It Never Was My River
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It Never Was My River

The Free Masons have nothing on many fly fishermen when it comes to ritual and secrecy. The 17th level Grand Royal Poobah Caddis Caster tends to wear this self-anointed title with a customary frown and a fiery glow of standoffish contempt in his eyes. If you dare walk by him on a trail or see him on the water he will cover his fly as if it were Gollum’s coveted ring. Many will swear you to a blood oath if they believe that they have blessed you by taking you to a “secret spot” or showing you “the only fly that works.” There is no age, no sex, or genetic propensity that induces anglers towards this most enigmatically annoying behavior.  The amazing thing is that we all know of someone who holds their fly fishing destinations or techniques in such stoic reticence that they don’t even seem to enjoy fly fishing.

There is nothing that precludes this type of angler from wandering through daily life perceived as anything but an average member of society. Signs of an aloof, egocentric fisherman rarely come to light in the daily rigors of work or life. Transformation usually occurs when waders are slid on next to the stream. Maybe he or she sees something in some vague online fly fishing forum at two in the morning that they can’t resist answering in a vague repartee. The warning signs are often hidden and when the behavior comes to light it shocks and surprises most. I had a client say this about his brother who was being more than difficult while I was attempting to guide them; “He is a nice guy when he isn’t fishing.”

I have known several anglers who would choose to sequester themselves from other fly fishermen in fishless frog water rather than show a friend their spot. Typically they are miserable sots who derive no joy from the essence of fly fishing. We all have our own esoteric definition of what the joy or essence of fly fishing is for each one of us. Any sliver of “joy” seems to be lost on these anglers. They will spend the day grimacing or even go home if another angler is seen near their water. Heaven forbid if someone asks; “What fly are you using?”

Most of us have our favorite fishing spot, lake or river. I had spent many years trying to come to grip with the fact that my favorite steelhead river was no longer my secret. Failing miserably accepting this truth had driven me to wear my “local” status like a Medal of Honor, not the Purple Heart that it truly was. “Local” meant that I was perceived as just a redneck-hick with a fly rod by the anglers from Seattle and Boise who invaded every fall and winter. The polar opposite of what I wanted to believe. This was because I believed my home water was a mystical place, a river like no other.  It meant something personal to me.

Then there was that day I was getting a burger at the local restaurant which reinforced my feelings even more strongly. I was quietly sitting at a table in my waders with no boots on (no studs were allowed inside) chomping away on a cheeseburger. As I blankly listened to the cook and dishwater bicker in the kitchen, I heard the guide from Western Washington at the table next to me say to his client; “He probably uses his Spey rod to drift bait.” He finished by nodding toward my truck that had my two-handed rods strapped to its magnetic rack.

Quietly I finished eating and paid my bill. Fortunately, we were the only ones in the restaurant, except for my friend Doug who ran the place and the cook and dishwater. Doug being there saved me from saying something dumb to the two guys at the table next to me. It didn’t save their boots though.

Outside I bent over to slide my wading boots on and I saw two pairs on the porch next to mine. Patiently I laced my boots up as I fought the urge that was coursing through my mind. Either I  was weak or the feeling was so strong that I relented without much moral angst. Pulling down my gravel guards as I stood up, I nonchalantly looked into the window to see if my nemeses were still sitting, which they were. Taking both of the right wading boots that sat on the porch I put one under my left front tire and then under my right front tire.  Quietly I climbed into my truck and started it. I honked and waved to Doug who was inside at the register taking money from my detractors. As he waved and smiled, I started my truck. Then I turned the knob to switch my old truck into four-wheel drive and peeled out as I backed over their boots. The spinning front wheels threw the boots against the outside wall before they grabbed some traction and I shot out into the road backward. I honked again and headed downriver.

Doug told me later that week that the boots hitting the wall shook the glass in the windows.

This incident, along with my misguided ownership of the river turned me into one of those spiteful guys who pretty much would drive down the middle of the one lane road, not moving if I saw out of state plates on an oncoming vehicle. Friends would have to promise me that they wouldn’t tell anyone where they caught a steelhead or the fly that they had used if they had hooked a fish. I was truly the 21st Degree Skandi Slinging Sultan of Superior Solitude and I was pretty much miserable when I went to the river.

