Estuary Kings: Finding a Rhythm

The calendar required that I return to Tillamook, in spite of my heated love affair with the Alsea. Mid-September is game time in the land of cheese, trees and cow-poop breeze–not to be missed, even if the tides were relatively minor. The day before my departure, Matt had called in a report: rolling silvers and kings from the Picket Fence to Memaloose. Right on time.

Rob Russell Fly Fishing for salmon

This weekend had been planned out a couple of months earlier. I would be chasing chinooks with one of my favorite fisher-friends, a Portland-based filmmaker named Jeff Streitch. He’s one of the guys who introduced me to the art of flyfishing for kings. Jeff moved to Oregon from the Atlantic coast after falling in love with Tillamook salmon. He used to fish them out of a canoe fitted with anchor pullies on each end. Flipped it once. That musta sucked. He married a great lady and had a batch of kids, at which time his fishing days diminished. In the years since, as he’s needed a guide to take his friends and family out for gear-chucking trips, he’s called me. Back then I was putting up some pretty silly numbers with eggs. Jeff and his buddy Guido lived vicariously through my daily reports. But they used to chide me. “Rob, you’re a pretty good salmon fisherman, but you’re not quite ready for the bigtime.” I remember thinking, “Ready to work a lot harder for less fish? Ready to hook fish in the ass with flies? You’re right, I’m not ready.” But as time has proved, they had me pegged.

This trip was our first salmon hunt in a couple of years–our first since I made the switch to flies. Jeff brought a spinning rod, which made me laugh. I banned it from my boat. It was flies or nothing, and I was convinced that flies would outfish anything given the right water conditions. Jeff wasn’t sure if I was serious until I pulled out my arsenal of fly boxes. “Wow, Rob. You weren’t kidding.”

Rob Russell Fly Fishing for salmon

We met up Friday night and camped on the beach. It was a warm, mild night and sleep came easily. Next morning we rolled out of our respective SUVs at 6:00am and were driving to the boat ramp in minutes. The morning was still and beautiful. We launched and rowed down the estuary against a gentle flooding tide, looking for rolling fish along the way. As we neared a prominent wood pile, a big splash caught our attention, followed by another. I rowed quietly into the area. My fish-finder marked big fish cruising at five feet in seven feet of water. More fish rolled in and around the wood. The trick would be picking an anchor position that allowed us to strip our flies close to the wood without hooking up on sprawling underwater branches. It took a few tries, and a few flies, but we found a good position, and in short order we both lost good fish. That was all she wrote the rest of the day. The wind picked up, and a drenching storm blew in. We stuck it out, fishing around the vicinity until near-dark with no more chances. Tough day, and hard to know whether to go back for day two.

Rob Russell Fly Fishing for salmon

That night I took Jeff to a favorite little Bistro. Yep, a Bistro in Tillamook County! I was explaining that this was one of the only places in the county a guy could encounter attractive females. He was rolling his eyes when, to our utter amazement, a slough of gorgeous women giggled their way in the door. They were sorted in pairs, decked out, each holding a list for some kind of treasure hunt. Two ladies came to our table and introduced themselves. Then came the questions.

“Our friend is getting married, and we need to find someone to give her some marriage advice.”

My beer-on-an-empty-stomach buzz was perfect for the occasion. “Ask Jeff. His marriage stuck. Jeff?”

“Wow, uhhh.” He thought back to his marriage counseling sessions. “I guess I’d say to ‘Keep trying.'”

“Oh, that’s a good one!” they agreed. Nice going Jeffrey. So positive!

I floundered, then came up with “Keep the drinking to a minimum.” Also quite good, if I may say so. The ladies looked me up and down, eyes hesitating at the stirrup pants, fluffy socks, and sandals. I smiled as their faces flinched leaning a little closer. My manly wet-wader smell was driving them crazy.

