Salmon River Report 11/25-26: None. One. Are we still having fun?

For a guy who never plays at casinos, I manage to do an awful lot of gambling. Like planning my Salmon River, Pulaski, steelhead trips months in advance. As with Vegas, the odds always favor the house. Sometimes you win. More often, you lose — and lose big. My trip earlier in November brought me the double whammy of a sub-par steelhead run and an Arctic cold front. I felt lucky to escape with my dignity and fingertips intact, and the two steelhead I landed were a trip-saving bonus.

Two weeks later, here I was again. (See “Go, Weather or Not” in my Great Lakes Steelhead piece for Field & Stream.) Make that we, as this was the annual father-son November steelhead trip — facing moderate flows (350cfs, 500cfs at Pineville) but the same paucity of fish. (2019 was, according to my records, tied for the second worst year in the last ten in numbers of fish landed.)

There’s not much to tell you about Monday. We floated the middle river, as always with steelhead guide extraordinaire Row Jimmy, aka James Kirtland, but the vast majority of steelhead that had been there the previous few days had skedaddled. Not a single touch for me in over eight hours of carpet bombing the river bottom. Cam managed one brown, and Jimmy rolled a steelhead that was quickly off. Here, Cam reflects upon the errors or our ways while considering the merit of Stefano’s garlic knots. 

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The command decision was made to float the upper river on Tuesday. We enjoyed a gentlemen’s start at the civilized hour of 7:15am. Here’s Cam wrangling the Pavati at the Altmar boat launch. The anglers we spoke to at the bottom of the LFZ reported a slow beginning to the day.

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So, let’s change that up. Since we needed to let some boats ahead of us fish through, we parked the boat and Jim (did I mention he’s a guide extraordinaire?) pointed to some likely holding water. A bit of a treacherous wade, but manageable, and it wasn’t too long before I was rewarded with a dipping indicator and a thrumming sensation at the end of my line. The fishing quote of the year goes to Cam, who said, “Well, Dad, now you won’t be grouchy for the rest of the day!”

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I’d like to tell you that my fish was the start of something big, but ’twas not to be. We endured hours of the same non-existent action. So when Cam scored this handsome steelhead around noon, we decided that on this day (50 degrees and partly sunny to boot!) we’d beaten the house.

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Salmon River steelhead report: Cruel to be kind

I do my best to understand, dear, but you still mystify — and I don’t think I’ll ever know why.

Why does a cold front always seem to come through on the day I booked months ago?

Why won’t the steelhead take the fly — any fly — on this particular day?

Why do steelhead glom onto only small black stones or only fluorescent orange eggs or…?

Why do I subject myself to this?

These are the questions I ponder at night over a glass of single malt. Finding the answers isn’t necessarily the goal — or even a realistic outcome. It’s just part of the Kabuki known as steelhead madness.

Monday: I call it “Salmon River Sunshine.” It refers to the snow, rain, sleet, and the more esoteric forms of lake-effect precipitation. Today it was white pellets and snow. It started around 7am — we’d launched at 6 — and it went full throttle pretty much all morning. The stuff stuck to the boat, our gear, hoods, gloves —  no horizontal surface was spared. Now, I’ve had plenty of good days fishing in crap weather, but this wasn’t one of them. Not a single touch the entire day. We were surely fishing over steelhead, because Cam hooked five, landing three. Okay, so he was using egg sacks. But shouldn’t I have gotten at least a courtesy tap?

I tend to view these situations as a half full/half empty dichotomy: I’m fishing well, my drifts are good, I’m alert and ready to set the hook, and I know there are steelhead below. But as much as I will it to be so, they just won’t take the fly. That’s more than a little frustrating when you’ve driven hours so you can shiver in your boots for the skunk while standing in five inches of slush in the bottom of a boat.

Of course, the salve for this day was how well Cam fished. (He hooked and landed more steelhead than any other angler we saw or spoke to.) Being a proud papa can do wonders for your spirits, so I went all in on that. And I reminded myself that in any multi-day trip, the fighting is in rounds.

When I sent this photo to my wife, her comment was, “Even the fish looks cold.” That’s our guide, James Kirtland of Row Jimmy Guide Service.  I’ve become a much better steelhead angler because of him. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday: Having blanked on two of my four steelhead days this fall, I was ready to negotiate an agreement using my fly fishing soul as collateral. I’m talking, of course, about trout beads. Yes, they are proven steelhead catchers. No, they are not flies. But it’s my trip and I can do whatever the hell I want. Purists among you will be pleased to know that I blanked for the two hours I used them. (I have to confess that I wasn’t all that upset about it, either.)

I’d had some success the previous week on a pattern called a Breaking Skein Glitter Fly. It’s basically a Crystal Meth with a pearl Krystal Flash tail and some white Estaz ribbed between the fluorescent orange braid loops. Wasn’t I the happiest angler on the river when my indicator went under and the line thrummed with energy?

After 11 consecutive hours of skunk, that’ll put a smile on your face. I had to earn this one. It was a fresh, energetic fish, and after a couple line burning runs it decided that the boat was a cut bank and parked underneath it. Picture me leaning over the bow, rod tip in the water, trying to coax it out. Seconds became years, but we finally had our grip and grin.

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This year’s fishing was different for me in that all my steelhead came on bright, flashy patterns. I spent many hours presenting small black stones (Redheads, Copperheads, etc.) and any number of natural-toned soft-hackles to no avail. They wanted the bling. (I did hook and drop a fish on a 60-Second Copperhead). By the time ice in the rod tips was no longer a factor, Cam had boated three, and I’d taken my second on the Breaking Skein Glitter Fly.

It’s a very, very, very good sign.

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It was now early afternoon and time was a thief. I’d gotten a bump on a hot orange Salmon River Rajah fished under an indicator, so I rolled the dice, ditched the yarn, and embarked on a little swinging adventure. I gave it the better part of an hour, but in the end I went back to the Breaking Skein well. My last steelhead ate the fly with fierce conviction, but I whiffed on the set. We got a good look at it when it boiled, and we ruefully concurred that it was the biggest fish of the day. Oh, the cruelty! I kept pounding the slot the fish had been holding in, and ten minutes later the steelhead gods showed their kindness as the fish struck and I buried the hook in the corner of its mouth. Like my first fish, this buck cartwheeled down the pool, then made a beeline for the security of under the boat. At double digit pounds, this steelhead needed some firm pressure to get him to relinquish his position. In the end, the hoop of the net encircled him, and smiles decorated every face.

On Tuesday, November 21st, 2017, the steelhead loved this fly. On Monday, November 20th, 2017, they ignored it. Don’t ask me why.

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Cam was high hook both days and for the trip, with seven total steelhead, three of them in some nasty, difficult conditions. Dad was three-for-five. But as I tell Cam, if I can land just one steelhead, that’s a good day.

Lee Wulff was right. As was Nick Lowe. (In the right measure.) 

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