The Last Steelhead
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The Last Steelhead

Friendship and fly fishing for steelhead when combined are the gravel on a path that leads most anglers to special moments in life, on and off the water. Lifetime relationships are born from long, late night sessions over the vise or on the banks of a blown out stream after a 6-hour drive. They grow out of special moments that you can tell stories about that the listener will never fully understand because the emotions of the moment can’t be conveyed in just words. Suddenly, or not so suddenly, the fishing partner you shared incredible highs and lows with on the water is gone. Jesse was one of those friends.

I had stopped by Dave’s house to see how The Deschutes was fishing for steelhead. That early fall day was colored in pastel earth tones that gave everything an aural presence as the unseasonable heat waves drifted upward. There were two pickups with drift boats on them parked in front of the house that we had christened “The Shack”, for obvious reasons. As I wedged my old beater to the curb between the pickups and boats, I noticed an unfamiliar VW Jetta with bent Washington license plates parked in front of Dave’s truck. Not thinking much about the car as I grabbed the six-pack that I had brought, I got out and headed into the ugly little flat-roofed house.

The front door was about half open. As I pushed the door open I immediately noticed a scene that looked like a bomb had exploded in a fly shop. There were rod tubes scattered around one corner like dented and scraped up Pick-Up Stix with names like Sage and Scott partially visible. Another pile was blue and orange dry bags, some had closed, rolled up tops and some with clothes spilling out. A cooler, that I am sure was full of beer, blocked the way to the kitchen from the tiny living room. The couch had two large Simms gear bags resting on it. Next to them were at least four or five fly reels that were surprisingly in their dark blue neoprene reel cases with a big Ross “R” emblazoned across each one. In the middle of all this mess with was a

A man in a tee-shirt in the sunset
Jesse looking over a steelhead run in the sunset

skinny guy, who I had never seen before, lying on the floor with one shoe on with his eyes half-open. For an instant, I thought he might be dead. There was a sudden groan from the corpse-like man on the floor when I closed the door.  This was my introduction to Jesse.

He sprung to his feet when he realized I was standing over him. A big grin immersed in dark stubble under a shock of unruly dark hair that hung loosely across two mischievous brown eyes was instantly a foot from my face. The offer of his right hand went unnoticed by me for a few seconds. But he grabbed my hand tightly and said; “Hi I am Jesse. We are going floating. Dave and Jim are at the fly shop. Dave said you have a steelhead rod I could borrow. You must be Sean.”

The next few minutes would initiate a friendship based on fly fishing that would last for a shortened lifetime. I loaned him my spanking new Sage 7wt. and a Ross Gunnison with a Mastery Steelhead Taper line for his trip. Why? I will never know. But I know I questioned myself about loaning my gear to a guy I had just met as the boat trailer lights disappeared into the pale light of dusk.

When they returned three days later there was no Jesse. I had a bad feeling as I asked where he was and not one of the guys would look me in the eyes. That is when I found out that he had left my rod and reel next to the boat ramp at Harpham Flat. Jesse realized this when they had begun unpacking at the house at about 9 PM that evening. Dave told me he had immediately jumped into his car and headed down to the ramp that was two hours away. I am sure the color drained out of my face as Dave finished this story as he sheepishly handed me a beer.

I sat on the old couch imagining the loss of my new rod that I had yet to fish. There are no memories of anything that happened during the next few hours that can be dredged out of my conscious. My next memory is Jesse bursting through the door at 1:47 AM with the Sage, the Ross Gunnison and a pillow in hand. He looked like death in his stained t-shirt, his big smile hiding his weariness. At that moment no one would have guessed in the next 15 years we would fish for trout and steelhead together hundreds of times. Eventually, both of our lives would head down the path that led to the life of guiding fly fishermen.

The years passed too rapidly. Giant Rainbows were caught in Alaska, we learned to Spey fish for steelhead all over Oregon and Washington and the invincibility of our 20’s gave way to the reality of our 30’s. We fished together when the crumbs of time that were left over after our work and relationship commitments were met. Time to trek around casting flies into new waters was precious, but we managed to suit up in our waders enough to make most anglers jealous.

Fishing would become secondary to Jesse when he met the woman who would become his wife. His life had gained clarity and purpose. The prolonged adolescence of being a fishing guide was coming to an end.  Jesse’s step from the river depths to adulthood was complete when he got married.

