THE BIG ONE THAT DIDN'T GET AWAY WAS A FISH THAT KNEW ALL THE ANGLES

May 19, 1985

"One river, seen right, may well be all rivers that flow to the seas."
JOHN GRAVES
Goodbye to a River

I think I've seen Oregon's North Umpqua right. It is a steelhead stream, regarded by most who have fished it as one of the loveliest on earth. Zane Grey, who fished nearly everywhere and wrote prolifically of his experiences, thought so highly of the North Umpqua that, for fear of attracting crowds, he wrote only one short article about it. Thanks to the efforts of Grey and many other devoted fishermen, the upper 36 miles of the North Umpqua are restricted to fly fishing only.

It is possible to hook a North Umpqua steelhead on a fly in any month of the year, though May is the least likely time, and August the most. Steelhead are migratory rainbow trout with a life cycle similar to that of the salmon. Adults spawn in creeks and rivers. The hatched fish spend a couple of years in fresh water, then migrate to the sea, eventually returning to their parent streams to spawn. Unlike Pacific Coast salmon, some adult steelhead survive to spawn a number of times. The largest fish are those making repeat runs. (In 1962 an angler named Karl Mauser caught a 33-pound steelhead on a fly in the Kispiox River in British Columbia.) The North Umpqua produces a few fish of around 15 pounds each year, and there are often rumors of even larger ones that have been hooked and lost or seen swimming upstream through the low, clear summer water.

In the summer of 1972 my wife and I took jobs at a fishing lodge, the Steamboat Inn, located near the heart of the river's fly-fishing water. Friends of ours owned the inn, but we didn't take the jobs solely out of friendship. At least I didn't. What I wanted was to learn the river, fish every day from June to September, and enjoy the time with my family. Finally, I wanted to hook and land a steelhead of at least 15 pounds. In six years of fishing the river regularly I had landed dozens offish, but the largest had been about 12 pounds. Most freshwater fishermen have a strong desire to catch a fish that is large for the body of water they happen to be fishing. For instance, in a creek where eight-inch trout are the rule and 12-inchers are large, a 16-incher is something to get excited about. That same 16-incher would be little more than an irritation in a steelhead stream. I suppose a 15-pound steelhead would make good marlin bait. In fishing, everything is relative.

While landing a large fish may require skill, hooking one is usually a matter of luck. This is especially true of migratory fish like steelhead, which may travel miles overnight or hold in the same spot for days, even weeks, at a time. It is impossible to predict their movements, just as it is impossible to predict when they will strike a well-presented fly. On the North Umpqua I have—though certainly not often—hooked as many as eight or 10 fish in the space of a few hours. More often I've gone two or three days without a strike, knowing all the while that the river was full of fish.

For most of that summer of '72, I knew exactly which steelhead I wanted to catch. Near the town of Roseburg, about 40 miles downstream from Steamboat, the North Umpqua is spanned by Winchester Dam. Steelhead pass over the dam by way of a fish ladder, and as they do they go by a viewing chamber which is open to the public. Behind a large plate-glass window, the sleek, powerful steelhead cruise by in clear view, just a few feet away.

On a Monday morning at the end of June, I was drinking coffee in the dining room of the inn when in came one of the many local log truck drivers who stop by regularly.

As usual, he asked me about the fishing:

"Catching much?"

"Doesn't seem like the main run's here yet, but I got a good one last night," I said.

"Camp Water?"

"Lower Boat Pool. Ten pounds. The night before I caught two small ones in the Station."

"Listen," he said. "Maybe you aren't going to believe this, but I stopped down at Winchester Dam yesterday. You know that window there? Where you can watch the fish go by?"

"Sure, I know it."

"Well, you won't believe what I saw there."

"A lot of fish coming up?"

"Not a lot. A big fish."

"How big?"

"At least 40 inches."

"It must have been a salmon. They're still coming up, too."

"I've lived here in Douglas County 45 years. You think I don't know a salmon from a steelhead yet?"

"You saw a 40-inch steelhead going over Winchester Dam?"

"More like 42 or 43 inches. A male. Pretty dark already. I mean, the lateral line was good and pink."

"Come on. That would be 20 pounds. More, even. That would be a hell of a trout."

"He'll be up here pretty soon, if he doesn't get hooked down in the bait water."

"If he does, we'll hear about it."

"That's for damn sure. Here. For the coffee."

"Never mind," I said. "It's on me."

