The North Umpqua Chronicles: Book excerpt by Pat McRae

If you’re in love with the North Umpqua, you need to read Pat McRae’s new book about fly fishing 12 months a year on Oregon’s finest wild steelhead river. You can pick up The North Umpqua Chronicles at the shop. Read our recent Q&A with Pat. Excerpt below:

In this modest book of personal experiences McRae has endeavored to share with you his relationship to the Umpqua. He has made a timeless statement that lives on from one generation to the next. When we read Clark Van Fleet’s Steelhead to a Fly, Roderick Haig-Brown’s A River Never Sleeps, Russell Chatham’s The Angler’s Coast among many others, we are introduced to a time and perspective that has influence over us and shapes our experience as well as our lives.
-Bill Bakke

August 22, flow 414 cfs, water temp. 60 degrees F.
Yesterday I stayed home and rested my tired legs and today I head upriver later than normal, arriving at Steamboat a little after 5 p.m. The Camp Water is packed with fishermen from top to bottom, including two of the three guides working the river this summer…

Howell has a client in the Station and Finnerty has two in the Mott water. I hardly slow down while making a U-turn at the Mott Bridge and head back down river to Split Rock. The evening sun is just sliding below the ridge top when I step into the pool and the river is at the lowest level of the summer. The flow seems perfect, but try as I might, (four fly changes) I can’t raise a fish. I’m not sure there was one there. The current is always wrinkled around the large rock that is the principal holding lie, but sometimes you can see a grayish hue in the vicinity of the rock when one is there. No hint of that today.

When I am nearly through, out of the corner of my eye I see a strange apparition downstream and for a brief childhood instant, a chill runs up my spine…some horrifying aquatic creature from a science-fiction movie is swimming out from the bank! Then I realize it is just George Crandall, lying on his little brown raft and breast-stroking across the river in Upper Burnham. This is yet another sign that the river that is not fishing well…people are beginning to take desperate measures.

I too am growing desperate. I head up river in the sunny afternoon and start at Interference. As I approach the large rock outcropping there is a flock of turkey vultures gathered around the remains of some unfortunate creature no more than twenty feet downstream of the lower end of the sweet spot. All their blood red heads turn my way and clearly they aren’t happy to see me. One by one they leave, until only one is left and he flies into a nearby tree. When I get to the head of the pool, he returns, either braver or hungrier than the rest.

The river has dropped in the last two days and now only the lower third fishes very well. The stench is awful, so I do not linger, but give the vultures another day or two and it’ll all be gone.

I cruise slowly on up river, thinking briefly about Swamp Creek, but pass it by and don’t stop again until I reach McDonald. Nothing’s there. Further upstream I make another stop to check the Okie and I am stunned…there is a huge fish…it’s so large that it nearly fills the lower lie!!

From the upper trail, I sneak down along the bank, being careful not to scritch my caulks on the rocks or make any other noise that the fish might be able to hear and then at the lower end of the ledge I lower my feet into the water ever so slowly, so there will be no ripples to alarm it.

On the second cast the fish grabs my Bendix Bug, I see a big flash and the monster is on! It bullies its way upstream, over to the rocks on the other side and sticks its nose down behind one. I have a good feeling…I am going to get this thing.

I glanced at my wristwatch…it is 5 p.m. and I begin trying everything I know to get a sulking fish to come out from under a rock…yanking, pounding on the rod, upstream pull and slacking off. Through it all I can still feel life at the end of the line.

Twelve minutes agonizing minutes later I feel the fish move and then suddenly it is running straight at me. I strip in furiously and exhale only when I come up tight on it…it is still on. When it feels the pressure, it barges its way further upstream and over to the other side again and sits down behind another jumble of rocks. I am back in the same situation…I have a fish on that I simply cannot budge. I try climbing higher up the bank, trying to see what it is doing…can’t see it. I scramble way upstream to get a different angle on it but that doesn’t work either. Then I try way downstream…reality begins to dawn on me…I am not going to get this thing!

Now when I pull on it, I’m not sure that I feel life anymore…is the trembling I feel the fish or is it simply the current? I don’t know.
At the 30 minute mark I have a decision to make: (1) should I foolishly stay the course, waiting till total darkness to see to see if it ever comes out, or (2) foolishly assume that it has already thrown the hook and is gone, leaving me hopelessly hung up, until I break it off myself?

I choose (2).

It takes a moment for me to break it off…the remnant of the blood knot is at the end of the 15 pound section. I’ll never know if the big fish was still on the other end…could have been, but on the other hand, how dumb would it have been to sit there till dark on a fool’s errand…that fish could have been gone shortly after it got its nose down behind that second rock.

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