Angling in the twilight zone
Fishing and hunting
ME (Bill Lynch) FISHING in the twilight zone on the Sandy River in Oregon.
Steve Kyle/Special to the Index-Tribune
“Some say that steelhead fishing is for lunatics…” – Lani Waller, steelhead angler and author.
I was on the third day of the second part of our steelhead expedition in Oregon, wading in treacherously fast-moving glacial-melt water up to my waist. A 25-knot wind was driving icy rain horizontally upstream spotting my glasses so heavily that my visibility was as though thru a prism.
A voice whispered in my head, “No feeling in my toes…I must be completely out of my mind…There's no way anybody does this for fun…God, I'm cold."
Steve Kyle, my friend, fishing buddy and frequent contributor to this column, talked me into it – a leap-before-you-look plunge into the a strange world of anglers addicted to Spey-fishing for steelhead in the dead of winter. This weird, yet hardy, breed has a cult-like dedication to enjoying something that most sane people would consider torture. Stranger still – they take great pride in fishing long hours in foul weather without catching anything and are suspicious of folks who do.
Four days prior, Kyle, Les Vadasz, Jim Powers and I had driven north to Ashland, where we had spent three fabulous days fly-fishing with Jim Andras, of Andras Outfitters, on the Rogue River. Jim is the best guide I have ever fished with and a great guy. We cast flies from a boat and caught and released lots of steelhead – a wildly successful venture in the opinion of most fly-fishers.
We were about to leave that world and enter angling's twilight zone.
Jim Powers caught a plane home. He must have known something we didn't.
We met our next guide, Marty Sheppard, at 5:30 a.m. the next day at the Best Western Inn in Sandy, a small town in foothills below the Mt. Hood ski areas. Most guests there were skiers bundled up for a heavy snow day.
The temperature was somewhere in the 20s, the sky overcast, and damp air coated us in an icy dew. Marty, in his 30s, seemed like a relatively sane, affable guy. He told us of the “great conditions” awaiting us on the Sandy River, a half hour drive away.
It was still quite dark as Marty backed his trailered pontoon boat down the ramp toward the Sandy. In the dim predawn light, I could see the whitewater and the hear roar of the rapids. We put on life jackets and scrambled on board.
The conditions Marty described with such enthusiasm were what seemed to be nearly flood-level flows that could flip our boat at any second.
Les, Steve and I sat on a flat bench hanging between two large green pontoons. We faced downstream, which meant that we could see the foaming, churning water as it boiled in toward us. We shot downstream from the boat launch, our faces continuously drenched as our craft dove in and out of troughs and over boulder-powered waves.
I couldn't tell whether I wet my pants or the river drenching got inside my waders. Either way, the thrill ride was an “extra” that I had not expected.
After awhile, Marty pulled into shore and set us up to start fishing. The spot was a long, relatively quiet stretch in which deep green water flowed at a swift, but not white-water, pace.
A steady, chilling mist fell on us as we spread out along the shore where a dense rain forest of ferns, brush and moss-covered trees grew to the water's edge. I was hoping for a campfire but there wasn't a piece of dry wood within 100 miles.
We used long (13-to-14-foot) Spey rods. With Spey-casting techniques good casters can put a fly way out into the river (possibly more than 100 feet) without having to use a back cast (which would be impossible due to the trees and bushes). While Steve is an excellent Spey-caster, I am not; in fact, I was more of a danger to Marty and my fellow anglers than to the fish.
The flies are large and brightly colored streamers that may look like fleeing minnows to hungry fish. Facing slightly downstream and across, the object is to cast the fly into the seams where fish might be waiting and let the fly swing across the current attracting the attention of a large steelhead.
Les and I were still setting up our tackle when Steve gave a shout, “Fish on!”
“Wow,” I thought. “At least the fishing will be good.”
Steve's steelhead was about 25 inches long.
We joined him along the river, casting, swinging the fly, taking two steps sideways downstream and casting again, minute-after-minute, hour-after-freezing-hour. Once in a while, my fly got within shouting distance of a likely spot.
Then we'd shove off, ride some more rapids and pull out and fish another run. The rain got heavier. The winds picked up and the temperature dropped. We kept casting and stepping.
We didn't see another fish.
Throughout the trip Marty and Steve kept saying, “…Once you feel your first steelhead pull, you'll be hooked.” This declaration that a fish strike is addictive is an article of faith among winter steelhead anglers.
“The tug is the drug,” they'd say with conviction, a faraway glazed look in their eyes.
The only drug I craved was Jameson's in a steaming cup of coffee. God, I was cold.
Due to a prior commitment (and superior intelligence), Les flew home the next morning.
Kyle and I had previously opted-in for the duration when we asked Rachel Andras (wife and partner of Jim Andras) to set up our trip and guide arrangements. We had five more days of cold, wet, northern Oregon fishing on our itinerary.
"That which does not kill us makes us stronger"
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Neither sleet, nor snow, nor wind and other nasty stuff deterred Steve Kyle and me from making our final appointed rendezvous with our guides and the icy cold waters of northern Oregon's winter steelhead rivers last month. The Sandy, the Clackamas and finally the Trask River tested us.
Although we staggered up their banks at the end of every day, looking and feeling like half-drowned rats, we laughed and reassured each other that we were really having fun.
Well, maybe fun is too strong a word.
Neither of us caught a fish, which is why there are no actual fish tales in this chapter.
But we endured.
A sane person might ask, "To what point?"
And that brings me to Nietzsche (or Kelly Clarkson's hit country song – "Stronger").
Spey casters who pursue winter steelhead have a true faith that somewhere in all of that bone-chilling water there is a monster fish that will grab the fly on one of their thousands of casts. A day, or two, or ten, without a grab is not failure, but rather another step toward success – the moment when that huge, mysterious, wild, silver beauty that dwells in every riffle of their imagination magically appears on the end of their line.
And the colder, harder and more challenging the conditions are, the stronger is their belief that the moment is at hand. And here's the thing – every now and then it happens.
Our northern Oregon river guides, Marty Sheppard and Nate Koenigsknect, can truthfully testify that it does. Kyle can too. And one more fact – they also believe that no matter how big their last fish was, there is a bigger one out there.
So Steve and I endured until flood conditions blew out the rivers to all fishing.
Thanks to Marty and Nate, my casting improved. We staggered out into heavy currents. With fierce winds blowing icy rain into our faces and sometimes overcome by fits of maniacal laughter, we attempted to cast our flies where we hoped fish would be.
We were cold and tired, yet we kept on fishing. I think we actually did get stronger. Certainly our friendship did.
And in spite of not catching anything, we agreed that it was the most memorable part of the trip. Call us crazy (and you probably will), but we'd do it again.
If you are so inclined, I suggest you contact Rachel Andras, Andras Outfitters, at (530) 227-4837. Rachel knows the best guides (Marty and Nate were both great by the way). She will make all the arrangements.