Wednesday, January 26, 2022

A Bittersweet Symphony

July, 2021

I cried when I saw my first redwood. Rounding a bend on Highway 199 in Northern California, I was making my way to Jebediah Smith State Park and the size of the tree caught me off guard. I knew they were huge and majestic but I still couldn't fathom what they resembled in person. Nestled on the side of the highway, the width of the redwood tree dwarfed the roadway. I uttered a few choice words and my eyes watered up. Further down the road, I crossed the famous Smith River and pulled over into a small lot flanked by the towering trees. I stepped into a spiritual experience. Alone on the walking the trails, I was amidst the giants of the natural world. Adding a backdrop to an otherworldly scene, the setting sun's rays pierced through the forest's canopy. The only sounds came from my footprints on the soft floor of the forest, the occasional hoot of an owl, and the random calls of a pileated woodpecker. I didn't want the moment to end. As the sun began to set, I drove my van down to the banks of the Smith and thought about staying the night. Looking back on it, I should have. 

Sitting there, my mind drifted to what the Smith River once was, a steelhead mecca of the "Lost Coast". This was a time before development, and humans, contributed to the overall demise of salmon and steelhead in the region. My thoughts wondered to the current conditions of the Smith, contemplating how any wild salmonid could possibly survive the low flows and high water temperatures. Looking to the future, and a potential winter steelheading date on the Smith, my imagination was in hyperdrive. The idea of walking through the redwood groves with my spey rod in hand is an idyllic image that speaks to my soul. I daydreamed of a receding river filled to the brim with that perfect steelhead green hue. A broad run, and an open bank, welcomes me to prospect for some chrome. With my sink tip digging deep, and my intruder working broadside through a boulder field, I anticipate the grab right in the sweet spot. The anticipation briefly recedes enough for my mind to wander for a millisecond. In that fleeting moment, a deep pull, and head thrashes, signal life on the end of my line as it disappears downriver into the next run. Catching up, I struggle to tail the slab of chrome in the high flows but eventually succeed. Cradled in the water, I admire the unique characteristics of a steelhead with a story to tell. Between the redwoods, the Smith, and a wild winter steelhead, I don't know if it would ever get better than that. I'd probably cry. Pondering whether that moment would ever come to fruition, I finally made up my mind on whether or not I was going to fish for a wild summer steelhead on the North Umpqua. 

The North's emerald green waters, basalt rock formations, and towering pines have captured my imagination ever since I first saw them in fly fishing catalogs 23 years ago. Adding to the lure of this most hallowed water, is arguably the greatest summer and winter steelhead run in the lower 48. Like the thought of the Smith in winter, I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity that lied a few hours away. Late the next evening, I pulled into the Walmart parking lot in Roseburg, Oregon only to realize that overnight camping was not allowed. I gathered some supplies and hopped on the Wifi to see if any campsites were open along the Umpqua. Due to the Archie Creek Fire in fall of 2020 and the recent Jack Fire, that began on July 5, 2021, only one campground remained open, which coincidentally, had one open site. I booked it and hit the road. The drive along the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway was dark and lonely. As I drew closer, the desolation of the Archie Creek Fire became evident. Even in the darkness I could see the silhouettes of burned out trees. Arriving around midnight, half of the campground appeared to be burnt. I backed into my site and began tying a fly for the following morning. As an ode to North Umpqua legend and caretaker, Lee Spencer, I chose to recreate his Burnt Toast pattern. Never one to mimic a pattern exactly, I added my own sauce, and dubbed thee "french toast". Smitten, I crawled into bed. 

Laying there, the internal debate I'd been having as I drove across the country replayed in my head on a constant loop. Should I be fishing for these steelhead? The Umpqua had been going through a lot the past year. The Archie Creek Fire, June's heat dome, a drought, Hoot Owl restrictions, and a second fire in the upper half of the river's basin really called into question my morality as an angler.  A distant rumble, followed by a loud crack of lightning, stirred me from my introspection. The ping of rain began emanating from the roof above my head and steadily grew louder. Loud cracks of lightning rattled my bones. What if another fire started? The smell of smoke and wet burn scars crept into the van. I went from questioning whether or not to fish, to contemplating cutting my hook point off in an ode to Lee, to this rain is going to turn the bite on tomorrow in a span of minutes. At some point between those thoughts, I finally fell asleep...

Leaving the campground under the cover of darkness, I made my way further up the steelhead highway. I passed a few famous landmarks and randomly picked a pull off. I geared up as the first light illuminated the North Umpqua's water adjacent to the roadway. When I could finally see, I realized that a large tree was in the gut of a deep pool with overhanging branches. A difficult swinging environment. I ended up driving a little further up the road to the next pull off. This section was short with heavy whitewater on either end, a very steep embankment, and a beautiful little tailout. I rigged up my Loop Cross S1 7120 with a 420 Rio Scandi and Lee's toast pattern. I carefully stepped down to the river's edge and took the water's temperature. It read 57 degrees. 