It was an excellent year for steelhead, with more fish than ever before coming over Winchester Dam. Half were hatchery fish, and although oldtimers on the river would argue that planted steelhead don't fight as well as natives, the fish were certainly there. They averaged about seven pounds, and I usually caught at least one or two on my evening fishing trips, and occasionally four or five.

In mid-July, making one of my weekly drives to Roseburg for supplies, I finally saw the monster steelhead for the first time. I made these trips after lunch, on a highway that follows the river most of the way to town. With the sun high I could look down and see into many of the slicks and pools. Usually I stopped at Lower Archie, Burnham, Rattlesnake, Wright Creek, Fairview and Fall Creek to check for fish. It was always exciting to see them, so clearly visible that it was possible to distinguish the males from the females through the blue-green water that was almost as clear as the air. They held close against the gravel or bedrock bottom, the females thick-bodied and silver-gray, the males a little slimmer, a little darker across the back and lateral line. A mile or so below Fall Creek I stopped to check a spot that, as far as I know, has no name.

Above a long, churning rapids the river widens to 40 yards or more. The slick is divided in the middle by a small rock island, and the steelhead lurk near the opposite bank, in deep water, close against a rock ledge. The only way to fish the spot is to wade out to the island, which is difficult to do even in low water, and cast across from there.

I parked and took a look. And that was when I saw it, hardly moving. At first I thought it was a Chinook salmon, but I had never seen a salmon hold there. They generally prefer the deepest, slowest pools, while steelhead like more movement to the water. Besides, this fish was slim and light-bellied for a salmon. I stared hard for a minute, and was absolutely certain. It was indeed a steelhead—a hook-jawed, silver-bellied male of at least 40 inches and 20 pounds.

I was selfish enough not to tell anyone else about my find, and that night I tried for it. The water was still too high for anyone to wade out to the rock island, so I was sure that no one else would fish that spot. I waited until just before dark because that would allow me to use a heavy leader; in that light fish would be less likely to see it.

By nine o'clock I had fished my way downstream, landing three steelhead along the way—one at Lower Archie and two at Wright Creek. With the fish hitting as well as that, I thought I had a good chance to raise the big one, if he was still where he had been that afternoon.

I retied my leader, shortening it to nine feet with a tippet of 10-pound-test. I tied on a No. 2 Skunk, which is by far the most popular pattern on the Umpqua, and carefully sharpened the point of the hook until it would dig into my thumbnail under the slightest pressure. I had my 9½-foot Russ Peak fiberglass rod and a Hardy Perfect fly reel with a weight-forward 11 line and 200 yards of backing behind it. My waders reached up to my armpits, and the snow-tire studs in the soles of my boots would give me traction on the slippery rocks and ledges. I was ready.

I had already decided to keep the fish if I landed it. I could rationalize killing it in a number of ways. It was a male, and plenty of other males would survive to spawn with all the females. And this would be the largest steelhead ever landed from a river rich in fishing tradition. Who could blame me if I showed it off? If I released it, who would believe me when I told about it afterward?

By the time I started out to the island it was so dark that bats and nighthawks were swooping over the water for insects. I couldn't see the bottom, and I had to wade diagonally upstream over slippery boulders and against a fairly heavy current. The only way to do it was to make sure one foot was planted securely, then step ahead gingerly with the other. It took about 10 minutes to cover 20 yards that way, and I slipped twice, taking in a quart or two of cold water over my wader tops.

When I reached the island I found a secure handhold and pulled myself up, then sat there resting a minute or two. I felt temporarily secure on the island, which was about 10 feet long, five feet wide and a foot and a half above the water at its highest points. I was certain that the big fish was still there, and I was so nervous that my hands shook when I stripped out line to make a cast.

Ordinarily it would have been necessary to sit or kneel on the island to cast, to stay low and out of sight. But now in the near-darkness I could stand. Steelhead can be caught using any of the dry- or wet-fly techniques that work on other trout, but the standard procedure is to cast a fly across and slightly downstream, then keep the line straight and the fly moving slowly and smoothly as it swings across the river below you. If you have to wade in up to your chest and cast 60 or 80 feet across currents of varying speeds, a good presentation can be next to impossible. All I had to accomplish was a simple 50-foot cast from a convenient platform.

I made two short casts to begin with, just to get the feel. The fly drifted perfectly down and across the channel between the island and the opposite bank. On my third cast I stripped off five more feet of line and brought the fly—which was about six inches beneath the surface—directly over the ledge where I had seen the steelhead.

