Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Deep Water

High water marks towering above my head score the canyon walls.  Ominous log jams packed with trees ripped from the river's edge serve as a stern reminder that big water shoves back with a vengeance, and with very little regard for your well-being.

Death-grip on the guide boat, standing in a push of heavy current, teetering on a boulder I cannot see, praying it stays anchored beneath my feet while I struggle to establish a stable purchase.  Water rushes in around my mid section forming a hydrolic downstream of me that consumes my free running fly line.  In that anxious moment, I imagine that's what I'll look like if I lose my footing and get sucked under.  "Pay attention," I think to myself.

Once stable, I release the boat, untethered to its safety and the confidence of my guide, left to my own competence and self-doubt.  Standing alone in a vast run in the middle braid of the river, leaning heavily toward the headwaters, the river fingers me like a bully.  My senses are tuned, my mind flooded with anxiety, exhilaration and a healthy appetite for adventure as I prepare to cast in torrent chaos.

Black water tipped with silver highlights swirling on the surface surrounds me as I groove down a run.  Strip, cast, mend, step, and swing, the metronome of Steelhead fishing.  Bouncing along on the slick subsurface, the current relentless to see me come unhinged; "fishing by braille," I call it.  And I love the sensation.  Will my next step be two feet deeper?  Where exactly was I told to move toward shore?  Don't turn my feet and face downstream!  Can I jump to that next rock?  Will it be steady?  Be careful not to lodge my foot between boulders.  Was that a tug?  All the while, fatigue and forty-one degree water punishes my joints.  Kicked to the curb, I inch back toward shore in submission, surrendering to deep water, the river unimpressed with my campaign.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Restless: Idaho Valley Quail

I'm off the river.  The gear is stowed.  Memories of steelhead are safely tucked away as Indian Summer is replaced by an evening push of cool Northwest air.  I pass by a house with a covey of quail scratching in the yard.  Quickly, my paradigm shifts from fin to feather.  Do I stop and ask permission to hunt their property?  Thinking better of it, I press on.

Six hours of winding two-way moonlit highway lies ahead.  I catch a couple of hours of something resembling sleep at a rest stop and then grab a MEGA Big Gulp of coffee to help throttle me forward.  I'm motoring toward the trail, The Trail to Quail. 

Just after sun up I buy a small game license, at a 24 hour gas station no less.  Awesome!  A few minutes later, I choke down a greasy bit of processed fast food crap, chased with a few more swigs of bitter coffee.  Posse in tow, we rocket out of town toward a valley I have only seen in my dreams.

I step from my truck, frazzled from the all night drive in a dizzy fog of exhaustion, anxiety, caffeine, and anticipation.  Fly rods, frozen waders, cork drag reels, some spent flies and leaders, an open sleeping bag, some dog food, and copious amounts of shotgun shells spring from the truck bed, littering my tailgate in a fucked-up pile of multisport paraphernalia.  Anxious bird dogs grow wise, recognizing the folly that awaits, now whining and begging for immediate release.

It takes a bit to get my thing together before the day's hunt.  Over my shoulder, I sense the emptiness of open terrain inviting me to indulge.  I flick it a quick smile as I buckle the last collar and take a moment to appreciate that I am finally here.  Now, I am just restless to get moving.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Grande Ronde River: Swingfest 2011 Recap

I interrupt this bird hunting season for a brief but extremely important public service message concerning Steelhead and swung flies.  Swingfest 2011 recently ended in practice but is burned in my mind, now comfortably residing in my memory forever.

Consumer Warning: These fish, and the places they live, will ruin your trout fishing.

For a long time now, I have wanted to fish the Grande Ronde River, not necessarily because of the size or quantity of the fish, but rather because of the grandness and unparalleled beauty of the canyon this river calls home.  Recently, I spent three nights and four days camping and fishing this piece of water with some excellent new friends and a cast of spey experts from Spey Water Lodge located in Troy, Oregon.

Casting a spey rod is a very simple motion that takes tens of thousands of casts to perfect.  I am addicted and therefore somewhere along the middle of that journey.  Thankfully, this trip is as much a school as it is a Steelhead trip of a lifetime.  Under the watchful eye of some extraordinary guides, from time to time you're likely to hear the disapproving "crunch, crunch" of carbite studs mashing against river rock behind you, approaching to provide encouragement and a tip or two to get your stroke back on line.  "Be a watcher," resonates over and over again in my head from the instruction of my guide.  I cannot overemphasize how valuable it is to have someone who knows what to look for watch you cast for four days.

"The Ronde" is predictable and therefore an excellent river for those taking a first plunge into fishing with Spey tackle.  Fish are generally where you'd expect them to be, along easily wadable runs (by steelheading standards), traveling along corridors cut against deep rock ledges and walls, and resting on the downstream side of riffle ledges and tail outs.  It could be characterized as a mini version of some of the more famous larger Northwestern rivers such as the Deschutes or Thompson, giving the angler an easy look at one river versus having to break down several braids within one body of water.

As I reflect back on my days soaking in the abundance of nature that surrounds this pocket of brilliance in the world, I'm drawn to the notion that I should not be withheld, but rather someday steal away, fearless of ever finding open land and a fish that will select my fly.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program.