We made it hard on ourselves, taking off for the North Umpqua Thursday night after last call. How many days ago, two? We left with no sleep, straight for the fly water.
When I popped out of the truck that first morning, I’d felt like a million bucks, swinging good water, casting my switch rod.
But things started coming unglued around lunchtime on that first day, when we found the photo on the wall at the Idleyld gas station – a guy holding up what the caption said was a 28lb chinook salmon, caught one week in the future. I hadn’t considered the implications of observing a tear in the spacetime continuum.
A few more unexplained occurrences happened between lunch and nighttime – strange odors, total loss of geographical bearings, etc. But we didn’t go collectively insane until some time after midnight.
We were huddled together under a tent on cold river gravel when Julian started yelling. Get out of here! Julian talks in his sleep, so I chocked it up to night terrors, and thought better to ignore it than get punched in the face by a somnambulist. But actually he was awake. Apparently something had pressed its snout into the sidewall of the tent and was panting in Julian’s ear.
That’s about the time we became aware of the strobe light. Our first thought: It’s the flashing beacon on a radio collar around a cougar’s neck. Then the winking light started spinning around the tent. Some alien presence was trying to enter our dimension. Or maybe the lights were the ghosts of drowned steelheaders.
Three of us sat bolt upright and slapped at each other, making sure we were all awake, until the pulsing white light slowed down, then changed color to red, and finally blinked out. We settled back into our cold, hard beds and prepared for another day of collective insanity (aka steelhead fishing on the N. Umpqua) with our brethren.
The alarm went off before dawn, still dark, with a sick feeling in my stomach and a chill coming off the river. No reasonable people are awake at this hour, but some jerk has been getting to Station before four AM all week, so everybody’s getting up earlier. We planned to give the geeks the first crack at the Camp Water – if you can’t beat them, go somewhere else. We walked the trail downriver to find good swing water and rolling fish.
The successful guys, old timers mostly, will tell you that you have to be on the water before first light. It’s part of the mystique, piling one more level of difficulty on this hyper-ritualized fishery. The fish probably do bite better at sun up, but it’s also part of the old-timers game to wear us down. The really smart dudes sleep in, grab an omelet at Steamboat, scout pools from the road with binoculars and mark fish for dusk. They spend the rest of the day soaking in a hot spring, or motel with an attractive companion.
It came together for us around 7am on the second day. We found a pool the three of us could swing, saw some rollers. A fish took a swat at one of our flies as it hung awkwardly at the bottom of a cast, missed. Subsequent swings, no takers. A fish rolled in the tail out. We spent a couple hours flailing at the river, as light creeps up the canyon walls upriver.
We should have stayed, rested the pool and made another charge. But the lust for Steamboat’s non-gas station coffee was too strong. After two days of fishing and a total of six hours of fitful sleep, reality was just too thin.
Good luck out there pilgrims.