woke up with a bad hangover and an even worse case of steelhead melancholy.
After two weeks of ivy-laden buildings, too much beer and more homework than I had seen in my entire previous 12 years of schooling. My mother talked me off the proverbial ledge probably twice a day for a week. I was a mess. She knew it. My dad knew it because she had actually called him, which never happened. My brother knew it and that made it worse because he had settled into academia as easily as I slid my waders on.
Then it happened. A little luck fell into my life. A window of opportunity for me to grasp sanity, to ease my need to fish was opened by a professor’s gallbladder and a GTF’s need to grade papers. What happened was a planetary convergence that I would never see again. It was like a snow day and a substitute teacher on a test day wrapped up in a field trip all rolled up into one big gooey ball that would allow me to ease my suffering.
My Russian History prof, whom I hated, informed us one fine drizzly morning that he was having gallbladder surgery that Friday. The joy in the room was palpable making the professor an even bigger, you fill in the blank, for the rest of the week. I thought nothing more of my Friday morning off other than I was going to be able to sleep in.
That Wednesday, I remember, started out poorly because of a surprise quiz in Russian History. I am sure it was largely due to the class’s reaction to the news of the professor’s impending surgery on Monday. My next class was Geology. It was taught by the most boring GTF ever; no exaggeration! He looked hip and entertaining in his tie-dyed t-shirt, long blonde ponytail, and a gold earring. Unfortunately, the wrapping didn’t really fit what was in the package. Dull is the simplest way to describe him and to go in-depth describing a person so devoid of a personality would be a waste of time. I would never have a boring teacher than Dan. His only saving graces were he was nice and he was lazy. So when he said that he was canceling Friday’s lecture on magma to catch up on grading I realized that I had only one class to go to on that day. To heck with that, I thought, I was going home Thursday night. I was going to skip writing and go fishing.
Getting to eastern Oregon from Eugene could be tough, especially with no car. It was more difficult on a Thursday afternoon. It worked out that I could catch a Greyhound to Portland from there I could connect with the local to La Grande. The only problem was that this put me there at 4 something in the A.M.
When I stepped off of the bus into the crisp, dry air my mother greeted me with a hug. She didn’t say anything until my 4’ long PVC rod tube knocked her in the head as I hugged her back. Then she gave me hell, starting the lecture as we got in her car to drive the 71 miles home. She talked and I made her think I was listening to her as she went on about how proud she was that I was in college and that it was my future. Her words were soft and kind with a strong parental tone in the subtext of what she was trying to convey. They just blended into the early morning glow as we drove towards the rising sun, my thoughts on how fast I could load my truck and head north when I got home.
Mom told me to leave the second we pulled into the driveway, she was going back to bed. “Someone had to come home at four in the morning; “ the ironic martyrdom tainting her voice as she spoke. So I kissed her cheek before she went into the house. She smiled and told me to have fun as the screen door slammed in her wake.
The rising sun illuminated the mountaintops that ringed the valley. The sunlight slowly creeping its way down towards the haze that always hung over the valley in the fall. In my rush to be gone, I even stopped loading my old truck to watch the light touch the band of Tamaracks that lined the mountainsides like a gold racing stripe this time of year. That special sunrise is something I always enjoyed watching.
It was mid-morning when I stepped into the river. A baptism by John himself couldn’t have lifted my spirit more that day than that simple act. I went to a spot that I knew would still be in the shade. A small bluff on the opposite side of the river shielded the glassy water from the sun. The run was fed from a narrow, boulder-laden chute that was barely thirty feet wide. The current gushed into the bluff, riding the sheer rock face for 100 yards or more as it made its way to its next turbulent drop. It was an easy place to fish except for the icy river rock I had to navigate over to make it into the river that morning. Once in the water, I only had to cast my Green-Butt Skunk about 50 feet to let it swing across the pool.
Cast after cast and mend after mend I let the fly swing across the run. The canyon was alive with sounds of cows grazing upstream and the occasional logging truck rumbling down the road. I heard a “cluck” and a slight rustle in the rocks behind me. Before I turned my head I knew there was at least one roughed grouse sneaking up on me. There were two when I looked. The yummy tasting birds barely noticed me as they took drinks from the river and ate some small pieces of gravel. Home was a good place to be.
At the tail-out of the run, I hooked a fish. Not a big steelhead or particularly small one, just a steelhead sized steelhead. It took the line off of my old Pfluger a couple of times and jumped once scaring the grouse into the brush. The little, wild hen fought hard like a fish twice her size. My rod shook and bent with each shake of her head but she couldn’t shake the hook. After a couple of minutes, I stepped back a few feet and she was on her side in the shallow water. Her fat little body was so shiny she could have been covered in dimes. Although only 24 or 25 inches long, my memories of this steelhead are more vivid than countless other steelhead that were much larger. At the moment she came to rest in my hand I knew that I would go back to school.
I fished hard for two more days without so much as a grab. But I was home where Mom’s food was good. I was where Dad could stop on the river while he was working and chat for a bit while he made fun of me and my old rod which he did that Saturday. But something was changing, not with the fish or my folks or the river but with me. As anxious as I was to stand in the river two days previously and cast my life away, I was even more anxious two days later to get on with my life. There was other water to fish in other places that I would never see if I didn’t let go of that river and try another. The comforting thing was that I knew that whenever I needed solace and peace my river would be there.