There was no indication that this would ever change for me, but most change comes to us suddenly and without warning. It was a frozen day and warming up from the previous three hours of knocking ice out of my guides was the only thought on my mind.  The steam from my cup of coffee had turned to icy lace on the back window of my cab when the old beater pickup with a pop-top camper ground to a stop behind me. Needless to say,

A wisconsin fly fishing guide staring in disbelief
Kelly in typical disbelief at steelhead camp

I was not in the best frame of mind as I heard the truck’s driver side door slam. Opening my door, I slid out to tell this upstart to go pound sand. I was going to fish there and I wasn’t in the mood to share. “How’s the fishing?” Kelly said with a smile.

Kelly was an old friend. He was a short, round stereotypical UP’er(yoo-per) from the Midwest. Always grinning and always somewhat gleeful; the guy was one of those who made you feel better about yourself. He was also a good fly fisherman, one who in his torn Carhart bibs and camo hat looked more like Bubba Bait Guy. It was on this day that he would bring me out of my what-I-know-is-mine-I-earned-it-you-didn’t funk by doing one simple thing.

We chatted as he wadered up. I drank coffee and asked why he hadn’t called. Always big on surprises, he said his pickup headed to Oregon on its own and he was just along for the ride. His grin showed the small flecks of chewing tobacco in his teeth as he looked up while he tied his boots relaxed me. Blowing on my hands to warm them up, I even rigged his rod, fly and all as he took a sip of my coffee that he had doctored with the appropriate Wisconsin brandy. After 15 minutes of stories about his trip across the country, I suggested we go catch a fish. Slipping and sliding, we made our way down the trail to the river. We probably had too much coffee, but we made it with no torn waders or bruises.

We swung our flies in the shadow of the canyon morning as a slight breeze jabbed its icy needles into our frozen hands. It was cold, even for a hairy, little

A man with a spey rod swinging flies for steelhead
The author being grumpy

chubby garden gnome from Wisconsin. So there was no surprise when I noticed Kelly was standing next to a fire. The surprise was that there were two other Simms clad figures standing next to him listening intently as he showed them the fly, my fly, that I had tied onto his leader.

Turning towards the river’s edge behind me, I starting wading in as I retrieved my line so rapidly my reel sounded like a warning siren. The shrieking sound, reminiscent of a World War II air raid siren, was drowning out the sound that the water made as I pushed it out of my way. I am sure the little group below me that was chatting amiably around Kelly’s fire thought there was a heard of water buffalo crossing the Grande Ronde cranking on fly reels as they came on. Kelly said as much as I arrived at the happy little circle of anglers.

Red-faced and cold with voluminous puffs of steam shooting from my mouth and nose from my sprint down the boulder-strewn bank to protect my territory had tamed my ire a bit. My breathless pause gave Kelly enough time to hand me a cup of coffee with his normal chew laden grin and say; “Whoa, you must be really cold dude.” He had seen the explosion more than once over our many years in Alaska when someone had gotten too close to where I had my clients. Recognizing the warning signs immediately, he had my Kryptonite, which is coffee, deployed and ready to go when he saw me coming. I would thank him later.

Taking the cup from him and taking a long sip, I glared across the fire at the two smiling faces. One face held a permanently etched smile between leathery brown cheeks that were enveloped by a goofy Elmer Fudd type hat, flap dangling down and all. The other was much younger with delicate, rosy cheeks with confusion dancing through the same blue eyes that were under the goofy hat next to him. The older of the two held out his hand and introduced himself as he clasped his hand over mine, saying a name that I have forgotten.

We are all glad for many things we have done in our lives. I am one of those people who is glad about the things that I haven’t done in my life. The few seconds after the friendly handshake would set the tone for the whole day for all of us. Whether we would cast, strip and recycle for the rest of the day with a smile or scowl was squarely upon my ability to fight my nature. I still don’t know if I would have made it all go bad, but the smart money would have taken the odds on us all leaving unhappy because of my past record.

The young man must have sensed the “shock and awe” that was about to ensue when he sheepishly said, almost whispering; “Dad used to fish here when he was a kid. Neither of us has ever caught a steelhead on a fly rod and we were about to break out the spinning rods. We have been camped for three days, freezing our rears off. It’s getting too frustrating. Kelly here told us you might be able to give us a hand.” I was trapped by Kelly and Kelly knew it.

Kelly poured some sweetener into my coffee as the younger man finished. I took a deep breath, inhaling the rich, acrid steam that rose from my cup and drifted for a moment. The deep voice came spilling out from under the funny hat and pulled me back from my library of lost chances. Taking a sip I smiled as he told stories of fishing the river, my river, as a kid.

