Steelhead trips are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. Sometimes it’s a chewy one (steelhead) and other times it’s cream filled (skunked). You watch the weather in hopes of just the right amount of rain. Then the flows, anticipating the river’s rise, peak and drop at the right moment. This is followed by an even bigger question … are there even fish in the system?
This trip was just that. Ten days along some of the West Coast’s greatest fisheries with unsteady weather and sub-par fishing conditions. However, we did know one thing for certain: while others were cozying up in their homes next to a warm fire, we’d be happily miserable, fly fishing for winter steelhead.
It was 9 a.m. We’d just pulled an all-nighter, and as much as my brain was amped for the river, my eyelids thought differently. I poured the last drop of hot brew from our Stanley thermos and capped it with a strong pull of whiskey. John was investigating the condition of our local outhouse, so with my concoction of liquid stimulants, I kicked it into high gear, ripping into the truck and tearing out what was important: fishing gear, beer, coffee, eggs, and dog food. Finn’s observation of our new home quickly turned as he heard his lifeline of crunchies (my furry companion understands this word to mean his dog food) fall to the ground. I left him a week’s worth of protein for his indulgence, then continued chaotically flinging items from the truck.
Moments later, panic set in. Within seconds, I turned the truck’s insides upside-down, even coming upon John’s dirty underwear, but not my wading boots for which I was desperately searching. They were probably catching sunrays, dryer than a lizard turd on the front porch of my deck, 400 miles away.
At this point during my dismay, relieved and ready to take on the day, John arrived back to camp. He quickly recognized the degree of my distress and offered up his Muck boots. Although I envisioned myself joyfully throwing flies across the steelhead green colored river in my sweet new Mucks, I couldn’t help but also see myself sinking to the bottom of the river with the equivalent of two cinder blocks attached to my feet. Then it dawned on me: we brought dive gear to float the river so we could nerd out on fish! My dive booties were the cure to this early morning disaster, and by 10:30 a.m., we were on the water.
Later that evening, just before sunset, Grayson showed up in his beautiful, early 90s steelhead rig … a white Ford with a huge tan and teal-green aluminum cab-over. He may have been 6 hours late to the show, but with a valid excuse: Siri gave him a detour on roads that hadn’t seen life since the early 60s. After breaking out a small hand saw to cut two trees out of the road and snow nearly to the bumper, he made it back around a closed road.
The following morning we set sail to float the river, but not exactly how we’d envisioned it. We brought pontoon boats, but when Grayson’s rental (a buddy-loaned boat) didn’t come with the correct valve for inflation, we resorted to what would be way sweeter than three boats: two boats banded together with tie-downs, bungee cords, and a set of oars to stiffen the new steelhead craft. This proved to be a prime method by which to focus our efforts on the river. With one man on the sticks, the other two could practice knot-tying techniques as we caught each other more than anything else. As for Finn, he patiently sat in the middle of our craft working on his dog tan and dodging huge bird-like contraptions fastened to hooks.
Over the next 3 days we swung the river from dusk to dawn and consumed lots (and lots) of beer. Mornings consisted of fresh pressed coffee and raw egg shooters. Nights consisted of steak, whiskey, and war stories. We never did hook into a fish, but we’d built large enough calluses on our fingers from stripping flies that we could definitely justify the fun we had.
Two days later, repacked and ready to explore new water, the second leg with a different crew was set. Danny and I drove north into Oregon as Austin headed south to meet us. There was a storm building on the horizon, and we planned to set camp on a river with the best opportunity to be center-punched by its wrath. This time, instead of beachfront property, we posted up a few hours inland on a river none of us had ever fished. Blinded by lack of planning, the uncertainty of our location and secrecy of the fishery, we didn’t quite know what to expect.
We arrived at 3 a.m. It was pitch-black, the stars bright enough to generate faint shadows off the towering pines, and a chill cut through even our best puffies. We threw our bags next to the river and shared a few nightcaps under our headlamps. Danny prepared the coffee water to be enjoyed come daylight, and we fell asleep anticipating what the morning would bring.
Three hours later with just a tinge of morning light, we crawled out of our bags, stiff and frosted from the river’s mist. This was where Little Foot and her dinosaur friends roamed. Deciduous trees mixed in with an array of firs and cedars. Fluorescent green moss blanketed the ancient volcanic landscape.
With fresh pressed hot brew warming our hands and hearts, we stood next to the river, mentally preparing for the three-day attack. We’d planned on floating the waterway in my 18-foot Avon raft, but that soon changed when we got a hold of the river map. This was a destination not just sought after for swinging flies, but also for its whitewater appeal. Most sections proved to be Class III and even up to Class IV. Being that we were all rookies on the sticks, unsure of the conditions, and would have two dogs on board, the float plan was reduced to a foot plan.
As we set out on foot and really got a taste of what this area was made of, my geology nerd side was beginning to surface. I was more interested in rock observation than with the trout at times.
The river cut through volcanic mudflows from the Crater Lake eruption, columnar basalt formations, and towering basalt spires. There were even some ancient sedimentary deposits from when the whole area was home to ocean dwellers millions of years ago. Neat-o.
By the end of the day, we were finally getting the weather we asked for. Clouds rolled in, rain followed, and some low fog was icing on the cake. We fished until dark and with no steelhead flesh in hand, drove back to camp. Austin started a fire in the canvas tent to dry out gear and warm up the dogs. Danny prepared carne asada over a smoldering fire, and I was hands on each end. The night grew darker, the fire brighter.
The next day we woke to snow—snowflakes so large and dense you could hear them striking the water. I’m not sure what Little Foot and her crew thought about snow, but I felt like our dinosaur jungle was really coming alive.
The following days were marked by similar patterns. Glorious scenery, sloppy conditions, and no fish fooled into tasting our feathery flies. Although we didn’t put our hands on the mystical and most mysterious fish of the west, that was never really the end goal, now was it? What do we seek when we get far out there into the wild, anyway? Adventure, whatever it ends up looking like.
We are attracted to the serenity of what winter steelhead could bring to the table. While most hang their rods during these months, and for good reason, we are drawn toward this sick desire to wade into an ice cold river, toy with frostbite, and battle every element thrown our way. Some trips are mellow, but others—those we seek—leave us with bruised egos and more smile lines.
My name is Jayson Hale. I am an Olympian, Geologist, Photographer, and future PA. I seek fun, adventure and anything that fits out of the norm or situates me deep into God’s country. Follow along @jayhale.