This past week I took a trip to the Lost Coast to fish some of my favorite coastal water. There’s something magical about those rivers. Their color-modulating blue-green waters, old growth trees covered in moss, perfect swing runs and spell binding ocean sunsets make me long for endless days of winter. Not to mention, a dime bright winter steelhead caught mere miles from the sea is a reward all in itself.
Sadly, this trip was cut very short. As I lay dreaming of mist lingering above beryl waters and fish yet to be caught, my rig was being burglarized. Discovering that every bit of steelhead gear I owned, hip pack, dry bag, waders and all, had been plundered away in the night was heart rending. It was less about the possessions, than the sentimental value many of them held for me. Items handed down from my dad over the years, my first spey rod that Bill Lowe taught me how to cast with, all the hand-tied flies I’d spent hours carefully crafting; the sense of violation was staggering. Not to mention, as a guide, some were also tools of my livelihood.
I’ve rarely used Facebook as a platform to vent, but seeing red, I took to social media and proclaimed my fury. It had been enough for me to simply rant to the great unknown of the interweb that I was furious. Frankly, I was taken aback by the number of comments my post generated. So many friends and acquaintances in the fly fishing community reached out to me, offering to help in any way they could. Mike, the proprietor of the Eureka Fly Shop, upon hearing what happened, even helped me get a few of my items back when a nefarious character came into the shop trying to peddle a couple of my stolen reels.
What I had witnessed was a community of fly fishers rallying to a comrade in distress. On one hand, the violation of having my property stolen shook my faith in the good nature of people. However, the kind gestures of so many in our small, but tight knit community restored it. I still choose to see the glass half full and keep on smiling. I would like to thank everyone who has ever lent a hand to a fellow fisher in need. Your goodwill and generous spirit help make the sport of fly fishing truly remarkable and cathartic.
After a long day of work, I’m gazing at my laptop screen again; my mind eases back to my last adventure. It started in Denver. I was there on business for a few days and I couldn’t wait to wrap things up and escape into the Rocky mountains; trading the city lights for those of the Milky Way. Many of the river reports I had read reported high flows due to run-off on most of the rivers. I’ll have to fish the Gunnison on my next trip. Trouts Fly Shop in Denver gave me some pretty solid advice, in addition to the advice I got from all of my lovely Coloradoan followers. The day after meetings were wrapped up, I was on the road to the South Platte River.
An hours drive out of Denver, Deckers, CO was much smaller than I had expected it to be when I’d looked at it on a map. I absolutely loved it. A place where cell phone reception doesn’t exist and there are 4 shops in town, one of them being a fly shop. After buying my Colorado fishing license and sharing fishing tales at Flies and Lies, I headed to find a campsite and fish. Whipping together my tent with the efficiency of an expert and haphazardly tossing together my bedding, camp was set and I was ready to fish within the hour. The flows were about 250% above optimal fishing levels, but word on the river was the nymphing was still productive. Typically, I like to drive and hike a bit to find fish that haven’t had every fly and the kitchen sink thrown at them, but the water by my campsite looked too good to pass up. I waded out in a few hundred feet from my tent and made a few casts. The river bed was a very yellow color, with lots of fine gravel. Despite keeping an eye out, I didn’t see any fish. Until I looked directly below my feet. I had two big rainbows following my wake just a few feet downstream. My pet fish. Avoiding the temptation to thrown on a San Juan Worm and fish by my feet, I continued to fish upstream, sans indicator. Frank and Ethel (Yup, I named my pet fish) kept me company until I caught my first fish by dead drifting a salmon fly nymph. They scattered as I landed the first rainbow of the trip; a fat well-fed 16 incher. The rest of the afternoon went by with only one more fish caught, another similar sized rainbow in a riffle upstream from camp. As twilight crept over the canyon, I looked across a the river to a promising bend in the river. The water was too fast to wade out very far, and fishing from the other side wouldn’t give as good of a presentation; a conundrum to be sure. Unless you happen to have packed your spey rod, just in case. I jogged back to camp and set up my graceful 13 foot Anderson Custom spey rod. Second cast out, a few feet into the swing, I felt the familiar jolt lightening through my rod, waited a few beats to make sure the fish has eaten the fly, and then set the hook. Immediately I could tell this fish was bigger than the ones I had caught earlier in the day. My reel screamed like only a Hardy can as the line zipped off the spool. And a few minutes later I was netting a beautiful 21″ rainbow I caught on the swing. Not bad. I knew there was a reason to lug the Spey set up halfway across the country, despite a shortage of space in the car. It just goes to show that when the fishing is a bit slow and the flows aren’t cooperating as much as you would like, there is always a way to productively fish a river. Fishing is a combination of knowledge, observation, skill and creativity. A bit of imagination and thinking outside the box can truly elevate your fishing experience to the next level.
