More than a decade ago, while spending a summer working at the Steamboat Inn, a fishing lodge in southwest Oregon, I listened in on a late-night conversation concerning the combination of qualities that would constitute the "ideal river fisherman." Haifa dozen knowledgeable anglers, fueled by bourbon and enthusiasm, worked the subject over for an hour or more and finally reached general agreement: The ideal fisherman would have to be an expert caster with bait, fly and spinning gear but wouldn't use anything other than flies unless conditions made it absolutely necessary. He would be a strong and daring wader, with the stamina to stay on the water from dawn until dark in any weather. He would have the almost mystical gift of being able to "read water"—accurately predicting the holding and feeding spots of fish—even in unfamiliar streams. And he would also be blessed with exceptional vision, enabling him to detect even the faintest surface disturbances caused by rising fish and the vague, flickering movements on the river bottom that indicate fish holding deep down.
It struck me as a sound definition, and I've found myself applying it, for better or worse, to fishermen I've known and watched through the intervening years. This past November, though, after spending a couple of days with the Okie, my notions about the ideal fisherman changed.
First, "the Okie," as I use it here, is definitely not derogatory. It's what the gentleman in question likes to be called whenever he fishes away from his home state. He loves Oklahoma and enjoys having people know he comes from there.
He's a retired teacher, powerfully built but with a rather formidable paunch, a nose like Jimmy Durante's and the twang of a country and western singer. His principal and passionate pursuit is fishing—anytime, anywhere—and when I pulled into the parking lot of the Neptune Motel, in Port Orford on the Oregon coast, just before dark on a Sunday evening, he was, as usual, talking to another fisherman, a tall young man with a reel clutched in one hand and a fly rod in the other.
May 6, 1984
"Oh, they caught some this morning!" the Okie was saying as I climbed out of my car, a little stiff after the four-hour drive from my home in Ashland, Ore. "Why, you might have hit it perfect" the Okie said to me as we shook hands. Then he went ahead with his story, talking now to both of us: "I've been here two weeks, and this was the first good day yet. It's been raining. It's been blowing. But today that river lowered and cleared and the sun came out. I got over there a little late, and they'd pulled 12 or 14 Chinook out of my favorite pool, and a few more came out this afternoon. I haven't gotten any yet, but they're there. Thirty-pounders! I saw them laid out on the bank. Good fish! Bright fish! They're beautiful] Chinook! King salmon'."
"On flies?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah!" he said.
"I fished the Winchuck and the Chetco all weekend," the young man put in. "I saw salmon moving upstream, but they wouldn't hit."
"Oh, these in the Elk River hit!" the Okie assured us, his smile widening. "You might have hit it perfect'." he told me again, bringing a large fist down hard on a fender of the nearest car for emphasis. "I'm glad I called you! I'm glad you could come!"
In August, I had run into the Okie, an old but not a close acquaintance, at the Steamboat Inn—I was up to fish for the day—and he told me about the Elk River, wrote my phone number down and promised to call from there in the fall when it looked as though the salmon would be running well.
As was his custom, he had stopped at West Yellowstone, Montana, for browns and rainbows and then again at the North Umpqua, in Oregon, for steelhead while on his way to the Elk. He told me about his trip that night in his room as he tied up some flies for the morning. "I blew a tire in Montana. It was cold out there, too. That's a new rig I got—it cost so much, I was sick for two weeks after I paid for it—but the regulator went out in Idaho, and I was lucky to make it into Ontario on the battery. One morning I forgot my rocking chair in a motel room, so I drove back and got it, and later on I realized my watch was still in the room, so I drove back for it, too, and when I tried to make up some lost time I got a speeding ticket. But it's worth it! After the Elk. I head down to California for channel catfish! I get them on a baited fly rod, too!"
Well before dawn the next morning in Port Orford, we were bouncing along a rutted dirt road through a sheep and cattle ranch, the headlights showing a light rain. "See that little ole box up there on that post by the gate?" the Okie said. "We got to put $2 in there for the guy who owns this spread." He braked to a stop just long enough for me to slide the money into the slotted metal container. "Now we got to get to that river. Oh, it might be hot today!"
