Salmon and steelhead junkie, Rob Russell is headed back to fly fish for springers on the Tillamook this weekend. Here’s his belated report from Memorial Day.
The river was still running high enough for easy drifting. There had been some big days in the river and in tidewater. A reliable friend said there had been twenty salmon taken on Tuesday. Best of all, Memorial Day weekend coincided with the best set of tides all month. That should pull some fish out of the ocean and into the lower river. Every sign pointed to a fantasy weekend, and that was reason enough to be prepared for the worst.
I had originally planned to head back to the Hoh and Solduc for the legendary but seldom discussed spring chinook run, but my friends pulled out at the last minute. I weighed my options. Should I camp solo on the Umpqua and continue my quest for the mythical fifty-pound spring chinook? Or should I head back to old faithful for some low-water king fishing? Then I got an email from Tim. He was heading to the Narrows for the weekend, fishing by himself. “Let’s fish!” I said, and I packed my gear.
I arrived in Tillamook the next evening, glowing in the orange sunset and singing along with the radio. I turned up the Wilson River, blew by the RV park, and slowed down as the charred remains of the Guide Shop came into view. My old home-away-from-home. Tears welled up as a hundred memories flew by. Sunsets spent on the deck, gazing over the edge at the river below. The smell of a burger grilling inside. The sound of the front door bell. Toy’s sweet smile, Pete’s big laugh, and the kindness and generosity of Gary and Ernie. In a breath it was gone and I could feel Mills bridge pass under me.
Up river at the Narrows, Tim and I made our plans. We expected competition, so we set the alarm for 3:30am. Then we uncorked a bottle of Talisker 10-year and caught up on life and fish. Fly boxes came out, voices were raised, and stories were animated with wild hand gestures. But the river eventually lulled us to sleep.
Morning came early. We slugged down some coffee and eggs and got on the road. The boat hit the water at 5:00am, and soon we were gliding down the canyon, eyes peeled for moving salmon. We fished hard in every likely drift and pool with no signs of fish. By 10:00am we were nearing reach-of-tide, and by noon we were nearing the bay. The tidewater crew had picked up some early-morning biters, but there had been a lot less fish than boats, so we didn’t feel like we missed much. The boat was trailered, and we zoomed back to the top for a repeat. By 1:00pm the wind was howling, but we fished hard in spite of the challenge. And we fished well. But we never had a bite other than a few cutts.
The abuse continued on day two, puncutated by one lost opportunity mid-morning. Again we doubled up on the drifts, and covered the river twice. No salmon. Not even a drive-by. That night we grilled a trout that had taken the hook deep. It was delicious, and for a few moments I was thankful for the idiotic kill-fishery that had opened for cutthroat on Saturday. I guess every nuclear blast has its golden lining.
Day three brought an air of desperation, but we shook it off, happily conceding to our worthy adversaries. The salmon have to win sometimes. Just not all the time. It was our fifth turn down the river in three days and we had our program down to a science. We knew which runs fished right, and we savored them. We knew which ones sucked and we blew by them. Two pools held our interest. The first was a total bust. The second was shaping up to be the same. Then, as Tim neared the end of the pool, his rod flattened out and a steelhead broke the surface. What a fighter! It was a wild winter kelt, strong and flawless. It jumped several times, and refused to give up. As Tim got her close to shore, she made one last wild maneuver and straighted the hook. “Perfect!” we said in unison, glad to see the fighter dart back into the riffle, none the worse for wear.
By noon we drifted into the Two Bit Hole, just a quarter mile from our take out. None of the regulars were there. The salmon that had been holding there all week were gone. They had shot by us somewhere in the river, but we would never know where or when. We put the best face on our disappointment, driving home to our friends and families empty handed. As I wound up the Wilson toward home, I remembered that great steelhead, wondering if she was the last winter fish I would see this year. Probably, but these fish continue to surprise me!