You always hear folks saying that if you want it bad enough it will happen. Not true. I wanted it bad. It just didn’t happen.
The days leading up to the trip I was physically and mentally exhausted. I usually don’t sleep much the day before a trip. This time was different. It takes me a while to settle in to a new place and constantly worrying about the weather and the river conditions sort of wore me out. 4AM came quickly and the hour plus drive to meet the guide gave me a lot of time to think about the day ahead.
I tried not to set my expectations too high. This was steelheading in the PNW and from what I’ve learned the game isn’t so easy on a swung fly. Somehow though I convinced myself I was going to get at least one steelhead to hand. That right there may have been the kiss of death. I was probably pushing my luck. I just wanted one. I figured if I worked hard enough it would happen.
We met the guide at a local coffee shop before sunrise and on the drive up to the first run talked about the day ahead. The river conditions were good he said. The rains had brought the river level up a bit and added some color to the river.
We finally got our first look at the river as the morning light filled the valley. It was a medium sized flow cutting it’s way down the gorge. This early in the morning you couldn’t make out the texture of the river but you could see it’s various runs. I could make out pools, rock gardens, and bars. I was anxious for the truck to stop.
The game plan had changed a bit and before we started our float, our guide suggested we fish a productive run just upstream. It was a good opportunity to run my brother through the paces. It had been a number of years since he last fished and the first time ever with the two-hander.
After a quick breakdown of the run, my brother and the guide setup at the top and I made my way to the middle. November in the PNW is like early September back in Alaska. Cool and crisp in the morning. Just cold enough to warrant fleece under the shell and to see your own breath. The landscape, the river, and the atmosphere though are much different than back home but carries with it some familiar aspects.
After a short moment of “taking it all in” I finally stepped into the water and began to strip line off the reel. I waded in up to my ankles and started to make progressively longer casts until the fly was just hitting short of the other side. River left is my preferred side at the moment. I like the Snap T because the anchor placement is almost automatic and I can get a decent cast most of the time.
The 7wt was loaded up with a 510 Compact Skagit and 11′ of T-11. At the business end was this.
The fly carried with it a lot of expectations. A lot to ask of a fly I know. Only thing left was to make the casts and take the steps.
I’m sure the guide started me up away from the bucket cause he knows how giddy a newbie can be and he didn’t want me blowing it on the lame warm up casts. I was on the inside of a soft bend that opened up into a wide pool. The near side dropped moderately fast and the far side was broken up by a small downed tree forming a seam along the cutbank. The depth looked consistent across the whole run. You could tell from the surface that there were a few nice sized rocks below that could hide a steelhead or two.
Cast after cast…step after step…I fired that fly to the far bank, mended, and settled into the swing. I felt at any moment it could happen. At this point I must have made three dozen casts. Then, at the sweet spot of the 37th swing I felt it…three deliberate taps. Instead of waiting for the fish to commit and burying the rod low and to the bank, I got anxious and effed up the whole thing.
I knew my chances were few and far between. For rookies it’s one or two opportunities. I just wasted one of them on a premature hookset. I stood there for what seemed like forever playing that moment in my mind over and over again. The guide came over a bit later and told me to take 5 steps upstream and work the fly through again. Sometimes he said you can get the fish to come back.
So I did just what he said. Composed myself, took 5 giant steps upstream, and started down and across. I can’t tell you how much I wanted a second chance. I knew if that fish came back I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I would have fed that fish 5 feet of slack and hammered that fly in the corner. That second chance never came. I finished out the run a little disappointed but the day was early…still plenty of water left.
With so much water left, I figured one of us was walking away a winner. Unfortunately for us, the rest of the day just turned into a beatdown of epic proportions. We worked run after run, making casts, taking steps, mending, rod high, rod low, changing flies, eating on the float, and taking one beating after another.
We fished it all…the wide long run that by the end had you waist deep and tucked up tight to the trees with branches poking you in the back, the inside bend that had us tip toeing along a 4 foot ledge with chain link rip rap armor just waiting to gobble up a D-loop that went too far behind, and the all too familiar exposed bar with a soft inside seam and good looking structure from tip to tail.
After 8+ hours of hoping…that last cast, that last mend, and that last swing was the toughest by far. If it weren’t for the fading light I know I would have kept grinding it out. I felt like I had failed and the disappointment ran deep. I started second guessing things…I should have changed fly color after that first teaser, I should have changed flies more often, I should have taken another pass through with another fly, I should have…I should have…I should have.
It didn’t sink in until a few days later. I finally came to grips with the outcome. I fished my ass off and well…shit like this happens. Going in I knew one or two opportunities. I got one. That works for me.
I wanted so bad to bring a steelhead to hand the only way deemed proper by fellas much wiser than me and who’ve taken multiple beatdowns to just get an opportunity at one more steelhead on the swinging fly. If anything, it’s made it worse. I can’t stop thinking about the next time.
In the end it wasn’t meant to be. Not my time I suppose. I know if I keep paying my dues it will happen.
I want to thank my brother for grinding it out with me. Can’t think of a better person to share the water with. Also, big thanks to Brian Styskal for showing two rookies the ropes and Tom Larimer for all the advice. It was great meeting you guys.