We parked at the end of a long line of cars, campers and pickups. Beyond the vehicles, cigarettes and flashlights glowed orange and white in the darkness along what must have been the bank. "The word's out!" the Okie said. "It's crowded! But it might be crowded with fish, too! This is what we travel all over the country for. What we freeze for, out in the wind and rain and snow and all. This is it!" He laughed aloud.
We waded across a wide, knee-deep riffle, the gravel bottom firm underfoot, the Okie leading the way. "There's a big hole out here somewhere," he said. "I think we'll miss it. We better miss it. It's six-feet deep."
We missed the hole and made it safely across, walked up the opposite bank past the flashlights and cigarettes, then waded back in and began to fish what I thought must be the head of a long, deep pool—it was still too dark to see much. The Okie was visible, though, a few yards below me, his bright yellow raincoat tucked into his chest waders, up to his waist in the water, casting, twitching the fly with his line hand as it swung downstream, then picking it up to cast again. Most of the fishermen across from us were using large lures and weighted baits that splashed loudly when they hit the water. "That one almost got me," the Okie muttered, then laughed again.
Soon it began to grow light, and the calls began:
"Hey, Okie, that you over there?"
"Hey, you guys, it's the Okie! How long you been in town?"
"You hit any good fish this year, Okie?"
There were probably 20 fishermen across the pool from us, and at least half of them knew the Okie. It was that way everywhere we went for two days.
Next we moved on to a coastal stream, and everything looked right for Chinook fishing near its mouth. Commercial boats were working just offshore, which proved the fish were schooled out there. It was time for Chinooks to be moving into fresh water and upstream toward their spawning grounds, and the river had good height and clarity.
But, as so often happens, things weren't as right as they seemed. I fished with the Okie for two long days, out in the wind and the rain and the cold, wading the river on numbed feet, changing flies and tying knots with frozen fingers. It was crowded out there, too. I'd never in my life seen a river so mobbed. From before dawn until after dusk, anglers stood elbow to elbow along both banks of the salmon pools, casting every conceivable variety of spoon, spinner, bait, plug and fly. I saw three fair-sized fish landed, the largest just over 20 pounds. The Okie caught a jack salmon—an immature male of two or three pounds—and missed a strike from a fish that he said felt considerably larger. I missed a solid strike each day, and that was it.
I didn't talk about it, but I was miserable in the weather, and I ended up depressed by the fishing and maddened by the crowds—none of which fazed the Okie. He was happy, even euphoric. From my viewpoint, his periodic monologues were the highlights of the trip. There were dozens of them, and I'll quote one that he delivered on a Tuesday afternoon, with the rain pouring down and the wind howling:
"I love doin' this! What beats fishin'? Hey, there's another carload of Calies. I made that term up! If a guy from Oklahoma's an Okie, a guy from California ought to be a Calie! They're good boys, that bunch. They were up here last year, and the year before that, too. Oh, it was hot this time last year. I hooked 18 in three days! Big ones! The biggest ones! I had one close to 50 pounds! Looked like a silver pig when it jumped. Every time that fish came out of the water, people said, 'Look at the size! Look at the size!' Fifty pounds, I bet. Well, I tried to horse him a little, because everybody'd reeled in to let me fight that fish, and I hated to keep 'em all from their own fishin'. Now, some fly fishermen are snobs, you know that. They think they're superior. But those spin fishermen, those bait fishermen, they got the same rights we do. Anyway, that hook pulled out. That's why I tied these up on heavy hooks, for a better hold. But if the hook pulled out, so what? There's another one out there, somewhere! Maybe you'll get it. Maybe a Calie will! Maybe I will. So long as the gardens grow and the fish hit once in a while, life's just fine!"
I left Port Orford the next morning, quite impressed with the Okie—or with his fishing, I should say. It's not that his casting or wading are exceptional, and I don't know a whole lot about his ability to read streams or the acuteness of his vision on or through the water. What two days with him proved to me, though, is that a crucial element was missing from the definition of an ideal fisherman that I'd heard at the Steamboat Inn. I realize now that the degree of honest pleasure an angler gets from his sport—no matter what the setbacks and hardships or the outcome in terms of fish landed—has to enter into any reasonable evaluation and, in fact, is probably the most important ingredient of all. Given that premise, I'm convinced the Okie must rate near the top of the scale wherever he fishes.