A few months after the wedding there would be a flurry of doctor appointments and trips to Seattle. There would be a diagnosis, then a different one. His immense fatigue came on suddenly. A confused medical community had a hard time figuring out what was wrong with this vital young man. After months of no answers, one was finally given. The diagnosis was for a very rare genetic disease that would eventually take him the next day or in 40 years. Not looking back, the newlyweds packed up and moved up to the Olympic Peninsula so he could chase steelhead and salmon for as long as he could cast.

Arriving at Jesse’s house in Port Angeles on a sunny day in February was like winning the lottery. I can count the times the sun has graced my presence when I have been on the Olympic Peninsula on three fingers. That is not very much considering I used to spend a lot of time out there in the land of primordial rainforests and countless legendary steelhead streams with names like Hoko, Bogachiel, Sol Duc, Sekiu and the most revered of all – The Ho.

Jesse spilled down the steps from his front porch as I parked in front of his house. A tidal wave of dogs emerged from the scratched up front door that was left ajar behind him. He was almost knocked down from behind as the barking mass of four-legged mutts rushed out to greet my truck. Smiling as he scolded the pack with four-letter words, he reached for my hand before I could get both feet onto the ground. We wandered back into the big house that at one time had been quite nice but now was nothing more than a glorified kennel.

Behind the door were his favorite Sage Spey rod and an 8wt Winston. Both fly rods were leaning against the wall with their tips snaking up into shadowy beams laden with cobwebs. Their reels rested on the floor gleaming in the silver light of the sun that was sneaking through the crack between the door and the molding. I thought to myself that it must be nice to have fifteen-foot ceilings. With a flurry of fur and paws, Jesse closed the door in the faces of the fur balls that he had saved from the local pound. The pound was also his part-time employer. He could no longer work full-time without getting so exhausted that it took days for him to recover. After he told me this, he immediately assured me that it didn’t affect him while he fished.

Normalcy returned to the peninsula the next morning. Rain was crashing down when I was awakened by the dank smell of overly moist dog. Jesse’s wife had made coffee, she offered me a cup as I walked into the kitchen. Moving a couple of the many fly reels and fly boxes out of my way that were strewn about the kitchen table, I set my mug down in the fresh landing spot. Jesse zipped into the room like a breath of warm wind. He was already in his overly patched Simms waders, his wading boots dangled from his left hand and his right held his rain jacket. “Let’s go before it starts raining;” he said with a wry grin.

“Go easy on him;” his wife whispered to me as I pulled up my waders.

“I’ll try, but he is amped up right now;” I said as I touched her shoulder and headed for the door.

“You know what…;” her voice trailing off as the door opened.

Jesse stood there looking glumly towards us like a parent who had just caught his kids under the Christmas tree. Then he smiled, throwing my wading boots at me as he spun around and said; “Truck is leaving. I put your rods on the rack. Love you, honey.”

Before either of us could speak he was gone. She smiled like a woman who knew she was going to be alone soon. I smiled back at her with a sympathetic smile that I am sure looked more contrived than it felt. That moment was uncomfortably sad, the weird finality casting a faint shadow of inevitability over that day. Less than 30 days later the significance of this moment would be clear.

“The Ho has been up and down this year;” Jesse said as we passed the entrance sign into the park. He was talking about the fishing and not the water level which tended to be somewhat mercurial with the amount of rain that the Olympics received.

“Remember this spot?” he asked as the truck pulled into a spot that surveyed several hundred yards of river from above.

I just nodded. We both took a breath of the dank, primordial air that was almost visible in the forest shadows as we left the pickup. The rainforest drizzle danced on our rain jackets as we grabbed our Spey rods from the rack that had served as our arsenal for so many trips. Abstract rust stains from where the magnets clung to the hood and cab looked like battle scars on Jesse’s truck. Without a word we headed down the mucky path, our breathing in time with our steps as each rod wiggled in cadence with each step. Each silent plodding step dammed the flow expectations from coming out our mouths in phrases like; “I heard it was good yesterday” or “There has been a lot of fish in the river.” We marched on with a quiet purpose, not wanting to jinx our chances of hooking a steelhead.

Fifteen minutes later we were near the spot where I had landed my first Ho River steelhead. The river had cut a long run through a ribbon of round river rocks that followed its flow for miles. Random logjams that had been placed by torrents of high water towered up to thirty feet over the cobble, some waiting for the next flood hundreds of yards from the current channel. We stopped next to a large pile of debris at the head of the run we were going to fish. When I looked at Jesse’s ashen face I knew this would be the only spot that we would fish that day.