In October, I moved up to Douglas City, into a place right on the river. My goal: to discover the hidden secrets of the Trinity River. I devoted many of my first days to driving along the water and discovering spots I hadn’t fished before. Just me, my rods and my dog Marlee. We hiked up and down along the river; trudging through thick brush, steep ravines and bear poop; nymphing and swinging flies.
I must admit that getting back into the rythym of steelhead fishing was a bit of an adjustment. The summer offered up such an abundance of beautiful fish; but now it was time to switch gears. Steelhead are elusive, and there will be days, even weeks were you may not catch anything. Dues well worth paying; the tug of a steelhead is the most addictive drug of all.
October drew to a close; and I must admit that towards the end of the month I was spending more time working, than on the river. Fly fishing is not a cheap habit to support.
While flashes of chrome flashed through my dreams, none had yet come to fruition at the end of my line. Already the beginning of November, I finally had an entire day off; I was ready to hit the water hard. With no rain to encourage an abundance of fresh fish up the river and no boat, my best chance to catch a steelhead was by covering lots of water and being the first out and the last in.
After making sure I was set for an early morning, I was in the mood for a beer. I decided to head down and check out the local bar a few miles down the road. The Diggins is a divey mountain bar. It was like walking into my favorite bar in Boulder Creek along the San Lorenzo River.
As I sipped a cold one, I noticed a couple of guys who had to be fly fishermen. The attire is usually a dead giveaway. Never one to miss an opportunity to talk fish, I decided to ask them how the river was fishing.
“Hey, you’re that gal gone fishin’ chick from Truckee, right?” Whoa. That’s never happened before. The fly fishing industry is such a small little world. Turns out, I ran into the Kennedy brothers; both kick-ass local guides who grew up in the Mammoth area; both experts on many northern California rivers, not to mention Alaska and parts of Russia. Not only did they clue me in on some awesome spots to check out, but they also had lots of fishing stories to tell.
With an early morning start on the river beckoning me, I thanked Kris and Greg for the fishing tips and colorful stories, then headed home. Little did I know, the next day would be one I will remember for the rest of my life.
A pre-dawn alarm, lots of warm layers of clothing and a coffee later, I waded out into the cold, rushing water. I spent the morning swinging flies on a mid-section of the river.
The result was a few little taps and four smolt, but nothing substantial. Throughout the day, as I moved from spot to spot, I intermittently switched from swinging flies on my two-handed rod and nymphing with my single-hand rod, depending on the run.
Driving to the last spot I would fish for the day, I reflected on how lucky I was to spend the whole day on the water. The towering peaks of the Trinity Alps in the distance and the warm autumn colors of the trees embraced me. I was in my element, reveling in the primitive solitude I’ve come to crave.
After a daring wade across some fast water, I reached the final stop on my day of fishing. It’s a beautiful run that just begs to be fished on the swing. I checked the fly at the end of my line, and launched a double spey cast to the other side of the river.
I luxuriated in the steady tug of my fly swinging across the current. A few steps downstream, and I made another cast, then another. My next cast, just short enough to miss being caught in some low overhanging branches, swung a few feet out into the current and then I felt it. Not the small tap of a curious smolt, but an electrifying grab, promising something bigger.
Resisting the urge to lift my rod tip and set the hook, I waited. Two seconds later, my reel exploded into action; its high-pitched scream sent a jolt of adrenaline though my body and goosebumps rose on my arms. Reality seemed to shift into slow motion. Each turn, jump and run that fish made is forever engrained in my mind.
By the end of the fight, I could hardly believe that I had done it. Swimming in my net was the first adult steelhead I had caught on the swing. Chasing that fish downstream there had been moments I was sure I would lose her. My legs were shaking from the excitement and I couldn’t stop the wild cry of victory that escaped my lips.
Never in my life has anything made me feel the way catching that fish did. It was nothing short of a life-altering experience. Better than sex, booze, riding my first wave, chocolate or any drug I’ve ever experienced.
I’d always heard the elitist hype about swinging for steelhead, but I suppose it takes catching your first fish using this method to understand the euphoria. Not to say that I’ll give up my single-handed rod and nymphing; some water is fished better that way. All I know is that there is no going back; I can never forget this feeling. I will be chasing steelhead on the swing for the entirety of my life.