In the cold pre-dawn on a Pacific tidal estuary, Rob pushed us out with the tide into a maze of muddy banks that all looked alike, snaggy dead trees sticking up out of the water, reaching for the boat. We had fog shrouding the hills around us, rain falling around our ears. We were traveling some kind of River Styx, purgatorial dream, every once in a while some character would emerge out of the fog and then soon we’d be alone again with the rain and the tide.
The sun came up and morning went by fast. After hooking up with one salmon and losing it in a seal-induced panic, I broke into our 40s of PBR in the cooler. Buzzed and soaked, we were anchored up above a good run we had to ourselves, but we decided to move on.
Just around a bend, a piece of shoreline we hadn’t given a passing glance on the way in blew up with rolling fish.
We watched a wave of fish pushing up-current toward the boat in the estuary and actually got a little scared. Sixty pound chinook aren’t unheard of. They’d look like a damn alligator in the water. We swallowed our fear and anchored up above the fish anyway.
I had total confidence in my comets going into the trip. I had a rainbow of them, a full saltwater C&F box stuffed with beautiful Jay Nicholas-inspired, Rob Russell-tweaked, crittery-ass comets. The key to Jay’s flies that I’ve noticed was small, sparse and bright. Rob’s big emphasis was contrast and bugginess. I tried to keep all of those qualities in mind while tying dozens of comets over weeks of chili-cookoff fly-tying nights, and came up with a quality collection.
The hot fly of the day proved to be a pink comet on a Gamakatsu L11S-3H, sparse pink bucktail, holographic silver braid body, small black hackle rib, black chenille ball collar to push out the hackle, and pink saddle hackle. I used lead eyes instead of bead chain and the fly swam hook pointed up.
I was casting into a pool, stripping in slowly when my comet seemed to hang on the bottom. And then the bottom took off across the pool. I didn’t know it was a chum salmon right away, I just knew it was big and mean. It bulldogged me around the pool, and then just kept beating on me when most any other fish would have been done. Chum salmon don’t stop fighting.
By the time we got back into the boat and got back on the pool, I’d already had the best day of fly fishing for salmon in my life, and it was only noon and the fish were still rolling.
I’d love to tell you the play-by-play, who caught what when, but I was in full-adrenaline blackout for the next several hours. What I can tell you is that Rob and I landed a bunch of chums and they’re bad mother-fu#kers.
It’s hard for me to say I’m concerned with salmon doing me physical harm when I’ve got a chinook in the smoker, but you didn’t see the chum salmon bust out of the water like Air Jaws, charging the boat, mouth open when it first felt the prick of one of my comets. The teeth on these things are amazing.
Eventually I got into the zone Rob talked about in one of his latest posts, swinging and stripping, tense with the potential. You feel your shooting head, leader length, fly weight and retrieve all come together in a perfectly slow, crittery pulse at the perfect depth.
Some casts I’d have three or four hits on a single retrieve. The hits were all different, sometimes a hanging weight, sometimes a trouty pluck, one hit rob like a freight train and nearly pulled the rod out of his hand. Chum salmon were going airborne, churning the pool like a spin cycle.
Toward evening, I started losing concentration and fished sloppily. I’d fished Rob’s right-hand retrieve reel for most of the day, and my left bicep was too sore to fight another fish anyway. But I’d force myself to focus with the thought that it could be five years, or a lifetime, before I was casting flies to a pile of salty salmon in a pool like this again.
Near dark, the chinook hit. I assumed it was another chum, so I put the wood to it. I also had no idea Rob’s leader was only 12lb test. Once out of the boat and on the bank, the big chinook brought me to my knees. I had no arm left, I was sinking in the mud, falling down. I could see the silver sides and started to panic a little, but Rob kept me in the game long enough to get it to the beach.
This big buck was one of the biggest fish I’d ever caught, fly or otherwise. And by far the biggest salmon. Rob and I celebrated, tried to take photos with my jello-arms, and then said thanks and prepped the fish to go home, ending the best day of fishing of my life.