With the last mental hurdle in my mind cleared, I stood precariously on a rock perched over the main flow. A steelheading internal monologue ran through me. Be stealthy, be smooth, start short, cast down and across, and wake the fly. After a few cack handed underhand casts, I was already approaching the tailout and the sweet spot. Nothing. Another cast with a little more speed and some action. In the gut, I came tight to what felt like a solid fish. No ****** way?! Deep head shakes and some peeling line made it a reality. The fish was subdued rather quickly as I cradled it behind a rock. It was slightly over 20 inches and I didn't know it wasn't a steelhead, or a rainbow, until I got a look at the pattern on its side. A jack chinook. A total fake out...

As I made my way downriver, I could finally make out the famous scenery of the North Umpqua, which is as beautiful as everyone makes it out to be. Even amidst its scars, I could see what has drawn anglers from around the world to its banks. She's a head turner and I struggled to stay on my side of the road with my neck constantly cranked towards the water. Everything looked amazing. I spotted other anglers and even a few guides pointing out instructions. The burns of the fire seemed to impact some spots heavily while sparing others entirely. Some groups of trees would be unaffected, but amidst them, one would be burnt to a crisp. I found another pull off and a section of river that looked appetizing. I worked my way downriver swinging through the river's infamously challenging currents, rock ledges, deep slots, and glassy tailouts. At the end of deep pool, with an inside eddy, I found another choice tailout that looked prime. 

To get proper positioning, I took my time wading out to a shallower gravel bar in the center of the river. The cold water pressed my waders against my legs and I found myself belly button deep. The target was a ledge running parallel to a tailout that was funneling the flow into a riffle. My muddler landed on the edge and began its swinging arc. A large boil caught me completely off guard but honed my senses to the moment. A second cast into the same lie produced an eat, a hook set, and head shakes before throwing the fly. Most likely a trout, I thought. I regrouped and waited. A third cast produced another grab that didn't find its mark. With my confidence sky high, I switched my angle up by moving towards the bank. I put some extra speed on my fourth swing, bracing for impact. The muddler worked broadside through the gut of the channelized tailout before getting demolished. Definitely not a trout, I thought as an airborne and tail-walking display ensued down into the last reaches of the tailout. I bent my rod to the side, almost into the water, to pull the fish's head downwards. The tactic worked and the hen moved back upstream before violently leaving the water a third and fourth time. I backed up to the bank and towards the soft water.  Three last ditch bursts of energy and screaming reel ensued before I loosened my drag and tailed my first wild steelhead. She was as beautiful as the river from which she came. 

Back at camp, I found myself staying next to two old timers named Ernie and "Nevada Bill". Both had been fishing the North each summer for as long as I lived. They were incredulous to hear that I'd caught a steelhead during my first morning on the Umpqua. Nevada Bill simply proclaimed, "your done!" and gave me a hearty laugh. I chalked it up to the prime conditions of clouds, rain, and being in the right spot at the right time. I was lucky but at the same time, experienced in reading water, albeit for lake run "rainbows". I got to know both anglers over the next few days and they were very generous with their knowledge and stories. At that time of the summer, roughly half way through July, both were expressing anticipation of the upcoming run that would be happening "any day now". That push of fish never materialized as the true state of steelhead became more apparent with each passing day (link). On the North, and throughout the Columbia River basin, numbers were at historically low averages. When I left the North Umpqua, I started to hear whispers about the river getting shut down. A few weeks later, on August 10, the ODFW did shut down angling until November 30 (link).

In hindsight, it is easy for me to reflect on the excitement of that moment. However, it's still difficult to wrap my head around the morality of fishing during a steelhead apocalypse. The trip, the river, and the wild steelhead I landed were all on my bucket list. I've always wanted to fish the North Umpqua and 2021 happened to be the year my life coincided with the opportunity. I'm well aware of the selfishness of the decision I made to fish the river in such dire times, but I didn't know the full extent of what would be happening to the summer run in August and September. All told, only 347 wild summer steelhead returned to the North Umpqua in 2021 (link). I'm thankful to have crossed paths with one of those magnificent fish, but very aware of the impact catching and releasing one may have in being a contributing factor to their overall decline. Through this experience and mental deliberation, I've become more cognizant of the plight of wild steelhead and the role all anglers need to play in order to recover their stocks. 

I don't think a day has gone by in the last half year where I didn't think about the waters of the North Umpqua and that brief interaction with a wild steelhead. Looking back on it, maybe I should have just stayed in my van on the exposed bank of the Smith River. Or, like Nevada Bill said, "your done," as in this is the last, and only, wild steelhead for me to shake hands with. Or, out of respect for these treasured fish, we can all take a page out of Lee Spencer's playbook, and only fish a burnt toast fly with the hook point clipped off. Maybe, everyone should just stop catching and releasing an endangered species and urge the fish and wildlife commissions to declare a moratorium until stocks recover. The ideas and answers to wild steelhead recovery are incredibly complicated, heavily debated, and simultaneously illuminate the hypocrisy of anglers, myself included. 

As I bide my time awaiting the next chance I find myself on wild steelhead waters, I've grown a greater appreciation of my role as an angler. How can I minimize my impact on the fish I love to catch, but at the same time, maximize my return on the places they reside? With a new year and outlook, I hope to start this transition and make only progress on that path moving forward. This extends beyond the wild steelhead of the North Umpqua and to all of the wild places, and fish, I interact with. I hope you will do the same.

A few organizations I've joined, and donated to, since my encounter with that North Umpqua wild steelhead. I urge you to all do the same. 


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