A huge, swirling boil broke the smooth, dark surface where my fly was, and I pulled back hard to set the hook. But all I did was yank the fly and line out of the water. I had made no contact at all with the fish. It had been a reflex action, and I stood there swearing at my ineptitude.

When a steelhead makes a boil like that you should always wait until you feel the weight of the fish before you set the hook. Sometimes a fish will make four or five false passes before finally taking it. I had fished long enough to know that, yet I had reacted like a beginner.

It was likely that the disturbance I'd made yanking the fly out of the water had put down the fish. Then again, it was at least possible that darkness had been on my side. The only way to find out was to remain quiet for 15 or 20 minutes and try again.

Still furious, I reeled in and sat on the rock, chilled by the cool night air and the water in my waders. Too lazy to empty the boots—most of the water was soaked into my clothes anyway—I thought about my steelhead.

At least 20 minutes had passed when I stood up to cast again. About 15 yards below the island the Whitewater rapids began, sounding louder now in darkness. I cast about 10 feet above the ledge, mended the line once more and brought the fly over the ledge, just as I had before. The fish took it at exactly the same spot, although this time there was no surface disturbance. Instead I felt a sudden heavy weight at the end of the line, and then, instantaneously, the fish ran hard downstream, over the lip of the slick and down into the whitewater, the reel note rising as he picked up speed.

No sound I've heard is more pleasant or exciting than the high-pitched, smoothly mechanical shriek of a running line from a Hardy Perfect. This fish took the entire line out and then 80 or 100 yards of backing behind it. When he finally stopped, somewhere down below the rapids, the nylon backing slanted downstream at a long and dangerous angle, and I could tell from the dead, heavy pressure on the rod that somewhere down there the line was wound around some rocks.

I realized then how foolish it had been to wait until dark to try for the fish. My only real chance was to get downstream as quickly as possible, to recover line and disengage it from the rocks as I went, to catch up with the steelhead before he began another downstream run.

When I jumped off the foot of the island, the cold water was a shock. I held the rod in my right hand and swam with my left, my legs out ahead of me in the current. My waders filled with water at once, but because the water inside waders weighs no more than the water outside them, they were no hindrance to staying afloat or even to swimming.

Within seconds I was into the rapids, bouncing along, trying to hold the rod high, angling to the right as best I could. My feet jarred hard against a boulder, and, sliding by it, I grabbed hold with my left hand. I found that I could stand in the waist-deep water on the downstream side of the boulder, and I reeled as quickly as I could, hands numb and trembling, feeling the rough vibrations as the line passed over rocks. After a minute or so I could see the end of my fly line, but I couldn't get it back onto the reel. I was about halfway down the rapids, with the line now angling toward a large boulder at the foot of the fast water, close to the opposite bank. When I leaned back hard on the rod, trying to free the line, I finally felt the living weight of the fish again. Then there was one heavy lunge, and the line went dead. The pressure—and the fish—were gone.

I swore again, but my heart wasn't in it. I was almost grateful that the fish had escaped. Below the rapids were all kinds of deep channels, slippery ledges and sudden drop-offs. To play a difficult fish in unfamiliar water at night was foolish. But even as I reeled in the slack line, I was thinking ahead. The steelhead would continue upstream, and I had a better chance than anyone else to catch it. I was probably the only fisherman who knew for sure that it existed, and certainly the only one who knew where it was.

My No. 2 Skunk fly was still attached to the end of my leader. It had pulled out, not broken off, and I hooked it to the keeper ring and made my way ashore, wading carefully over pockets of gravel, stumbling and slipping over the rounded boulders, then climbing the steep bank back to my car.

For the next several weeks I kept close track of my steelhead. I saw the fish and tried for it at Fall Creek, a well-known and oft-fished pool six or seven miles downriver from the Steamboat Inn.

When I parked and checked one weekday evening, there it was, in plain view, holding over a slab of bedrock no more than 30 feet from the roadside bank. I didn't wait until dark this time. I walked 20 yards upstream and climbed down the bank there, where the fish wouldn't see me. Then I sneaked along the water to a large streamside boulder, and I stayed crouched behind it as I cast.

The fish ignored my Skunk, so I changed to a Thor, a brighter fly, red with an orange tail. That didn't work, so I tied on a Golden Demon, which is brighter still. He didn't come up for that, either, but I cast it a second time and twitched it slowly back and forth as it swung across the lie.

