Clearwater Steelhead

I have never been much of a writer, but as I sit after a long weekend of fishing the Clearwater River in Idaho reviewing the pictures of the weekend’s events, I knew I wanted to write about something that was beyond just a normal fishing report with the standard “grip and grin” photos.

My mind starts to wander back to the weekend’s events and the feelings I get every time I get ready to embark on a new fishing adventure. I start to think that the actual act of fishing becomes a forethought (especially when you get skunked like I did this past weekend) when compared to the quality time you get to spend with great friends, laughing, learning new techniques and the blissful state of mind that overwhelms you the second you push off of shore in your drift boat and fall into the river’s current. All the day-to-day work and life stress seems to quickly fade away — as fast as it takes to have your line snapped by a large steelhead.

I had the great opportunity of leaving behind the handcuffs of city and work life for a few days this last weekend and intended to make every second of it count.  When you are on the river with no email, no cell phone service, some great friends, a few beers and a river to yourself you feel almost invincible. 

This got me thinking about what fishing actually means to me. It’s so much more than the proverbial bragging rights that naturally come with the quality and quantity of fish caught. Camaraderie becomes the name of the game. When you are out steelheading on a tough day it almost becomes a team sport. Everyone is working hard. Constantly tying on new setups, trying new colors and set ups, hucking out longer leaders, more weight and finding new fishy water and different approaches. Your hopes rise and fall with not only your own cast, but also with everyone else in the boat.  And since I personally lost a few fish this weekend while others in the boat successfully landed fish, the joke running around was that I can lay claim to at least 1/8 or a similar fraction of credit for the fish caught (or so I like to tell myself). Overall though, that doesn’t matter all the time.

Making calls to some old buddies all week long, I finally wrangled a crew that consisted of some of the most skilled fly-fisherman that I know from my days in Montana.  All are life-long fisherman, and some are current or former Idaho and Montana fishing guides. The best part about this group is their infectious love and attitude toward fishing that is both relaxing and intense, if that is at all possible. They are the type of guys that will make fun of you for casting into wind and a tangle, toss you a beer and then give you a 15 minute tutorial on the art of casting while you try to fix your mess . . . while sticking another fish.  I learn more on these types of trips than I do from a full season of trial and error exploring my new home in the Pacific Northwest.

Back to the weekend. Weather-wise, it was paradise compared to the many weekends I have spent in the area battling below freezing temperatures, blowing wind, snow and sleet. The first day I was even able to sport just a t-shirt in the 60-plus degree weather.  We knew we were in for an interesting day with this sunny warm weather and a previous fishing report saying “it’s like they are all gone!” That didn’t deter us in the least bit and we had the river to ourselves as we dropped the boat in the water after raiding the hotel’s complementary breakfast for the first of many times.  Within the first hour we found out quick the abundance of the often misaligned sucker fish in the river, as a friend “christened” his new fly rod with one of these funny lipped fish to everyone’s laughter.   Things were quiet for a few hours until we anchored up several miles down river when with the first cast into the new hole all we hear is “ohhh yea, its him…steely dan” and everyone came out of their mid-day haze for the excitement. Some furious runs later and a few skips of the ol’ heartbeat when the fish seemed to be tangled up in someone else’s set up, the beautiful and surprisingly still chromed out and shiny native steelhead was netted and released — promptly to be followed by a ceremonial shot of whiskey.

The day concluded with the waning of sunlight, where a herd of about 25-30 head of elk grazed on the ridge above us and a few comments of “I love this f-ing place” turned into good-natured ribbing about the five shots (four missed) it took for a friend to take down his first elk the previous season.

The next day we woke to overcast skies, a bit of montezumas revenge from a jaunt to the local Mexican restaurant, another opportunity to destroy the hotel’s continental breakfast and a few more friends showing up.  First hole in the morning was some work. Extra deep for our fly-lines and indicators. Waylin makes the call and decides that with his sink-tip line he will just forgo his indicator. Not ten seconds after he comments that I have to be faster on my hook set for these fish, he rips into another steelhead lip.  Once again it’s on, but something peculiar happens. 

For the first time in all of our lives we witness what we happened to call the “Jaws” move.  We have all had a fish rip out a bunch of line only to pull a 180 and race back to the boat, but we weren’t prepared to see what happened next. After a quick run back towards the boat and lots of effort to keep a taught line the fish just stops and slowly makes an almost 360-degree tour around the boat (in the shallows) to show himself off before he made a frantic sprint down stream making the reel sing like only a beast of a steelhead can. Just like that, Waylin boats another beauty. Hi-fives all around and another shot of whiskey and an 1/8 of a steelhead landed for me. 

Next up is my great friend and the best Montana fly-fishing guide I know, Chris Orwig. He shows up fashionably late on the river in his new drifty and I immediately hop in. It’s been too long since I have seen him and his girl, but the catching up is short and sweet. Doubling the size of our group we head down river to the next “money run.” Now with two boats and six people, we can really start working the runs. Big in presence and in drifts, Chris hooks up directly in front of the other boat about 100 yards down river.  Good luck charm again, as my boat lands another majestic native steely — and I claim another fraction of a fish.

We may not have stuck anymore fish for the rest of the three day trip, but my love for the sport only grew the more time I was on the water, regardless of the impending eight hour drive home and thoughts of an extra long work week ahead. Count yourself fortunate to be able to get on the water (anytime) with the people you enjoy and love being with.  That is what fishing is to me. I love to catch fish, but I enjoy sharing stories, hucking line, being in the great outdoors, experiencing new territory, learning from the best and spending quality time with great friends and family just as much.  All things society dictates aside (cliche as it may be), a day spent fishing is better than anything else in the world.  That is what fishing is — to me.

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