It was 9 am, we had just pulled an all-nighter and as much as my brain was overly amped for the river, my eyelids had a different response. I poured the last drop of hot brew from our Stanley Master Series Vacuum Bottle and capped it with a strong pull of whiskey. John was investigating the condition of our local outhouse so with my concoction of liquid stimulates, I kicked it into high gear. I ripped into the truck and began tearing out what was important. Fishing gear, beer, coffee, eggs and dog food. Finn’s observation of our new home quickly turned as he heard his lifeline of crunchies fall to the ground. I left him a weeks worth of protein for his indulgence then continued chaotically flinging items from the truck.
Moments later, lacking a Snickers and not enough whiskey in my coffee, panic, and flail was on the menu. Without hesitation, the truck turned into something that looked like the aftermath of a hurricane. I was reluctant enough to find John’s dirty underwear but my wading boots… were absent. They were probably catching sunrays, dryer than a lizard turd on the front porch of my deck, 400 miles away. At this point during my dismay, relieved and ready to take on the day, John arrived back to camp. He quickly recognized the degree of my distress and offered up his Muck boots. Although I envisioned myself joyfully throwing flies across the steelhead green colored river in my sweet new Mucks, I couldn’t help but also envision myself sinking to the bottom of the river with the equivalent of two cinder blocks attached to each foot. But then it dawned on me, we brought dive gear to float the river so we could nerd out on fish. My dive booties were the cure for this early morning disaster and by 10:30 am we were on the water.
Later that evening, just before sunset, Grayson showed up in his beautiful, early 90’s steelhead rig. It’s a white Ford with a huge tan and teal-green aluminum cab-over. He may have been 6 hours late to the show but with a valid excuse and not bad considering the headache he encountered. Siri gave him a detour showcasing roads that hadn’t seen life since the early 60’s. After breaking out a small hand saw to cut two trees out of the road and snow nearly to the bumper, he made it back around a closed road, which was never closed.
The following morning we set sail to float the river, but not exactly how we had envisioned it. We had all brought pontoon boats but when Grayson’s rental (buddy loaned boat) didn’t come with the correct valve for inflation, we resorted to what would be way sweeter than three boats. Two boats, banded together with tie-downs, bungee cords and a set of oars to stiffen the new steelhead craft. This proved to be a prime method to focus our efforts on the river. One man on the sticks, the other two could practice knot-tying techniques as we caught each other more than anything else. As for Finn, he patiently sat in the middle of our craft working on his dog tan and dodging huge bird-like contraptions fastened to hooks.
Over the next 3 days, we swung the river from dusk to dawn and consumed enough beers to admit ourselves into AA upon returning home. Mornings consisted of fresh pressed coffee from the Stanley Classic Vacuum French Press and raw egg shooters. Nights consisted of steak, whiskey and war stories. We never did hook into a fish but we had built large enough calluses on our fingers from stripping flies that we could justly the fun we had.
Two days later, repacked and ready to explore new water, the second leg with a different crew was set. Danny and I drove north into Oregon as Austin headed south to meet us. There was a storm building on the horizon and we planned to set camp on a river with the best opportunity to be center punched by its wrath. This time, instead of beachfront property, we posted up a few hours inland on a river none of us had ever fished. Blinded by lack of planning, the uncertainty of our location and secrecy of the fishery, we were unsure of what we were getting into. We arrived at 3 am; it was pitch-black dark, the stars bright enough to generate faint shadow off the towering pines and a chill that cut through our best puffies. We threw our bags next to the river, shared a few nightcaps under our headlamps, Danny prepared the coffee water and we impatiently anticipated what the morning would bring.
Three hours later with just a tinge of morning light, we crawled out of our bags, stiff and frosted from the river’s mist. This was where Little Foot and her dinosaur friends roamed. Deciduous trees mixed in with an array of firs and cedars. Florescent green moss blanketing the ancient volcanic landscape.
With fresh pressed hot brew in our Stanley mugs, we anxiously stood next to the river in preparation for the three-day attack. We had planned on floating the waterway in my 18-foot Avon raft but that soon changed when we got a hold of the river map. This was a destination not just sought after for swinging flies, but also for its whitewater appeal. Most sections proved to be class III with up to class IV. Being that we were all rookies on the sticks, unsure of the conditions and would have two dogs on board, who would rather run around like wild beasts, the float plan was reduced to a foot plan.
As we set out on foot and really got a taste of what this area was made of, my geology nerd side was beginning to surface and at times I was more interested in rock observation (licking, biting, breaking) than that of the trouts. The river cut through volcanic mudflows from the Crater Lake eruption, columnar basalt formations, and towering basalt spires. There were even some ancient sedimentary deposits from when the whole area was home to ocean dwellers millions of years ago. Neat.
By the end of the day, we were finally getting the weather we asked for. Clouds rolled in, rain followed and the low fog was just icing on the cake. We fished until dark and with no steelhead flesh in hand, drove back to camp where we finished out the evening. Austin started a fire in the canvas tent to dry out gear and warm up the dogs. Danny prepared carne asada over a smoldering fire outside and I was hands on each end. The night grew late, the fire got big and the fish we hadn’t caught, got bigger.
The next day we woke to snow, snowflakes so large and dense you could hear them striking the water. I’m not sure what Little Foot and her crew thought about snow, but I felt like our dinosaur jungle was really coming alive.
The following days were marked by similar patterns. Incredible scenery, sloppy conditions and no fish fooled into tasting our feathery flies. Although we didn’t put our hands on the mystical and most mysterious fish of the west, that was never the ultimate goal. We are attracted to the serenity of what winter steelhead brings to the table. While most hang their rods during these months, and for good reason, we are drawn toward this sick desire to wade into an ice-cold river, toy with frostbite, battle the elements thrown our way and see only a few other fishermen who are willing to do the same. Some trips are mellow but others, the ones we seek, leave us with bruised egos and smiles from ear to ear.