One of my favorite old fishing clients called me a few weeks ago. “I just booked Hickman for a couple days and I want you to be my guest!” It wasn’t a suggestion. It was an order. “Sure thing, Les. Thanks a ton!”
I hung up the phone and felt the twinge of reservation. It was chinook season and I was going east for steelhead? My momentary disappointment was easily pushed aside at the thought of fishing with Jeff and Les. And sometimes the healthiest thing for a chinook junkie to do is go to the desert. Get far from the salmon. Yeah, that’s what I needed. Then I pulled up the Bonneville Dam fish passage site and realized that thousands of kings were traveling right along side the summer steelhead. A devious smile crept across my face as I imagined the possibilities.
So along with my little 6-weight spey rod, my morning stick for skating dries, I packed my Burkie and all my tip wallets. I also grabbed a wide variety of flies, from little muddlers, to Temple Dogs (thanks Mariusz!), to classic low-water traditionals, to freaky king-sized Intruders. I would be ready for anything.
Fast forward to the Deschutes. It’s day one, Mike Duffy is filling in for Hickman who is busy with the usual rock-star chick-magnet responsibilities that follow him around. Duffy has proven to be a fantastic guide. He’s SO mellow, so genuinely kind and confident. And he knows where the fish are. We’ve been catching plenty of steelhead, the day is getting long in the tooth. A forbidding black cloud blows over the river and starts spitting rain. Mike drops me in a sweet spot and takes off across the river with Les. I wade way up into the head of the riffle where an array of large boulders break the surface. A few casts into it, as my tube fly cuts across the current, my heart stops. A BIG chrome king porpoises right in front of me, well within casting distance. I already have a type 3 tip out there, and a lightly weighted tube fly, so I stick with that and keep working the water.
Two casts later, my line tightens up hard. Something strong is pulling line fast. Feels like a hyperactive steelhead, but stays deep. Could it be? Yes! A jack salmon comes in kicking. I snap a photo and quickly switch to a type 6 tip. Swing, swing, fish on! Steelhead. Swing, swing, another steelhead. I could stay here all day! But why won’t those kings take my fly? The day ends without another glimpse of a salmon, but I stop caring. It’s steelhead city, which is a fun place to visit.
That night Hickman shows up for late-night beers. We crash way too late, so that we are both groaning with displeasure at the sound of Les’s alarm clock the next morning. A blurry hour later we’re launching Jeff’s monster Super Vee at Heritage Landing. In the dark. And there are already several boats on the beach, including Duffy. Hickman and Duffy don’t wait for the light to jet upriver. They bolt ahead of the rest, and soon we are easing to the bank above a glassy tailout. We whack and stack some hatchery pukes on dry flies before the sun hits the water, then Jeff gets a serious look on his face.
“Rob, I know you have thing for kings, so I’m going to put you in salmon water the rest of the day. Are you okay with that?” He smiles.
“Well, Jeff,” I respond in my best mock-serious tone, “that sounds challenging, but I’m game.”
He takes me to a long, deep run, points out the buckets, and blasts. I’m having flashbacks to the last time Jeff left me stranded on a beach with my spey rod. That day wound up being the best fishing day of my life. So as I stand at the top of this run, I have a considerable amount of confidence. It looks like a great chinook run: deep water, a little faster than walking speed, impossible wading. I rig my heaviest tip and a big black Intruder and get down to business. First cast, steelhead. Two more casts…it’s a steelhead. And another, and another. I take bigger steps and get deeper in the run, trying to find the king zone. I go a few casts without a fish. Maybe I’m out of the steelies? Then my line slams into something. Yank, pause, yank. I set up and feel a heavy head shake. The fish takes off way into my backing.
I turn to look for Jeff upriver. He’s in the next run with Les. I yell and scream to get his attention. Moments later they motor down to meet me and I have the fish close. It’s obvious by the bend in the rod that this is a serious slab.
“What do you have there, Rob?” Jeff asks, almost certain it’s a king.
“I don’t know, man, but it’s kicking my ass!”
Then the fish rolls over and we all see it for the first time. Wild steelhead, hen, maybe 14 pounds. I can’t be disappointed by such a great animal. In fact I’m pumped. By the end of the day, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: Intruders rock the summer steelhead just like they do the winter steelhead! That’s good enough for me.