A tale of a wild trip down Rattlesnake Grade after school in an old truck with barely any brakes to fish the hour before dark was followed by one about his favorite place to throw spoons early season. The fire had burnt down and the sun was going to be on the water in an hour or so when he had finished talking. Feeling like the usurping upstart on what was once my river I said; “Let’s go give your spoon spot a try. I bet you can pull one out of there. Then you can buy Kelly and I lunch.” This was going to be ok, I said to myself.

Kelly piled into my truck and I punched him playfully from behind the wheel. He feigned a critical injury, of course, and asked knowingly why I had hit him. I gave him a look as I pulled out behind the father and son to follow them to the dad’s spot.  We talked about nothing as we bounced up the road dodging a turkey or two along the way. “Look more transplants;” I joked as we passed one exceptionally large Tom.

They were out and headed towards the river when we came around the corner. I had always liked his spot. There was always a steelhead or two, it seemed, behind the submerged rock that barely disturbed the surface about halfway through the run. There were no tire tracks in the frost other than ours. A good omen for us. Pushing Kelly out the door as I reached behind the seat for my fly box something occurred that hopefully, every overly self-righteous, secretive angler gets to experience sooner or later; happiness. Vivid and alive, the memory of that exact second still crosses my cerebrum when a hint of “this is my river” or “they haven’t earned it” creeps into my thoughts.

The walk to the run where the two men were standing was short. Kelly complained about how far the river was from the road as we walked, something he would do at every spot we fished for the rest of the week. I mocked his laziness as we arrived at the river’s edge sounding like squallering, adolescent siblings. They asked where our rods were and we both looked at our hands and said in unison; “Did we forget something?”

Putting heavier sink-tips and tying flies on both of their rods that I had confidence in was my first task. Ask me and I will show you the fly I pretty much use 99% of the time. Kelly was now sitting crossed-legged in the gravel smoking a cigarette behind me while he fed me a continuous diatribe of Midwestern nonsense. He had us all laughing as I told them that after four or five casts someone would hook a fish. They didn’t know if I was serious or not, neither did I, but it was in the spirit of the moment. I played it off as I was completely sure of myself and Kelly subverted this by making some obscene gestures behind my back that meant, “Yeah, right!”

The pair were good enough casters and they knew what they were trying to do. They just needed to fine tune a couple of things and then believe what they were doing would actually work. I can’t stress enough the importance of believing when it comes to steelhead fishing and I stressed that as moved the 50 yards from the son down to the father. When I splashed to a stop by his side he was finishing a swing. Three more steps down and I knew he was going to swing his fly right through the bucket.

“Let’s step down;” I said from his right shoulder as the sunlight continued its descent down the Ponderosas on the far side of the river.

“Ok. This sure is fun and I haven’t had a tug for three days;” he said with such meaning that he had to have been a preacher.

He made a Snap-T that was the equivalent of a teenager learning to drive a car with a clutch for the first time after we had moved down. He wanted to re-do the cast but I assured him that I had seen and made a lot of casts that had caught fish. “Just mend it out and follow your line with your rod. Don’t lead it;” my voice softening as his fly passed behind the rock.

The line tightened slowly at first. Kelly and I saw it before he felt the fish turn. I watched his face for what was to come. Disappointment showed gray in his cheeks for the first time that day for a millisecond, he would tell us later he thought he was snagged. Then a rush of color blanketed his entire head that matched the hunter’s red of his ear flap hat as the rod tip started pulsing with the life of the creature on the other end. There was a big smile, a breath and then the typical look of panic when the steelhead started ripping the running line from his reel. Kelly laughed, his son started reeling up while wading to shore and fell in and he said; “Oh god, what do I do?”

Three runs later and a lifetime lived in ten minutes, the chrome, bright fish was lying on her side on the gravel in a couple inches of water. Kelly had taken the rod and leaned it up in an Alder next to the father’s very gleeful, yet incredibly wet son. His camera had been saved by a Ziploc bag and he was shivering as he took it out. The older man then knelt in his old neoprene waders and touched the fish like he would break it. I believe I have never seen anyone happier to this day.

The two men each ended the morning with a fish. Both a story unto themselves. I am sure after more than ten years and countless retellings the facts have changed, the essence remaining the same. This happens with all stories, ones about fish particularly. They offered to buy Kelly and I lunch, but we said maybe a beer later as we headed to my truck.

The rest of the week was the best fishing I have ever had there and the most fun. Kelly and I caught over twenty steelhead the next day, 17 out of one run. He credits this incredible day to our good Karma from helping the two guys out. He is probably right.

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.