There was a hard strike, but before I had time to be excited, an eight-pound steelhead jumped. A fish I hadn't even seen had hit the fly. I realized with some dismay that it was the first time in my life I had ever been disappointed with hooking a steelhead. After I released it, I climbed back to look for the big one again. It was gone, apparently frightened out of the pool, so I quit for the night and drove back to the inn.

In between sightings and subsequent unsuccessful attempts—at Fall Creek, Fairview and Wright Creek—I kept my ear tuned to other fishermen's tales. Thus, I was reasonably sure that the fish was still there, moving steadily upstream through the rapids, slicks and pools.

On another of my supply runs to Roseburg, during mid-August, I saw the big fish in Wright Creek. He was about three feet behind a large boulder and toward the opposite bank. A half hour later I was at the water's edge, waiting for sunset. The fish was still there. Once the sun had set I wasted no time. I worked out line until I had 40 feet on the water, then pointed the rod downstream and stripped more line from the reel, letting the current pull it through the guides. With about 70 feet out I tried a cast. The fly swung across the current, and I mended to slow it down. A smolt hit the big Skunk. I slackened the line, hoping it could shake itself free, and when that didn't work I had to strip all that line back in to release it—a six-incher that writhed in my hand as I carefully removed the No. 2 hook from its upper lip.

Then I cast again. When I thought the Skunk was perhaps a second from its target, I stripped off another couple of feet of line and lowered the rod tip to momentarily stop the fly in the water over the fish.

He took it savagely. I was prepared for it, expecting it, but the strike was so hard that it actually frightened me. Suddenly the rod bowed, the line stretched dangerously tight, and the huge fish thrashed on the surface. Then the weight was suddenly gone and I was sure that he had broken off, that I had lost him again.

But even before I could swear, I saw the fly line moving upstream, cutting through the current. As my fish came upstream I reeled in quickly to keep a tight line on him before he stopped his run. I needn't have worried. He went hard upstream, 30 feet out from the boulder I was standing on, and close against the bottom. About 40 feet above me he hit the end of the slack line and kept right on going, all the way up to the tail of the pool. Then he stopped.

I stood there, rod bowed and line tight, and this time there were no intervening rocks. Every few seconds I felt the weight of the fish, thrashing and shaking. I put on all the pressure that eight-pound-test could safely take, but of course I couldn't turn him around.

Climbing down from the boulder, I worked my way upstream, retrieving line. Then the fish came back down. When I followed him down, he ran back up again. But each run he made was slower, and I was sure after the first 10 minutes that if the hook held and I was patient, I would land him.

I brought him in about 50 yards below where I had hooked him, and he was something to see. I found a good spot to land the fish—a little pool, two feet deep and well protected, with a small channel entering it from the main river. When I drew the steelhead through the channel he was obviously finished—not yet on his side, but nearly ready to turn. The first thing I did was measure him against the rod, just to be sure I could believe it. With the tail at the bottom of the rod, the tip of the hooked lower jaw reached the second rod guide. That was more than 40 inches, certainly more than 20 pounds.

The hook was so far back in the corner of the jaw that the fly was almost out of sight in the mouth. After letting out some slack line I laid the rod carefully on the bank, and I knelt by the fish, holding the leader in my right hand. It was all the steelhead could do to hold itself upright. I stared at the thick, dark-brown mottled back, the dark red lateral line, the grayish silver belly.

It was the fish of a lifetime—a fish to be photographed, publicized, mounted and hung on the wall. It was something to brag about, to feel proud of forever. Now that it was over, I was so nervous that my hands were shaking.

I thought hard, too, but not for long—about the fish and the river and of what both of them meant to me now. Then I wrapped the leader around my wrist, yanked hard once and it was broken. The steelhead stayed where it was beside me, gills pulsing slowly. But as soon as I guided him out into the river, into the steady current—cool, heavy, firm in my hands—he recovered.

I held him nose into the current, and in 10 or 15 seconds he surged easily, weightlessly out of my hands; then I watched him disappear, nosing steadily, slowly forward, drifting easily at the same time, over the gravel, ahead into the current, down to the cold dark water of the river bottom, to whatever remained of his natural life.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSDON WELLER

From the book "The Perfect Fishing Trip" by Michael Baughman, to be published this summer by Prentice Hall, Inc.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)