Saturday, April 15, 2006

Grande Ronde Steelhead

I lost my balance when I
lurched onto the rock's flat,
rugged surface. Dizzying cur
rents of the Grande Ronde
River and a thrashing wind
didn't help, either.
Anyway, panic struck as my
body tipped head-first toward
the thigh-deep channel I'd
just waded. My legs moved to
catch up. I twisted for a giant step
back into the channel with arms whirling.
My right hand gripped the
fly-rod handle hard enough to
squeeze sweat from the cork.
If it had any.
I tumbled forward at the
bank, broke my fall with my
left hand, and took a deep,
relieved breath.
Red-faced, I peered through
specs blurred by water drops
for anyone who had observed
my uncommon grace.
Whew. No one. I lay the fly
rod gently on the rocks,
checked the camera bag.
Whew again.
Water, however, soaked the
sleeves of my jacket. I pushed
back the hood of my jacket,
loosened the string holding
my glasses in place and wiped
the lenses with a bandanna.
Finally, breathing more or
less normally again, I waded
back to the rock and climbed
on top. I worked out a cast
with the 9-foot, 8-weight
steelhead fly rod and threw
the green-butted skunk fly
pattern across the current.
It drifted into a possible
steelhead holding spot behind
a barely visible boulder.
I made another 11 casts
before I eased from the rock
into the current and worked
slowly downstream to the
next hole.
I had left home a few min
utes past 6 a.m., driven 134
miles and started fishing on
the south side of the Grande
Ronde river where it flows
into the Snake River at 10:16.
That included driving three
miles upstream from Hellers
Bar to the bridge and nearly
three miles downstream on
the narrow Rogersburg Road.
I parked a few hundred
yards from the mouth of the
river and rigged up. Ten min
utes later, I nearly fell on my
I fished carefully down
stream to the Snake River. I
worked out three or four false
casts and sailed a 40-foot toss
at a 45-degree angle onto the
edge of the Snake's current. I
mended the sink-tip line up
stream, and it floated into a
I imagined an 18-pound
steelhead lying at the edge of
the riffle and smashing the fly
that drifted past its nose.
And I snagged a rock, or so
I thought, and lifted the rod
tip. The line moved upstream.
I tugged, and the line tugged.
It didn't feel like a steely. I
tugged harder and the rod
bent. I reeled in the slack line,
and line stripped off the reel.
I walked upstream in the
shallow water as several feet
of line peeled off and stopped.
Then I saw a fish tail, all
splotched and sick looking. I
pulled, and the fish rose
higher in the water: A
spawned-out salmon. About
25 pounds, snagged in the
I hated to lose the fly, but I
aimed to cut the leader if I
could get close enough.
As the fish inched closer, a
jet boat roared downriver and
waves rolled the fish up to my
feet, and the hook pulled free.
I watched the riffle for sev
eral minutes, and saw several
of the splotched fish.
Then my watch said 12:42,
and I broke for lunch.
I boiled water for tea with
the SnowPeak stove and ate a
turkey sandwich. An Iron gate
behind me creaked when the
wind hit it. I decided it made
that sound when I wasn't
there. I looked in vain for
Rocky Mountain sheep on the
rugged canyon walls.
On my way upstream I
passed two other fly fishers. I
parked again, walked up the
road for another quarter mile
and fished back to the pickup.
I hooked something and had
it on for about seven seconds.
It felt big and strong, but,
heck, it could've been a
walrus. Or not.
At 2:03 p.m. I headed up
stream once more and met a
tall rooster pheasant standing
in the road. It looked me in
the eye. I stopped and
honked. It walked toward the
truck until I couldn't see it
over the hood.
I go out with the camera,
and the bird sauntered into
the roadside shrubbery.
I fished another stretch be
fore the bridge until after 3
Then, as I drove down the
north side of the Grande
Ronde, I saw a fly fisher with
a fish on. I parked to fish.
On the fourth cast, I hooked
a steelhead. It swirled with its
head out of the water for at
least 30 seconds.
I quit at 4:18 p.m., after the
sun disappeared behind the
canyon wall.
I set up the stove to boil
water for tea as I changed
clothes and stowed gear.
And I saw the fly was
ruined, body shredded and
green butt bedraggled.
And I knew the feeling. It
had been a long, hard day

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