The conversion to fly-fishing has been a pretty easy journey. The guys from my fly club have been very helpful, my fishing skills (I use the word loosely) acquired over six decades of angling have transitioned nicely from bait casting and spinning to the use of the fly rod. And, fortunately, I’ll never have to give up the other fishing styles—the process has been an augmentation, not a replacement!
Success, however, has been a bit spotty. The little trout that frequent our streams above the hatcheries are very willing biters. On a good day, playing with little Adams flies or caddis nymphs, even a novice can hook and release a couple of dozen cutthroat trout. I’ve enjoyed that fishery, and have learned a lot in the process. But to consider myself really successful, I needed to hook a bunch of the winter steelhead and the sea run cutthroat that come in every winter with the big rains.
Figuring that this would be the year to push the envelope, I left my other rods at home, and took my eight-weight fly rod, and a vest loaded with weighted steelhead flies out to the streams. Naturally, I picked an awful year.
The first half-dozen trips brought no action at all. As if that wasn’t discouraging enough, I didn’t even see a fish. Nothing swam in the tail-outs and nobody I talked to at streamside caught anything—even the bait and spinner crowd were fishless. But hope springs eternal, and after our last freshet, I found myself hiking down a logging road with my buddy Tom and his faithful dog, Sunny.
We were heading for a little tributary that ran through the coastal rain forest. Everybody in the club fishes the stream, and they all consider it their own secret! While it is only a few yards across, it has a good amount of fishable streamside, and a number of anglers can fish along miles of lovely forest. Tom likes to call it “Possum Creek” because he figures it plays possum with anglers, not showing much but occasionally very full of life.
Hiking the sticky-clay game trail that follows the waterway, we saw lots of deer and elk tracks, and the streambed was covered with raccoon prints. Most had been feeding on spawned-out salmon carcasses, evidence of a nice salmon run from the fall. The bones of hundreds of fish were scattered throughout the woods, hauled there by various critters, food for trees and grasses—the cycle of life right in front of you.
Early floodwaters had dropped nicely and Tom and I started working the pools heading back upstream. Tom always outfishes me, and naturally he had a fish on within minutes. Sadly, it dropped his fly before we got a peek. I went upstream to the next hole, and drifted a pretty little shrimp pattern down the river. The hole looked great; I figured it was full of fish, but several casts drew no attention. I was just getting ready to move upstream when my line pulled taut.
I set the hook, and a bright silver trout hit the air. I gave a yell (doing my best to show Tom that I was finally onto something) and enjoyed the scrap. Since we were geared for steelhead, the cutthroat was a bit overpowered, but I did my best to enjoy the fight he provided. Tom came up to see what the fuss was about, and I showed off the 15-inch sea run cutthroat. His sides were silver, and the little red slash that gives the cutthroat its name was brightly shining from his gill plate.
Upstream, we found a couple of nice holes and I drifted a little pink and green bug down the river through a drift where a bank-side alder had formed a little pocket. My line floated by, letting the weighted fly swing near the bottom. Suddenly the line stopped and I set the hook. It’s always a challenge fishing new water. Was the fly stopped by a fish, or did it bite onto a hidden root? Since you never know, you always set the hook and pray just a little!
My prayer was answered, and I felt the head shake of something a bit bigger. I’d figured a steelhead should be airborne, but this fish was doing a bit of bulldogging, working the bottom, not really showing size or color. Tom saw me occupied and took out his little camera and headed up to my hole to record the action. Sunny splashed across the river to see what she was missing.
“What have you got?” Tom shouted, trying to be heard above the rush of the stream.
“I don’t have a clue,” I answered vaguely. “I’m not horsing it, but I feel a little weight. It’s not doing much.”
And down it stayed. Finally I decided to challenge the fish. I put on a little pressure and lifted it off the bottom. It made a big swirl and took off toward Tom. As it moved up in the water column, I could see it flash—something substantial!
A few more runs and I brought the bright fish to shore. It was a wild steelhead. Most all in Possum Creek are native fish, bright sides and full fins. Not a big fish, it was about six pounds, but a fish that would certainly do for starters! Fumbling around a bit (it’s not easy to control a big fish with a fly rod), I finally got it posed for a photo and gently released it back into the river.
This was only the start of the action. A hundred feet upstream, I worked a slot in a large logjam. Some 15 downed trees formed a big maze with a small fishable flow right in the middle. In five casts I hooked three scrappy steelies, and all tore me up. They hit the sky, dove under and over logs, dashed into root wads, and wound my fly line around several cords of wood! Naturally, I didn’t come close to landing anything, but hey, I wasn’t in this for the food. This was all fishing for stories!
On my last two holes, I hooked into a big three-foot-long torpedo who took two great leaps and threw my fly up into the branches of a sticky spruce tree, and on my final little run, I landed another lovely cutthroat. As we left the little stream, a white-headed eagle took up residence just above the snag hole. “Maybe he can haul one out of there,” I joked to Tom. “I sure couldn’t.”
It had been a great day, lots of action, an affirmation of all my practice, and to make it even better, I managed to outfish Tom. I had better enjoy it, that’s not very likely to happen again!
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and at rvlife.com.