I asked for a peek at the rest of their treasure hunt list. The next was “Kiss a bald man on the head.” That one had obviously been written just for the buff surfer-dude bartender who kept his head shiny. Sure enough, he had lipstick all over his scalp.

The girls thanked us and went on to the next table. The bartender looked at the clock and looked out at his crowd. “Five minutes until I embarrass myself!” He laughed and brought us another beer. What did he mean? Well, in five minutes he announced it was his last day, and that he was off work. Then he ripped of his shirt, exposing a full tattoo jacket. The ladies went wild. Digital cameras flashed. He found a t-shirt and led the whole gaggle of women out the door for a night of tavern-hopping.

“We picked the wrong sport, Jeff.”

“Yeah. That’s for sure.”

We slept through a blustery, balmy night, waking to a morning of more wind and rain. At breakfast we worked on our plan. I advocated returning to the same half-mile section we had worked the day before. I’m all about finding the rhythm of an area. We had a whole day under our belt. We knew the place and I wanted to stick it out. Jeff agreed, partly because we were already there, and the conditions suddenly looked great.

Rob Russell Fly Fishing for salmon

Early in the day Jeff got his grab and boated a bronze hen, just under 20 pounds. I strongly suggested he release her, knowing he really wanted a fish for the table. It pained him a little, but I convinced him she was on the edge. An hour or so later he was paid in full. He was casually complaining that I had anchored us too far out of the channel. I told him to keep his pants on. We were marking fish all around us. Then he got grabbed. Really hard. He smiled and shook his head at the irony. I pulled anchors and got him as far from the wood as I could. This was a big fish, and it sorely wanted to weave Jeff’s fly line through the log jam. We worked as a team, and soon the fish was circling the boat. I enjoyed the rare feeling of clicking with someone who really knows their game. Jeff handled the fish like a master, and I scooped the net when the time was right.

“Big fish!” Jeff beamed. “Glad I let that other one go.”

Later that afternoon the fish checker came by. I had a chrome hen in the box, in the mid-twenties. Hot fish. But Jeff’s monster buck raised the checker’s eyebrows. “That’s the biggest fish I’ve seen this season,” he said as he took scale samples.

Rob Russell Fly Fishing for salmon

How sweet was that? Three for three on flies. And no other boats touched a fish all day. Jeff and I ate a relaxed lunch before parting ways. As I drove south on 101 another storm hit. As I climbed Cape Foulweather, things got nasty. I thanked God or the blessings of autumn, knowing the bulk of humanity was lamenting the end of summer.

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7 Responses to Estuary Kings: Finding a Rhythm

  1. Owl Jones says:

    Great story and report! My luck, my next employer would call for a reference and the bar owner would say ” well, it’s like this……” ;)

    Nice pics, too!

  2. Spencer says:

    “I was explaining that this was one of the only places in the county a guy could encounter attractive females.”

    You either know something I don’t, or you’ve got a bad case of drift-boat eye! I’m guessing the latter when it comes to Tillamook :)

    3/3 with the gear guys getting skunked, that’s amazing. Can’t wait to get out there!

  3. Will Govin says:

    Nice stuff Rob! great outing, glad you stuck to your guns and were rewarded. Your story telling skills deserve praise as well.

    “The ladies looked me up and down, eyes hesitating at the stirrup pants, fluffy socks, and sandals. I smiled as their faces flinched leaning a little closer. My manly wet-wader smell was driving them crazy.”

    The wader ‘musk’ is undeniable.

  4. Great report. Good things come to those who keep trying!

    The Average Joe Fisherman

  5. Anthony says:

    Reading you describe yourself in your stirrup pants, fluffy socks and sandals instantly returned me to many days ago and the excitement I felt when you greeted me as you exited your Toyota in exactly the same fashion…you drive ME crazy!

  6. Nice work, those are great fish.

  7. Matt Eifler says:

    Great post. Hilarious. Manly wet wader smell. You’d think Calvin Klein would be bottling this fragrance by now.

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