Jesse sat down on a log that stretched out from the pile of logs that defined the start of the run we were going to fish. His hood was pulled over his face as if he were a monk and he was playing with the fly he had loosened from the keeper on his rod. I just stood there and looked at the water for a minute. A second later I heard rocks moving behind me. Jesse was up, the big grin glowing from inside his hood as he jokingly pushed me out of the way. His voice trailing behind him; “I am taking the bucket.”

Most steelhead runs have a “bucket”. The one spot that fish are caught out of 90% of the time is often defined by a lone rock or current speed or a barely visible submerged shelf or if I was fishing with Jesse, by him. For years he would race me to the good spot in a run, today was no different. What would be different is that I wasn’t going to give him a hard time about always running to the best part of the river to fish.

By the time I had gotten my feet wet he was thigh deep and on his fourth or fifth swing. The wind had picked up, driving the heavy mist upstream into our faces as we started our methodical rhythm of searching for a fish. After a few minutes of us casting, mending, swinging and hanging down a particularly strong gust blasted our run, almost knocking Jesse over. As the wind hit me, I saw that he had turned his back to the wind so he faced me. He had his rod tucked under his right arm with his fly dangling 100 feet behind him as he yelled over the wind’s roar; “Isn’t this great?!”

I grumbled and flipped him off. Then I reached for my fly line to begin stripping my running line in to start another cast. Without warning, as I got ready to cast, Jesse spun around like he had God’s hand on his shoulder spinning him like a top. Between the current, wind and his illness, I figured he was going down. There is no sprinting in thigh deep water, but I did the closest thing to it as I headed to the river bank. Just as I got my first wading boot dry I saw the fish jump into the gloom of the day. He had hooked the fish with his back turned to the wind! Thank goodness, I thought, as I watched Jesse’s Spey rod bend in two as the taught fly line sang siren songs in the gusts. He looked up at me as the steelhead started peeling line off of his old Abel reel. His smile was the most content smile I had, or have ever seen on a human being’s face.

I took my time walking down to where the battle was taking place. Jesse was slowly making his way to shore as he continued to try to gain control of the fish. At that moment there was no wind or rain. There was no uncertainty about the future. There was just a man and a fish connected by a thin piece of monofilament engaged in a slow-motion drama that portrayed joy in its rawest form.  The world stood still for the next ten minutes.

“Walk him down;” I said as I stood above Jess on the bank with my wind burned hands in my pockets.

“Really?” the sarcasm dripping off of his words as they left his mouth.  Deliberately, not too rapidly, he started walking down the river. Grudgingly, the fish let him recover line. The fish’s head shakes whipping the long rod side to side as Jesse reeled and walked.  Steelhead will eventually tire, it is just a matter of how long it takes. The skill the fisherman possesses at exerting the right amounts of pressure at the right angles are the secret to landing any fish quickly. Jesse was a pro and this fish was about done giving resistance.

He had worked his way down to the spot where I had landed my first Ho fish and subsequent others over the years. The fish made a final, frantically misguided run that ended with it lying flat on its left side in an inch of water on the small gravel bar we were standing on. Jesse silently handed me his rod in a single fluid movement that ended with him on his knees next to the fish. He unhooked the barbless fly easily from the big male fish’s lower lip, then held it up for me to take a quick photo. The effects of the flash were still blinding me as the fish disappeared back into the opal green water with a typical, “Thank you fish;” quietly whispered into the wind by Jesse.

Jesse stayed on his knees for in the water for several minutes after he released the steelhead. His hands rested on his thighs

A fly fisherman in a Simms raincoat is kneeling on the edge of the edge the Ho River holding a large buck steelhead
Jesse holding the last steelhead in the pounding rain on The Ho River

as his head hung over like he was looking for something on the river bottom in front of him. When he lifted his head there was no smile. The youthful grin had swum away with the fish that he had released leaving a weariness that he loathed more and more each day. I stepped towards him and offered him a hand up.

We left that spot quietly after he got up and headed back to the rig with no words spoken. He would have sat there and watched me fish some more but I wasn’t going to ask that of him.  We had caught a fish. His illness had allowed him that moment and there was no reason to push it any further.

He was gone a month later.

I have never returned to that spot on the Ho.

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.